The financial struggles of Austin’s live musicians are no secret. As the city continues to climb the ladder of America’s most attractive destinations, live musicians, a key component to Austin’s overall appeal, are unfortunately getting left behind. Sky-rocketing rents, noise ordinances and brand new, state of the art performance venues that attract large national acts are just a handful of obstacles local musicians must maneuver to earn a living in “The Live Music Capital.” Thankfully, Austin-based non-profit, Black Fret, has set out to alleviate some of those financial hardships by creating a symphony-style patronage system dedicated to supporting talented local musicians.
Founded in 2013, Black Fret is built upon the simple principle that local music, like the symphony and opera, is art and it deserves community support. Simply put, music has value and it should be recognized monetarily.
“Black Fret is a social and connected community of music fans dedicated to good music, good times and the sustainable success of Austin’s local musicians.” The organization hosts private events at intimate locations where its members can see their favorite artists perform and award those artists with financial grants at the end of the year during their annual Black Ball Gala.
Black Fret cofounders, Colin Kendrick and Matt Ott first met in 1984 during Austin’s vibrant punk era. The two are not musicians themselves, but have grown up with Austin music being a huge part of our lives.
Black Fret Cofounders Colin Kendrick and Matt Ott at the 2015 Black Ball Gala
The seeds of Black Fret were planted in 2000 when Kendrick, working on an MBA at the University of Texas, approached Ott with an idea. That idea developed into the Austin Music Foundation (AMF) and a business education program designed to support musicians with grant funding through a tech-incubator format.
However, there were some problems with AMF’s original grant model. Most notably, musicians could nominate themselves. Therefore, in the first year 400 artists were nominated to fill 3 spots. Year two, 600 artists for those 3 spots. After two cycles, AMF killed off its original grant program.
Fast-forward 10 years later…Kendrick and Ott roll off the board at AMF and begin searching for their next great idea. “Colin has always been compelled to help support musicians financially,” states Ott. “The idea for Black Fret was there, we just didn’t know exactly how to articulate it at that time.”
“We were really inspired by Impact Austin, a women’s philanthropy group whose members pay an annual fee and then they all come together to award undirected grants,” claims Ott. “We saw the strength in that fund raising model and saw an opportunity to create a really immersive experience for what would become our Black Fret members.”
In January 2013, Black Fret held its initial kick-off party at the Spider House featuring inaugural major grant winners, Quiet Company and Erin Ivey. Out of the 250 attendees that night, Black Fret failed to sign a single new member. “We weren’t doing a very good job of describing our mission,” admits Ott. “We had to make some tweaks and evolve.” Those adjustments obviously worked as 13 months later Black Fret signed its 100th member enabling the organization to grant $100,000 in 2014.
“We’re very proud of the fact that we’re an open-minded organization…we learn as we go,” states Ott. During their first year, Black Fret nominated 20 artists, however, only awarded 10 grants. “After that first Black Ball Gala, we realized we were wrong. The idea that some nominees should receive a grant while others shouldn’t was incorrect. The caliber of musicians nominated were truly the best in Austin and we realized every nominee should receive a grant.” The organization righted its wrong by banding together to raise additional funds and saw to it that all 20 nominees received a grant.
Matt Ott speaks during the 2015 Black Ball Gala
During that first year, Black Fret awarded minor grants of $2,000 and major grants of $10,000. Last year, $3,000 and $12,000. However, minor grant recipients received an added bonus in 2015 when Shaky Graves gifted his awarded $12,000 back to Black Fret to be distributed evenly amongst the minor grant winners. This year, the grants will be even larger. But, the amount remains a surprise to be revealed at the Black Ball Gala on December 10th at the Paramount Theater.
Since its formation in 2013, Black Fret has awarded $280,000 in grants. With this year’s Black Ball, they hope to push that total over half-million for the three years. The ultimate goal is to “build an endowed institution capable of sustaining more than $1 million dollars a year in grants to Austin musicians. This will allow members to select more than 40 artists each year to receive $25,000 grants on a sustained and ongoing basis.”
On top of the generous grants, nominees also have full access to Black Fret’s 40 person advisory board consisting of an extensive range of music industry professionals including producers and engineers, managing and booking agents, lawyers and business managers to name a few.
Even though nominees have this professional mentorship at their disposal, they are not simply handed a check for their grant money. They must meet specific requirements throughout the year in order to unlock their money. However, these requirements typically encompass day-to-day duties working musicians already perform such as create new music, perform outside of the Austin market, make a music video and perform community service.
As a result, Black Fret nominees have performed upwards of 200 national tour dates, written 92 new songs, completed over a dozen albums and contributed to nearly 50 fundraisers for other non-profits and charities over the past two years.
Black Fret cofounders and 2015 nominees
In order to become a Black Fret nominee, musicians must be loved by one of the four nominating constituents; Black Fret members, the advisory board, prior year grant recipients or be one of the top two best new bands at the Austin Music Awards.
From this year’s 20 nominees, roughly half were nominated by Black Fret members. At a current membership of 350, the organization calculates they can reach their $1 million sustainable goal with a total of 1,333 annual members. However, fans who wish to become patrons of local music through Black Fret will want to join sooner rather than later. The organization will cap membership at the 1,333 mark. “We want our private events to remain intimate and special,” claims Ott. “We don’t want our parties to continue to get bigger and bigger. We want them to become more frequent.”
“Sure, we want to grow as quickly as we can. But, we also want to do it the right way…with respect for the artists, respect for the music, respect for our advisors and respect for our members” claims Ott. With all that Black Fret is doing for local music in Austin, respect is a term synonymous with the organization.
Black Fret will begin voting in November and grant recipients will be announced at the annual Black Ball Gala on December 10th at the Paramount Theater.
The 2016 Black Fret Nominees:
Daniel Eyes & The Vibes
Golden Dawn Arkestra
Leopold and His Fiction
The Name Sayers
The Peterson Brothers
Swimming With Bears
Written by: Doug Leach (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Photos courtesy of Black Fret