By Devon Leger
For the past four years, I’ve been attending the Folk Alliance International Conference. Each year it’s a gathering (now hosted in Kansas City, MO) of artists, bookers, writers, DJs, publicists, managers, and agents involved in supporting and creating folk music in North American and beyond. It’s great fun too! The conference takes over a major hotel in downtown Kansas City and fills up many rooms with great music and jams. Late at night you can wander hotel room hallways crammed with people, sticking your head in each room to discover small private showcases and raging parties. I’ve made great connections there and have seen a lot of my favorite artists get discovered. Recently Folk Alliance International announced that they had brought onboard a new director for the event, Aengus Finnan. Finnan is a performing folk singer from Canada and is heavily involved with the Canadian network of folk festivals, so he brings a lot of knowledge of the technical aspects of large-scale folk music event production, but also brings a passion for the music and especially the community behind the music. I was curious how he’d navigate some of the more interesting sides of Folk Alliance, like the community’s distaste for corporate sponsorship, their very strong opinions on many of the decisions that the event organizers make, and the way multiple generations come together at the event, so I called him up at his new office in Kansas City to ask him about his new job.
Interview with Folk Alliance Director Aengus Finnan
Devon Léger: You were just hired on as the Executive Director of Folk Alliance, is that right?
Aengus Finnan: Correct.
Where did you come from before that?
AF: I was in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and I was the Touring and Audience Development Officer for the Ontario Arts Council.
photo ©Jake Jacobson
You come out of a folk music background, right?
AF: About 10 years on the road as a touring singer-songwriter, during which time I was an active member of Folk Alliance and came to the conference as hundreds do, to shop songs and make connections and meet musicians and hopefully get bookings from the festivals and concert presenters that were at the conference… Then I went back to my boyhood town, hometown of Grafton. It’s an hour and a half east of Toronto, and launched a festival there called The Shelter Valley Folk Festival. It really drew on the remarkable things that I noted in many festivals and my little shopping list of things that I wouldn’t do or would try to improve. It was a grass roots community event; we literally cut down the trees and milled the lumber on site and built hand-hewn stages and fences. It is a logo-free event, so there are no sponsors, there are strictly donors; everyone is thanked enough for the levels they come in at, but with hand-painted signage on site. It took a community focus as opposed to a music focus. Clearly we were booking musicians, but the intent of the festival was to bring together a community… The focus on all artists being paid the same rate, having all of the volunteers and all of the artists eat in the same tent, with home-cooked meals made by folks from the community, eating off real plates with real silverware, having cups of coffee in real cups as opposed to disposable. I call those things to really have it be not a pop-up event but a lasting festival within the community…
[The Shelter Valley Folk Festival] ultimately led to participating with the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals, which is an arts service organization that represents the many festivals within the province of Ontario which included Shelter Valley as one of the new fledgling festivals, but also includes the legendary festivals like the Mariposa Folk Festival, Summer Folk, Hillside, and some of the festivals that have really become the hallmark and touchstones of the folk circuit within Ontario and Canada…That, in turn, led to ultimately working for the Ministry of Culture through the Ontario Arts Council. I wasn’t restricted to music there. It included dance, and theater, and visual arts but I was the Touring and Audience Development Officer, overseeing an export fund that provided support to underwrite the cost of touring. So, whether that was the National Ballet of Canada or the Toronto Symphony Orchestra or a singer-songwriter or a theater company, there is a fund in place that artists and organizations apply to underwrite the cost of those tours. For the past 4 years, that was my role.
DL: It sounds that you have run the gamut of different positions in the folk music industry. Do you feel that that makes you a better choice for executive director because you’ve seen it from different perspectives?
AF: I can’t speak to why the search firm and hiring committee chose me. They would be the ones to identify that but I think that was part of the asset, is a broad view of the community and the ecology of presenting folk music, presenting in communities at different levels, administering the grants and organizations that are involved. The brutal (sometimes) reality of what it takes to tour that circuit; the years it takes to build traction and credibility; the challenges and joys of being out on the road playing those festivals, and the economics of it… We’re all aiming for the same thing and that is to bring incredible music and inspirational experiences to a community that connects audience and artists and allows that art to be presented and to flourish. Whether that’s a little concert series happening in a church basement in a town with no stop signs in it, or whether that’s a major, international festival that shuts down the downtown core of a city and is flying in artists from around the world, the same thing is intended, the same connecting the cultural dots within a community that relies on folks stepping out of their way to make something happen and countless volunteers joining the ranks to bring it together and ever has it been that way. Go back 40 years and that’s what they were doing with folk festivals. So, you dial it forward. It’s the same thing. The technology might change; the artists change; the standards change; the prices change; but the essence is the same.
