Aengus Finnan on Folk Alliance International’s Resilience and 2022 Plans
This year’s Folk Alliance International will take place on May 18th through May 20th in Kansas City, and also online, in a hybrid model, and this marks a change of date which was introduced in response to a COVID surge that could have negatively impacted the traditional February dates for the conference. Though this change may have been surprising, the secondary shift to a hybrid model this year may be one that allows for increased attendance and engagement for both artists and the community. With a “Living Traditions” focus this year, the conference has unveiled vibrant and diverse programming that can certainly build on previous years of purely in-person events and introduce new discussions surrounding Roots genres.
Aengus Finnan has helmed Folk Alliance International since 2014, and arguably some of the FAI’s biggest challenges have come in the last few years during his tenure. However, particularly in light of the announcement that this will be his final year in that role, we have taken the opportunity to hear from him about the perspective he has gleaned in that time and the ways in which FAI weathered the move to online and hybrid models, as well as date changes. But there’s also so much more underway for the Folk community regarding the cultural conversation and an increasing awareness of the need for inclusivity, so we were very interested to hear what Finnan has to say about those developments and the FAI’s plans to further that conversation.
Americana Highways: With some time to reflect on the challenges of 2020, 2021, and now FAI 2022, what were some milestones of adaptation that allowed FAI to continue operating in a meaningful way for the community throughout this period?
Aengus Finnan: In many ways the pandemic simply exposed how fragile the ecosystem is for the entire grassroots music community. We’ve all been limping along with a faulty system for decades, but it was the only system we knew, so we clung to it. COVID shook up our collective snow-globe and made us pause and consider different needs and methods. Where in the past people came to conferences and organizations like Folk Alliance because of what we offered, the pandemic immediately begged the question: What does the community need?
One of the major outcomes of that reflection was the launch of The Village Fund, with $500 grants to any folk artist or industry entrepreneur experiencing financial hardship. The fund likely would have been useful for different reasons 10 years ago, just as there will be different needs 10 years from now. So far, we’ve provided $50,000 in grants to people in the U.S., Canada, and abroad.
AH: What are you most excited about in terms of this year’s hybrid format and offerings for attendees in person and virtual?
AF: In the past our in-person conference was exclusive in the sense that you either got on a plane and showed up, or you missed it until the next year. This year’s hybrid event will be a pilot run of a new model where people who are not able to attend the in-person event can view broadcasts live from the event, participate in online sessions, and where pre-recorded content will be shared at home and at the event. It really opens up the programming and participation opportunities. Speakers who couldn’t make the dates work and delegates who simply can’t afford to attend now have access.
AH: I understand that the NEA, the entity that designates the FAI as a National Arts Service Organization, has recommended that you receive a grant to help with operations. What’s the outlook on that process?
AF: The grant is confirmed. We’re honored to receive it as it was a very competitive process. It speaks to our newfound credibility and national profile. It comes at a critical time as this year will be the first time in over a decade that we will post a deficit year, which thankfully we have reserve funds to cover.
AH: The Folk community is necessarily undergoing a time of transition which involves increasing the ratio of cultural equality, particularly in the context of African American and Indigenous communities. Do you see the Folk community as embracing change at this time?
AF: If we are to be a “folk” alliance and not just a “music” alliance then we have to examine what the ethos of the folk community is and who folk includes. The folk genre was defined by white folks and the industry has been built and managed by white folks, myself included, at the helm of this organization, so the default public impression is of folk music, and folk festivals, and folk clubs as primarily white.
But if folk music is the music of the people, we simply have to expand our view….the folk music of Japan is very different than the folk music of Nicaragua, and the folk music of Alaska is very different than the folk music of New Orleans. Historically, we’ve created our own bubble, and it is hard for folks to examine their playlists, and their rosters, and their boards, and consider why it’s primarily white. And then to recalibrate and expand their own curation and networks, just as FAI has to do. But this work is necessary and overdue for us all.
AH: Given that this will be your last conference with FAI as Executive Director, what stands out to you as some of the biggest developments for the FAI since 2014?
AF: It’s less about the actual programs and numbers and achievements…it’s more that I feel like we’ve found our feet, our voice, and our soul again. Folk Alliance had a bit of a “country-cousin” complex in terms of our sense of relevance in the broader music community, and over the past 8 years we’ve not just come to the door and the table, but we’ve helped reimagine and reconstruct the house that all Roots music genres live in.
Putting values and ideals at the center of our work may seem counter-intuitive when folks are basically just trying to get airplay and get booked to play gigs, but by thinking about the community in a deeper way, we’ve tapped into a greater need…a need for justice, equity, and support. The result of that focus is a more compassionate industry, willing to examine its shortcomings and work to evolve. Elevating the spirit of our community and holding a brave, open, and respectful space for all has as much long-term value, if not more, than all of the business transactions that come from any one showcase.
AH: Can you share anything about FAI’s current goals and objectives beyond 2022?
AF: Our board and staff will be developing a new Strategic Plan this May, following input from the entire community, and recommendations from our arms-length Cultural Equity Council. In the past the Strat Plan process has been internal, so I think this broader engagement approach will galvanize the new era we are in, where we truly serve the membership first and foremost by listening.
With new leadership also on the horizon, I’m excited to see a deepening of FAI’s role at an advocacy level for our community on national industry issues, and we are definitely entering a new stage in terms of fundraising and partnership needs, which builds capacity to improve and expand services to our regions and members.
AH: What do you feel that 2021’s IFMA winners suggest about the exciting current trends and developments in Folk?
AF: I think it’s simply a continuation. We honor legends and rising stars alike and celebrate both icons and humble folks behind the scenes. What has changed is that we now ensure that our ballots and potential candidate lists have much more diversity, not for ceremony, but because it was a grave oversight and imbalance in the past. As an international organization, if our delegates aren’t seeing new names and faces on the stage each year, we’re not doing our job to get out of our bubble and expand our networks.
AH: How do you feel that this year’s theme of “Living Traditions” has contributed to the ethos of the conference?
AF: Well, in a year where we are just trying to literally get back to each other for the first time since the pandemic, the Living Traditions theme is a reminder that we are all tradition bearers, and with our time here on earth, we have the opportunity to gather people (in kitchen, clubs, theatres, festival fields, and online) to share and connect through music. As an industry, reflecting on our roots and the roots of various folk music traditions is important if we are going to authentically consider our place in time.
AH: Are there showcase artists this year who you are particularly excited about taking part?
AF: Ah, that’s like asking a parent who their favorite kid is. That said, I do think the story and Artist in Residence project that Saskia Tomkins is bringing to the stage this year is remarkable. She is from England (though now based in Canada), and her mother was part of the UK’s rarely discussed “brown babies/half caste” era, twice forced into an orphanage after her African American G.I. father was not allowed to marry her white mother. Weaving Blues, Roma, and Celtic fiddle styles, she has composed an exquisite instrumental piece to accompany a narrated video presentation of her family’s story, and their search for a long lost Grandfather.
AH: While moving to a May date for 2022 must have posed significant challenges, what do you think the silver linings may be behind these changes for attendees?
AF: It did indeed, and it was a costly but necessary move as the pandemic once again flared up and would have rendered our original February dates an epic failure from a safety and business sense. Moving to May has allowed everyone more time to feel comfortable, to make plans, to pool resources. And Kansas City is beautiful in May, vs. chilly February. Who knows, perhaps folks will want us to consider a permanent move to May, especially since FAI’s timing has historically meant it is not necessarily an “immediate booking” event, and is more of a family reunion and discovery platform, with people booking easily a year out for most of the major festivals.