Playback – Nonprofit Holidays: The Cult of Black Fret and More

Homegrown music nonprofits that need your holiday cheer

All I Want for Christmas: Ray Benson (l), who performed, and Delaware North's Mike Glenn present HAAM's Reenie Collins with some holiday cheer. (Photo by John Anderson)

When Dan Dyer accepted his $17,000 grant at Saturday's Black Fret Ball, the local singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist promised, "I'm going to invest all this money in Dell ... or whatever you guys tell me."

Just kidding, of course, but the well-heeled crowd filling the Paramount Theatre last Saturday surely included some financial advisers who could spin that sum into six figures. The four-hour concert gala, where patrons in satin rubbed elbows with musicians in denim, saw $220,000 in grants awarded to Austin artists. Ten receiving the most votes from members – namely Dyer, Nakia, Carson McHone, Walker Lukens, Bee Caves, Suzanna Choffel, Ray Prim, Swimming With Bears, Peterson Brothers, and Wendy Colonna – received $17,000 grants that are incrementally unlocked via touring, recording, and charitable involvement.

Ten other nominees walked away with not-too-shabby consolation grants of $5,000.

In the last three years, Black Fret, a nonprofit that spells "support" with a dollar sign, has evolved into a prominent vessel for music patronage in Austin. Presently, more than 350 members cough up $1,500 annually, then host house concerts, nominate bands, and ultimately vote on which artists receive major grants. Wondering who these people are that lavish serious dough on musicians and what fulfillment they get out of the experience, "Playback" spent the show hobnobbing with Black Fret's ranks.

Rather than some California tech stars glomming onto Austin music, most Fretters I met were local lifers. Scott Hendrix, a self-described "professional Austinite," grew up going to shows at the Armadillo and may or may not have influenced Kelly Willis moving here decades ago. Recruited into Black Fret by clients at his investment business, Hendrix adores house shows where he can interact with artists in a way club settings can't facilitate, and considers membership money well spent.

"It's long overdue as a movement in this town," he insists. "The economy has flourished and matured. We have more people with the means to give back supporting what's made Austin a special place. That's a very worthwhile cause."

Those with the means to give back aren't fossils, but they're antiques compared to typical Red River concert-goers.

"This crowd's oriented toward our demographic," winks Amy Brown, one of Black Fret's earliest members. "Everything else in music is very much oriented for young folks. I love the music, but I'm not able to go to shows at 11pm Downtown at this point of my life."

Same for Christi Dammert, a former South by Southwest staffer whose brother happens to be Old 97s frontman Rhett Miller.

"As parents, we can't sacrifice babysitter money to say, 'Let's try something out' and go see a random band," she offers. "So Black Fret events are a guaranteed awesome night out and we end up purchasing great music by artists we wouldn't have found otherwise."

Other members, like onetime Sound Warehouse employee turned interiorscape designer Robbin Voight, are well entrenched enough in the Austin music scene that they already know most of the artists involved in Black Fret, and therefore enjoy the tangible support the organization provides.

"I want to see my friends accomplish things and succeed. Black Fret makes that happen," she says. "It gives them so many opportunities, from helping them make CDs to getting a new van so they can tour."

Here's an amazing trait of Black Fret members: They believe so much in the cause that they voluntarily recruit. Every patron I interviewed was either enlisted by peers or influenced others to join. Judy and Art Gressel, a retired librarian and commodities trader transplanted from Chicago, got the gospel from Black Fret members at a concert by 2015 recipient Tameca Jones. On Saturday, the Gressels presented a major grant to Wendy Colonna, who'd performed at a house show they hosted. Judy jumped for joy as she read Colonna's name.

"It opens up your musical horizons," Art said of Black Fret. "It's easy to get locked in to your favorite genre and become stuck. A lot of these people wouldn't necessarily turn on rap music, but then they're here and they see Magna Carda. She's got so much talent. She can rap with the best of them!"

Imagine that, a sixtysomething stock trader in a tuxedo who likes Austin hip-hop. Only at the Black Fret Ball.

Developing Careers With AMF

Austin Music Foundation has unveiled a new Artist Development Program, offering an individually tailored seven-month business course aimed at growing the careers of emerging artists. Next year's inaugural group: Magna Carda, Jackie Venson, Gina Chavez, Charlie Faye, Migrant Kids, James Junius, and Jane Ellen Bryant. Participants are selected by a panel looking for driven artists with next-level talents.

AMF Director Alex Vallejo, who's experienced the music industry's fortunes firsthand (five label deals) and pitfalls (bad managers, bankruptcy) over two decades as the drummer for Latin rock breakouts Vallejo, teaches the course alongside fellow music vets Johnny Goudie and Einar Pedersen. Vallejo says the advanced music business course evolved from AMF's previous one-on-one consultation sessions where he sat down with thousands of musicians one hour at a time.

"It's not effective because you can't cover everything in an hour, so I didn't know if they went home and opened a Shiner and put on Game of Thrones, or if they worked at their career," says Vallejo. "This is going to be more intensive. We're going to dive in and see how we can help each particular artist – whether it's their songs, shows, publishing – then find out what their goals are, and provide the tools and knowledge they need to get there."

Highway to Health

Last Tuesday, the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport celebrated its 10,000th musical performance by presenting the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians with a large check for $10,000. The local musicians' health care network is currently engaged in the Herculean labor of re-enrolling their roughly 2,000 members before Jan. 31. HAAM Director Reenie Collins reports that less than half of the nonprofit's members have passed through the Foundation Communities enrollment office at 5900 Airport thus far. If you miss the deadline, you won't have HAAM in 2017.

One reason to enroll now: Members of HAAM and SIMS (musician mental health and addiction recovery service providers) are eligible for the Sendero Premium Assistance Program, which covers 100% of your monthly insurance payments – leaving just your co-pay and deductable. That program is limited to a first-come, first-served basis.

Recall that last year, SIMS broadened its eligibility to cover not only musicians, but anyone who makes most of their money from a music-related job, including sound engineers, lighting techs, venue staff, and even those despicable egomaniacs known as "music journalists." SIMS Executive Director Heather Alden tells "Playback" that, so far, she's seen "just a trickle" of industry professionals using their services, and plans to increase outreach in 2017. It's an important group to include under their mental health/addiction umbrella since they work in the same environment as musicians.

This holiday season, you can fill SIMS's coffers by purchasing the KGSR Broadcasts Vol. 24 CD or buying tickets for the 35th annual Austin Music Awards, March 12 at the Moody Theater – both of which benefit the organization.

Kids in a New Groove

Austin musicians looking to make a difference in the lives of young people should consider volunteering or donating to Kids in a New Groove. The local nonprofit provides free instruments and weekly music lessons for youngsters in foster care, offering a creative outlet and mentorship for kids coming up the hard way.

"Many of these individuals have dealt with physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect," explains Executive Director Laura Wood. "It's an unstable time for them, on average moving six to nine times while in care, so it's important for them to have a friend outside the system. Many of our instructors have stayed working with the same kids for four, five, six years. Sometimes the lessons are just an opportunity for them to talk to somebody they trust."

December's a crucial month for instrument donations that'll help KING provide lessons for the coming year. Top needs right now are keyboards and acoustic guitars – both new and used. The 7-year-old organization currently serves 130 students and hopes to expand to 200 in 2017. They need more volunteer instructors willing to commit 30 minutes weekly for a year. Get involved at

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Black Fret, Austin Music Foundation, Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, SIMS, Kids in a New Groove, Dan Dyer, Reenie Collins, Alex Vallejo, Wendy Colonna, Magna Carda, Jackie Venson, Gina Chavez

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