Huge Names, Special Awards & No Borders: Americanafest UK Goes All-Digital

Frank Turner at the opening event in 2020.
James Mcauley
– Frank Turner at the opening event in 2020.
The AmericanaClash, which kicked off Americanafest 2020, raised money for the local homeless charity.

Americanafest UK is just over two weeks away, Jan 26-28. For the first time it’ll be an all-digital event, which includes the UK Americana Awards 2021 ceremony. 
Aside from planning out this unique edition, the UK Americana Music Association has been busy during the COVID crisis, hosting online seminars for its members via Zoom on various topics, including online songwriting, how to access funding, optimizing YouTube channels and other tools for survival in times of hardly any live income.
Stevie Smith, CEO of the UK AMA, found time during these busy final days of festival preparations to talk about the state of Americana in the UK, as well as challenges and opportunities of taking the annual festival and award show online.

Stevie Smith, CEO of the AMA-UK.
James Mcauley
– Stevie Smith, CEO of the AMA-UK.
Kicking things off at the Americanafest 2020.

Pollstar: Are there any artists that stand out in terms of maintaining a live connection with their audience during these past months?

Stevie Smith: One of the most successful ones must have been Frank Turner. He was on a massive tour in March, which he had to cancel half-way through. He went straight to doing a live gig from his living room to raise money for his touring family, because all of the crew were the ones who were really going to suffer.
He then went on to work with the Music Venue Trust to do livestreaming shows to save venues. I think he single-handedly saved three venues from closing. Having such a huge fanbase, he could mobilize it really quickly.
The work of the Music Venue Trust really stood out during this crisis.
It’s been amazing, and that’s why they’re receiving the Grassroots Award from us this year, which is really funny, because Mark Davyd actually presented the Grassroots Award at our awards in 2020. Now, he’s receiving it.
There was no question when the board met to decide, who would get our special awards. It was a unanimous decision, nobody had to think about that one.
When we last spoke in 2018 about the rise of Americana in the UK, there was growth everywhere. Was it the same in 2019 up until everything came to a halt in 2020?
Definitely. We were seeing just as many if not more American and Canadian artists touring here. When we spoke was the year that both Black Deer Festival and The Long Road Festival launched. In 2019 they were going into their second year, and both experienced huge growth, I think Black Deer doubled in size in its second year.
Luckily, we managed to have Americanafest in 2020, because it was in January. It was better attended [than in 2019], and in terms of audience age we were seeing a tilt towards a younger audience. And something that really pleases me was a much more gender-balanced audience. We have put a huge focus on gender balance and making sure that people we present on stage at our events have a 50/50 gender balance. 
When did you decide that Americanafest UK 2021 would be a digital-only event?
We first started talking about it April. At our first meeting we talked about not doing anything, which developed into, ‘we’ve got to do something.’
The normal event is a three-day event with a day-time conference, showcases and then the awards. We had a long talk about it being a hybrid event, perhaps in some socially distanced venues with streaming as part of it. We probably discussed six different possibilities over the months. 
We started working on it in early September. Even then we had the possibility of a couple of hybrid events taking place in some of our Hackney venues, like Paper Dress Vintage or Oslo, that invested in good broadband and cameras and stuff so they could do hybrid gigs. Only in November, when we went into Lockdown again, did we decide that January was highly likely to be where we are now, and thank goodness we canceled all those hybrid gigs and went fully online. But it wasn’t a quick decision.
The other decision we had to make was, do we ask people to come on screen for a whole day of conferencing and then showcasing at night? We decided to do one or the other.
In America, at Americanafest in September, they chose conferencing to be the focus, and it was a really fantastic event, because it felt very sociable, even though it was online.
We decided that our strength here in the UK was the work we do with grassroots artists, supporting them and giving them a platform. We also felt that a lot of those grassroots artists suffered a lot in lockdown, because they didn’t already have the momentum the big artists had. They weren’t getting seen. So, we decided that showcasing would be our focus.
And the awards, because we wanted to make sure, those artists, who were brave enough to release, didn’t miss their opportunity to win awards for their albums. 
So, no conferencing?
As we’d had a series of successful seminars in Spring, we knew that it was a concept that worked well. So, we’re moving that again to this spring. During February and March, we are going to do a weekly series of seminars again, our conferencing is just getting spread out. We just want to make sure people don’t get screen fatigue.

UK Americana Awards 2020.
James Mcauley
– UK Americana Awards 2020.
All winners on stage.

What were the greatest challenges in translating all the aspects of the physical event for online?

We asked ourselves, how is this going to be beneficial for the artists, but also engaging for the audiences. One of the great things about Americanafest in London is that it’s a social event, so we really had to think hard about how we could bring that element back. Having the live chat was really important.
When we started to talk to artists about taking part, we made sure that it wasn’t just a livestream from their living room, which is something a lot of them had been doing all year anyway. Luckily, we started talking to people quite early on about that, so that it gave them the chance to do something. We partnered up with a studio in London, which was filming stuff for people. Everything was pre-recorded, to make sure it’s good quality. Now, that we’re in lockdown, I’m so happy that we did, because everyone got the opportunity in November and December to go into the studio or into a venue to film their sets.
We’ve got a huge variety of fantastic things coming in from people, and I have to say, the quality’s amazing.
How about the awards?
Again, we miss out on the massive social element of it: there’s no red carpet, there’s no afterparty, there’s no mingling. The awards are very much an industry socializing moment that usually kicks the year off in January. We obviously can’t replicate that, apart from having the live chat and try and invite as many people along as possible.

