My first NERFA

The second weekend of November I attended NERFA (North East Regional Folk Alliance) for the first time. NERFA is a music business conference dedicated to folk music. As a newbie, I was surrounded in a hotel by over 600 other folkies, songwriters, DJs, pickers, percussionists, promoters, educators and general fans of folk. 

Kathy and I went to two big Folk Alliance International (FAI) conferences back when we were working with Signature Sounds. In 1996 Kathy and I  drove down and stayed at a friend’s house in the Washington D.C. area and went to different events there. In 1997 we went to the conference in Toronto. My CD, “Love on the Line” had just been released on Signature Sounds. I was in a few showcases so we stayed in the hotel, and we registered for the conference. It was fun but very expensive for us. 


Signing up, planning and preparation

NERFA is an easier conference to handle. It focuses on the Northeast where I live and perform. And it is held in Stamford CT, so I could drive to it.

I described it as a folk festival without bugs. There were jam sessions under the trees at 3 in the morning. But the trees were in the lobby with no campfires. I met more than a few people that just loved music. They didn’t perform. They didn’t operate a coffeehouse. Or a venue. They just used NERFA as a chance to hear a lot of their favorite music all in one weekend.

My plan was to go for “the experience”. There are some big formal and semi-formal showcases in the big ballrooms. The deadline to apply for those had come and gone. And they are out of my league anyway. I wasn’t worried about getting booked anywhere. So, I was just going to bring my guitar along for song circles or jams.

The hotel. To get the full experience I decided I wanted to stay at the hotel. The entire Crowne Plaza in Stamford CT was taken over by folkies. I was able to share a room with my friend Tom Smith, a songwriter I had met on my ongoing open mic therapy tour. We both wanted to save money. Our big fear was that our room would only have one king bed in it. But there were two. I had my air bed in my car just in case.

Planning and Learning. Then as the credit card charges started mounting (for the conference, the hotel, and the meals) I decided I should perform if I could. I tried to do my homework. I wanted to make the most of my investment. This article for first-timers was a big help.

CD giveaways. I decided rather than give away my CD “Love on the Line” that is two decades old, I would burn a sampler with a variety of tunes to give away. I burned a few and printed out a little folder to put them in. But when it came to marking the actual disc with markers it looked like crap. I looked into rubber stamps but stamp ink doesn’t dry fast enough.

Since my printer was starting to act up I decided to buy a new one that would also print on discs. Reading online it seemed like printing them one at a time would take forever. But the printing was fine. The biggest bottleneck was burning the discs. I don’t know if it matters how many tracks you have on it. But I wanted to bring about 50 copies to NERFA. Once I got going it went pretty quickly. I used a glue stick to attach the envelope to the folder along with other info. I avoided covering the disk surface with color or a photo. That would eat up my ink and I didn’t want it to look too professional. Heck, it’s folk!

The sampler I gave out had a printed disc, a business card and a list of my showcases.

Finding Showcases. I applied by email to as many “guerilla” showcases as I could. (A guerilla showcase is a brief set of songs generally in one of the hotel rooms without any amplification.) There were a few people offering showcases to first-timers like myself, but most of the other showcases were not looking for anyone they didn’t already know. I was able to snag one of the newcomer 15-minute slots offered by Joe Virga, a singer-songwriter from Florida. His showcases were called “Cuppa Joe.” Then I was accepted by a group called “Access Film Music”. When I went to pick my time slots online it turned out there was a fee of $20 or so per showcase. It turns out these shared-cost showcases are pretty common. The hotel charges more for showcase rooms and there are other costs involved in food or coffee or beer. The Access Film gigs were 30 minutes shared with two other acts performing in the round. 

Planning. I had to figure out when my other events and workshops were going on so I wouldn’t have conflicts. I had no clue about how far different events were from each other. I wanted to give myself time to get from one end of the hotel to the other without killing myself. I set-up my Google Calendar on my Macbook and on my phone. I used different colors to show A) when I needed to be in an area and B) when I actually had to perform. Then I looked at the other performers already signed up for time slots. Some were names I was familiar with. Some were folks I had admired (I had bought their music). And I Googled a few of those I didn’t know. They were all incredible musicians! I added some scheduled showcases that I wanted to see.

Google calendar for the weekend. I made this screenshot before they changed the design.

Other showcases. At that point, two other showcases were finalized. John Hamilton who runs a house concert series in Beekman, NY offered me a slot in his Singer-Songwriter Heaven showcase. Another friend, Hugh O’Doherty, and his wife Eileen gave me a slot in their Submerging Artist showcase – a title that fit me to a “T”. There were a few others that came through later but I had to turn them down. So, now I had five showcases.

