Why I Left The Folk Alliance Board


By Art Menius

On March 27, 2014, I resigned from the board of directors of Folk Alliance International, the organization I had helped found in 1989. The following is an edited and revised version of the formal letter of resignation that I sent to the board.

I considered seriously going quietly into pasture a second time, as I did in 1996. Speaking out on my own could sound like so much grousing from an old curmudgeon. If nothing else, however, to voice these views forces their discussion, places the ideas into the marketplace.

How does one say goodbye to twenty-five years of one’s life, to separate from an organization that once embodied my core mission? I came to this dire decision in November 2013 when I realized I had no desire whatsoever to go to the first Kansas City conference. One option was not on the table. Neither I, nor anyone of good conscience, can in good faith remain on any non-profit board of directors when one cannot support the direction toward which the majority wants to steer. That is the difference between government service and a non-profit board. The latter runs on consensus; it is wrong to hang on when running against the flow.Image

I come from a Folk Alliance where Marta Moreno Vega of the Network of Cultural Centers of Color is the speaker not Al Gore, making millions off a faux-progressive platform. No one who has ever supported censorship of song lyrics is a friend of folk music, no matter how well rooted his family traditions. You can, thus, hear Al Gore Sr. play “Soldiers Joy” at the 1938 National Folk Festival here: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/afc/afccc/soldiersjoy/gore.mp3

I had been attempting to write this letter for three months without progress until I read an editorial in the March 2 Chapel Hill News http://www.chapelhillnews.com/2014/02/28/3655641/linda-haac-tale-of-two-towns.html. The background is that I work and serve on town commissions in Carrboro, one of the most left leaning towns in the southeast. While Chapel Hill has fallen under the sway of developers and retirees desiring lower taxes, Carrboro sticks with small, locally owned, locally sourced, organic, walk-bike-free bus, no big box retailers, no structure more than five stories, & etc. Linda Haac wrote:

It’s true nothing stays the same, change is always in the air and “so-called progress” needs to be made, but there are ways of doing things and ways ending in generic, often unpleasant results. Carrboro appears to be honoring our past as it moves forward, keeping true to our identity and soul, while Chapel Hill appears on a different track.

This contrast between two adjoining towns similar in so, so many ways (even gay mayors) frames the issues I have with FAI to a large degree. Growth and change will happen, but do we stay true to our core values in the process or adapt to mainstream fashions. I believe Folk Alliance, like Chapel Hill, has chosen the latter course, conflating what is best for business with what is best for the larger community.

Folk music is a business, but it is not just any business. Whether klezmer, Cajun, or bluegrass, community comes first and communities are based in shared values.

In recent years, Folk Alliance International has built on an earned income chassis and operated with earned income assumptions, rather than thinking like a non-profit charity. FAI reduces itself to the transactional pay for membership and a conference, rather than raising donated funds to change the world for the better by educating the general public about folk music and its traditions. That changes our mission into making money to stay in or grow the business instead of making the world a better place. Organizations under section 501(c)3 exist to do what the marketplace cannot support.

That process further pushes the FAI membership into the meaningless and ephemeral world of entertainment. Rather than a community annealed by shared traditions, purpose, and, yes, values, our artist members just become entertainers trying to advance their careers to the next level, a level that makes Folk Alliance irrelevant to them.

Do values matter to the Folk Alliance International? I always held they were essential. I know firsthand that values led Clark and Elaine Weissman to call us together at Camp Hess Kramer in January 1989. As Bush replaced Reagan and the culture wars annealed our community in a way that may not have existed since the 1940s. Even the agents and commercial media reps who attended saw folk music as part of the larger non-profit arts world, not the commercial music industry. We wanted to live and work our whole lives in the folk music community, not use folk music as a means to somewhere else.

Under US IRS Tax Code, Folk Alliance was created as a 501(c)3 educational non-profit, not a 501(c)6 business league. Many in our community may feel the need for a 501(c)6 business league or trade association along the lines of IBMA, CMA, or AMA. I have no objection to that, but that has to be a new 501(c)6 and not a pre-existing 501(c)3 educational charity. We did not try take over CDSS (the Country Dance & Song Society which remains larger than FAI), but created a new organization focused on our needs and shaped by our values.

