With her third album ‘Till The Feeling’s Right’ out now, Whangarei Heads-based songwriter Erin Cole-Baker left home and family behind in February this year to take her music to the Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City, USA. Alongside Milly Tabak of The Miltones, and Anika Moa, the three made up the Kiwi contingent at the hugely busy event. Erin kindly wrote a few words about the experience for NZM.
A good friend of mine from Oregon had been saying I should come over for the Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City for 2018. She’s been a close supporter of my music for many years and I had been talking with her about doing more shows in the USA. I had my eye on it for a long time but saw the obstacles stacking up against me as the application deadline approached. Money being the top one of them!
Fortuitously I stumbled across some funding that was available from the NZ Music Commission’s Outward Sounds scheme to attend the conference, for which I spent all day working on the application. I was overjoyed a few weeks later to receive news that my application had been successful, and I would be joining Anika Moa (with her manager) and Milly Tabak (The Miltones) at FAI in Kansas City!
The Folk Alliance International conference brings together global music leaders, musicians, educators and industry professionals to share ideas, network and promote folk music. This annual conference has become the world’s largest gathering of the folk community and is known for its community, atmosphere, nurturing ethos and as an industry hotspot for new talent and discovery.
This year’s FAI conference included a record-breaking 2,750 attendees from 25 countries, 180 nightly ‘official showcase’ performances and over 3,000 private showcase listening room sessions – in front of 3,050 registered industry leaders, artists and media.
Flying into San Francisco I met with Chris Beland, a friend and musician from California. We had been talking about organising a tour of the west coast of USA in fall of this year and I had convinced Chris to come to the conference and try to make some connections which would aid our proposed tour. Waiting for our baggage in Kansas city it was clear we weren’t the only musicians on our plane! We quickly made some new friends, grabbed our bags and jumped in the new friends’ rental car to share a ride to the conference centre.
Showcases booked, flyers and business cards printed, download cards and freshly printed CDs neatly packed. I had studied the FAI conference app and had put stars on the workshops, and showcases I wanted to attend, meet and greets, and when our showcases were scheduled.
The hotel was grand, ripe with fresh-faced folk musicians filing in and looking slightly stunned. The conference ran from 14-18 Feb, some people in the know getting there the day before to orientate and help at the tote bag stuffing. It’s a good chance to mingle and settle in.
After taking a look around, Chris and I lugged our instruments and gear to our adjoining hotel (linked by a covered and heated walkway above the ground which took about a 10-minute walk). Having eaten only minimally on the 20 or so hour journey we scouted out the best tacos in town – for which we braved the icy winter air –about the only fresh air we had for the whole six days!
They offer a handy instrument check, so you don’t have to carry your instruments everywhere which is nice. I found the conference highly organised and well thought out. There are plenty of officials around to help out if you have any questions and everyone was so friendly.
There were industry workshops during the day, from parenting and the artists’ life to communicating with the press, and beyond. Official showcases in the large conference rooms ran from 6.30-10.30pm and were like an amazing music festival to attend. From 10.30pm onward the real insanity happens. Private showcases.
On three levels of the hotel, all rooms had been cleared of beds and set up with seating instead. Only some rooms are set up with sound systems, the majority are just acoustic showcases. Posters were thickly plastered on the staircase walls, elevators and the walls down the hallways. The rooms were variously decorated and set up with alluring snacks and drinks to entice listeners in. The hallways are teaming with musicians and industry people – I rarely hit the pillow before 4am.
It was a real buzz to be a part of the Australia/NZ room. I blindly booked my other showcases not knowing what the set up would be. On the FAI conference website, there is a forum where you are recommended to put a live video clip, a short bio and contact information. Presenters can then contact you if they like what they see. There’s also a list of showcase presenters you can look through and email them to try to book a slot. Some require a small donation towards the cost of running the room.
All the information is neatly presented on the website, and bookings had to be done by a cut-off date so the showcases can be in the printed booklet, and listed on the app. Some rooms were definitely better than others. I can see how going every year would really be beneficial to build on relationships and get more honed into what rooms to book. Some of the showcases were in the round with other songwriters, which was fantastic fun to be a part of.
As a part of the NZ team, we got asked to attend a breakfast with some high profile booking agents. It was a meet and greet which was basically like speed dating, but with booking agents. We were set up with a schedule of who to sit and talk with and when 10 minutes was up we would move onto the next person. I felt like a fish out of water, being a natural introvert, but pushed myself as best I could, trying to make authentic connections, handing out my new album and talking about the goals I have with my music. I also grabbed business cards of the people I met in case the connection looked like one I could follow up on.
The contrast between the conference’s opening night and the last night was palpable. The first night you could feel the nerves, people more timid and reserved. The last night we were deep in the swing of the crazy thing that is Folk Alliance International. Saturated with new connections, heads filled with new music, possibilities of what may lie ahead and at ease talking to anyone you bump into.
It’s difficult to explain or show through photos the level of utter musical insanity, community and chaos that occurred within the walls of that hotel. Leaving the conference I had new enthusiasm and tools to go forward in this crazy line of business that is being a musician.