Memphis gets a little more musical than usual each February, when Folk Alliance International, an organization dedicated to the preservation and proliferation of traditional music and dance, brings more than 2,000 musicians, vendors, and music industry professionals to downtown's Cook Convention Center for a long, sleepless weekend of intimate concert showcases, workshops, and 'round-the-clock jam sessions.
But FAI's five-year contract with the downtown Marriott, a venue it appears to have outgrown, ends in 2012, and representatives from Louisville, Kentucky, and Kansas City, Missouri, have made presentations to FAI's board. Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau president Kevin Kane says the possibility of losing a top-five music industry event to a rival city shouldn't be music to anybody's ears.
"We figure that every visitor spends an average of $280 per day on hotel rooms and eating in restaurants," Kane says. "So when you bring in a couple of thousand people, it can add up pretty fast."
The annual estimated economic impact of the FAI has been pegged at $5 million by the CVB, and the February conference is especially meaningful to area businesses during the wintertime lull in tourism.
"Historically, February is not a busy tourism month in Memphis, so an increase in business is impossible to miss and easily attributed to the music [conference]," says Sun Studio owner John Schorr, who recorded the Ohio group Over the Rhine prior to the group's highly anticipated appearance at FAI. Schorr also videotaped Over the Rhine for an episode of Sessions, a Sun Studio-based TV show that airs on 70 percent of PBS stations.
This is what Folk Alliance International executive director Louis Meyers (a co-founder of the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas) had to say about his organization's steady growth and why it ultimately may be forced to leave Memphis:
Memphis Flyer: How would you describe this year's Folk Alliance Conference?
Louis Meyers: Musically speaking, I think it may have been our best year ever.
What made this year's conference better than others?
The art of discovery came back. It's taken so many years for that to happen because of the way the record companies and the industry in general has gone.
What do you mean when you say "the art of discovery"?
Finally, this year, I heard so many people say, "Wow, man, I discovered so many new acts." The modern world makes having that kind of experience hard, because there's so much stuff out there. And who's jurying it? This is what my whole career has been about.
The diversity you attract is more impressive every year.
We've created the ultimate alt-folk world, where the disciples of Woody Guthrie can be at home with [punk-inspired] Mark Rubin.
Or you can catch a close-up acoustic performance by somebody like Gary Morris, the first person to put "Wind Beneath My Wings" on the charts. What are veteran artists like Morris looking for when they come to the conference?
We've always focused some of our attention on career re-enhancement. There are so many artists who fall out of the spotlight, and after you're out of the spotlight for a couple of years, it's not always easy to get back in. Gary knows there's a whole generation who don't know who he is. He's looking to be relevant again and for all of the things that go with that: bookings, recording opportunities.
The Alliance keeps expanding. Revenue and membership have grown every year for the past four years. Where is the new membership coming from?
It's coming from youth development. That's where the majority of growth is coming from. Our average age has probably dropped by 20 years in five years' time. I'm very proud of that.
The time you've spent in Memphis has been fruitful. Do you think you'll be leaving for good when your contractual obligation to hold the conference here ends in 2012?
We're going to announce a decision in May. That's a board decision, not a staff decision, so I've got no idea what's going to happen. We've done our due diligence, and the Convention and Visitors Bureau has made a very generous offer.
You say you're running out of room there, but you use so little of the Convention Center.
That space was made for boat shows. It doesn't work for what we do. We used it the first year, and it was a disaster. There's no warmth and fuzziness, and the air walls won't block sound, so you can't have bands playing next to each other.
There were other problems this year too. It was unseasonably warm, and the air conditioning was broken — or at least not cooling — on the private showcase floors. It got pretty hot up there when it was crowded.
It was never really fixed.
A hotel worker wanted to watch some sports and turned up the volume on a television in the middle of Keith Sykes' set.
That kind of thing has happened before. At another conference, somebody turned the volume up on a TV in the middle of a live radio broadcast. Cost us one of our biggest sponsors.
What can you do next year to relieve some of the growing pains?
I'm probably going to try to use the city more. It's become almost impossible to produce quality shows in these rooms, so I'm considering taking the International Blues Challenge model. I could take the showcases to the clubs on Beale, then at 9 or 10 p.m., everybody could go back to the hotel for the private showcases.
The idea would be to be off of Beale by 10:30, so we're not putting anybody who makes their living playing in the clubs out of business. I haven't spoken to anybody about this yet, so it's just thinking out loud. But it's something we could do.