At the 2019 Folk Alliance International conference, held in Montréal in February, evidence of the vitality and diversity of the contemporary folk scene was everywhere, as nearly 3,000 attendees representing 47 countries crammed the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth hotel with acoustic guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles, and upright basses. Alongside legends like Buffy Sainte-Marie and performers who’ve been on the circuit for decades were swarms of young songwriters and bands eager to carry on the folk tradition and trade.
Exactly how or whether anyone can make a living in folk (or any kind of) music, however, is another question—especially at a time when streaming has upended the record business, replacing sales of physical product with fractions of pennies in royalties, and live entertainment competes with the infinite diversions of the shiny screen. What sustains grassroots music careers in this era? What kind of adaptations are artists making, and what changes are on the horizon?
To shed light on these questions, Acoustic Guitar invited six artists for a far-ranging roundtable interview during the conference. All are performing songwriters who, not coincidentally, are involved in many other creative ventures. They include Ellis Paul, a veteran singer-songwriter, author, illustrator, and host of songwriting retreats; Korby Lenker, the Nashville-based writer of songs and short fiction who created Morse Code, the web TV series about the life of a struggling folk musician; Maya de Vitry, formerly of the Americana trio the Stray Birds, who relaunched this year as a solo artist; Kaia Kater, an up-and-coming young banjo player whose latest album is on Smithsonian Folkways; Peter Mulvey, a hard-traveling favorite of the folk-rock scene since the early ’90s; and Chris Robley, editor of CD Baby’s DIY Musician blog, contributor to its companion podcast, and indie-pop songwriter.
This gathering took place just a few days after the glitzy spectacle of the Grammy Awards, which became the point of departure for our conversation.
Acoustic Guitar: After watching the Grammys, I was thinking about the mainstream music industry vis à vis the folk business represented at this conference. How do you relate the two? Are they two ponds of different sizes, or completely separate entities?
Ellis Paul: Well, this is a cottage industry business to me. It’s a little bubble compared to the bigger music industry. What we deal with are more interpersonal relationships. A lot of us are just running businesses right out of our garages, and there’s not a lot of corporate involvement. I mean, if you look at the flannel in the lobby as people are walking in, compared to what people are wearing at the Grammy Awards, it’s just a whole different language.
Chris Robley: I was reading an interview last week with the guy [Scott Cohen] who founded the Orchard [music distributor now owned by Sony]. He was theorizing about the next ten years of the industry and how it’s going to have AI-created music and virtual reality concerts and the end of fan bases. And he was saying, if you can’t fathom that, you are going to lose. And I was like, there’s always going to be the counter to any of those tendencies, because people want to make stuff and share it. And I don’t know—if everything’s made by computer, what the hell’s the point of being alive?
Korby Lenker: I agree there will always be a percentage of the population that wants to hear an acoustic guitar and a song written well and sung well. The house concert industry is great evidence of that. The revenues might go down, but the basic unit of the artist is always going to be here. As time has gone on, we artists have had to get a broader skill set in terms of doing things that traditional managers or booking agents would have done.
I’d also say that in folk music, it’s a slow burn going up and a slow burn going down. There’s a longevity to this community that’s exciting. I mean, there are people that have been coming here for 30 years. Twenty years from now, I’ll probably be involved in Folk Alliance at some level, and I’ll have these long-term relationships.
Maya de Vitry: It seems like there’s a lot of societal pressure to grow exponentially: If you’re going to create something, you might as well just do it in the biggest, fastest, most streamlined, most efficient way possible. When I see the Grammys, I think they’re selling a lot of things other than music. They’re definitely selling commodity and glamour, which is not what so much of creation is about for us. Most of our job isn’t wearing gowns.
Kaia Kater: I read an interview with Gillian Welch about the song “Everything Is Free.” She wrote it in Nashville right at the advent of Napster. It was a really heartbreaking song for her to write, and it was also the time when she and Dave Rawlings decided, “OK, we’re just going to do this on our own.” I thank her for that, and I think for the generation of musicians that I’m with, you can go your own way. You don’t have to sit around and wait for this big record deal or for some white dude in a suit to say, “I like your music.” You can do it yourself.
