BOSTON — `HOW do you make a million dollars in folk music? You start out with 2 million.'' Decades ago, this joke got a good laugh in the folk community.
But that was then. This is now: Strolling through a bustling exhibit hall of a folk-music conference, hungry agents hunt for acoustic music that's ``cool,'' ``innovative,'' and ``alternative.'' Budding record labels offer stacks of glossy catalogs, and a slew of soft-spoken artists display tables covered with business cards, ``best singer-songwriter of the year'' reviews, and their latest compact discs.
Inside this bazaar, folkniks are trying to recapture the spirit of an era. What they have inherited, they say, is a culture that is laid-back yet fractured and staunchly noncommercial. What they hope to cultivate is a more unified and enterprising community.
Last week, over 1,200 fans made a pilgrimage to the Folk Music Alliance conference in Boston for one reason: to build marketing skills. Topics from promotion to packaging rippled through crash-course workshops and seminars.
At night, musicians and agents gathered to strike deals in places that ranged from ultracompetitive ``songwriter showcases'' in swank theater halls to casual gigs in coffeehouses, and tiny lamp-lit concerts in hotel suites.
The thrust of this four-day event was networking; folkies were encouraged to reach out, join hands, and swap ideas. But a closer step into this culture reveals a community fragmented by the inherent form of its music. As one fan put it: Folk is traditional music ``with everything else thrown in.''
Some say that what keeps folk from the masses is the culture's penchant for coziness and isolation. Jim Campbell, who has traveled to more than 300 festivals, says, ``The community is stuck in coffeehouse comfort zones.'' He adds that the members' friendliness and family orientation ``keeps them in familiar terrain, and separates them from the commercial world.''
Most insiders here, however, say their music is coming of age. Pointing to recent shifts in popular culture, they see strains of folk music entering the mainstream. In the crowded foyer of the exhibit hall, a lean, long-haired musician posts a lilac-colored flyer announcing his Friday night concert - in suite 1602.
Jeffrey Folmer calls himself, with a wink, a ``neomodern folk musician.'' At 35, he's been plugging away for a decade and has no plans to quit. Passing along his business card, his face suddenly tightens and his voice drops to a murmur. ``I'm trying to make a living at it now because there's been a renewed interest.''
Ken Irwin, founder of Rounder Records in Cambridge, Mass., the biggest independent label for folk, sees proof of this renewed interest in his own backyard. Warner Bros. Records just signed one of his singer-songwriters, Iris Dement; before her breakthrough, there were others like Nancy Griffith and Bill Morrissey.
Not since the 1960s have major labels been picking up folk artists, Mr. Irwin says. The downturn came in the '70s, with the rise of rock and pop, he says. Folk festivals and contracts were cut because ``folk was not considered to be commercial enough,'' and the best folk singers like James Taylor, were repackaged into pop stars, he says.
Irwin points to the longstanding anti-folk climate in the mainstream recording industry as the cause of the genre's image problem. Without marketing exposure, the public's notion of folk music is stuck in the '60s. As one musician puts it: ``Most people still think folk is `Kumbaya' and `Blowing in the Wind.' ''
But many people here are hopeful about the future. Amid America's current interest in multiculturalism, a fresh crop of folk fans may be on the horizon.
Says banjo player Barbara Karol Reid: ``Because the world has gotten so fragmented, people are starting to look back to their roots.''