Since 2013, Austin-based nonprofit Black Fret has given out more than $2 million to local independent musicians to help support the city’s live music scene. The organization has managed to fund over 120 artists through corporate sponsorship, family foundation funds and some government assistance, but the majority of its funding comes from its membership program.
Each year, Black Fret members subscribe to the program for $1,500, which gets them intimate live shows in unique settings once a month and the chance to vote on the musicians who will receive grants from the organization.
“We started Black Fret to try to make sure that this music in our towns, which we believe is true art, is supported just like the opera, the theater, the symphony, the ballet and other true art forms that have been supported for generations,” says Black Fret co-founder Matt Ott, who handed out the first grants in 2014 alongside fellow founder Colin Kendrick.
Black Fret beneficiaries are selected by subscribers and board members (who also provide music business mentoring throughout the year for artists) and can receive a minor or major grant in the amount of $7,000 or $20,000, respectively. In order to receive the funds, artists have to “unlock” portions of the grant by producing new material, playing benefit shows, booking shows outside of the local market and more.
According to Ott, the “unlocking” method is to give Black Fret metrics on what and how each recipient is doing and is a way to ensure that bands that break up aren’t just taking the money even though they are no longer engaged with the music community.
This year, however, grants were handed out to artists in one lump sum due to the devastating impact of the coronavirus on musicians and touring. The same was done in Seattle, where Ben London launched the first Black Fret offshoot earlier this year.
London spent about a year doing due diligence and fundraising to bring the Black Fret program to Seattle for its launch in late February, only to have to shut down the live events portion shortly after. Black Fret Seattle managed to designate $50,000 in grant money for local musicians before the pandemic hit and are in the process of giving away 10 awards of $5,000 each now.
“Here in Seattle, our city’s kind of gentrifying in such a furious rate that I was really concerned about how musicians were going to be able to continue to work in this city and the prospect of Seattle becoming a music desert or that the only music that was happening in town was music was being created in other cities,” London tells Billboard. “There isn’t really a way of people love music in a city outside of just buying a ticket or buying a record, to support the local music community. Black Fret’s trying to solve that problem in some ways.”
Despite the unpredictable setback in year one, London and Ott see a great future for Black Fret in Seattle and possibly other major music cities. According to Ott, the year-over-year retention for Black Fret subscribers is over 75%, and musicians will continue to need additional support as they face a lack of revenue from the recorded music industry, gentrifying neighborhoods and the loss of a year or so of touring income due to the pandemic.
“Any of the great music cities, there’s probably a combination of incredibly great musicians, music business infrastructure, and companies and individuals that are interested in supporting that because of the positive impact it brings to the community,” says London.
“It’s my hope that within the next three years we’re in three to five more cities and that we really begin to realize the vision that we started this with, which is a national network of local communities all stepping up to support their local music,” adds Ott. “Every chapter looks, feels, walks, talks, tastes like their city.”
In addition to providing grants directly to local musicians, Black Fret also benefits other participants in the music industry. When throwing their various events throughout the year, Black Fret hires local venues, stage companies, music rental companies, production companies and more. “There’s probably another $750,000 we’ve injected into the Austin community on top of the $2 million we’ve given directly to artists,” says Ott.
The Austin branch is already bringing back live shows with a socially-distanced series of concerts kicking off this week. Austin City Limits Live will host The Lounge Series starting Friday with a reduced capacity of 258 seats (out of a total capacity of 2,750). The floor of the theater is going to be arranged as a lounge with couches, loveseats and hightop tables in “pods” to keep people socially distant, while the HVAC system there changes the air in the room nine times every hour. Staggered entry, health screenings and mask mandates will also be enforced to keep everyone safe.
“It’s an ecosystem. You can’t have one part of it be sick and have a healthy body. So much of the Austin music scene has been like an immunocompromised patient,” says Ott.
London agrees, stating, “If music is something we value, then we have to find new ways to support it, rather than watching it just kind of atrophy before our eyes.”