Scenes From A Desert Island: Folk Alliance 2011

Last week, after I returned from the Folk Alliance International annual conference in Memphis, somebody asked me “so, how was Folk Alliance?” and I found myself blurting out rhetorically, “like three days on an overpopulated desert island.”

The more I think about that spontaneous response, the more apt it becomes.

I know, the whole “desert island” analogy paints a rather bleak picture. But it’s pretty hard to look at most of what constitutes the “music industry” these days and not think “bleak.” Like these charts that have been flying around the Internets in the past week serve to illustrate.

Fortunately, tectonic shifts, declining prospects, and undefined new business models do little to deter the legion of 1,500+ souls who descend upon the Downtown Memphis Marriott Hotel every February for four days of keynotes and panels of endless nights of showcases, some in actual meeting rooms but most on three upper floors of the hotel where ordinary rooms are turned upside down to create impromptu performance spaces.

And however slim the pickins of the “industry” may be, there was no shortage of outstanding performances. The days and nights were rich with newcomers and veterans alike, displaying awesome talent on the one hand while struggling to come to grips with vanishing business models on the other.

(Unnecessary, shamelessly self-promoting historical reference: Folk Alliance was very much at the center of my constituency in a former life. In 2000 my company, had the largest single booth in the Folk Alliance exhibit hall, sections of which were farmed out to individual artists in the roster. It was pretty impressive, if I do say so myself, which of course I just did. But I digress…)

So herewith are some of the ideas that the inhabitants of the island were offered as to how they might find the hidden nuts and berries that could sustain them until some sort of rescue vessel arrives to take them off the island…

Jac Holzman

Thursday morning (Feb 17), the business portion of the conference began with a Keynote Interview with Jac Holzman, the 79 year-old impresario who founded Elektra Records in a college dorm room in 1950. Holzman could well be considered the dean of “indie” American music (I still consider some of the albums his company released in the 1960s among my all-time favorites – Tim Buckley’s “Happy/Sad” in particular). Interviewed by veteran music journalist David Marsh, Jac was a font of sage wisdom, starting with the qualities he sought when considering new acts for his label:

1. Is it something I haven’t heard before, or a new take (on something familiar) ?
2. Can they grow as an artist?
3. Is there enough material for two albums – before recording the first one?
4. Can I do the job?
5. Are they crazy?

That last one seems borne of experience: In a later panel, Jac noted that in any enterprise, you are going to make mistakes, so “make interesting mistakes.” I suspect he made more than his share.

And then there were Jac’s rules for success, among them:

1. Always live up to your end of the bargain
2. Once you make the commitment, unseen forces will come to your aid
3. If you go outside your comfort zone for the wrong reasons, you’ll get your ass kicked.

Other trenchant observations from the interview:

On Bob Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965: “that proved you can think and boogie at the same time.”

Lamenting the apparent shift from “albums” to “singles” in the digital era: “The album is a construct of both content and context. The single says something about the song; the album says something about the artist.”

Other panel discussion highlights:

Indie Label Symposium:

David Macias

Dave Macias (Nashville’s Thirty Tigers) addressed another recurrent theme: when considering clients for his multi-faceted “label services” company, “we’re always looking for the narrative. If you can’t tell a compelling story, what do you have to take to radio & the press?” Given the fire-hose torrent of information we all experience everyday, “the audience has to be hit with multiple impressions” through coordinated efforts with press and radio,” all stressing, again, the word that Dave used repeatedly throughout the conference: “narrative.”

On his own career experience, Dave describes his “15 years in sales and marketing with a major label – putting country artists product in Wal-Mart – is as far from ‘art’ as you can get.”

Jim Olsen, founder of the venerable Signature Sounds (I’ve heard a lot of their catalog and can’t think of a single release I’ve ever heard that wasn’t outstanding), says that “goal #1 for new artists it to make them an international touring act.” And the only way to do that is through a lot of roadwork’.”

That expression, “roadwork” was pretty much the operative theme for the whole conference. If you want to make a living as a musician – especially some kind of ‘folk’ musician – you’re going to have to “do it on the road.”

Managers and Agents:

Question from the audience: “which is more important to an artist today, an agent or a recording contract?” Answer across the board: “the agent.” See previous note re: “roadwork.”

The next big question on everybody’s lips “what does an agent look for when considering an act for their roster?” Answer: at least three years of touring history. Which means you’ve got to book yourself for that long before anybody is going to consider doing the booking for you. Good luck with that…

The New Music Business:

This is why we have conferences like this, right? Because it’s a “new music business” and everybody with a song in their heart or a guitar in their hands wants to know what that’s supposed to mean. So we get to hear from people like…

Wayne Leeloy of Topspin Media: “Direct to Fan (DTF) is typically only 10% of the whole revenue picture, but offers a much higher rate of actual return than most other sources, and [unlike online retailers like iTunes] “you get the data.” The average transaction through Topspin runs in the $25-35 dollar range. “Everybody wants a larger audience,” Wayne says, “‘free’ is part of the discovery process.”

