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Black Fret offers new way to support Colorado music creators

Dani Grant

Colorado has a thriving music scene with thousands of artists and hundreds of music venues, along with artist development firms and recording studios to support the industry. Now a new music nonprofit has officially launched here to help up-and-coming musicians with mentorship and financial support. Black Fret began in Austin in 2013, opened a chapter in Seattle a few years later, and is now coming to Colorado.

Black Fret Colorado’s launch director Dani Grant and touring musician Kyle James Hauser, also a member of the launch committee, joined us to talk about how the organization got started, why Colorado was selected as the site of its third chapter, and the potential impact on Colorado’s music community.

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O’Toole: Let’s start with the backstory of Black Fret. How did it get started and why was it created?

Dani Grant: The guys who started the Austin Music Foundation in Austin, they began this organization because when they passed off the Music Foundation, what they realized was that they had done all this great work, educating and training artists on what to do. But once they got to that point, without capital, they were really kind of stuck. And so, they felt like their next moves were to create an organization that would help them bridge that gap and get them to the next place in their career. And that's where Black Fret began in Austin.

And how does it work?

Grant: Black Fret is an evolution of the age-old symphony patronage model. You know, it's taking fans of popular music and creating an opportunity for them to see very intimate shows, become fans of local musicians, be able to provide assistance to those musicians and create a culture of people that are engaged and connected, and making an impact on local musicians.

How did you become involved, Kyle?

Kyle James Hauser: I was asked to join the national expansion committee, which was in 2021, maybe late 2020. It was a collection of industry professionals and current members for the Austin chapter across the country. And we had monthly discussions to try to determine where the best markets would be to expand the Black Fret model. We worked in tandem with the University of Texas who did a market research analysis and gave us a really beautiful presentation, taking into account all sorts of different things: the number of independent venues, number of, you know, listed bands, annual revenue in music industries of, I think, something like 25 or 30 states across the country; and ultimately determined that Colorado was the most logical next step for Black Fret. A lot of that had to do with our rabid live music fans. We have here the number of independent venues and certainly the robustness of the developing musicians in our state.

Dani Grant talks to Daniel Rodriguez at his performance for Black Fret at The Rayback in Boulder
Courtesy of Dani Grant
Dani Grant talks to Daniel Rodriguez at his performance for Black Fret at The Rayback in Boulder

It almost sounds like you didn't have to lobby super-hard to get it here, that it was kind of a logical choice.

Hauser: Yeah, it was really nice. And I have to say, being on that committee with a number of professionals all across the country, you know, there are a lot of really cool music scenes that were represented. So to see Colorado rising to the top was an affirmation of the work that we're all here to do, which is -- there is really powerful, meaningful music being made in the state of Colorado. And I think, you know, the more that we can give those artists a launchpad, we'll see the music industry in Colorado really strengthen and become bigger and bigger.

What does 'patronage' mean from an artist's perspective?

Hauser: I would say, if you imagine, like in the very old days when becoming a professional musician, I'm talking hundreds of years ago, centuries ago, there were people who had means who provided those means to artists. Now, music was always being created as a social good, really a necessity for life like coping mechanisms, expression. It's an art form, and it's in its purest form. However, at a certain point when civilizations began being formed, there were people who had means who were able to provide, you know, means to people, to artists to spend their entire lives dedicated to music. And within our modern world, that patronage model has shifted a little bit more to people trying to support artists through buying tickets, buying albums, which we know doesn't happen so much anymore. Streaming revenues are kind of not a thing.

So, it's been interesting because I think we're seeing a resurgence of this patronage model where those who have means are given the opportunity to provide for artists and creators that they really believe in. And Black Fret is a great model to do that. Like Dani was saying, there's a well-worn path for traditional music styles; the symphony art forms like the ballet, right? And so Black Fret's sort of taking that traditional model asking for similar dollar amounts from members, but giving them access to contemporary music across all genres -- rap, hip hop, rock and roll, EDM, pop, Americana, whatever it is, in a very comfortable space for them.

Alysia Kraft performs in Fort Collins at private home event for Black Fret
Courtesy of Dani Grant
Alysia Kraft performs in Fort Collins at private home event for Black Fret

Grant: You know, it's an incredible opportunity for people who love music who aren't necessarily going out to clubs and bars and that kind of thing, that can get in there and really make a difference for an artist. Because these days, a living wage for an artist at the beginning of their career is impossible. So, handing them a significant grant that can take them out to the market with a polished record and marketing and merchandise and all the things that they need in order to get themselves to that next base where they might be able to make a living wage, is critical in an artist's lifestyle.

In a way, this reminds me of some of the newer crowdfunding models like Patreon, but with more of a targeted impact.