For me, whenever I get a little sad about AI mastering or the creation of robot songs, I feel like there is a freedom and a power in knowing that flame will never really extinguish, and you’ll find a way to make it work.
AG: Anything to add, Peter?
Peter Mulvey: Well, the way we all wear 15 hats now makes me wonder how I missed the scene in this movie where Bain Capital bought everything, the folk industry, and determined that that we would need to do more with less for the shareholders [laughter].
On the other hand, it’s still a privilege to do the thing, and it’s pretty easy to do the thing. If you just go out there and play music for people, you’ll get an audience together. And once you have an audience, you’re kind of unassailable. You’re in the undergrowth. OK, Metallica is not making nearly as much money from the sale of plastic CDs as they were a decade ago, but my life hasn’t changed. I’m just driving a car to the next gig and playing a show.
AG: As you’ve already mentioned, most people in this community do everything themselves—booking, promotion, putting out records. Does this era favor artists who are entrepreneurial?
de Vitry: In the last couple of months of starting to think about how to release music on my own, I’ve been listening to a lot of business podcasts—not music business, but entrepreneur business podcasts, just to broaden my perspective of how many hats people wear when they start a business.
Lenker: There are a lot of self-starters in this community, for sure, and a lot of self-promoters. Sometimes it’s funny to watch—and I do it as much as anybody else—how much you have to be like, “I’m still here!” That’s a hard corner to turn if you’re an introverted type, which I am, because you just want to do your art and be recognized for it. It’s kind of an annoying necessity. Sometimes when I post an Instagram I’ll say, “Oh my God, this is my job now.” But it is. That’s the trade-off.
Kater: I’m in that same space of, I create my music, and all I want to do is get to where I can play music in front of people. That place is peaceful for me. But there is this whole other side of Instagram and Facebook and social media, and I am uncomfortable about it. I’m quite reticent to share any details about my personal life because I feel like that is mine, and for my sanity there needs to be a clear demarcation between the image that I project and my personal life. But then I feel like, well, am I not being authentic enough? Am I just posting about shows and not posting things that people really find interesting?
So I go back and forth on that, and I think it’s a constant negotiation. The things that make me feel healthy—like reading a book or talking to a friend or, really, anything that’s not on my phone—make me feel like an individual that’s capable of creating. I do find social media draining sometimes. I think a lot of people do.
Paul: I feel like I’m running a media company now. I came out of the ’90s, and I had a record deal and seven albums. There was a filter system. A record deal was the only way to have a career as a musician at that point—until Ani DiFranco kind of broke the mold [by starting her own label]. But now you’re the record label, and you’re the manager. Even if you have those people in your life helping you out, you’re still taking on so much of it. In the last year I made a decision: I’m no longer a songwriter; that’s just one aspect of this media company. I’m creating music and books and online content.
You know, all I did in the ’90s was travel and write, travel and write, travel and write. And now I’ve got cameras and microphones in my home, I have lights, and I’m producing this swath of things. It’s just the new way. Everybody is multitasking just to create a future for themselves.
AG: That leads into my next question. Do you see having ventures beyond performing and recording as a necessity these days?
Robley: I think so, and that’s good and bad. I feel like there was a lot of comfort in, I’ve got to sell a CD; I sold a CD; my job’s done until I put out another CD. There’s a certain reliability in the economics of that. And now, as you’re saying, it’s very scattered. The flip side, though, is a lot of CD Baby artists will use singles as a chance to launch merch products, and they’ll use Printful or some print-on-demand thing so there are not a lot of out-of-pocket costs for trying five different T-shirt designs with lyrics from the song. So there are way more opportunities to monetize the fan connection instead of just, “here’s my CD; two years later I’ll be back with another one.” At the same time, what a pain in the ass to have to manage all that and constantly create stuff.
