Almost a year ago, two music nonprofit veterans had a vision for a new idea based on a timeless model. For centuries, European artists, painters and musicians relied on patrons to help them create their art, not only for financial support, but also for guidance, advice, and connections. It was a business model that worked beautifully, resulting in art that has withstood the test of time. Colin Kendrick and Matt Ott decided to bring this classic concept of patronage to Austin, and their nonprofit Black Fret was born.
Kendrick and Ott were both founding board members of the Austin Music Foundation, and they had the business acumen to follow through on their vision. It helped that they both experienced the Austin Music Foundation’s “incubator process,” in which they helped artists record an album from start to finish. “Giving grants to musicians in this way has always has always been a goal of ours.” Ott told Austin.com. “The incubator process [at Austin Music Foundation] ended for a variety of reasons, but we still wanted to give grants to musicians and that idea became the genesis of Black Fret.”
Kendrick sought to model Black Fret after Impact Austin, a group of women who contribute $1250 every month to award deserving people in the form of grants. “We recognized this as an idea we could leverage and use for musicians,” Ott said. “We took the Impact Austin model a step further by allowing the members to select the musicians who receive grants, all with a great mentoring program on top of it all.”
In many ways, Black Fret is unique in its mission and focus. It is one of the few organizations that limit its membership. Once 1,333 members sign up, no new members will be admitted. Existing members can give their memberships to family members or friends, but this limited number makes inclusion in this group all the more rare. Members are also treated to monthly house parties, where they can hear some of the best music Austin has to offer from groups like Quiet Company and The Rocketboys, right in someone’s backyard. Members can also host parties, where networking and complimentary drinks are abundant.
These private concerts have become so popular that Black Fret has started making them more frequent, often featuring surprise musical guests.The private parties are truly special events where members and their guests can discover new music and network with other music people. “A few weeks back, we had a house concert with Erin Ivey and Elizabeth Queen booked, and then Amy Cook and Gina Chavez showed up,” Ott said. “We ended up having our own little Lilith Fair.”
Since they formed Black Fret almost a year ago, they have made huge strides toward their goal of helping Austin musicians build their dreams. Earlier this year, the members selected twenty nominees, ten of which will each receive a grant for $10,000, including powerhouse Austin musicians such as Amy Cook, Danny Malone, Elias Haslanger and Church on Monday, Elizabeth McQueen, Emily Bell, Erin Ivey, The Whiskey Sisters, and Wild Child. As Ott observes, these are not fly-by-night bands, but artists who have paid their dues and proven their track record on the local music scene. Once Black Fret reaches their membership limit, they will increase that number to grants for 40 musicians every year, at $25,000 each.
Last month, the organization began taking one step further in making sure their musicians have the skills and advice to further their careers, announcing that their new advisory board includes the cream of the crop of local bookers, label owners, managers and promoters in Austin. The advisors will mentor and nurture Black Fret’s musicians on every part of their careers, from finding a booking agent to touring and merchandising.
From Terry Lickona of Austin City Limits to Joe Stallone of Grounded in Music, this group will serve as Black Fret’s Board of Advisors as they work directly with musicians on a daily basis. In a music industry where record labels no longer build their artists’ careers from the ground up, this is a service that is sorely needed.
“We’re flattered and honored that these mentors have chosen to be on our board, and we will allow the mentor and advisory group to grow as we do,” Ott remarked. “This is time that these people have given freely, so we’re really excited about it.”
Black Fret’s next major project is The Black Ball, their first-ever gala event at The Paramount Theatre on November 8th. Ott said the invitation-only event will feature Black Fret artists and special musical guests as well as 700-800 guests. “We feel a real poetry in holding this event at one of this city’s most esteemed institutions,” he mused. Members of the public can attend by becoming a Black Fret member. Black Fret also plans to host more intimate musical events for members at Orb Studios and Arlyn Studios and small musical dinner parties in homes around Austin.
With their membership as well as their local reputation on the rise, Black Fret has carved out a unique and necessary niche in the Austin music scene. Judging from the progress they have made in the eight months since they held their launch at The Gibson Showroom, they are on their way to making their own aspirations, as well as those of the artists they mentor, come true.
Featured photo: Flickr user Raw Artist Media, creative commons licensed.