Folk Alliance 2019, Part One: What I Learned

February was my month for traveling and seeing new places! About halfway through the month, my fiancé, Chris, and I took off for five days to attend the Folk Alliance Conference in Montreal. This particular conference takes place once a year — although there are also associated regional conferences — and it is a time where artists, festival scouts, promoters, vendors and panelists all gather to network and explore new possibilities for sharing music! Since Chris is a board member of our local music festival, Blissfest, I got to tag along as an honorary scout. Our main purpose was to discover and meet new acts to introduce to our area of northern Michigan, while also reconnecting with artists who have performed here in the past. When Chris first sent me the list of artists who were going to be at Folk Alliance, I admittedly squealed with delight each time I saw a familiar name!

I’m not quite sure what the logic is of trying to get hundreds of people up to a hotel in Canada in the middle of February, but I expect it has to do with being a slower time of year for both performers and presenters. Needless to say, there were quite a few travel delays, and we were no exception! We had decided to fly out from Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, which involved crossing the US/Canadian border the night before to stay at an Airbnb since we had a morning flight. Of course northern Michigan winter weather made an appearance, and the Mackinac Bridge, which was our one way to get from the lower peninsula to the upper peninsula of Michigan, was closed due to high winds and very low visibility for about seven hours! We hung around Mackinac City for a few hours in hopes that we’d catch a clear window between the snow storms, but no such luck. We ended up driving back to Chris’s house, but had no sooner settled in to watch a movie when the bridge opened back up! Fortunately we hadn’t unpacked and were able to throw ourselves back in the car and get over the bridge to the Canadian border and our Airbnb. Winter traveling is a lot of “hurry up and wait!”

The view of our hotel from the cathedral across the street! Still very snowy and icy.

The following day, our flight was canceled and we were put on standby for a later flight — nine hours later to be precise! We were flying with Porter Airlines, and I’m happy to say that despite the weather conditions, they made every effort to get the two of us on that flight and to our final destination in Montreal. We arrived at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel a few hours late, but very thankful that we didn’t have to cancel our trip! If you are a northern Michigan resident, I do recommend checking the rates for International Travel out of the Soo airport — it’s a lot quicker to go through Customs at the border, and you’re paying airport parking rates in Canadian dollars! It’s both a time and money saver, despite the winter weather delays, and we had a good experience.

As for the artists, I saw many familiar names and discovered some new favorites. There were quite a few musicians on this list, so in order to give them my proper attention, I am splitting this blog entry into two separate posts. I asked my Instagram followers what they would rather hear about first, and my takeaways from the weekend ended up being the winner. Don’t worry if you wanted to hear about the artists, because that post is coming within the month!

And here’s the cathedral!

This post is dedicated to what I learned about myself as an artist and how I will use these takeaways to grow into a better musician and businesswoman. I hope that some of these insights will prove useful to you on your own journey, or that they will help you to better understand who I am if that is your primary reason for following along.

So to dig right in, I learned from this week that I need to be more assertive and proactive when it comes to going after my goals and making the necessary connections for growing into a successful music business. Right now I am struggling with fully adopting this mindset because I do still have the security of a full time job. However, this won’t always be the case. If I truly want to pursue my dream to be a full time musician, it will mean transitioning from a “9-5” job into a freelance lifestyle where it is my responsibility to schedule my own hours, manage my time wisely, and be in charge of my finances. What is holding me back right now is the job security I currently have, so there is no mass panic on my end to come up with funding outside of that. I thought my procrastinating days would be over after college, but as it turns out, this is a weakness I will have to continue to battle to overcome.

Something I didn’t realize before arriving at the conference is that the artists have to pay in order to come perform here. This is as much a networking event for them as it is for festival scouts and educational panelists. In retrospect this makes perfect sense, but it did make me stop and think for a minute about the different choices I will have to make when I invest in myself as a musician. Will I pay to go to these networking conferences in order to book more gigs and make all of that money back? Will I take courses on how to manage a music business? What will I have to budget out for in order to better increase my growth and income? I am glad that this is something I’m realizing in the early days of my music career. I no longer believe that some agent is just going to “discover” me and book me for festivals and cruise ship shows for the rest of my life. If I want to be a part of these communities, then I need to meet these people halfway. I need to take the initiative and be bold enough to put my work out there and ask to collaborate with others. I can’t just sit around and wait for people to come to me. This may seem obvious to some of you, but for me Folk Alliance was a reaffirmation of this and the fire under my pants I needed to stand up and start figuring out how to assert myself into the musical community I so desperately want to be a part of.