AG: Maya, do you think about outside projects like that?
de Vitry: For me, it’s always something that’s not related to music, like I really am enjoying having a part-time job [at a Starbucks in
Nashville]. It clears my head. I go and I clock in, and it’s been really grounding for me.
Whatever you need to do, I think it’s just important that we get rid of any shame about doing something other than pure art all the time. If we feel like we need outside business people to swoop in and validate us and give us permission to create, we might lose some of the essence of what we really want to be doing anyway.
Lenker: There’s tremendous freedom in the part-time job. When I first moved to Nashville, I had records [out] and toured before and thought of myself as an artist and musician. I had a label deal for a short time in Nashville, and it all imploded and suddenly it was like, you’re either going back to where you came from or you’re getting a job. It was really hard to turn that corner in my mind, but I ended up parking cars for three-and-a-half years at a hotel, and it was the best creative time in my life. I wrote all these stories, and I had a book published. I was super depressed in a way, but there was so much creative freedom. People don’t ever talk about the part-time job because there’s some stigma.
de Vitry: Stigma would be the word. But so many great artists and authors and creators have been bankers or English teachers.
Mulvey: Williams Carlos Williams was a physician. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. Ted Kooser was an insurance executive.
Robley: This is one thing I find so healthy about the poetry world. There’s no way to be a professional poet, so you are a teacher or an accountant or whatever. Because there’s no way to ever make a living at poetry, it can be what you need it to be.
When [music] is your whole identity and your reality doesn’t match your ambition or what you think it should be, then that’s a recipe for a lot of bitterness, too. I think people burn out really quickly from that.
AG: Let’s talk a little more about records. How viable is it for you to make and sell physical recordings at this point?
Mulvey: My audience is old enough that some of them actually still buy CDs, although I get the impression that they’re buying them as a memento from me—that’s not how they get their other music. But I like the form. I like to have a collection of about a dozen songs that’s about a given thing. It’s an antiquarian impulse, I suppose, but it’s a cool form. A collection of songs is a thing the way a novel is a thing, the way a short story is a thing, the way a painting is a thing.
Robley: Though it could be more like a Dickens novel, where the songs come out over the course of two years and then later you package your favorite ten. Also, you could start that whole process and say, for the next two years I’m going to release a bunch of singles and they will all have this constraint, so it still feels of a piece.
Lenker: That’s what I’m doing with my web series; I release a new song with every episode. Once the whole thing is done, we’ll put out an album.
I think people still care about albums, and even the traditional music business still cares. You’re not taken as seriously putting out a single as you are putting out a record. You don’t get the media attention. NPR First Listens are important to an artist’s career. But, yeah, the idea of going into the studio and recording 12 songs, paying and doing a Kickstarter and hiring the publicist is like, I can’t even.
Mulvey: That’s hilarious, because the scripted narrative television show with a single, etc., is its own enormous thing [laughter].
Lenker: Shifting problems.
Paul: What I did on my new one [The Storyteller’s Suitcase] is create a 36-page, CD-size book. I’m like Peter—my audience is probably about the same age as yours and they’re still buying CDs, but it’s maybe 25 percent of what it was even five years ago at shows. Instead of going to a show maybe hoping to sell 20 or 30 CDs, if you break ten, you’re having a pretty good night. So what I did was create a better memento by having all the lyrics and the backstory on all the songs.
AG: Kaia, do you feel like your new solo record [Grenades] is a viable product in itself?
Kater: I don’t know. I haven’t really thought of it that way. For me it was just, I have this collection of songs that I feel belong together. The idea of a single is more foreign, but not something I’m opposed to. I’ve started printing vinyl recently, which has been selling better. CDs don’t really sell as much. The younger fans that I’m getting have definitely heard of me on Spotify, and the way that monetizes is just for them to buy a ticket to a show.
Robley: I see this trend with Spotify where you have to feed the beast, similar to social media. In order for your stats to stay up, you have to release something every couple of months or whatever. Obviously, that’s way easier to do with singles. If you’re trying to game the system and play according to the rules, then it makes more sense to put out a lot of stuff, more frequent releases.
