Last February, the North American Folk Alliance held its annual conference in Memphis for the first time since relocating to Memphis in 2005. The Folk Alliance brought roughly 2,000 musicians, producers, journalists, label owners, publishers, and other industry insiders to downtown's Marriott Hotel and adjacent Cook Convention Center for a sprawling, round-the-clock, four-day hootenanny, with music spilling out from traditional performance spaces into the lobbies of the hotel and convention center and into the street.
This year, expect more of the same. But according to Folk Alliance executive director Louis Meyers, the conference will be more self-contained. Beyond a trade show at the convention center's exhibit hall, all music activity will be held inside the Marriott, with the Folk Alliance booking the hotel's 600 rooms for the run of the conference.
"Last year, we were too spread out, and it hurt us," Meyers says. "We had 250 acts [performing in] 400 showcase slots. We had 19 stages going at once, and there was no way all those rooms could be full. This year, we have 200 acts in 200 slots — everyone has one showcase. Hopefully, that will help boost the crowds for each showcase."
One consequence of tightening up the logistics of the conference, however, is that it's made it more difficult to include the public. Last year, the conference opened to the public on Saturday night. This year, each day and night of the four-day conference — which begins Wednesday, February 20th — is restricted to conference attendees, with the Folk Alliance partnering with the Center for Southern Folklore and Otherlands Coffee Bar to host off-site showcases open to the public. (More on those in next week's issue.)
The truth is that, though the conference is sponsoring ancillary activities geared toward local music fans, the primary local benefit of the conference (beyond general economic impact) is for the local music industry. An intentional side effect of the conference is to put local artists in front of a national industry and put national artists in front of the local industry.
The Folk Alliance will feature Memphis artists at its welcoming reception on Wednesday, February 20th, with Cory Branan, Dan Montgomery, Jimmy Davis, Giant Beat, the Tennessee Boltsmokers, and Devil Train slated to perform.
"The ones who saw value in it last year are all returning," Meyers says of the local artists. "I'm not sure if the [local participation] is larger [this year], but it's more committed. Last year, we were still such a mystery to people."
There will also be a Memphis Stage featuring some of the aforementioned artists as well as Charlie Wood, Deering & Down, Nancy Apple, Blair Combest, and Keith Sykes.
In addition to showcasing local musicians for out-of-town bizzers, the conference aims to inform visiting musicians about the resources the Memphis community offers, such as producers and recording studios.
Pairing visiting artists with local studios for recording sessions is something organizers are striving for, Meyers says. "We didn't do a good enough job [planning ahead] this year," according to Meyers, "but I didn't know how well we did with it last year until after the fact." The Folk Alliance is organizing a studio tour for interested visiting musicians.
For festival attendees, the highlights this year include an appearance by Stax veteran Mavis Staples, who will be on hand to accept the organization's Living Artist Lifetime Achievement Award at a ceremony on Wednesday that will be broadcast live on XM Radio.
There will also be a preview screening of the new documentary Pete Seeger: Power of Song. A keynote speaker is former U.S. attorney general Janet Reno, a music fan who used her clout to help launch a recent, sprawling folk-song collection, Song of America. "Having her here in this context should be cool," Meyers says of the Reno appearance.
Though there are plenty of recognizable names scheduled to appear, including country singer Kathy Mattea, alt-rock grad Peter Case, and '60s icons Chad & Jeremy, Meyers stresses the conference's wealth of young, emerging artists as the real focus.
"We're really pushing the art of discovery this year," Meyers says. "We want labels and bookers [and others] to come in to discover new talent."