Americanafest UK 2021.
– Americanafest UK 2021.
The lineup for the all-digital edition.

How about the benefits of going online?

There are a lot. One of them is an eco-thing. We signed up to Music Declares Emergency, we think hard, whenever we do our festival, about the eco-impact. We’re not asking anyone to get on an airplane or travel, there’s no plastic cups getting thrown all over the city, that’s all great stuff.
It also meant that we could suddenly reach people, who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to take part, because they would normally have been on tour or otherwise unavailable. Whereas now, people are at home, they can pre-record it in advance. We suddenly had people contacting us, wanting to take part. 
The level of artists involved is higher than usual, we’ve got Jason Isbell, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, huge names that would normally be way too busy to come to London for this event, so that’s fantastic.
And we’ve got lots of international showcase partners that have put together an hour-long showcase with a huge number of artists doing a couple of songs each, which is something they wouldn’t do if they had to travel all the way to London. So, where we might have Canada do a showcase with four artists, we’ve now got ten artists from Canada.
We’ve been trying to connect with Australia for quite some time, there’s amazing Americana artists in Australia that haven’t managed to get over to the UK. We’ve been working out how to make it worth their while coming all the way here, and in a way, this is a perfect start to that relationship. They’re going to do an hour-long showcase with eight amazing Americana artists. We’ll build on that in 2022.
I’m feeling hugely positive about it, because it feels like we’ve been able to make these connections that we couldn’t have done otherwise. I’m excited about that.
Are any other countries represented?
We’ve got some artists from Holland and Norway, which is interesting, cause we had artists from those countries last year as well. There’s a lot of Norwegian Americana music. We’ve also got someone from Spain, the Prince Edward Islands, we’ve got North Carolina doing a showcase, and Nashville, of course.
How many artists in total?
Over 78.
Did you use a particular platform to implement all of the online features?
We’ve built our own festival website, which is going to launch soon: It’s almost done.
Three days, two stages, we got chat, we’re going to do some Zoom social elements at the end of each night, and there’s a page where all of the artists can put links to all of their stuff. 
Will you keep some digital elements going forward, even if things return back to normal?
Who knows where we’ll be in 2022? The fact that we already spoke to some of the venues we normally use in Hackney, who have already set themselves for hybrid, we can do that [in addition to the physical event].
For conferencing, the venue that we’ve currently landed in, is the local cinema in Hackney Central, which lends itself perfectly for streaming. I can’t see why we wouldn’t do digital, because we’re now reaching cross-borders. And, again, not expecting everyone to travel is a good thing.
Is Americanafest UK 2021 a ticketed event?
Yes, it’s all behind a paywall. It’s a cheap ticket, 25 pounds for three nights, which also gets the awards. It’s basically the same price you would pay for either one or the other in normal times.
Is there anything you would like to add about the festival and/or the awards in particular?
Something that we started last year. One of the things we try to do with our festival is connect with the local community of Hackney. Last year, we did a songwriting workshop with some of our members and some elderly residents from Hackney. It was absolutely amazing, there’s a film of it on our YouTube channel, it’s beautiful.

During lockdown, we were contacted by Hackney Council to do the same thing, but digitally, with Windrush citizens during the Windrush Festival in June. Again, that was a wonderful thing.
One of the elements of Americanafest this year is a workshop with NHS workers. We’ve connected six of our member songwriters with six NHS workers, GPs, nurses, people working in A&E. Together they’re writing songs about their lives this year. A lot of them have been separated from their families, because they’re having to shield from them. That’s a beautiful element of what’s happening at our festival.
The other one is a tribute show for John Prine, who is winning the Legacy Songwriter Award. He passed away from COVID early on in the year, and we’ve got some great artists singing his songs during a tribute show before the awards.
Did last year change the work of the AMA UK at all?
Normally we would do a stage at nine different festivals throughout the year, which gives our members opportunities to play festivals. It’s one of the ways of creating opportunities for grassroots artists. That obviously fell away. We did a couple of connections with people and did some livestreaming shows instead. And one of the great things that was, again, breaking down borders, happened with the Brooklyn Americana Festival that’s been trying to connect with us for ages.
It’s incredible difficult for UK artists to play in America. It’s one thing when we go to Americanafest, because it’s an industry conference and showcase festival and we can take them there on different visas. But to go to just a normal festival, they would need a proper visa, and most of our artists can’t afford that, it’s not worth it for one festival.
The organizers from Brooklyn realized this was an opportunity, and we did the opening stage there with eight of our artists. [Promoter Jan Bell] already contacted me to say, regardless of what happens, we want to try and get the UK element again in the same way.
All in the spirit of breaking down borders.
It feels that way. Interestingly, I remember being at one of our board meetings in the beginning [of this crisis], and saying, we’re probably going to lose a lot of members, because one of the things that was absolutely apparent straight away was that artists are suffering financially. Lots of them couldn’t claim furlough or anything like that. I said they’d be cancelling their membership this year, because they can’t afford it. Oddly, we’ve actually had a growth in membership. I think that’s because of being part of a supportive network right now is something that everyone needs.