If you want to consider how far we’ve come since early March, when the debate over whether South by Southwest should be held went on nearly to the eve of the festival, consider this: Folk Alliance International, the top annual conference for acoustic musicians, has made the decision to cancel its next conference… 10 months from now.
After this year’s confab drew several thousand participants to New Orleans in January, the next edition was set to take place over five days in February 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri, USA. Passes had already gone on sale. But rather than ask musicians and industry pros to invest in something they believe is ultimately unlikely to come off successfully, Folk Alliance opted to be proactive in making the call to cut losses now, in a decision that’s likely to be carefully looked at by similarly scaled music conferences in the coming months.
“It’s our hope that by letting you know these things now, it will bring some clarity and relief, and that it might perhaps support others struggling to decide how to proceed,” Folk Alliance International said in an emailed statement to members.
The organization’s executive director, Aengus Finnan, told Variety about the factors that went into telling eager participants that a date as seemingly distant as next February is a no-go.
Said Finnan: “Our decision was a combination of three elements: One, a sober analysis of what we know and don’t know about the pandemic and a vaccine timeline. Two, the reality that even when permitted, it will take time for people to feel comfortable and safe to travel and gather. And three, an appreciation that our gig-based community and the non-profit organizations and small businesses that make up the ecology of the folk music community have been hit hard financially.”
Finnan said the writing was on the wall as organizers saw usually robust “early bird” sign-ups dry up as the pandemic hit folk musicians and supporters who suddenly found themselves without an income.
“We saw an instant bottoming out of conference registrations and membership renewals by mid-March,” said Finnan, “and when charted out, the numbers against our forecast and deadlines led to substantial debt in a best-case scenario. We chose to take the path that will result in the same loss, but allow us to pivot all our effort from producing a high-risk event, all things considered, to being of service and developing programs and resources that will long outlive the current situation.
“The longer we waited,” he continued, “the more it ignored the facts and jeopardized our event and organizational viability by putting us deeper into our planning and resource allocation.
“Moving a conference that draws more than 3,000 people from over 40 countries — in prime flu season — was the only responsible thing to do. While that’s disappointing, and not to dismiss the gravity of the times, we are excited about the new and important work to be done in the months ahead.”
Refunds are being offered to anyone who had already purchased registration for the 2021 conference, and the org is extending everyone’s membership to the end of the year at no extra cost. “The entire community will be consulted about the best timing for the next edition, once it is safe to be held,” FAI said in an email to members.
The organization also pointed members to a resource page with links to emergency funds, advocacy efforts, a “Connecting Folk” support network, and “an upcoming revenue-contributing online concert hub.” “We all look forward to a future time when we can gather again and simply sit in a room with a group of people and hear live music,” said the email to members.
Highlights of the January conference in New Orleans included Rhiannon Giddens, Mavis Staples and Ani DiFranco giving speeches or participating in keynote interviews. At the annual awards show that is part of the conference, Staples’ “We Get By” won album of the year; Amythyst Kiah’s “Black Myself” (recorded by her group, Our Native Daughters) won song of the year; and the Small Glories were awarded artist of the year.