Both John Hamilton and Hugh O’Doherty mentored me a bit by phone before the conference. I met John at the Town Crier open mic in Beacon NY about a year and a half ago. I met Hugh at the TCAN open mic in Natick, MA. When Mark Stepakoff, the host announced my name, a voice from the audience asked, “Are you the Acoustic Underground Peter Lehndorff?” I was surprised. I said, “I thought my obscurity was still intact.” Both John and Hugh told me about the NERFA Talk group on Facebook where I could get a sense of what was going to happen, introduce myself and ask questions. Even now the Facebook group is still fairly active.

Video shoot. As a result of introducing myself on NERFA Talk, I was offered the opportunity to have a professional video shoot at the festival. J.B. Nuttle operates World One Video in Maryland. At NERFA he records around 30 artists. The idea is based on recording one original song with one camera in one take. Sometimes with one microphone. I was more nervous about the video than performing in front of other singers.

Workshops etc. Then I looked through the schedule for other events to put on my Google calendar. I heard that the “Orientation for Newcomers” workshop was helpful. I wanted to attend “Vance Gilbert’s Collision Course” (how to improve my stage performance); “Organizing My Creative Brain”; “First Impressions: Video” (what venues look for in my videos); and “First Impressions: Social Media” (what venues look for in websites and social media pages). But there were other workshops that I was hoping I could be in two or three places at once, or that they would be available on YouTube later. I would have liked: “Writing and Delivering the Funny Song”; “Writer’s block for Songwriters”; “Building your presence on Spotify”; “Financial Planning for Musicians”; “Producing a CD”. And there were others as well.

Mentoring. You could also sign up for mentoring sessions from a number of people with a lot of experience. I had intended to try to get someone to tell me how to set up a benefit. One of my goals is to start having benefit concerts or even a festival for Huntington’s Disease in the coming year. I did pick the brains of a few people as we were chatting in the dining room or in the hallway. It is one thing I wish I had taken advantage of.


Thursday, Day One

Thursday was the first day of the conference. Some people skip that first day and night to save money. I left Marty off at the dog sitter in the morning and headed for Stamford.

Registration. I thought I had a lot of stuff to bring in to the hotel between my guitars and my camera and video stuff. Others were lugging in their own chairs for showcases, piano keyboards, and upright basses. Once I registered at the conference desk I went to check into the hotel. Everything really went pretty smoothly in my case at least. I bumped into a fair number of people still involved in music from my earlier career. I had to jog a few memories before some remembered me. I can’t blame them. We are older. Luckily we had convention name tags around our necks in case I forgot who I was.

Wandering. Once I was settled in I started wandering around. And I mean wandering. Our room felt like it was a mile from the elevator. Tom and I even tried to go in opposite directions to see which direction was shorter to the elevator. We arrived at the same time. Eventually, we figured out that the stairways were the way to go – if we went up the right stairwell. By the time I checked out on Sunday, I had it figured out. Next year I will buy new shoes and maybe check into shoe inserts.

The fitness app on my phone tracked me walking
two or three miles each day
without breathing any fresh air.

Vance Gilbert’s performance skills workshop started at 3:00 pm downstairs. My video shoot was scheduled for 4:30 pm on the second floor. I thought that with luck I could be in the workshop and get to the video in time.


Vance Gilbert’s Collision Course (first attempt)

Vance Gilbert is a wonderful entertainer. True he is linked to the “F” word – Folk. But his performances can be a mixture of storytelling, songwriting, comedy, jazz standards and he has an amazing voice. I’m sure I left out something. In addition to performing, he coaches performers about their stage presence, song arrangements and other aspects of putting on a good show. He was giving this workshop twice during NERFA. The first time I saw him perform was at an open mic at the Iron Horse in Northampton almost 25 years ago. Performers like Vance would drive from Boston and beyond hoping to get noticed by the Iron Horse. It was a lottery to perform so sometimes it was just a long car ride.

Vance recognized me from our brief meeting in Colorado, “Pete, right?” He asked if I had my guitar and said I’d be first. He picked out a few others that wanted to be coached. A few performers came without their instruments to see what it was about. They were given a good-natured ribbing. Maybe ‘performance anxiety.’ 

He went through some basics about performing and talked about going to an open mic. I didn’t take notes but this is what I remember:
Be ready. Be tuned up. Have your guitar strapped on and over your shoulder.

Remember that as soon as the host announces your name, you are ON. The audience will be turning their attention to you.

Acknowledge the audience as you make the turn toward the stage. Don’t walk up there hunched over afraid to look at the audience. It will look like you don’t care or don’t like them. Smile.

Plugging in. He showed us how to plug our guitars in quickly without losing eye contact with the audience. He thinks it is better to stand and perform but he talked about sitting too. He discussed how close to get to the typical Shure SM-58 microphone that is at open mics (about the width of your hand away). He explained the shape of the area that the microphone hears.

Hold it.  One of the most instructive parts of the demonstration was how I could hold my guitar. Most of us hang it across our chest like a sandwich board. He suggested hanging it more to the side. I have described it as holding it like a GI might hold a machine gun in a World War II movie. The reason being that if you need to look at your guitar neck for a chord change, you won’t need to turn your head sideways away from the microphone.

