Industry Profile: Louis Jay Meyers
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Louis Jay Meyers
Louis Jay Meyers has been the executive director of newly-renamed Folk Alliance International (formerly the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance) since 2005.
Meyers runs FAís day-to-day operations, along with a three-person staff in Memphis. He reports to a 15-member board of directors.
The organization serves 2,500 members, about 50% of whom are performers; the other 50% come from the music industry sector of the folk community. This includes concert presenters, representatives from folk festivals, label owners, publishers, managers, agents, instrument-makers, radio programmers and print journalists.
The Folk Allianceís mandate is to strengthen and advance organizational and individual initiatives in folk music and dance through education, networking, advocacy and professional and field development.
FA began in 1989 when 125 people from the folk community throughout North America were invited by Clark and Elaine Weissman of the California Traditional Music Society to meet at a retreat in Malibu, California for a town hall meeting to discuss the formation of a coalition of folk organizers.
An annual conference to cultivate and promote traditional, contemporary, multicultural folk music, dance and related performing arts in North America followed in 1990.
Born and raised in Austin, Texas, Meyers has an extensive background in the arts and music fields, working as an artist manager, booking agent and operating the famed Liberty Lunch nightclub in Austin.
Inspired by the successful New Music Seminar held in New York in the 1980s, Meyers, along with Nick Barbaro, Louis Black and Roland Swenson, founded the South by Southwest Music & Media Conference and Festival in 1986 to promote Austinís rich music scene.
In 1987, 700 registrants participated and over 200 acts performed at 15 clubs. In 1993 SXSW added film and interactive media events to an expanded schedule and by 1994 the conference registered over 4,000 participants and showcased 500 musical acts at 28 venues.
Meyers left SXSW in 1995. He spent two years as a talent buyer for Antone's nightclub in Austin. Then he was the director for the New Orleans Pride Conference from 1997 to 1999. This was followed by organizing the Rockrgrl Music Conference in Seattle in 2000 and the A2A Music Conference in Amsterdam in 2001.
From 2003- 2005, Meyers was the general manager of the Austin Music Network (AMN) television station and creative director for Austin Community Television. AMN proclaimed itself to be the only non-profit independent music television channel in the United States. AMN's programming emphasized indie, punk, blues, country and jazz performances.
An accomplished musician who plays banjo, pedal steel and guitar), Meyers performs with the Song Island Revue. Over the years, he has worked with the Killer Bees, Mojo Nixon, Bill & Bonnie Hearne, Killbilly, Fastball, Willis Alan Ramsey and others.
Meyers is in the midst of overseeing the 2009 International Folk Alliance Conference being held February 18-22, 2009 at the Marriott Hotel in Memphis. The four-day annual conference includes workshops, panel discussions and over 250 artist performances.
What do your duties at the Folk Alliance consist of?
[With a laugh] I am responsible for everything. I am the only conduit between the organization and the board. We are a pretty small office with three people in house plus a couple of outsource (people) like Erin Barnhardt in Ottawa, Frank Marstokk in Europe and Cash Edwards in Austin.
This must be a hectic time for you with the conference only a few weeks away?
The timing of the event is not helped by all of the down time in front of it. It is hard to do anything until you know who youíve got to work with. Everything takes longer than it should. Then having the Thanksgiving to New Years period, itís hard to get much done.
Has holding the conference in Memphis for three years proved to be an asset?
The advantage of multiple years in one venue is that you can correct mistakes from year to year. The first year in Memphis, we did not do a good job on how we set the event up. The second year was night-and-day better. Our (hotel) contract runs through 2016, but has a out clause after the 2011 conference.
How many participants will be at the event this year?
There will be about 1,700, about half of them artists. We also have many artists that run a website or have a (booking) agency or whatever. So there is a cross over (between artist and music industry representation). We try to keep a 50/50 mix because with the artist community having relationships with each other is critical to the overall success of the organization.
Itís noteworthy that Folk Alliance has been around this long given the changes in the music industry over the years.
It is partially because it represents music that isnít based on airplay and record sales. Not to the degree that Canadian Music Week or South By South West or MIDEM are.
Many of those conferences change attendees year-to-year. And there isnít a recognized artist group attending.
They are based more on the (music) industry than the music.
The performers at Folk Alliance arenít as career-oriented as those in popular music genres, like pop, rock and hip hop?
No, they are career oriented. But that career hasnít necessarily changed according to the latest fashion or style or MTV trend. Most of our artists that have been (performing) for 20 or more years are not doing what they do radically different than what they were doing 20 plus years ago.
Trying to define the folk music community is as difficult as trying to define folk music itself. As diverse as folk is, it really is a community.
Absolutely. What affects one person does trickles down to affect others. Our community is also in much closer contact (with each other) year round than the average convention registrant.
Our community is strange. They like to be able to touch you before they buy you. They are not likely to call S.L.Feldman & Associates to book an act. They are likely to go directly to the artist and start from there.
