SERFA 24 (Pt 1)

SERFA 2024  

It is all follow-ups and memories for SERFA 23. 

I just got back from my third South East Region Folk Alliance conference. Each was held at the Black Mountain YMCA assembly center a few miles from Black Mountain North Carolina. I got involved with these regional music conferences in 2019 after I left my public sector career. I figured I should explore and engage with a new and different dimension of the business of music. In my park and conservation career, I traveled across the country attending conferences and tours hosted by local, regional, state, and national organizations, and I thought I might gain some new insight by exploring music from different perspectives.  With the advice of Charlie Mosbrook, the president of Cleveland Folknet, I attended my first Midwest Regional Music (FARM) conference and I found it both motivating and inspirational. At FARM, my name was drawn in a raffle and I won a free registration for the SERFA conference the following year. Unfortunately, the pandemic disrupted those plans and I didn't attend my first SERFA conference until 2022. 

What is SERFA you might ask? There are regional Folk Alliance conferences all across the country and people tell me that each one has a unique vibe, and from my limited experience, I can certainly see that. In addition to the influence of regional social attitudes and behaviors, physical location is certainly a contributor to the ambiance of these events. 

In many ways, it would be hard to top this facility as a perfect site to host a regional music conference. Black Mountain College was an interdisciplinary liberal arts school that was known for cultivating free thinking and creativity. Some incredibly influential people were associated with this institution: the urban planner Jane Jacobs, architect Buckminster Fuller, and the new-age composer John Cage, just to name a few. Some art history experts have declared that Black Mountain College was the birthplace of American Existentialism. 

I believe the college was shut down in 1952, and at some point was purchased by the YMCA. The Y turned the facility into a conference and retreat center. Several large dormitories and college buildings still exist and create an interesting dimension to the experience for a visitor. Two large contemporary buildings have been constructed for housing (the main lodge) and presentations (a large auditorium), and this is where the activities for the SERFA conference take place. While the accommodations are institutional, they are certainly adequate. That being said, the geographic location is fantastic. The buildings are set high on the side of a mountain affording spectacular views of the Blue Ridge. 


Several hundred people registered to attend SERFA 2024. Mostly from the southeast part of the country, but some from as far away as Texas, California, and Canada. There might have been a few folks who traveled from Europe too! While most attendees are performing artists, there are venue managers, promoters, booking agents, music publicists, and folk radio hosts. 

As is the case with most business-related conferences, there are “how to” work sessions, panel presentations, discussion groups, and keynote presentations, on topics like marketing, touring, recording, building a professional support team, and that sort of thing. What sets these Folk Alliance conferences apart from other professional conferences is the large inclusion of musical performances. 

The primary musical highlights are the juried showcases that occur throughout the conference. Anyone is welcome to submit an application to be considered by the selection committee who choose a handful of artists to perform in 15-20 minute slots on stage in the main auditorium. I can assure you, they are all very good. 

In addition to these main performances, there are several themed song circles and private showcases. Anyone can sign up for a song circle which is a themed event. Participants gather and play one song pertinent to a predetermined topic. They are generally topped off at 20 to 30 people. They are a lot of fun and a great way to hear and meet new people. 

Private showcases are a little crazy. Most often they are hosted by a performance venue or a folk radio show. They start at 10:30 in the evening and go until 1:30 or so. There may be 10 or more private showcases going on simultaneously, so there is a great deal of energy in the air as people go from room to room either performing or listening to a specific performer. Sometimes the room hosts require a specific theme or style of music, and sometimes they are set up as a solo act or a three-act round. Most time slots are 20 to 30 minutes long. 

It is a great way to hear new people, share your music, and in some instances step out of your comfort zone. For example, Sam Edelston hosted a showcase called “Anything But Guitars”, and as you might suspect, participants could not play guitar. I played my banjolele and a mandolin and had a great time

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