Updated: Nov 30, 2019
Are you a songwriter or traditional musician who wants to meet other like-minded performers and businesspeople? Go to a Folk Alliance conference!
Folk Alliance International coordinates the largest folk music conference. Performers from song writers to traditional musicians - the term "folk" is quite broad - converge from all over the world every February. But since it's huge and highly competitive, you can work up to it by attending one of the regional folk conferences, also held annually: FAR-West on the West coast, FARM in the Midwest, NERFA in the Northeast, SWERFA in the Southwest, or SERFA in the Southeast.
If you're considering attending a Folk Alliance music conference, here are ten ways to make the most of it.
1. Know your purpose.
There are levels to music careers. There are also levels to performance opportunities at the conference. Most artists want Official Showcases because they provide the most exposure; however, there are limited Official Showcase spots. You must apply and be accepted. There are additional opportunities, called guerrilla (not gorilla) showcases, where you can perform for smaller audiences late at night. You will set these up a few months in advance.
Consider what else you want to get out of the conference. More radio play? More gigs? Friendships with other artists? Business advice? Warm fuzzy feelings? Depending on where you are with your career and what your goals are, you can have a very fruitful experience with only guerrilla showcases on your docket.
Maybe you're not a performer, but rather represent a venue or radio show. In that case, your goal might be to find new artists you love.
Decide what you're most interested in before you arrive.
Our main goals were to rock our Official Showcase and spend time with friends. (DJ Al Kinoa, left; Frank Lee is at the top; I'm at the bottom; Executive Director Art Menius is on the right.)
2. Be prepared to spend money.
The registration process involves not only registering for the conference, but also becoming a Folk Alliance member. You'll also need to decide if you want to have an ad in the program book; if you want to have a table in the Exhibit Hall; if you want to stay on-site; if you want to have meals. And of course, all of these options have price tags attached.
If attending with other people, be sure to talk with them about all these decisions.
Be prepared to spend money. It will likely run two people four figures to attend this conference by the time it's all said and done.
Delicious dinners in the banquet hall were included with SERFA's registration. Score!
3. Read all the pre-conference emails.
There will be a listserve. You need to join it. Then you need to read all the emails as they come in.
Relatedly, don't be a spammer. Only send emails to the listserve group if it's very important for the whole group at that time.
The main reasons to read your emails are
1) to know what's going on
2) to start learning names.
4. Create and bring conference-specific promotional materials.
In addition to your business cards and perhaps a few copies of your newest album (I brought WAY too many CDs!), you should create and bring promotional materials saying where and and when you are showcasing at the conference.
Since everyone else is doing the same thing, try to make yours stand out - without being obnoxious. Definitely include your face in the picture. You want people to be able to recognize you at a quick glance.
Print these half-page-sized or quarter-page-sized and make plenty of copies. You will scatter these on tables around the conference. You might also keep a few with you to hand out to folks to close a conversation.
Whole lotta literature going on.
5. Be aware of the schedule and when you have to do what.
It's good to have a plan. There will be workshops, mentor sessions, showcases, and presentations to choose from. Read the program book either before you arrive or as soon as you arrive to make a plan.
Our 10:00am banjo workshop was our #1 priority Friday morning. Right after getting breakfast...which ended at 10:00...that was kind of a surprise. Should have read the program book earlier. ;-)
6. Trust that you'll meet the right people.
But, things happen. You'll feel hungry or sleepy during that workshop you wanted to go to and have to bail in favor of a nap in that lush hotel bed. It's ok. You're going to meet exactly the right people and learn exactly the right things anyway. You arrived with intention and lofty goals, but you're also a human with bodily needs. Spend time with new friends or go take a nap if you need it - as long as you don't miss your showcase!
Impromptu jam with Andy Cohen and friends in the hotel lobby. Photo by Mark Smith.
7. Be supportive.
Reality check: you're surrounded by secretly-insecure artists who are all wanting affirmation of what they are doing with their lives. Show a little support. Go listen to some showcases. Smile at them. Tell them they sounded great. Chances are, they are secretly intimidated by you or someone else, and your encouragement will help them have a better time. Plus, don't you want to have some support too? Gotta give it to get it.
The Roper Sisters were charming and delightful in their final guerrilla showcase.
8. Be helpful.
Being at a conference is a lot like camping. And some people are really not into camping. If you can help someone find the bathroom, or show them where the food is being served, or bring them back a coffee, three things will happen.
1) You'll have a very basic conversation about needs we all share.
2) They'll be grateful to you because you helped them solve a real problem.
3) Now you broke the ice! It will be easier to have a conversation about, you know, Music Stuff.
Bonus: When you need help, they might be able to pay it forward for you.
Mike Holliday, Volunteer Coordinator
For extra stars in your crown, sign up in advance to volunteer. Guaranteed way to meet people!
9. Listen to the not-music.
Plenty of folks at this conference will know each other from years - even decades - past. It can feel intimidating to be a new person when you're surrounded by people who know each other. But you know what? It's a great opportunity to learn. Since you're the "stranger", you're in the perfect position to ask questions and be genuinely interested in their stories. Once they see you're listening, they probably won't need a lot of encouragement to keep the stories rolling. Soak up the history, and get to know your new friends - and the greater folk community - through their storytelling.
This was my situation recently at SERFA. Eileen Carson Schatz and her husband Mark Schatz were there to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award. They knew Frank from years past, but I didn't know them. Mark and Eileen have an amazing story, and since I was the newbie to the group, they were happy to fill me in a little about it. Eileen and Rodney Sutton were part of the Green Grass Cloggers years ago. They were married and eventually left that group to start their own group. That team was called Fiddle Puppets, which then was renamed (from what I can gather) to Footworks, and celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2019 with a big concert June 8.
Eileen was still very passionate about dancing. Her niece Kathleen was doing some steps, and I tried to copy her. Eileen said, "You need to be lighter on your feet, Allie." She was absolutely right! I could tell she was a great teacher and had a deep love for dancing.
It was clear that although Eileen was engaging and funny and smart, she did not feel well. She had been diagnosed with stage III pancreatic cancer and had been managing it for two years. Chemos and surgeries had been ineffective.
In Eileen's presence, I felt peace and reverence. Her acceptance of the short time she has left on earth radiated from her and resonated with me deeply. I felt honored to get to meet her, and quite sad that it was at this point in her journey.
We were able to spend more time visiting with them in the evening and over meals. I feel so thankful to get to meet Mark and Eileen, inspired by their love and sense of humor, and blessed at how open they were in sharing their journey during this very hard time.
Eileen passed away passed away on July 10, 2019. I'm forever grateful that I was able to meet her, though so briefly.
Life-changing, person-to-person connections can happen at a conference. But it might happen in the non-music moments.
10. Follow up.
Once the conference is over, find your new friends and acquaintances on social media. Look for the bands and artists you visited with and/or enjoyed and "like" their pages. Over the next few weeks, send emails to potential business partners. Keep a folder, scrapbook, or digital file of the business cards and literature you collected. You might not "use" all your new connections, and you definitely won't "use" them right away. But now you've met these folks, and you're in each others' networks for the future.
Maybe you'll see them at the next conference, festival, or concert!
Allie Lee is 1/2 of Frank & Allie Lee and 1/4 of The Freight Hoppers. She teaches Wernick Method Bluegrass Jam classes and camps and manages social media for those three businesses. She's a former 7th grade Language Arts teacher who always had a love/hate relationship with writing but a great love of grammar. She lives with husband Frank Lee in Bryson City, NC with their step-daughter and herd of rescued indoor/outdoor cats.