They might call Jim Fleming at Fleming Artists or Tim Drake at The Roots Agency who work with folk-based acts.
Only if they canít get the artist on the phone themselves.
You donít discourage artists renting a room and showcasing at the conference unofficially?
We encourage that. We have three floors doing that every night. We schedule things so they donít conflict. Our official showcases end at 10:30 P.M. and then the private showcases begin. So they are never running simultaneously.
Before I came to Folk Alliance there was only one official showcase per night featuring six acts per night. Weíve gone from that to 200 acts over three nights.
Itís hard not to enjoy yourself at the FA conference with all of that musical activity.
If you donít like an act, the next act is literally 10 seconds away. Itís not like you have to jump into a taxi and go across town in the cold. Itís so easy to just wander until something strikes your fancy. People like you and I, we know when we run across something special. Itís so easy to tell in the midst of the sea of music when something is above and beyond. It sticks out.
It is disconcerting, however, being in a hotel room with three others and having an artist performing less than five feet away.
Oh, the guilt trip of walking out of one of those rooms, especially if they know you. I canít stick my head in a door without having to walk in and sit through a song, even if it is someone I do not want to see. (To leave) you wait until the end of a song. Or you grab your cell phone and put it up to your ear and you give that Ďsorryí look to the artist and walk out with your cell phone to your ear. It works every time.
With major labels rarely signing acts directly anymore, the music industry being in a free fall and with the rise of DIY, independent artists need to know some of the basics of the industry that they did not need to know 10 years ago.
We have workshops this year on financial planning, how to do taxes as a self-employed music person. Things like that. We want performers to be better at what the do. We want them to meet and interact with people that can help them.
What is your goal with the education component of the conference?
My goal is to provide information for the core, to really look at community building--anything web related, obviously. When I walked in the door (of FA), we were five years behind the (technology) curve. I think Iíve got it up to 18 months (behind the curve) now, thanks to younger members coming in. There is still a lot of education to do on opening peoplesí minds to the possibilities of the Internet.
We also have a lot of panels that are designed for artists. If you want to learn how to sing harmonies, we have a workshop for that. Weíve got (veteran guitarists) James Burton and Albert Lee hosting an electric guitar workshop. That will be pretty special.
The folk community seems to want to know more today about industry-related matters. Thereís been a radical change in their thinking in the past few years.
It is funny watching (their support of) Bob Lefsetzí newsletter over the past couple of years. Our community was not interested in it at all until he embraced it. It only took two or three of his postings that embraced our community, whether it was with the Refugees (consisting of veteran artists Cindy Bullens, Deborah Holland and Wendy Waldman) or James Lee Stanley or discovering (the importance) of house concerts, whatever. Now, probably half of our membership subscribes to him.
All they want to be is to be stroked a little. In the long run, they really want to feel like they are part of the mainstream. As much as they fight to not be part of it, their goal really is to be part of it. Thereís not one person on this damn board that would turn down a major label record deal. Címon!
An independent has been described as an artist who hasnít been offered a major label deal yet.
The pot of gold is the same for everybody.
There seems to be a shared experience between older and younger performers in folk that you donít find in many other music genres - a form of mentorship. Do you see that too at the conference?
Absolutely. Whether itís formal or by osmosis. Playing music pretty much 24 hours a day you absorb so much watching or participating in a jam session or in the round type of situation with these older artists. They want to pass the culture down. I think thatís critical (to the community).
We are seeing a flow to folk these days from the music industry of former rock business people and many aging rock stars are finding a second life in the folk world.
The natural progression is to gravitate toward our community. I encourage that. If we can get more presenters, managers and agents involved, fantastic. Our marketplace has certainly broadened in appeal. This year we have Rodney Crowell. That is exciting to me. We also have John Sebastian.
Are you surprised by some of the veteran performers knocking down your door to showcase at the conference?
We get performers on the way up and the way down. The economy has forced a squeeze in the market. Artists that wouldnít have considered house concerts as a viable (performing) alternative a year ago are now saying, ďI can pick up $3,000 on a Wednesday night at somebodyís house? Okay, Iím interested.Ē
So names that wouldnít have considered our marketplace years ago are now making themselves available to us Also we have done a great job in the last three years on taking people from the ďWhere Are They NowĒ file and getting them back into the circuit. Last year it was Chad & Jeremy. The year before, it was Jonathan Edwards.
At the same time many folk festivals in North America today resemble pop festivals.
Last year, in particular, there was a noticeable increase in cross-over acts into festivals, much more so than ever in the past. It was also one of the best years that the festivals had in over a decade. The Philadelphia Folk Festival had Trey Anastasio from Phish and the Black Crowes unplugged For a U.S. festival, thatís a stretch. The Ottawa Folk Festival had Broken Social Scene. If (having mainstream acts) gets a new audience to see and support a culture revival, thatís great. One of the most critical things, especially in this economic crisis, is that these venues survive.
