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Bjaran @ FAI2016 | Photo: The Bridge

How To Survive Folk Alliance 2017

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Don’t get bogged down by the flow of activity at FAI2017

Since 2014, Folk Alliance International has opened its doors for a sizable fraction of Kansas City musicians, from traditional folk to roots rock to Celtic to indigenous music. Its penultimate gathering in Kansas City will bring nearly 3000 musicians and industry professionals to the Westin Crown Center Hotel to showcase, educate, network and entertain.

Whether you’re already familiar with the ropes or going to the event for the first time, we have a few tips to ensure a fun and fruitful FAI2017 experience.

Make a Plan… or Don’t

If you find yourself with nothing to do, you’re not trying hard enough.

“There’s never a dull moment,” said percussionist Brandon Draper. Draper, who will be performing with Ensemble Ibérica, teaching at the Music Camp, and conducting an interactive performance with his Drum Safari at the Kansas City Folk Festival on Sunday, recommends exploring all of the available options. “Don’t plan your schedule — show up and start exploring without a time limit.”

“The [private showcases] are an otherworldly experience that would have a hard time existing in any other environment.” –Nate Allen

You can pack a lot into four days, by fixing yourself up at the Health Fair; mastering your instrument or discovering a new one at the Music Camp; and, of course, taking a glimpse of hundreds of showcasing artists. So while making a rough plan is a good idea, it’s important to remember that you probably won’t get to do everything you want.

Beau Bledsoe, who will also perform with Ensemble Iberica, emphasizes staying open to possibilities. “There’s so much to see and hear, and it can be overwhelming. Embrace the fact that for whatever amazing thing you’re attending, there are five other things you’ll miss.”

Then again, if you have specific goals in mind, it might behoove you to get a strategy together. Many artists, like Jessica Paige, have used the conference to advance their musical careers.

“Scour the talks and performers, but also other industry people you might want to meet. Want to meet the booking agent from such-and-such company? Awesome! They’ll probably be there,” Paige said.

Learn Something New

Another way of advancing your music career is by taking advantage of all the educational opportunities FAI has during the day. If you’re looking to dig deeper into your craft, the Music Camp provides beginner to master classes in about any folk instrument and technique you can think of. There’s also the daytime panels, tailored to the needs of the working musician.

“Yes, the hotel room showcases are fun, but the panel discussions are where attendees can get their money’s worth,” said Don Simon, managing partner at MudStomp Records. The label hosts a private showcase all week.

Interested in touring internationally? There are separate panels for Europe, Australia, even Scandinavia. Perhaps you want to know more about joining a union, or see how to go about getting a booking agent. From these specific concepts to broader ones like marketing and radio (our own Jon Hart will be on “A New Look at Radio” panel on Friday), and peer sessions for industry players, there’s probably something for you.

“Folk Alliance has truly changed the music and industry landscape of our town.” —Beau Bledsoe

Get Inspired

With performers literally spilling into hotel hallways and foyers all hours of the day, inspiration is everywhere. More than 200 official showcases feature well-known and rising international folk stars in hotel ballrooms. After hours, the private showcases are a cornerstone of the event, filling three floors of the Westin with music from several corners of the globe.

“The [private showcases] are an otherworldly experience that would have a hard time existing in any other environment,” said Nate Allen, who will be playing three of these showcases. “Getting to see world-class performers up close is mind-altering, and everyone is friendly.”

You’ll find some of the most impassioned, organic performances in these rooms, but musicians like Mikal Shapiro look beyond even that.

“I love the late night/early morning congregations on the outdoor terrace, where every year I find myself amidst the random smattering of smokers and string bands; each group playing a different song against the backdrop of the city. That’s magic,” said Shapiro, who will perform FAI with her duo Shapiro Brothers.

Spring to Action

This year’s theme is Forbidden Folk (read about it in last week’s feature). In addition to the keynote speech from Billy Bragg and presentation from Ani DiFranco, several guests (including Bruce Cockburn, Paula Cole and Kris Kristofferson) and panels represent activism and diversity within the folk music world. Panels range from topics on contemporary protest, censorship, cultural equity and women in music. The conference ends with a performance from Bragg on Sunday afternoon.

In an attempt to reduce the organization’s carbon footprint, FAI’s Green Folk initiative also brings a few changes to the conference this year. Physical posters and flyers will no longer be displayed on the ground and ballroom floors; several recycling stations will be available; and disposable cups will be eliminated. Pro tip: bring a water bottle — you’re gonna need it.

“Don’t plan your schedule — show up and start exploring without a time limit.” —Brandon Draper

Make New Friends

Here’s the thing about playing music in a smaller city: musicians and local influencers tend to bolster one another, often leading to collaboration and growth. But the flip side of a tight-knit music community is its insularity; and while national attention can come to a thriving scene, it’s difficult for individual artists to break out.

“KC has always had great musicians, but barely any music industry to speak of. That makes it difficult to connect with larger markets,” said Bledsoe. “Along with some excellent music festivals, Folk Alliance has truly changed the music and industry landscape of our town.”

Paige reiterates the value of taking advantage of these resources: “It isn’t happening in New York or Chicago; it’s happening here. Folk Alliance brings the industry to us; all we have to do is show up to make the most of that opportunity.”

So, come armed with a backpack of business cards and promotional CDs to hand out to prospective agents, managers and collaborators. But at some point during the week, Shapiro suggests putting them away.

“Somewhere in the midst of the madness, take deliberate time to slow down, listen, absorb and meet people without a promotional agenda,” Shapiro said. “It goes a long way in forging connections that will last beyond the flurry.”

Folk Alliance International’s 29th annual Conference and Music Camp is at Westin Crown Center Hotel from today through Saturday, Feb. 18. On Sunday, the event concludes with the Kansas City Folk Festival, which is open to the public. In 2019, the conference and music camp will advance northward to Quebec, but its headquarters and the KC Folk Festival will remain here.

— Michelle Bacon is a musician and writer dedicated to the Kansas City music community. She advocates for and helps spotlight music in the area, writes web content for 90.9 The Bridge, and plays drums with Chris Meck & the Guilty Birds. Her grandma will always be the coolest person she knows.

Feature photo of Bjäran from Folk Alliance 2016 by The Bridge

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