Hauser: Yes, I think that Patreon is a wonderful thing and I think crowdsource funding -- I mean, when I before I got my first record deal, I did a Kickstarter in the very early days where Kickstarter was an invite-only platform. And that was instrumental, and I raised, I think, ten or fifteen thousand dollars and that was great. That was a great way to rally a community and to support me to kick start my career. I think the power in Black Fret is the power in the community. Because when you run a Kickstarter or a Patreon, you're a single point of gravity. Each artist is their own sort of single point and you're trying to collect your communities around just one individual. What Black Fret does that's so remarkable is it creates an entire community around the ecosystem that highlights all different kinds of artists. It welcomes all different kinds of people. And so it gives supporters the opportunity to fund artists who they have never heard of, who they don't know, where they are unlikely to find their Patreon or Kickstarter page. They, as a Black Fret member, will find these new artists and be able to cast their vote in supporting them.

Saja Butler, dressed in blue, performs with a banjo in a backyard.  There are other musical instruments behind her.
Courtesy of Dani Grant
Saja Butler performing at private home event in Fort Collins for Black Fret

Kyle, you're a musician, and you also work with artists on their development within the Music District. What do you anticipate the impact of Black Fret will be here for artists, and for the Colorado music scene?

Hauser: I think it will be huge. One of the critical elements in an artist's career, as we've been talking about, is getting some of that startup capital, getting enough money to make a professional-sounding record, to create professional-looking branding -- that's imagery, that's video, that's copy, you know, bios and all of that kind of thing. That really is critical -- and what we provide in artist development, and there are a number of great folks across the state who are really investing in artists' development, but we can provide a team for those artists as they begin. We sort of think of ourselves as like trying to bridge the gap, helping artists to ultimately getting placed with management, labels, agents, whatever their goals look like. And we have some really great organizations across the state of Colorado, like 7S Management and Future Garden.

But for artists who are developing, who don't yet necessarily have a professional record, it can be very daunting to raise enough money to make a record that can be competitive. And so having an organization like Black Fret, I mean, it's a model that I've never seen before. And as someone, as I said previously who relied on crowdsourced funding to get myself going, that seems to be the well-worn path for the last 15 years for artists -- it's either crowdsourced funding or borrowing money from family if they're able to do so, or if they're very fortunate to be able to have that money themselves from wherever it came from. But to create an organization, a nonprofit, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that can provide that amount of money and we're talking $5,000 to $25,000, that can really be the critical change.

And what we have in Colorado that I think is so remarkable is the number of people who are here on the ground ready to support artists. So when they have a $15,000 grant, they can come to me and my team at Music District. They can come to another organization across the state and say, OK, now how do I make the most of these funds? And at the Music District, we too are a nonprofit, so we really see Black Fret as a great ally alongside the work that we're trying to do of supporting these musicians who want to have careers. But without that startup capital, it can be impossible in some cases.

Ben London, Executive Director from Seattle, visiting with Megan Burtt performing at Improper City in Denver
Courtesy of Dani Grant
Ben London, executive director from Seattle, visiting with Megan Burtt, performing at Improper City in Denver

Sounds like grants like these can have a real personal and professional impact for the artists themselves. Dani, what's the overall financial impact potentially going to be? What kind of money has been raised in Austin and Seattle?

Grant: Well, Austin has been in place for eight years now, and they've got upwards of 600 members, with Seattle trailing behind just three years old. And I think they're up over the 100 member point. But those moneys that have been put together have afforded about $2.5 million in the pockets of up-and-coming artists. Another $1.5 million going to the indie venues and the music ecosystem that surrounds the venues and the artists, which is so significant. And when you think of the power of 600 people or 200 people or 100 people putting money directly into grants for artists, and sponsors coming along with partners that we have who have been incredibly generous, like Tito's and WeldWerks and Meow Wolf and all sorts of incredible people and organizations who choose to get behind this. Not to mention major artists who get behind this. We've got Pearl Jam members and Head and the Heart, and we have lots of other very big artists who have decided that this is something that they want to get behind. And when you start talking about funds like that, you're talking about career-changing awards. I was in Austin for the Black Fret Ball this past December and watched them hand out $252 thousand dollars to 20 bands. You know, the largest award being in the $25 thousand dollar range and the smallest at $12 thousand. And that is the kind of money that is going to change paths. It's going to create opportunities that I haven't even seen been given yet to date. So this is a really powerful tool.

How can fans and artists get involved?

Grant: Fans can get involved by becoming members. And if you can't become a member, you know, it's a $750 per year investment that provides you an opportunity to see monthly, if not more, intimate sessions with artists that are nominated as Black Fret bands. It also gives you the opportunity to vote on who is going to win those awards. But if it's not right for you now to do that, there's lots of ways that you can help Black Fret grow. And I'd ask anyone who's interested to reach out to us. Just come out and RSVP for some of these events to learn more. I think it's going to be one of the most incredible additions to Colorado's music ecosystem.

As the host of KUNC’s new program and podcast In the NoCo, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. Northern Colorado is such a diverse and growing region, brimming with history, culture, music, education, civic engagement, and amazing outdoor recreation. I love finding the stories and voices that reflect what makes NoCo such an extraordinary place to live.
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