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Folk Alliance International: The Safe Space for Folk Music Communities Around the World

Iris DeMent, Milk Carton Kids, Jody Whelan of Oh Boy Records, Fiona Prine, Jason Wilber, photo by Shadowscape

Today, folk music is fascinating, broad and inspiring, but it continues to be the music of the people, locally and globally. “It connects us to others and ourselves, uplifting and inspiring us to action, creating a more empathetic world,” said Alex Mallett, Development Director of Folk Alliance International (FAI). He explained that our stories have infinite variations but also many commonalities. “Sharing those unique stories and traditions enables folks to express their emotions and cultures, learn about each other, and find common ground among differences. “The voices from diverse communities within the U.S. and internationally make us infinitely richer as a community and a global movement.”

The FAI mission is to genuinely represent folk music, ensuring that all from various traditions, backgrounds, and experiences can weigh in as leaders and participate across our programs. Mallett believes that in the North American context, folk music is sometimes considered relatively narrow and as being the music of a few 1960s icons. However, he added, “As a phenomenon, it reaches millennia before recorded music and across every culture.”

FAI uses behind-the-scenes methodologies and activities to achieve the organization’s goals, incorporating critical tasks like tracking data, building relationships, and setting a welcoming culture.

“Starting with the data, we carefully assess where we are in the goal of being more inclusive across a range of diversity goals, including culture, ethnicity, race, musical style, gender identity and sexual orientation, age, and ability.”

FAI also tracks diversity in official showcase acts, panelists, and board and monitors annual progress. That baseline of knowledge directs determination in where to maneuver correction and target key people to participate.

Iris Dement and the Milk Carton Kids, photo by Katie Rich

When Folk Alliance was founded in 1989, early members realized the many views of folk music as a genre and phenomenon. “We use the genre list rather than a definition to say that folk music is what you think it is and many surprising, wonderful things that you haven’t considered before. That excites me most about the folk music movement - traditions aren’t finished,” he said, but are being explored, preserved and reinvented.

Mallett said getting to know folks from diverse communities and building genuine relationships has taken many years of outreach. The FAI staff and board attend events worldwide to meet with folks to gain broader perspectives, opportunities, and concerns. “The staff and board trained together in diversity, equity, inclusion and access (DEIA), and a Cultural Equity Council sought feedback to guide our strategic plan.”

To build a diverse community, FAI strives to create a space where people feel safe and welcome.

“We make decisions small and large to make that happen. On a policy level, that means a publicly available and signed safe community pledge that lays our commitment and a standard of conduct that people agree to when registering for the conference. We also have affinity groups within the conference where people of shared identities can get together. There are dozens of adjustments that we’ve made to make our programs more welcoming, from closed captions on all videos to subtle variations in the language that sends a strong message that all are welcome in the folk music community.“

Mallett shared that COVID-19 greatly impacted FAI. In March 2020, members stopped renewing and halted the plans for future in-person events. “We had to reinvent ourselves online and extended all memberships at no cost.”

FAI provided webinars to help folks navigate those times, created community relief grants through The Village Fund, and produced a virtual conference at a pay-what-you-can price point with sessions covering numerous industry topics and presenting showcases from artists around the globe virtually. Like many other arts organizations, paycheck protection loans, generous support of our sponsors and donors, and grants helped save them, but FAI is still rebuilding from the pandemic.

“In 2020, we had over 3,300 attendees at our conference. In 2023 we had about 2,000 people. With increased costs, we are facing a financial loss this fiscal year (ending June 30) and are actively raising funds through donations and sponsorship to make up for shortfalls,” said Mallett. Artists and professionals in the folk world are also recovering, with many canceled and re-booked tours in 2020 through 2022. This year was the first with meaningful work for the independent music sector, but rising costs also impact tours. “It really helps artists to sell tickets early, so I recommend buying tickets to shows as soon as you can so your favorite acts can know that their shows will be a success.”

FAI showcases feature 120 jury-selected acts, and in 2023, 161 tour-ready musicians represented diverse cultures, languages, and sounds. “Artists apply through an open call, are scored by a jury, and then the final programming is curated by the Folk Alliance staff based on those scores as well as internal tracking to present a diverse and truly exceptional lineup.” Artists must be excellent and unique because the jury looks for talent first and foremost. Therefore, artists should represent themselves professionally in live performance videos and recordings they provide and how they are tour-ready by sharing current plans and show schedules. Programming is broad, so no one feature or category renders an artist ineligible or garners an automatic yes.

FAI executive director Neeta Ragoowansi, photo by Katie Rich

He recommends readers peruse the official showcase acts on the FAI website and search “Folk Alliance” on Spotify for the official playlist. “Bluegrass Standard readers should rest assured that they will hear stellar bluegrass at an FAI conference, at times from far-away places like Estonia or Venezuela,” he said.

Jams and song circles are vital for musicians and are a natural way to network. Some find like-minded strangers, teach each other tunes, or share a common repertoire. “Sometimes friends will see each other once a year at FAI and want to reconnect musically. Sometimes unknown performers will get discovered by elders and enter mentorships.”

Most conference jams are organic, but FAI formally organized a few at the 2023 conference. “The Sonidos Latinos jam was led by the amazing Mireya Ramos,” said Mallett.

FAI has five separate North American regional organizations, plus the Nordic Folk Alliance that serves Europe’s Nordic countries. Each holds a regional conference and year-round events that benefit the music community within their specific region, tackling critical issues and supporting live performance networks.

“Our new Executive Director, Neeta Ragoowansi brings a depth of experience and music industry networks that will inspire an era of growth for this organization, starting with a newly-updated strategic plan,” said Mallett. “Combined with a long-standing team, we are poised for growth in our current programs and new activities.”

FAI offers year-round webinars and networking events and has resumed local public programming in Kansas City. The registration and official showcase applications are open for the February 21-25, 2024, conference.

More information is on our website:

Conference: September 27 – October 1, 2023

Austin, TX

SWRFA serves Arizona, Colorado, Mexico, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Lisle/Naperville, IL

FARM serves Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Manitoba, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Nunavut, Ohio, Saskatchewan, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

Black Mountain, NC

SERFA serves Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Woodland Hills, CA

FAR-West serves Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Northwest Territory, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and Yukon Territory.

Asbury Park, New Jersey

NERFA serves Connecticut, D.C. (and its metro area including the counties of Loudoun, Fairfax, and Prince William (Virginia), Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Brunswick, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Newfoundland & Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Pennsylvania, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Rhode Island, Vermont

Roskilde, Denmark

This region includes the five Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.

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