Positive flowers to keep my motivation strong!

Another takeaway I got from Folk Alliance is that there is a power of connecting and reaching out to people on social media. I have been interacting with a band called Pete’s Posse on Instagram for over a year since I switched to a business account for marketing my music. This Vermont trio has been very supportive of me and my tune videos from the start, so you can imagine how thrilled I was when I found out that their guitar/jaw harp player, Tristan Henderson, was going to be one of the performing artists! What was even more awesome was that we recognized each other in the showcase room right away and were able to connect instantly in person due to our social media introduction.

Check out Pete’s Posse on Instagram and Facebook — you won’t be disappointed! Shared with their permission.

This happened again with Canadian fiddling virtuoso, April Verch. I had seen April’s showcase lineup on Instagram the week before and commented that I was excited to meet her and see her perform in person for the first time — and, bless her, she must have looked my profile up beforehand because she recognized me AND introduced herself! In addition to her performances, she also taught a two hour masterclass on different regional styles of Canadian fiddling, which I was lucky enough to attend. As a personal takeaway, I learned so much more about the nuances of Canadian fiddling, and was able to compare this to my North Carolina Appalachian roots as well as Irish county regional styles.

Each of the musicians I connected the most with were ones who took the time to craft their own unique persona, which they shared fully in their music. For example, Emerald Rae is one of my favorite fiddlers — she stands out because she can sing while accompanying herself on the fiddle with her own compositions, loves medieval music, and has both dreadlocks and a delightfully warm and bubbly personality. Andrew Finn Magill grew up in Asheville with a background in classical and Irish Traditional music, but found his greatest love in the music of Brazil. Rising Appalachia is a group deeply rooted in the music of the Southeastern United States, while also stretching back further to the places where its settlers came from. In this rooted mission of theirs, they also seek to spread a message to their audience: one of awareness and how to best live in harmony with our land and our ties to the earth. I had a breakthrough at Folk Alliance, because I realized that the artists that stuck the most with me where the ones who not only played well, but put their passions and their personality wholeheartedly into their craft. That resonated with me, and made me realize that in order to best serve you, my reading and listening audience, that I owe it to you to provide the most true version of myself. Only then will I feel as though I have truly grown into the musician I want to be for you all.

My constant travel companion…

Some other tidbits I picked up from watching the showcases and attending talks are as follows:

  • It is a good idea to bridge the familiar with the unfamiliar in a performance. Personally, I love to pick obscure Irish tunes that are not overplayed in sessions, but it’s also important for me to not lose my audience on the way. The best solution I’ve found for this is to tell a story about how I found the tune or why I picked it — often times it works to keep that connection with my listeners.
  • A good performer communicates firmly but respectfully with the sound crew. Don’t get upset when feedback occurs or if you have to repeatedly ask to hear more of yourself in the monitors. If you’re a female performer, learn at least some basics of sound technology and don’t let the sound guy walk all over you. Know what type of sound you want in different venues and be able to communicate that with the crew. I noticed that April Verch was very good at subtly indicating when she was switching from hard to soft shoes in her step dancing sets. Because of her calm and assured demeanor, she was able to guide the sound crew through her performances with little to no mishap. Goals.
  • Both the directors of the Swannanoa Gathering and Celtic Colours Festival were at Folk Alliance doing the same things our Blissfest group was: scouting! So because part of my music dream is to perform or teach at some of my favorite events… guess where a good place to network will be!
  • From the ethnomusicology summit: I unintentionally got to hear the counterargument for my Master’s thesis about the media’s role in promoting “world music.” Stay tuned for a post on the pro’s and con’s of media labeling, and be prepared to get your discussion keyboards out!
  • Ideas for a solo fiddle show: incorporate Quebecois foot percussion boards and pizzicato fiddle accompaniment on songs. I’ll let you know how those projects go for me. Or maybe you’ll see it in a future video!
  • If y’all ever want to go on a cruise with me as your private group entertainment, let me know because there are programs out there for that and we can make it happen!

There you have it! Folk Alliance was one of those weeks where it took me a long time to process what exactly I learned from the experience, but I’m delighted to share those thoughts with you now. If this was helpful to you, or if you want me to dig deeper into any of these subjects in a future blog post, please comment below and let me know what you think!

Thanks for tuning in! Comment your thoughts below 🙂