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Folk Alliance Newsletter

Performers Column

by Joel Mabus

written October 2000



By Joel Mabus

As I write, I just came from the 10th annual Midwest regional meeting of the Folk Alliance. Since incorporating in 1999 we are called FARM (Folk Alliance Region Midwest). Pretty clever name, eh? In the world of commerce, the latest buzzword is "branding." The rationale is that if people love and trust "Pepsowhite" toothpaste, they will come to love, trust, and most importantly, buy anything with the "Pepsowhite" brand - cars, condoms, or politicians. I think (in fact I know) the steering committee of FARM had no such Machiavellian motive in adopting the FARM acronym. It was just a nice short way to refer to an organization that we all want to believe in.

FARM runs their gathering, or conference, a little differently than the parent organization's annual conference, or the other regionals. There are no formal showcases, and no informal showcases either. There is one stage where everybody who wants to can sing a song. There are plenty of topical workshops and discussions in the daytime and lots of jamming and song swapping later into the night. Mostly it's people getting to know other people. It's about acquainting and reacquainting friends -- about making personal alliances with other folks. In the process, good ideas are shared and new ways of solving old troubles are sometimes invented.

There are some problems with being different, though. There were fewer presenters attending than had been hoped (I'd say about 5% -- though some identified as "performers" wear the venue hat too). Also, the weekend coincided with most public radio pledge drive periods, so there was a dearth of folk djs. And looking to the future, if the event grows much larger, there might not be enough time for everyone to share an evening song in the main hall. But these are not insoluble difficulties, and there seems to be an even keel to the community-based leadership of FARM, with a hard working board and a devoted core of attendees.

The highpoint of the meeting was an award to veteran Chicago-area folksinger, Art Thieme, for all that he has done for folk music in the Midwest. Art was on hand to accept the award with his usual grace and good humor. Though the ravages of multiple sclerosis have kept Art from performing these past few years, he did perform a few of his favorite tall tales from the tradition, and maintained his own tradition of bagging the audience with some of his most atrocious puns.

Some of the best stuff was off the agenda. A bunch of us sat around the big porch and talked about the future of folk music. Shared ideas about how to empower young people to make their own music - talked about "marketing" and how to overcome the distaste for the word "marketing" -- talked about the prices of tickets and the fees we ask -- and generally chewed the fat about what was on our minds.

So I left the conference at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin feeling warm and connected. I came home to my waiting email and found a string of very chilling announcements. First I learned that the "Americana" charts were being discontinued at Gavin. Americana has been the latest and most successful attempt at "branding" a type of music that might, at another time been called "folk" - actually more of an amalgam of urban folk, contemporary bluegrass, acoustic jazz, and "alternative" country. Apparently Gavin deemed the "Americana" brand a weak branch to be pruned off the tree of music genres worth tracking.

On the heels of that news, I learned that the venerable Los Angeles area radio show, Folkscene, on KPFK had been cancelled. Roz and Howard Larmon's veritable institution was axed by the new general manager at the Pacifica Foundation station -- ostensibly the result of a dispute over the copyrights to the recorded shows. As I write, there is a settlement to be hoped for, but the news that a 30-year-old corner post in our folk music media's architecture can be snapped like a twig is disturbing. In this case the value of the "Folkscene" brand is not in dispute. To the contrary, the value of the brand name seems to be at the very heart of the battle.

Finally, on the dot com frontier, I just learned of corporate hatchet men at work at the internet sight called songs.com. If you have been to any of the last few Folk Alliance Annual Conferences, you will remember the great songs.com showcases in the hotel, and the long string of booths with songs.com artists. The internet enterprise began as a three-person operation 5 years ago when the world wide web was just toddling. Three smart and creative writers in Nashville started the "national online music alliance" with the foresight to register the highly memorable domain name, "songs.com" before anybody else thought of doing so. It later became their "brand" name. The site quickly grew to be a valued online showcase for quality independent talent. 

After growing a very nice, but tight community of a few hundred independent songwriters and performers in the folk and alternative country world - a site where CDs could be sampled and sold -- songs.com was itself sold to Gaylord Entertainment last year. (Gaylord is the owner of the Grand Old Opry, the former Opryland property, several big hotels, important publishing houses, etc.) Songs.com became part of the new "Gaylord Digital" wing of the corporation. The future was bright for a while. The original owners of songs.com became the managers of the revamped operation. Staff was expanded. Capital was flowing. Then came a shakeup at the top of Gaylord Digital. Heads rolled. Budget was slashed. The songs.com unit is now down to a staff of two. The "Perfesser" (as Paul Schatzkin, a founder and erstwhile general manager of songs.com calls himself) was "voted off the island." As I write this column, these events are very fresh, and what the future holds is unclear. Again, as with Folkscene, hopes are high that songs.com will retain its presence. In any case, the value of the brand name "songs.com" itself is not in question. Indeed, far from it.

All the buzz about branding makes me wonder if the word "folk" has any value as a brand name these days. I can vaguely remember a time when "folk" music was generally regarded as cool and hip. For most of my career, though, to be branded as "folk" was to wear the mark of Cain. Maybe the tide will come in again for the "folk" brand of music -- maybe not. Meanwhile, folks, remember that even in the old west, branding was not an entirely painless process. I'll take a pass on that branding iron, pardner; and pass the brandy instead. Just call me a maverick.

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