Folk Alliance International was the last big roots music gathering before the pandemic shut down the music business almost one year ago. “It was a major event. We had 3,332 people from 41 different countries, packed inside a hotel,” says FAI Executive Director Aengus Finnan of the New Orleans convention. “It was just the antithesis of what we can do now.” But what they are doing is ambitious and philanthropic.
Late last month, FAI announced the creation of the Village Fund, a new grant program to assist musicians and industry workers in need. The 32-year-old non-profit advocacy and professional association staked $25,000 from its reserves and set a goal of raising $75,000 more for an initial round of $500 grants to 200 recipients. Applications open in April to FAI members and event participants from the past three years.
Bolstering that effort is a first-ever open-invitation, online festival called Folk Unlocked, featuring more than 800 hours of performances originating from 50 states and more than 30 countries. Running Feb. 22-26, next Monday to Friday, the first announced headliners include Los Lobos, Cedric Burnside, Terrance Simien, Keb’ Mo’, Jim Lauderdale, Jade Bird, Katie Pruitt, The War and Treaty, indigenous Australian songwriter Emily Wurramara and Irish folk star Karan Casey. Rather than a set fee in the hundreds of dollars to attend the usual industry-only convention, FAI is inviting all participants and fans to log in to the festival portion for a minimum suggested donation of $20. Donations will seed the Village Fund.
The usual professional programming is still exclusive to registered members, says Finnan, and they’re expecting a robust event. “We have already 2500 delegates, agents, managers, record labels, publishers, media, and artists registered for the full conference. So that's panels, meetings, virtual exhibit hall, keynote speakers, the awards, and then all of the showcases.” Those are ‘unlocked’ he told WMOT “because we really wanted to open this up and appreciate that the digital space allows anyone to attend who might not otherwise attend to conference.”
Nothing can replicate the hothouse environment of Folk Alliance with its packed hotel, poster-festooned walls and room-by-room listening spaces. But Folk Alliance is hoping that the short-term sacrifice of their in-person event can have long-term upsides by growing the community. Post pandemic, Finnan says, “we're going to have a more engaged, smarter, more articulate audience. The more they interact with artists in different ways than just buying a ticket to listen to them sing the songs they love, the more that art and music has an organic relationship between artists and audience.”
FAI’s keynote speakers next week are novelist Margaret Atwood and University of Georgia Professor Dr. Bettina Love. Seminars include an all-woman panel on audio production, building on the successes of livestreamed events, and a lot on inclusion and anti-racism in action.