(The musical broadening at festivals) is based more on economics than musical desires. You canít book a festival year after year on the acts that you love. You canít book a venue based on the acts that you love. At some point, if you want the venue to be successful, you have to look at what you can sell tickets with.
There was a 15 year period where the festivals were not out soliciting new audiences. And they werenít soliciting new artists either. They were relying on the same group of acts over and over again. Then, a couple of years ago, everybody in the festival business, realized that they didnít have anyone to fill their seats as people were retiring, dying or falling off the map.
I like a balance at festivals between contemporary and traditional.
I do too. And I think we will see that again. If (the festivals) are financially viable then their booking options become so much greater to do a diverse, high quality program. If the (policy) is, ďHow do we sell tickets?Ē then itís a different booking mentality. Iím afraid weíre in a ďHow do we sell ticketsĒ mentality right now based on the economy.
It has to be.
Yes, we have to be. And if that means 10 years from now festivals like Mariposa Edmonton, Philadelphia and Falcon Ridge will be there, then itís worth it. It forces us as a community to build strong acts. We have the ability collectively to determine the next generation of artists at these festivals and performing arts (venues). They are going to rise out of our community. They always have.
Is that why the conference is so important? It may be the first time the folk establishment gets a glance at some of these younger artists
Absolutely. The success that we have had with younger artists over the last couple of years has justified the effort. We really are seeing some young acts that are creating quite a stir.
You have quite a few Canadian acts this year.
We saw an increase in Canadian showcase entries this year. We have about 30 acts. It is a diverse lineup and one based on the quality that is submitted. I donít go in with any set number of Canadian acts.
You are trying to increase the international presence in Folk Alliance. The proportion of international members is quite low. Only 10 percent.
Yeah, it is a little larger percentage in the conference but not so much in with the membership yet. It is something that we really have started to develop. We now have a committee within our board working on how to develop international markets. We need to create sister relationships like we have with Folk Alliance Canada.
You took over from Phyllis Barney who headed FA for 10 years. She suggested that you apply for the position when she decided to attend law school. Was she a tough act to follow?
Yes, but we had been very good friends for years. I was at five Folk Alliances before I was offered the job. Selling South By South West allowed me the opportunity to participate in Folk Alliance.
During my ten years there I couldnít (attend) Folk Alliance because the dates were too close together.
Why come to work at Folk Alliance?
This is the opportunity to do what I do with the music that I understand the most. At six years old, I playing Burl Ives and the Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four. My first recollection is (the 1959 RCA Victor album) ďBelafonte At Carnegie Hall.Ē It changed my life. Years later I found myself in the middle of the reggae business for 10 years. I can pinpoint that Belafonte recording as the reason.
Austin is a good place to born and raised if you like music. You worked in the music scene there before your involvement with South by Southwest?
I ran the Liberty Lunch club and booked reggae acts. I managed the Killer Bees that toured the world. At one point, I was a booking agent for Burning Spear, Eek-A-Mouse, the Meditations and a whole slew of reggae acts. I got out when Shabba Ranks hit and pretty much burned me out. Jamaican dancehall changed the reggae scene overnight.
You were also playing in the local clubs alongside Jerry Jeff Walker, the Lost Gonzo Band and Steven Fromholz during Austinís Cosmic Cowboy era in the Ď70s?
I was playing all of the same rooms. I knew all of those guys. I was about five years younger than most of them.
I probably have every record that came out of any Austin act. Iíve got every Lost Gonzo Band and Steven Fromholz record. Each year an act from the Cosmic Cowboy era comes back to be at Folk Alliance This year thereís Will ďBilly CĒ Callery who used to record on Lonestar Records years ago. Michael Brovskyís short-lived label made some great records.
How big is your music collection?
It is a big collection. I still have a couple thousand pieces of vinyl.
Is everything backed up onto an iPod?
No. I started doing that and I decided that part of the fun )of hearing music) was pulling the vinyl (album) off the shelf. Some records I just never transferred because they donít sound the same on an iPod. Especially records from that whole Cosmic Cowboy era. (Jerry Jeff Walkerís 1972 version of) ďL.A. FreewayĒ doesnít sound the same on the iPod.
You play guitar, banjo and pedal steel. It must be difficult for you to keep your playing up today with your duties at Folk Alliance?
I do the occasional session. I tour in the summer with a band called Song Island Revue with Kevin Welch. Kevin and I have been working for about a decade with some Scandinavian friends. We put out an album (ďHomeĒ) last year which charted (in Denmark) and we toured.
In the past year we had the deaths of several leading American folk figures.
It was a touch year all the way around. Odetta, Utah Phillips (Bruce "Utah" Phillips) and one of our dearest long-time Folk Alliance members, Vic Heyman. He wasnít an artist so he didnít have that influence over the masses. He was one of the old school guys who really reached out to every generation of our community.
[A noted figure in Washington area folk music circles, Heyman died Jan. 6, 2009 after a long battle with Parkinson's Disease at the Westside Regional Medical Center in Plantation, Florida. He was 73.]
Louis Jay Meyers can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008, Larry was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.