By Richard Skanse
When Austin’s Mobley delivered his dazzling one-man-band performance right before intermission at Saturday night’s Black Fret Black Ball, the prodigiously talented, multi-threat musician and singer exuded the confidence of a cocky young Prince in his prime. But an hour or so later, when the self-styled “post-genre pop” artist was called back to the Paramount Theatre stage to accept one of the evening’s last “major grant” awards of $18,000, the heartfelt sincerity of his gratitude was undeniable.
“I didn’t expect to get this, and I also didn’t know we were doing speeches, so I don’t have anything ready to say,” he admitted after the congratulatory hugs from guest presenter Brendon Anthony of the Texas Music Office and Black Fret co-founders Matt Ott and Colin Kendrick. “But I’ll just say that, as a musician, hope is a really precious commodity … You do a lot of organizing your life around maintaining hope and morale and the energy to do things.”
He then recalled the first time he heard about Black Fret, the non-profit arts patronage organization launched four years ago to help give Austin’s most gifted musicians and songwriters — both industrious up-and-comers and seasoned DIY veterans alike — a lift through member-sponsored grants for touring and recording as well as access to a deep pool of industry advisors. “About two and a half years ago I was driving my car and I heard a commercial or maybe a piece about this new deal on KUT, and I was like, ‘it sounds too good to be true — I’m not going to get my hopes up about this, because I don’t think I’ll get picked for it and even if I do get picked for it, I don’t think I’ll win. But I made a note about it anyway and thought, ‘maybe in a couple of years this will happen.’ And then I got nominated, but still, even tonight, I was thinking there’s no way I’m going to get this …
“So, thank you,” he concluded, addressing every one of the $1,500 annual dues-paying Black Fret members in the filled-to-capacity theater. “I appreciate the money, but more than anything, I really appreciate you rewarding my hopes.”
Mobley and the 19 other local artists making up this year’s class of Black Fret Nominees were all selected back in the spring: 10 picked by members, four each by the organization’s advisory board and panel of industry professional mentors, two voted on by 2016’s major grant winners and two plucked from the winners’ circle of this year’s Austin Music Awards (Best New Band winner Jane Ellen Bryant and runner-up Cowboy Diplomacy). Throughout the rest of the summer and fall, each of the nominees performed for voting members at one or more of a series of intimate house concerts and other private Black Fret events, all leading up to the annual Black Ball at which the individual grants are announced. With Black Fret’s membership now nearly 500 patrons strong, this year’s grant pool was the biggest to date, with a total of $230,000 distributed amongst 10 major grant winners ($18,000 each) and 10 minor grant winners each receiving $5,000.
“We didn’t do that — (award the minor grants) — the first year, and frankly it was a mistake,” explained Kendrick outside of the Paramount earlier that evening, right before the artists began arriving for their red (or rather black) carpet walks. “We didn’t want it to be, ‘everybody gets a trophy,’ but the reality is that just to be nominated, to be part of Black Fret, means that you’ve already been gigging in town for quite a while. Our model is set up to be reactive, not predictive, right? So it just didn’t feel right to have to tell a band like the Jitterbug Vipers four years ago, you know, ‘Sorry.’ So we went back even in that first year and raised some additional money to provide some small grants to the runner ups, and since then it’s been, everybody gets a grant.”
It’s not a take-the-money and run (or worse, break-up) kind of deal, though: all of the grant money is held in trust for the winners and “unlocked” in variable installments as the artists meet assorted career goals, ranging from writing and recording individual songs to booking out-of-town tour dates.
“Everyone’s got their eyes on the prize and a big opportunity to spend a year creating and touring with relative security, but the reality of what’s being made possible by this is just so much more than one year and one set of grants,” said Kendrick. “When you look at the metrics, after tonight we will have had 76 bands through the program, $800,000 in grants, and another $200,000 that we’ve paid out in performance fees. What that’s made possible is 400 U.S. tour dates, 35 international tour dates, 243 new songs written, 143 recorded in professional studios, and 115 performances for other charities. So we begin to see this body of work that’s forming up from four years of artists, and when we project those first four years into what we’re doing in the future and how we’re building a community around that, it really starts to be a stunning legacy.”
