Many articles covering the shutdown of live musical performances during the COVID-19 pandemic featured photos of empty concert halls, high-capacity areas with 10,000 folded seats. There were fewer photos of living rooms or wooden scenes set at the back of a country bar. These small venues are where most musical performances take place around the world. And these places are where folk musicians thrive.
“A folk musician doesn’t need much,” says Jimbo Mathus, an American musician from Mississippi. “They just need their music and their health. They don’t need a microphone, they don’t need a stage. It’s a bit of a throwback to the good old days: you have a man with a guitar, and you need something to cheer you up. Nothing else matters.”
Mathus is 53 years old. He has been playing folk music for 30 years. In a typical year, he plays music professionally at least 230 days a year. Like many of his peers, his income evaporated when the pandemic struck. He asked for federal unemployment. He does not have health insurance, so it is dangerous for him to take frontline jobs, but he turned to them anyway. “Fortunately, I have the lifestyle of a folk musician,” he laughs. “You live humbly, you live within your means, you take right and wrong.”
Mathus’s fate is not unique. A global cohort of musicians accustomed to intimate in-person interactions have faced financial turmoil. That’s why Folk Alliance International, a non-profit organization for folk musicians and other members of the folk industry, presents Folk unlocked, a virtual music festival. The festival, which runs from February 22-26, will “unlock” the new FAI Village Fund, a collection of grants to folk music workers and musicians.
In order to increase accessibility, there is a charge for the festival, although a minimum contribution of $ 25 to the Village Fund is recommended. Attendees will have access to 800 hours of music – featuring artists like Mathus, Los Lobos, and Cedric Burnside, among others – and a simultaneous virtual conference.
FAI executive director Aengus Finnan began discussing plans for a fund in May 2020, shortly after it became apparent that performers would face lasting economic impacts. In order to understand the needs of their community, they interviewed their artist members. About 46% of all artists reported that in a typical year, 75-100% of their income came from their music career. And 71% of all respondents cited the loss of income from the pandemic as a major stressor. Respondents said they made up for the loss by going into debt, dipping into their savings and asking friends for financial help. Almost a third of those surveyed said they had completely changed careers in music.
In addition to the current economic problems facing musicians of all genres, folk musicians often face a problem of public perception. Some music listeners assume that “folk” is a dated genre, a term applicable only to a ballad or a tune, but many artists around the world, working in various traditions, identify as folk artists.
According to Finnan, this perception has left folk artists in a “suspended state”, without a single industrial city to cling to. “The folk community base is a vast network of small clubs, festival grounds, lounges and volunteers in every small town in the world, and although this is a beautiful thing, it is difficult to gather this support in a consolidated way. to distribute it. to a community in need, ”he says.
The Alliance hopes to raise $ 100,000, which will be divided into 20 grants of $ 500. Because folk musicians around the world are in need of funding, Finnan said the initial fund could run out pretty quickly. But Folk Unlocked is just the beginning; Folk Alliance’s fundraising efforts will continue, even after the pandemic, to alleviate future periods of financial hardship.
Any member of Folk Alliance International or anyone attending an FAI event in Canada, USA, Ireland, Australia and Sweden is eligible to apply for one of the $ 500 scholarships. Finnan understands the shortcomings of some public funding projects – needs will always outweigh an organization’s ability to provide support. “When people are in need and venerable by revealing that need, the reactions can be brutal and defensive,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking, even as a supporting agency.”
“For this reason, I hope the millions of folk music fans – which include Americana, blues, bluegrass, Celtic, old-time, global roots, traditional, singer-songwriters, and more – all consider giving a only dollar each, “says Finnan.” That would put millions in the fund and direct support into the hands of artists who represent the genre they love. “