Even before he became one of South by Southwest's four founders, Louis Meyers knew how things worked.
In 1987, the first year of the Austin, Texas, music conference, Meyers was working in that city as a promoter, manager, agent and talent booker. (He ran the 1,000-seat venue Liberty Lunch, which is now defunct.) Over the next seven years, the born-and-raised Austinite helped build South by Southwest into the country's most vital destination for music-industry insiders and their targets. Every spring, Meyers' hometown was the place for labels and agents to convene and scope out the nation's best new talent.
"The reason South by Southwest worked for the industry is because we took the time to be the A&R people," Meyers says. "We cleared through thousands of showcase entries to find a few hundred acts that we felt were ready to be seen by the industry. It was critical to me personally that every act at South By was worth seeing, that nobody could walk away going, 'How the hell did that band get booked at this thing?' "
But by the eighth year of the fest, Meyers had grown frustrated. "That year, there were 640 acts, and my goal was to scale that back to around 500," he says. "Now, of course, there's 2,300 official acts. And what you lose by having that many acts is quality. You can't prescreen all that talent efficiently and put it out in a way where the industry can digest it. And so I felt that the continued expansion of South By was — I don't want to say greedy but find a nice way to say greedy."
So, in 1994, Meyers sold his share of SXSW and, as he puts it, "retired." In the years that followed, he lived on an island in Denmark; ran a music conference in New Orleans; moved to Amsterdam and put together a SXSW-style event for the Dutch government (it was marred by 9/11); and finally returned to Austin to run a 24/7 music TV channel.
Concurrent to some of these activities, Meyers was a member of Folk Alliance International, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting and celebrating folk music through education, networking and an annual three-day conference.
"I'd been going to their conference for about five years and bitching to the people in charge about all the ways it could be better," Meyers says. "Finally, they said, 'Put your money where your mouth is,' and offered me the position of executive director. That was nine years ago."
Until last year, Folk Alliance International kept its headquarters in Memphis. But the organization recently resettled in Kansas City. And its conference — which draws more than 2,000 registered participants for music showcases, panels, workshops and, now, a music camp — will be held at the Westin and Sheraton hotels at Crown Center through 2018. (The first KC-based conference is scheduled for February 19-23, 2014; Graham Nash is the keynote speaker.)
Meyers also now operates the Folk Store, at 509 Delaware in the River Market. Here, he sells vintage and new music equipment, with an emphasis on strings: guitars, dobros, ukuleles. (The shop has been gently opening over the past few weeks, but its grand opening is set for 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Saturday, August 24.)
"The store is our way of trying to get to know the community here," Meyers says. "The conference is an international event, but it's only one weekend a year. We want to make it easy for people to walk in and interact all 52 weeks of the year. We're ultimately planning to do in-stores and meet-and-greets with musicians coming through town on gigs — things like that."