Story last updated at 4/4/2012 - 11:33 am
The 38th annual Alaska Folk Festival (AFF) will occur April 9-15, providing a steady stream of folk music by groups and individuals in 15-minute increments. Since 1975, the AFF has been providing free music to the public.
A separate venue with longer music sets intended for dancers is another component of the AFF. The event has taken place for long enough that the logistics and planning have become streamlined, but it is not exactly a turn-key event.
AFF BOARD MEMBERS
A group of seven volunteer AFF board members shoulder the organizational work. There are four officer positions within the AFF board that switch year to year. These include a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer. The board members review the performer applications and create the schedule. They find an artist each year to design a piece of work to be featured on various merchandise and posters. They order the merchandise, select a guest musician, handle AFF membership and oversee the financial aspects of the festival.
In the early 1980s, the AFF officially became a nonprofit membership organization. This required the drafting and adoption of bylaws, used to set and maintain a cohesive framework for the coordination of the AFF and assist to streamline the process of producing a free and well-organized event.
Each board member is elected for a three-year term. Each year, two to three of the members' terms expire, and they must be re-elected or replaced. Some nominees were requested by board members to run for a seat; others volunteered. The AFF board typically convenes in September, holding monthly meetings. In January, the board begins meeting twice a month. Duties for the upcoming festival are delegated. Often, board members who served the previous year elect to keep their positions and responsibilities. One board member is charged with finding emcees and stage managers, another with advertising the event. The treasurer pays bills, deposits checks and gives written reports to the board about the AFF's financial situation.
A new AFF board member might accept the duties of the person he or she has replaced. Responsibilities may shift, but all board members contribute input to all aspects of the event coordination. Mike Sakarias, a former board member, devised an eight-page checklist about 10 years ago that is still in use today. The checklist contains all the necessary details from selecting the guest artist(s) to ordering merchandise.
Come March, the board begins meeting weekly. Board members report on the status of their responsibilities. Members of the public are welcome to attend the meetings, which is often a way to become recognized and gain traction should he or she want to be considered as a future board member.
"The best way to fill a position is to come to a meeting, express an interest and we'll get their name on the ballot," said Greg McLaughlin, current AFF president. "It's as simple as that."
The meetings also serve as a platform for non-board members to voice suggestions and comments.
"The privilege of being on the board means you have to work your tail off," said Sakarias. "You really have to want the 'job.'"
Every day of the festival, a board member is present to oversee the activities. This board member may deal with security issues, help restock low merchandise or address last minute cancellations. He or she helps maintain the general ebb and flow of the event.
"It's a great organization," said Lise Paradis, a current AFF board member. "It's satisfying to see people having fun at the festival. It makes the work worthwhile."
In order for the AFF to be free, many volunteers contribute thousands of hours of their time during the event and board members are not paid. But the event requires a substantial amount of money to operate.
A primary and vital component to producing the festival is public membership, which requires a $15 annual donation. Membership fees cover one-quarter to one-third of the event's operating costs. Though the AFF merchandise sometimes produces a profit and there are occasional AFF fundraising concerts, the remainder of the operating costs is funded through additional donations. The AFF board aims to have enough of a bankroll to support two successive festivals.
The festival's largest cost is the rental of its venue, Centennial Hall. The City and Borough of Juneau, which owns Centennial Hall, does not cut the AFF any breaks.
"We pay for every light, stage section, chair, piano, all of that stuff," said McLaughlin. "Everything is itemized and paid for."
The second biggest expense is the guest artist, for whom there is a set financial allotment. Guest artists have been an integral part of the AFF since the event's third year. This year's guest artist, The Tenessee Mafia Jug Band, is scheduled to take the main stage Thursday and Sunday nights.
Many of the festival's board members have a passion for music, not just organizing an event. They frequently travel to other music venues and have their radar out for potential guest artists. The board listens to music samples from guest artists being considered, and makes a selection. This selection process is not open to the public.
"The negotiations for each guest artist are unique," said Sakarias. "It helps that musicians want to come to Alaska."
The mystique of Alaska may mean that artists are willing to perform for a lower cost than they might at a different location. Other considerations the board makes when selecting a guest artist are whether or not they are primarily a performer, or where they live, as their travel is paid for by the AFF budget.
Guest artists receive compensation for travel as well as a fee. Room, board and a stipend are also provided.
The AFF also occupies the Juneau Arts and Culture Center (JACC), adjacent to Centennial Hall, during the week of the festival. The JACC is the venue for dance bands and dancers. A guest caller, that is, someone who calls dance steps during music performed by local artists, is also paid.
"There's a number of people that could care less about what happens on the main stage, they just want to dance," said McLaughlin.
Other costs include postage for the quarterly AFF newsletter sent to members, a storage unit for sound and other various equipment, web design assistance and a fee for the design artist.
Paradis is responsible for ordering merchandise. Some items sell well, like t-shirts and hand-thrown mugs by local ceramicist Tom Meyers. Some items, like last year's trucker-style hats, were more of a gamble. This year, Paradis is adding hoodless sweatshirts and fleece vests to the merchandise selection, which also includes canvas tote bags, posters, postcards, stickers, luggage tags and hats. One paid merchandise staff member oversees sales during the festival and also rounds up additional merchandise sale volunteers.
Paradis is also responsible for finding an artist to design the art to be printed on posters and merchandise. The artist is compensated for his or her contribution. Kathy Hocker is the artist behind this year's wildflower design.
