Folk Alliance International (FAI) is marking the official launch of The Village Fund, a grant program designed to support folk musicians and workers experiencing hardships due to the pandemic with a four-day virtual music festival, Folk Unlocked, featuring more than 800 hours of performances from artists throughout the U.S. and more than 30 countries.
For the first time in more than 30 years, the FAI’s annual Folk Unlocked conference, Feb. 22-26, will be open to the public. Spotlighting artists worldwide, including Los Lobos, The McCrary Sisters, Keb Mo, Flor De Toloache, “The Voice” winner Sawyer Fredericks, Jim Lauderdale, Terrence Simien, and Cedric Burnside, the virtual fest will give donors exclusive access to folk legends and up and coming artists and a viewing of the 2021 International Folk Music Awards (IFMAs), including Lifetime Achievement Award nominees Leonardo “Flaco” Jimenez, Gordon Lightfoot, Melanie, and the Putumayo label.
“This is new to us since our event has not been open to the public before,” says Aengus Finnan, executive director, FAI. “Being online gives us an exciting option to open it up and unlock it. Every fan who attends folk festivals and clubs and listens to folk music at home, on the radio, or online is a potential donor and attendee for the showcases this year, so the potential is huge.”
Throughout Folk Unlocked, there will be pre-recorded performances featured as Spotlight Showcases, each featuring a one-hour set of multiple performers with live chat where artists can interact with the audience as they watch the show.
Donations to the fund officially opened on January 19, 2021, and the FAI hopes to raise a total of $100,000 to distribute 200 $500 grants by late spring to under-employed industry professionals and artists experiencing financial hardship. Suggested donations for access to the Folk Unlocked event and the IFMAs is a minimum of $20, which will go towards each $500 grant.
Applications for FAI members and those who have participated in past events opens in April, and recipients will then be drawn by a lottery process. With the fund opened to FAI members and past attendees, Finnan says funds will be depleted fairly quickly, which is why the fund has been set up to replenish for years to come.
“While we established the fund as a result of the pandemic, the folk community would have benefited from such support five years ago, and there will be different financial hardships five years from now,” shares Finnan. “The fund is overdue, and there will always be a need.”
Performing at Folk Unlocked, along with her husband JT Nero and their Americana-folk band Birds of Chicago, Allison Russell (also a member of Our Native Daughters), says that once the pandemic hit, she quickly became aware of how hand-to-mouth and unsustainable her touring life had been, and the lack of a safety net for those in the industry. Being on the road for nearly 200 days a year for the past 13 years, once everything shutdown around the pandemic, Russell admits being forced to stop was a shock to her system.
Turning to live streams and Zoom concerts, Russell continued to fill in the off-tour days caring for her and Nero’s 7-year-old daughter and piecing together her solo debut, set for release later this year.
“I went through a time of road withdrawal, depression and wound licking, and then I began to think very deeply about the ways that I could continue to make art and also try to make a living in these uncertain times,” shares Russell, who is also writing a book tied to her solo material and played remote shows at Carnegie Hall, the Monterey Jazz Fest, and Newport Folk Fest with Our Native Daughters. “I realized that writing is perhaps the most important aspect of what I do and also the one part of the equation that I could control.”
Following the onset of the pandemic in 2020, The Village Fund would take several more months to formulate as the FAI reviewed all the necessary elements to ensure the efficiency of the grant-based funding.
“We needed to assess what funds already existed, what the gaps were, how to administer a dedicated fund, who seed donors might be, and how to avoid eroding our own donor base,” shares Finnan. “Data-based decisions and community consultations take time, but we’re confident we have the capacity now, and that donors are out there to support it.”
To date, the FAI has a global network of more than 3,000 members, including artists, managers, publishers, labels, agents, publicists, and festival and venue organizers. In addition to funding to help the folk community afford basic needs like food, money for rent, mortgages and other bills, the FAI is also working to expand mental health resources through its #FolkLifeBalance campaign, featuring annual panels, including general AA and general recovery sessions.
Health insurance varies from country to country, but Finnan ensures that the FAI is looking into ways to support more access to coverage, in addition to creating a bigger voice as a legitimate industry that needs more government support. Many artists and workers hit just above the threshold to receive government assistance, while others are under and still receive little support, no health insurance, or a steady income.
“Expanding access to support is paramount, and ensuring that artists and their independent team members are understood to be entrepreneurs and small businesses is critical when it comes to stimulus support and long-term economic recovery,” says Finnan.
The FAI is working with several advocacy groups, including the Performing Arts Alliance, to ensure that cultural sector interests and needs are articulated, understood, and fought for at a legislative level, in addition to collaborating with peer and partner music industry organizations in the U.S. and internationally.
During this time of isolation, Russell says she’s realized the importance of community and coalition, not only around mental health and well being, but for overall survival.
“I realize that in America ‘socialism’ is often demonized and turned into a bad word, but the fact remains that we are all connected,” says Russell. “I have been lucky enough to find an incredibly supportive team during this time and secure a publishing deal, but if I had not had this great good fortune and an album ready to go, I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent right now or put food on the table, and that’s the position too many gig workers have found themselves in due to the ongoing hardships of this pandemic.”
On the receiving end of assistance in the past, Russell says it’s her turn to support The Village Fund and pay it forward in whatever small way she can. “I hope to be a part of keeping the wolves from the door of my fellow artists who are currently in greater need than I,” she says.
“I hope that we will come out of this with greater empathy, honesty and self awareness,” says Russell. “I tell my daughter everyday that empathy is a super power. We are stronger together. We can survive and rebuild something better than the old normal with intention, integrity, and love.”