Ann Blonston of Airshow Mastering/ stressed something called “event based and venue based distribution.” Whatever that means…?

David Macias (again) suggests subscribing to Pollstar Pro “to find where similar artists have played, and steer your artists in that direction.”

But my favorite panel might have been the last one I sat in on. “Dispelling the Myth of the Starving Artist” offered the most practical, constructive – and encouraging – recommendations I heard over three days, and a lot of them had to do with “adjusting your state of mind.” Sorta like “stop looking for nuts and berries on the island and see if you can put together something resembling a fishing pole…”

Mary Gauthier

Mary Gauthier enthusiastically stressed that her own experience has been that “people want to give musicians money. Our job is to find ways to make that easy for them.” When the music itself is essentially free, the trick is to come up with some kind “daily use” merchandise. She cited the example of beer coozies she has added to her merch line. They feature the title of one of her signature songs (conveniently, “I Drink”), cost a whole quarter to manufacture, and she sells them for $5 (“…that’s like a 2,000% markup!). To “make it easy for them,” she bundles the $5 coozies with her $15 CDs. Total transaction = $20. Just hand us your Hamilton, no change required. Brilliant.

Mary was just full of clever insights, like quoting the inimitable Ray Wylie Hubbard: “The day person’s job is to make the money, the night person’s job is to get the day person’s money.”

Tania Elizabeth (now 27, who has been a “touring pro” since she was 15, including the five years she was “homeless” while touring with The Duhks) mentioned Fred Eaglesmith as the “merch king.” Check out all the stuff Fred offers besides CDs. Tania talked about her years with The Duhks, “we were always looking for a story.” They found one they made the effort to make their tour “green,” with healthy eating habits and biofuels.

Emphasizing that point, somebody on the panel, I don’t remember who exactly said, “Give me a story besides ‘she’s a great singer/songwriter.'” (See David Macias, “narrative,” above.)

Creativity Coach Suze Casey discussed the challenge of blending and separating art and commerce. She sequesters “three hours for writing before noon six days a week. Before noon is for writing. After noon is for business.

Veteran agent Val Denn (who started her business booking the aforementioned Ray Wyle Hubbard) has a business that is with an Austin, TX address and phone line. But she runs the show from her organic farm in Nova Scotia. Go figger (and shhh… don’t tell anyone…) Like Suze, she’s a farmer in the mornings, a business woman in the afternoon, which works well from Nova Scotia since it’s two or three time zones ahead of most of her business.

That’s pretty much it from my notes for the “day parts” of the conference. But as fate would have it, after I’d gotten this far in the initial draft of this post, I was alerted to this considerably less penurious assessment of the Folk Alliance by the aforementioned Mary Gauthier.

Mary, it turns out, is a Pisces — and it shows in the way she approaches her business as a musician: while others keep scavenging around the island, Mary has gone fishing.

I want you to read Mary’s whole post to get a detailed account of the whole Folk Alliance experience from an artist’s perspective. But I am also going to take the liberty of exceprting from the penultimate paragraph, because it is such an encouraging expression of what I’ve been advocating in this space for a while now.

For starters, take careful note that Mary is has captured what I have emphasized earlier in this post is the zeitgeist of the day: she’s conveying a compelling narrative — and she’s done her roadwork. After re-tracing much of her career — beginning with her first Folk Alliance over a decade ago — she delights in coming “full circle” with the measure of cache that a decade of dedication to her art and craft have afforded her.

This time around, Mary is granted an “official” showcase. But half-way into her second song, it threatens to go off the rails when her violin accompanist’s PA feed goes dead. The sound man tries to fix it, but before more precious time is lost, Mary takes a different tack:

I instinctively jumped off the stage and went into the audience to play the next song – Tania followed, and we played Last of the Hobo Kings as a sort of impromptu house concert. Standing on the floor in the audience with the stage lights no longer in my eyes, I looked out into the packed overflowing room and saw friends from so many places… Without amplification, standing in the aisle between the seats, I felt and SAW people lean into us. I felt and SAW love and support in the room, felt the energy in the room come together in that moment, united in song. I felt the power of unity, the power of people holding me up, of people joined in a spontaneous moment of oneness, of togetherness. It is a feeling money cannot buy, the feeling of being one in a room packed with people. I think it’s one of the things that drives musicians down the endless highways, the desire to experience this feeling over and over again, no matter the cost.

What Mary so clearly illustrates with her story is what I believe makes this “Folk Alliance” universe of mostly acoustic music so compelling. This is why I keep going to this conference though I am mostly a civilian, a spectator. Because here we see the active expression of music on a human scale. We witness the dissolution of the proscenium that separates performers from the audience. In this new reality, we are all artists, we are all audience.

In that narrative, we have left the desert island behind, and frolic joyfully in warm, clear, bountiful waters.