Over the weekend, Austin music charity Black Fret threw its annual Black Ball at The Paramount, showcasing the 20 artists nominated for grants this year and announcing the winners of the 10 major grants of $17,000 that were available. It was a landmark year for the organization, as it increased the major grant level by $5,000 over last year and handed out a record sum of $227,000 with the other nominees receiving minor grants of $5,000. The organization also made some major announcements about their structure, specifically that All ATX had donated funds to Black Fret to be used to hire an Executive Director for the first time in the organization’s history.
The Black Ball event itself was interesting, functioning more like the Grammys than a traditional non-profit grant event, with 14 of the nominated acts performing a couple songs for the crowd while Black Fret founders Matt Ott and Colin Kendrick spoke about the organization’s advancements and what’s next, inviting individual Black Fret members on stage to announce major grant winners. Black Fret’s chief goal is doubling their member pool by the end of next year (they currently have 300 members and believe 600 is the most effective number for their needs) and so a lot of the event stressed the need for interested parties to sign up. Membership in the organization costs $1,500, which is obviously steep for even the most successful members of Austin’s music industry but Black Fret has always targeted the tech and entrepreneurial populations of Austin and that remains the core demographic of its member pool.
That aspect of Black Fret’s structure dominated most of the conversations I had that night. After Ovrld writer Kayleigh Hughes’ profile on the organization went live on Pitchfork, a number of musicians and industry figures discussed the background of Black Fret, with some expressing their appreciation for what they felt was the first real glimpse behind the curtain of the charity while others were concerned about the more commercially focused approach of its members. Black Fret’s nominations do tend to skew towards pop and radio-ready acts and the acts who received major grants all reflected that (Nakia, Walker Lukens, Carson McHone, Dan Dyer, Ray Prim, Wendy Colonna, Bee Caves, Peterson Brothers Band, Swimming with Bears and Suzanna Choffel were the winners). But there was more diversity in the minor grants section, including breakout hip hop ensemble Magna Carda, glammy indie supergroup Sweet Spirit and freak folk outfit Namesayers.
I think Namesayers’ Devin James Fry summed it up best when I spoke to him, agreeing that he’d love to see more adventurous artists get recognized but also arguing that when the music community spends most of its time online asking why well off Austinities don’t spend money on live music, we should be more encouraging of an organization that facilitates that, regardless of who they support. Or at the least, examine the organization’s model and see if it can be replicated in scenes and cultures that aren’t as well-represented in who it showcases. Ott even indicated that we might see more Black Fret-like organizations rising, stating that after the Pitchfork piece ran he received a call from some people in San Francisco curious about how they could set up their own version of Black Fret.
Beyond that, Black Fret is also one of the only organizations I’ve encountered in Austin that is forging relationships between the music and tech industries in the city, albeit in indirect ways. A lot of the conversations I’ve seen from those who take issue with Black Fret also seem to feature a lot of anti-tech sentiment and while I agree that Austin needs to be vigilant about tech interests in the city and be proactive about preserving cultures that would be eradicated if Austin became a Texan San Francisco, I think it’s equally important to find a way to encourage tech businesses in the city to be more involved with music rather than setting the two against one another. I don’t feel that the continued success of the tech industry in Austin has to come at the cost of the music industry and I think that the communal aspect of what Black Fret does could go a long way towards establishing long term relationships between music and tech.
What Black Fret is especially good at is making its members feel like they are a part of a vibrant and necessary arts scene, even if they have no artistic talents or aspirations of their own. At one point, Ott said that when he first pitched the idea to his business connections, he compared Black Fret to symphony programs, with the members of the organization existing as mini-patrons. As it becomes more and more difficult for artists to make significant income from selling their music, it also becomes more important to look at what structures have withstood similar declines in commercial value and symphonies and ballets are as good a place to start as any. Black Fret is working towards improving its system (an Executive Director in particular could especially help coordinate issues the community has with who Black Fret selects and how and perhaps even help identify other ways Black Fret can give back to Austin music) and if nothing else, the Black Ball was an equal showcase of how eager it is to get better as it was a showcase of the artists it supports.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes here at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.