Dear Austin: Celebrating Black Fret

Words and Photos by Laura Roberts

Black Fret

Dear Austin,


The best goddamn thing about you is your music.


From the dirty, beautiful cracked corners of the Street named Sixth to those fields with the October pop-up stages in Zilker.


You don’t just have Texas under your sphinxing, Pied-Piper spell.


You hold the trump card for the whole damn nation when it comes to music.


But there’s something else that needs to be said to you.


Something that nobody wants to say to you.


But it needs to be said.




The worst goddamn thing about you is your musicians.


The shape that they’re in, that is.


The shape you’ve put them in.


They’re front and center every Friday and Saturday night, serenading each wristband or lanyard-clad tourist that saunters in through a darken doorframe.


They’re there for the race fans with the nylon jackets in November—making sure their formulated times are good times.


And they’re ten days strong during the month of March.


You seem to like that month.

Black Fret

The musicians are there for you when you need them to be there for you.


But I can’t really say the same about you with them, Austin.


Coffee gift cards as forms of payment? Pizza? $150 for a two-hour set to be split between five pairs of callused hands?


It’s not enough.


And it hasn’t been for awhile.


“My uncle,” breathes the messy-haired face in the corner of the venue off Comal that’s white. “In the 1970’s was getting $100 a gig.”


His eyes square off.


“I’m lucky if I make $100 a gig.”


Comped beer tabs?




They don’t pay the rent nor do they keep the lights on.


And Austin.


You’ve thrown around the word “exposure” more times than an Ebola news story in Dallas.


Stop it.


You’re spending so much time concerned with the guest ears of your city that you’ve forgotten to take care of the pockets of your own flesh.


Do something about it.

Black Fret

You know, Austin, there’s this new organization in town. They call themselves Black Fret.


They’re a couple of Austinites who had the idea to preserve the Austin tradition of “live music” without mucking it up with the word “free”.


The Black Fret organization recruits members—fellow Austinites mostly—to join the non-profit organization. The member dues run $1,500 a year ($1,200 of which is tax deductible)—‘bout $100 a month.


Every month, Black Fret members gather at a different place in town—a wood-paneled, recording studio near Nutty Brown, a slab house on a hill out by Lake Travis, at Willie’s nephew’s digs off Congress.


The Black Fret members are fed brisket and beer, and then settle in for a three-hour set of local musicians shredding notes and strings inside ribcages (and the bands are paid in real hard coin).


Following those twelve months and concerts, the Black Fret group hosts a black-tie event for your artists, Austin.


This year it was at the Paramount Theatre on Congress Avenue. There was a red carpet with photographers with bright flashes.


And plenty of Texas folk in tuxes.


And plenty of Texas folk in jeans with holes.


And at the end of the night that was filled with music and a side of chocolate, ten Austin bands walked onto Congress with ten $10,000 grants to fund their musical lives (the bands were also set-up with mentors and a monetary plan).


And Black Fret’s doing it all again in 2015.


‘Cept their goal is to do twenty $10,000 grants then.

Black Fret

Black Fret is able to do all this because they ripped off the “Free” word that somehow keeps getting tagged onto your “Live Music Capitol of the World” slogan.


They like it better without the added adjective.


I’m not saying Black Fret is the answer to fixing this “free” problem that seems to latch onto your musicians, Austin.


Because it’s not.


But it’s a start.


So look into it.


And remember, Austin.


It’s all good and fine to help others with their oxygen masks on a plane—letting them breathe in air full of music strands that they many have never breathed before.


But Austin.


You gotta remember to put your oxygen mask on first.








But that spirit of yours.


Keep that free.


‘Cause I’m not supposed to have favorites.


But I do.