The list of expenses continues. Three paid sound engineers work the main stage at Centennial Hall, and one works at the JACC. The sound engineer for the dance venue is former Juneau resident and longtime musician Albert McDonnell, whose travel expenses from Portland, Ore., are included in festival costs. The chief sound engineer for Centennial Hall is Lucy Peck, who also organizes the sound for the Anchorage Folk Festival. Peck flies down from Anchorage, along with her sound assistant, Rick Miller.
In order to decrease costs, volunteers like McLaughlin and Sakarias often host the guest artists, callers and visiting sound technicians at their homes.
PERFORMER SELECTION PROCESS
Anyone can submit an application to play at the AFF.
"Ultimately the AFF is a performer's festival," said Sakarias. "Their mission is to give amateur performers a chance to get on stage in front of an audience and perform."
Applications for this year's AFF, the first year performers could apply online, were due March 2. Applicants can choose to be considered for a 15-minute slot at Centennial Hall, a 50-minute slot for dance bands performing at the JACC or a 90-minute workshop slot.
The selection process is closed to the public. All applications received by the deadline are considered equal. No weight is given to well-known artists, or those who have performed in previous festivals. The selection process attempts to fill the time slots with the biggest variety within the folk music genre - a solid mixture of solo, group, young, old and family performers.
According to Sakarias, who still attends board meetings, "The hardest meeting is to decide on the schedule and determine who gets on standby."
There are always more applicants than there is space, and the AFF website provides advice on ways to maximize the potential an artist has to be written into the schedule.
One key advantage is to be flexible. Many people apply from out of town, and can only visit over the weekend. A local band has a much better chance of receiving a concrete slot if it is willing to perform during a weeknight.
"We try our best not to put out-of-towners on the standby list," said Sakarias. "It sounds cruel to put mostly locals on standby, but chances are, they'll get in. It's easier to say to someone who's local, 'Hey we got a cancellation, can you play?'"
Another way to maximize the potential to obtain a slot is to volunteer to play before or after the guest artist. Many people arrive at Centennial Hall just to hear the guest artist, so attendance may be low before and afterwards. A performer that can mentally handle a max exodus while he or she performs is a benefit to the performer in the selection process.
Double dipping is discouraged. The order of performers also has to take into account the capabilities of the stage crew, the volunteers who help set up the stage. Acts with a larger amount of performers, or groups of children, are generally staged earlier, as they require more time to setup.
Everyone who does not get an official slot is put on a standby list. On average, the standby list contains about 10 percent of the applicants, which is generally 20 to 30 performers. Board members who submit an application will often voluntarily go on the standby list.
McLaughlin applies for a slot each year.
"We break up applications amongst board members, and if I see my application then I give it to someone else to decide," said McLaughlin.
When a performer cancels, or does not show up, an attempt is made to fill their spot with a performer on the standby list that is similar to the one who canceled.
"Some performers might want a more concrete selection process, but it's an organic process," said Sakarias.
The Songwriters Showcase is another option for solo artists. Started by Kit Greentree, the showcase is hosted at the Silverbow Bakery on the weekend during the festival.
ANNUAL MEMBER MEETING
The AFF bylaws require an annual meeting open to all members during the festival. According to Sakarias, around 30-50 members typically attend the meeting, which generally occurs on Friday afternoon. Here, members have a chance to bring up any comments or suggestions, though the first item of business is to vote for board members to fill the two or three opening seats.
This April, two seats will be available. Paradis holds one of the two opening seats and she does not intend to serve another three-year term. The other incumbent, Sergei Morosan, current vice president, will be on the ballot for one of the two openings.
The ballot is open to any interested AFF member. Interested candidates introduce themselves at the meeting, and explain why they want to serve and contribute to the organization.
"Generally there are not a lot of people clamoring for attention," said Paradis. "Someone can walk into the meeting and can get their name on the ballot. Normally there's no contest."
Paradis also explained that it is beneficial to have a mixture of new blood and seasoned board members, like McLaughlin, who has served on the AFF board for 26 years.
"If we had brand new people all the time, we'd just be scratching our heads" said Paradis.
Besides having a voice in who will be serving on the board, the annual meeting has another benefit for members, said McLaughlin: "There's pizza."
POST PARTUM MEETING
About a week after the festival ends, the first meeting including new board members, deemed the post partum meeting, is held.
Officer positions are elected. The treasurer reports on financial matters, most importantly: Did the AFF make or lose money? Board members reflect on the festival and suggest ways to make it better for the next year.
But, according to McLaughlin, "After 38 years there aren't too many things to fix. There are always little bumps along the way, but mostly we can iron those out. The biggest problem is that we're all getting older."
Ultimately, it is up to the public to make the AFF sustainable. The board can help by making wise choices, but they are limited without public support.
"All these expenses have to be paid for," said McLaughlin. "Thousands of people come through the doors. If everyone who came would just support it, we wouldn't have the risk of financial problems." said McLaughlin.
The 37th AFF in 2011 lost money. Obviously, this can't become a trend.
"What happens on the main stage and the dance hall is secondary for many people," McLaughlin said. "They just want to see old friends and play music. We organize it so that they can have an excuse to do that."
The bottom line, said McLaughlin, is to support the festival by showing up.
"If you can't pay the membership, pay it in sweat."
Amanda Compton is staff writer at the Capital City Weekly. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.