Adjusting. He discussed how to adjust the mic stand by loosening it before moving it.

Remember Lefty-Loosey. Righty-Tighty.
(Or something like that.)

Don’t wrestle with the mic stand. He talked about moving around a little. Tapping your foot to the beat. And stepping out away from the microphone to do an instrumental part (if your guitar has a pickup). Then moving back in to sing. He said some female singers sway like a hula dancer. He thought that was too much.

Speaking and Style. He mentioned speaking some of your lyrics to give them emphasis. He discussed style and appearance, too. Although he wears big red glasses on stage he says if you can perform without glasses. Eye contact with the audience is key. You don’t want glare or glass to get between your eyes and the audience. He did say if you have cool glasses, or glasses that have some style, that’s different.

Vance looked across the audience at me and said,
“Pete, your glasses are marginal.”

A female performer had retro cats-eye glasses that he liked. He doesn’t like men to wear ball caps because they are too casual. But he did like one guy’s fedora.

My turn. Not. I was starting to get nervous about the video shoot. It was past 4 o’clock when Vance called on me. I told him I had to go to my shoot. I couldn’t do it now. The workshop was getting repeated the next day, so I would try again. But I had already learned a lot.


The Video Shoot

At the conference, J.B. Nuttle set up a dark seamless background in a second-floor conference room. There would be no audience. Just the musician and J.B. He used soft-boxes and other lights for lighting. He had two microphones set up: a stereo MXL large condenser on an overhead boom and a smaller instrument mic on my guitar. He records the audio on a separate 4 channel audio recorder and syncs it to the footage later. The actual footage is shot by a full frame Nikon DSLR. I was there early so I asked if I could watch the artist coming in before me, Kirsten Maxwell. I felt really fortunate to watch and learn from her session. Beautiful song, delivery, and voice. She felt satisfied with her first take and didn’t want to do another. Here is her session. 


I urge you to visit  J.B.’s YouTube channel to watch others if you love music. The NERFA videos are some of his most recent postings so you can see the same musicians I heard at the conference.

Then it was my turn. The performance workshop and watching Kirsten perform relaxed me. I might have been too relaxed. J.B. got me into position so that the overhead microphone wasn’t blocking my head. The lights were adjusted. And I did a sound check. I started singing “Marriage of Convenience.” J.B. was laughing (a stifled silent laugh). And I felt good about the performance. (That usually means I didn’t have a brain fart about the lyrics.)

There were some things from Vance’s class that I couldn’t do. Because I was using the instrument microphone, I really couldn’t move around much with my guitar. I did take off my glasses to perform. But when J.B. wanted to show me what it looked like on the monitor, I put them back on. And forgot to take them off. I tried to hold my guitar like a guitar slinger, but I still had to look down at my guitar neck.

Still frames from the video out soon.

If I had to do it over.  I probably wouldn’t use a guitar pick. I rarely use a pick on that song. The sensitive instrument microphone heard the slapping on the strings. On the other hand, I think it adds a touch of Latin rhythm to it. All videos are a slice in time. I have watched a rough mix of the video and the final edit should be up in a week or so. J.B. shot 30 artists that weekend and the mixing and editing take time.


Orientation for newbies workshop

Newbies. After the video, I attended a workshop for NERFA first-timers. It was really an excellent overview of ways to get the most out of the weekend. When to eat. When to sleep or nap. Who to talk to. When to follow-up. How to network with more people. When to avoid the elevators and use the stairs. There was a discussion about getting copies of our CDs to all the Folk DJs at the conference. It turned out they all had “mailboxes” – cardboard boxes with their names on them in the exhibit hall.

They said don’t be afraid to sit with someone you don’t know at meals. It is a great way to network. I asked a question about picking a set-list for showcases. Should I do completely different songs at each showcase? The answer was “It depends.” If you see the same people in the audience you might want to change. One of the panelists, Courtney Rodland of Club Passim said that if a booking person comes to hear you and keeps hearing the same song they might question whether you have enough good material.


Thursday Dinner. Mingling at meals seemed to happen automatically for me. I didn’t know that many people. I sat where I could find room. I can’t remember who I sat with at which meal. But at each meal, I sat with different people and made a number of friends along the way.

I met some friends in person for the first time.
We were virtual friends on Facebook
but had never met.


The DJ Showcase

After Thursday dinner the “Suzi Wollenburg DJ Showcase” was held in the same ballroom. It is where many folk radio DJs share some of the performers that they are excited about. I was really unfamiliar with most of the artists presented but the diversity of music was amazing. Each DJ introduced one of the acts.

Austin and Elliot (Lisa Austin and Chris Elliot) in the DJ Showcase
Emily Mure in the DJ Showcase

Guerillas. Thursday night the private showcases began in hotel rooms after the DJ showcase. Since I wasn’t performing on Thursday night I could just enjoy all the music. I think I went to sleep around 1:30 am.

Freebo in one of the guerilla showcases.

(Continued NERFA part 2)

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