Page 2 of 3
Why KC? Meyers cites some practical reasons: Crown Center, with its multiple hotels and attached Amtrak station, was ideal for the conference. The ease of booking Southwest Airlines flights in and out of KCI was also a factor. But he also liked what was already in place culturally.
"We looked at 32 other cities, and everything about KC worked," he says. "There really wasn't a close second.
"A big thing was that there seemed to be a demand for what we do here," Meyers adds. "We were looking at whether there was a place for a local alternative community like the one we envision to grow. And there seems to be. And, obviously, there's a lot of folk music happening here already — everything from shows with Sam Baker at the Folly to venues like Grinders and Knuckleheads and Davey's Uptown. We also liked how much the local government seems to value the arts and music, whether it's the Kauffman Center, the new ballet or 18th and Vine."
In addition to revenue from membership, sponsorships, donations, conference entry fees, and the Folk Store, the alliance's operating budget comes from state and local grants. It hasn't yet received anything from ArtsKC or the Missouri Arts Council, but Meyers says his organization is exploring what's available from economic-development and tourism offices.
"The access to funding was one of the reasons we chose KC, but we didn't demand any money to make the move," he says. "We'd rather prove ourselves by being a stable organization and letting the several million dollars a year, in economic impact the city will see from the convention, speak for itself."
Meyers participated this year in the Mayor's Task Force for the Arts, a series of meetings and brainstorming sessions that this summer yielded a long document outlining how KC's arts and cultural future might play out. He says Mayor Sly James' task force had looked to Austin as a role model — and he objected.
"I tend to take the role of pointing out what didn't work there," Meyers says. "We had eight years of a real-estate-driven City Council that sold everything to the highest bidder. It screwed the city. I watched the city get sold. Everything that had local ownership is now part of some conglomerate that could care less about what Austin was."
He goes on: "Austin is unlivable now for the creative community. That was another thing that was appealing about KC: Artists can still affordably live here. I hope — and I think this current mayor gets it — that doesn't change. I'm not trying to bring Austin to KC. KC doesn't need Austin."
Meyers' vision for Folk Alliance International is, in many respects, antithetical to the corporate orgy that SXSW has become. He has modeled the nonprofit after the 1992 and '93 versions of SXSW, when the fest was thriving but before it sprawled into a behemoth.
But it is also a very good time to be a folk organization — culturally and financially. Just 10 years ago, mandolins and banjos were confined to the periphery of popular music. Today, Mumford & Sons is the biggest band in the world. The Lumineers and the Avett Brothers sell out the kinds of large venues previously inhabited by rock acts. Retail banjo sales reached an all-time high in 2012. Eight years ago, the average Folk Alliance member was 50–55 years old. Today, he or she is 30–35.
"When I took this job, folk was not a very good word," Meyers says. "It had no hip factor. People shied away from it. We've seen that change pretty rapidly over the past few years. I mean, Mumford is essentially a skiffle band, but to a lot of kids these days, they might as well be new-wave. There's no fear of folk music and folk culture anymore."