Kater: Do you guys do Patreon [the subscription-based service for supporting creators]?
Lenker: It’s a big part of my career now. I spend a lot of time encouraging people to support my Patreon to help underwrite the show. I think it’s super worth considering for indie artists because, you know, they say the tail of the music business is thin now but long.
I don’t do well on Spotify, and obviously I’m not famous at all, but I have enough fans in the world who just like what I do. That relationship is so important, and they will support you if you make it easy for them. I mean the buy-in for my Patreon is $1 a month, and it’s only been out for a year, but there are 240 patrons now. I get two or three a month, and sometimes it’s $1 or sometimes it’s $20 a month. That’s huge for me. That’s like somebody coming to see you every time you play and buying a CD.
AG: Maya, how do you look at your new solo album [Adaptations]?
de Vitry: It’s interesting because when I was discovering songwriting for the first time, I was funneling it into being a band member mostly. I was doing that for a number of years, which meant that albums were patchworks of songs but not a whole vision of one voice or perspective. For me [the album is] a really exciting form right now. As far as releasing them, I feel a lot of hope in the fact that so many of my favorite albums, books, and movies are things that I didn’t discover on the release day or the year or maybe even the decade that they came out. So I’m just trying to put out the truest thing I can. I’m trying to put something out there that may be meaningful for somebody if it finds them.
Robley: You’re talking about the usefulness of your music over the course of your life and not needing something to hit right now. That is becoming more and more the case. With CD Baby, we’ll write checks to artists and be like, who is this artist? Why all of a sudden are they making a bunch of money? And it’s like, oh, the song they put out seven years ago ended up on some huge Spotify playlist. Or we’ll license a song to HBO that is 15 years old. The age of the music doesn’t matter anymore. It does [matter] to the press, but in terms of making money, it’s so cool that as long as the music is good, it can find its moment way after it’s been ignored for a chunk of time.
AG: Are there other aspects of the folk scene that you see as bright spots or reasons for optimism?
Mulvey: How good the people who are younger than I are. You know, a minute ago I was opening shows for Greg Brown and Patty Larkin and getting out there on the road and touring with Chris Smither. And now all of a sudden these young artists are opening shows for me, and so many of them are so good. It’s as renewable a resource as creatures. Art is just something creatures make, and there are more creatures coming along.
Paul: There are so many opportunities for music that’s going to be around a hundred years from now. There could be this Emily Dickinson moment where a song that’s a hundred years old is found on YouTube, and just because it speaks to some kind of beauty that’s relevant then, it’s going to have its day. And you think even of Woody Guthrie. Despite the fact that he was in a hospital [in the last five years of his life], his songs were going out in the world and creating this mythic kind of thing where now he’s got a museum and all these people who follow him. That can happen for anybody that’s walking these halls, because there’s a place for this music. It can be found. It can be disseminated. And that’s exciting for our kids and our grandkids and whoever comes along.
Kater: In the same way that this is a renewable community, I’m part of a writing group with a few friends. I’m a big fan of their work in their various projects, but this is just about whatever you’re working on that week. I just find it’s amazing to hear what your friends are thinking about and writing about and seeing them grow, and them seeing you grow. That’s what I’m excited about right now.
Robley: This music has a history and a kind of call to have meaningful content. I think EDM or a lot of pop doesn’t take on the important things. If [meaningful content] happens, it seems it’s either here or in hip-hop. I’m glad that folk is still a place for that, and it seems like more so in the past few years.
de Vitry: Just the persistence of everybody that I see here is really inspiring, and the growth, too, of a lot of my close friends. Also, the vulnerability that we have to face within ourselves to even bring it out of ourselves into the world, I think is a gift. That is something we need—for people to be authentic with each other in their pain or in their joy.
Lenker: I mean folk music is a calling. Otherwise, why would we put up with all of it? It’s just something in you that you have to do. That’s what makes it special. That’s why also [the folk mockumentary] A Mighty Wind was so successful, because it’s sort of comic on some levels, too. It’s our ridiculous commitment to what we do.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.