Within the folk and roots music world, the annual Folk Alliance International conference is a very big deal. Artists and music business types from around the globe congregate each February to perform or attend artist showcases and further their business interests.
That won't happen in 2021, at least not in traditional fashion. Last Friday, FAI executive director Aengus Finnan announced that the event that had been planned for Kansas City has been cancelled, in light of covid-19 pandemic concerns.
The press release stated, in part, that "in addition to suspending events for the remainder of the calendar year, we have determined that the best course of action at this time is to suspend our in-person conference next February 2021. Full refunds will be processed for everyone who has already purchased a 2021 registration, and we will be extending all current membership to the end of the calendar 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.”
The first pandemic-related cancellation (or suspension) of a major music event for 2021 is big news, given the ongoing uncertainty as to when the music industry can return to some semblance of normality. For further explanation of the situation, FYI e-mailed some queries to Aengus Finnan, a Canadian now based in Kansas City, FAI's HQ.
He informs us that "the decision was made over a month-long process based on staff assessment of the situation, critical input by key stakeholders, review of various financial forecasts by our Finance Committee, advance approval by our Executive Committee of a proposed no-conference "pivot" year, and ultimately unanimous Board endorsement of the recommendation."
Finnan reports that the reaction from FAI's constituency has been positive. "We've had an overwhelmingly supportive response to the decision and the timing. Anyone who hoped to attend our next conference will still be able to do so, simply at a later date. But to be honest, attending our conference in February, during prime flu season, is likely the last thing on anyone's mind right now as they sort through the personal and professional impact of the pandemic. Health, gathering, and travel issues aside, the financial hardship our community is experiencing was cause enough to reconsider the timing."
Such major Canadian music industry conferences as NXNE, Canadian Music Week, Mundial Montreal, and Halifax Pop Explosion are still planning to proceed in late summer or fall 2020. Asked for his take on their position, Finnan notes that "in many ways, Folk Alliance International was fortunate because we're 10 months away from the original event dates. For organizers deep into the planning for late summer and fall events, it's more challenging. I'm sure that each likely has several scenarios mapped out behind the scenes, and there will be a definitive moment for each to determine public word of their next steps. In whatever way we can support our peer organizations, we will."
"The reality is that nobody knows when a vaccine will be found and in widespread distribution, or when it will be safe and permitted to travel and gather on a scale that will allow festivals and conferences to happen."
Finnan dissented on our view of his decision as "an abundance of caution. "I don't think this is an abundance of caution, but a minimal and necessary amount of caution. There was no scenario for next year where it was responsible or possible to proceed with the conference. We needed to make a sober, preemptive decision that was in the best interest of the community and our organization.
"The scale of our conference, with more than 3000 attendees from over 40 countries, during prime flu season, implicates too many people who must plan and budget now for a February event. We saw an instant bottoming out of registrations and membership renewals by mid-March, but it would be tone-deaf and foolhardy of us to be trying to salvage our next fiscal year by trying to sell the conference when what we really need to do is listen, learn, and figure out systems of support."
The FAI has strong and deep connections within the Canadian folk community, and the conference has been hosted by both Toronto and Montreal. Last year's event was held in Montreal, and Ellen Davidson's informative preview in FYI is recommended reading.
Toronto folk singer/songwriter Michelle Rumball attended the 2020 Folk Alliance International and posted a colourful report on her website. Terming it "a beast of a conference," Rumball noted "It is large. Over 3,000 delegates. Five days of panels and workshops. Showcases every night. And from 10 pm 'til 3 am-ish, five hotel floors of music in EVERY ROOM. There is discovery, fun, joy and camaraderie in the air but there is also the sense of dogs sniffing each other- talent buyers buying your act, actors selling their song and dance, some genuine fannery just for balance. You walk the halls and read each other's lanyards to find out if they are selling what you are shopping for."
"I wanted to learn a little more about how to work effectively in this biz that has changed so much since I started, I wanted to get some new sounds in my ears and make a few connections. It was a bit of a career scavenger hunt."
Contacted by FYI, Rumball expressed support of the FAI decision. "I don't think it's premature. There is no way they can do it the same way they have been. They probably did a simple metric of many more questions than answers. It also may be a bell-weather for the whole industry. It will have to change.
"The saddest part us the loss of community that comes from the FAI. I feel very much, though, that they have the right leader to guide them. I could hear the hurt and hope in the message from Aengus so I am going to watch how this unfolds."
Read an earlier FYI profile of Finnan here