I liked what you were saying about Shelter Valley; how they were very egalitarian and there weren’t any sponsors, it was based on donors. What’s your take on sponsorship at Folk Alliance? People get really surprisingly touchy about any kind of overt sponsorship.
AF: It’s not part of my mission at all to come in and change the sponsorship or donation structure. [Folk Alliance] is a very different organization and there are costs associated with mounting the event. There are also completely appropriate ways for sponsors and donors to be involved in supporting the organization and supporting the activities of the organization at the conference and camp and throughout the year… The donation system that already supports the charitable purpose of the organization exists to deliver its mission and one needs the stability and fiscal resources to achieve that, and part of that is to generate revenue such that you are able to continue, not just to mount the conference but to have your staff achieve the charitable goals of the organization. That requires fiscal growth and responsibility, and sponsors come in in a relationship to Folk Alliance that allows that support to happen.
Okay, good answer. What’s your take on the next generation? There’s a big divide between the older generation, the baby boomer generation who laid a lot of the foundations for the folk music industry here in the United States and then, a younger generation who are trying to take some of the reins. How do you plan on integrating the 2 generations or bringing them together? Or do you see them as 2 separate generations?
AF: There are separate generations but I think that is strictly related to age and the social cues that you grew up with in different times. I think that there is so much cross-over in music; we see so many younger artists starting out with the traditional music, whether that’s bluegrass or ballads or whatever it is that has young artists being drawn to the tradition. They may not be hanging out with the musicians from 30 years ago day to day but the conference, I think, is a shining example of what that really boils down to: the music, the quality of the music, and the interest that one has in it. The other thing that I find fascinating about this is that you can be an emerging artist, meaning that you’re just starting, but you might be just starting at 60 and have learned to play in the past 5 years, and have started writing your songs and are coming out to strut your stuff and sing your songs and you may be playing next to a senior artist who is 20 years younger than you because they’ve been at it longer. There are different views of age within the community and the craft but there is an important role to be played by Folk Alliance to connect youth and elders. I think that it’s something that the conference and the organization have done well in the past and will continue to do in terms of honoring the elders within the community.
I think if there is one area that I’d like to continue to shine a light on and brighten, is really the fact that folk isn’t just about the music. It is more of a movement and a community. There’s a reason that bluegrass and blues and singer-songwriters and Celtic and Appalachian-American can all fit within the conference and under the banner of folk. That’s why it’s called Folk Alliance, not a music alliance, because it’s not just about the music, it is profoundly about the community and there is a very particular aspect and ethos to the folk community. It was born of a movement and a time that required voices and community gathering to address social and political and environmental issues. Those issues may have changed but they haven’t gone away. I think that there is still an important role for the folk singer, the folk musician and the folk festivals to continue to be a champion at that place for art to have a resonant role within the community to remind us and challenge us and inspire us to own the future and to be responsible with our time here. The political and community nature of folk music goes back hundreds of years in every culture. It was where the stories were kept and told; it’s where the legends were passed on; it’s where the history was preserved and it’s where important issues were sung about. So, it’s not just about the 60s folk, it’s about the grander folk tradition across every country. It’s not to say that every song must have a political message, it’s not that at all, but there is, definitively, that aspect to folk music and the community that I think is important to honor and recognize that we stand here. This conference exists and the festivals that host all of these musicians exist based on a movement and a real impetus to gather people in a meaningful way.
Thanks to Aengus Finnan for the interview! More information on Folk Alliance International can be found at www.folkalliance.org.
Come to the 2015 Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City from February 18 to 22, 2015. Hearth Music will be there sponsoring The Mayor’s Suite with our friends from The Bluegrass Situation, Quicksilver Productions, and 12X12 Management.