To paraphrase “House of Cards:” “The nature of non-profit missions is that they are immune to changing circumstances.” Our community needs an organization that is for, by, and about the folk music community in Canada and the USA, that unites and advocates for the non-profit folk arts presenting world, protects government funding for the folk arts at federal and provincial/state level, educates about and celebrates our traditions, connects us to the academic and public folklore sectors, and places folk arts within grassroots community arts.

That is why we formed this organization 25 years ago. That is why a couple of dozen of us invested vast amounts of time and money to make Folk Alliance a reality. These are tasks that neither a for-profit business nor a 501(c)6 trade association are not designed to do. Nor are they short term goals that can be changed over time to suit membership recruitment goals. In those configurations, where business and trade dominate, principles are devalued. Decisions that should be made in the best interests of the long term good of the folk community are made for what is good for the Folk Alliance as a business.

Aware in January 1989 both of the appropriateness of meeting at a Jewish summer camp and the irony of convening across the PCH from the fabled beaches of Malibu (while ignorant that The Band had rehearsed there), we discussed and reaffirmed our values. One hundred twenty of us made a group commitment to the folk music community in Canada and the USA.

Values do matter. Values are long term, like art. Our values shape our community. Values sustain organizations and given meaning to their work. Today is the time when our voices are needed more than ever within folk music and without. As one of the people that Elaine and Clark Weissman recruited to support this effort, as one of 120 at Malibu in 1989, as a member of the Steering Committee, as our first president and first employee of Folk Alliance, I believe these are our values:

  • We are the music of both of authentic communities and cultures and of the left in North America.
  • We stand on the shoulders of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Hedy West, Jean Carignan, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sarah Ogun Gunning.
  • We offer an alternative to mainstream, corporate culture
  • We believe in non-profit organizations as the primary means to organize our community
  • We are committed to building audiences through grassroots communities
  • We believe in government and foundation funding for arts, arts education, and arts in education
  • We believe in our folk traditions
  • We believe in an equal Canadian-American partnership within Folk Alliance, acting as if population and membership numbers were equal.
  • We appeal to the best collective notions – embodied by singing together – not base self-interest
  • We need one strong voice to advocate for folk music and dance in Canada and the USA
  • We understand that not all singer-songwriters nor all acoustic music is folk.

Folk Alliance International has morphed in recent years into the antithesis of much of we wanted to create back then. While still a fun gathering of the tribes, the conference no longer affirms the essential values of the folk music community in North America. Without values to guide us, we become just a trade association, not a 501(c)3 charity. When the voices expressing those values are marginalized and consigned to the dustbin of history rather than celebrated as the foundation of our community, FAI has gone astray.

Where have we strayed from the course?

  • We are more about advancing individual careers than serving the folk music community.
  • Trying to build the audience for FAI more than building the audience for folk music through strong grassroots communities, organizations, and businesses. This suggests conflating FAI with the folk music community.
  • Yet I have become convinced that FAI uses a pay to play business model that exploits the hopes and dreams of musicians rather than advancing our field. It is true that every year, the Folk Alliance International conference jumpstarts the careers of any number of artists. On the other hand, far greater numbers invest their time and money chasing the dream in private showcase after private showcase. Are we any better footed morally than the showcase clubs in Nashville and LA? Some people call the conference a festival, and it does feel like one at night. We were created to serve the field of non-profit folk music presenters, neither to compete with our members as an event nor to use artists as an income stream.
  • Turning to an outside search firm for the next ED tells me that we are adopting and modeling as “professionalism” the worst values of mainstream American corporate capitalism – not the traditional folk community values.
  • The sheer hubris of talking about international expansion when so much work remains to be done in the USA and Canada
  • Behaving as if we were a 501(c)6 trade association – depending on dues and conference revenue – rather than a 501(c)3 charity whose impact, growth, and effectiveness are funded through donations and grants. Increasing revenue for the organization thereby becomes more important than serving the greater folk music community or, for a trade association, business.
  • Failing to serve effectively as one strong advocacy voice for the folk community with private and government funders and policy makers at all levels

Those are the key points. That which was created to serve community, now works for individual goals. Careerism has displaced values.