At this year’s Black Ball, the 10 major grants were awarded to Mobley, Warren Hood, Carolyn Wonderland, Jackie Venson, Eric Tessmer, Sarah Sharp, the Deer, Whiskey Shivers, Bright Light Social Hour, and Leopold and His Fiction (who were renominated after receiving one of the smaller grants in 2016). Nine minor grants went to Akina Adderley, David Ramirez, Daniel Eyes, Jane Ellen Bryant, Greyhounds, Los Coast, Cowboy Diplomacy, Croy and the Boys, and Kinky Machine. The “missing” 10th minor grant would have gone to Black Pistol Fire, but according to Ott (who MC’d the evening’s festivities), the rock duo contacted him just after voting started and asked to be taken off the ballot, explaining that they’d already had a “really good year.”
“So, we’re going to take the money that we would have given them and make the rest of the minor grants even higher,” announced Ott to much applause. (That’s actually happened before, kind of: Back in 2015, Shakey Graves requested that all of his major grant money — $12,000 that year — be added to the minor grant pool, while minor grant winner Aaron Behrens in turn donated his prize to the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM).)
In addition to the major and minor grant winners, Ott and Kendrick also announced a new “secondary grant pool,” made possible by a generous donation from another Austin music non-profit, ALL ATX, that will be used to offer ongoing support to Black Fret Artist alumni. (And speaking of alumni, earlier this year, funding from ALL ATX also enabled Black Fret to hire 2014 grant winner and international business consultant Erin Ivey as its first Director of Member Experience.)
While all of the 2017 minor grant winners were recognized near the end of the evening via video, the major grants were announced one by one throughout the Black Ball by Ott and an array of key Black Fret sponsors, interspersed by performances by 15 of the 20 nominees (the holdouts being Black Pistol Fire, Daniel Eyes, David Ramirez, and Leopold and His Fiction — though frontman Daniel Leopold did put on a bit of an entertaining show of his own when accepting the last major grant of the night, asking the room to indulge him as he celebrated his “first time” ever winning anything by playing the theme from Rocky on his phone and pumping his fists in the air.) With a mind to keeping the show at a somewhat more reasonable length (just over three and a half hours, including intermission) than in past years, each of the artists performing was limited to a single song — though a handful got extra stage time via a trio of “bonus” performances pairing fiery guitar slingers Carolyn Wonderland and Jackie Venson, groove-loving blues and soul purveyors Greyhounds with the like-minded Eric Tessmer, and most intriguingly, the Deer and Whiskey Shivers, paying tribute to the late
Tom Petty with a dreamy, bluegrass stroll through “Wildflowers.” At the very end of the night, there was also an unannounced special guest: longtime Austin scene favorite Bob Schneider, who treated the crowd to a solo acoustic performance of his song “Lake Michigan” just before everyone headed either home or a few blocks over to the official Black Ball afterparty at Antone’s. Still, it was the Black Fret nominees’ individual performances, from show openers Los Coast to closers Bright Light Social Hour, that were arguably the evening’s best — most notably those by Mobley, Venson, Hood, Sharp, and Adderley (who brought in a keyboard player to turn her quintet the Upper East Side into a six-piece, just to “add a little extra flavor” to their resplendently soulful cover of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”)
Although she didn’t win one of this year’s major grants, Adderley will be eligible for nomination again next year — just like all of the other minor grant recipients. But as she noted from her seat shortly before the show started, her first time around as a Black Fret nominee was an invaluable experience in and of itself — even for a woman who already had years of stage and studio and experience under her belt.
“I definitely got a whole lot out of it, I can tell you that,” said the seasoned singer and bandleader, whose father and grandfather were both professional jazz musicians. “Just because, what I know the most about is writing and performing and putting a band together, but all the other details beyond that? I’m continually learning, and there’s all kinds of areas in professional music that I wanted to know more about and get into but certainly had no idea where to start. But through Black Fret and the mentors in the program, I’ve been able to interact with and get advice from all sorts of professionals and talk about their pocket of the business. Like I got to meet with a gentleman who’s in music licensing, and I was so excited to learn more about how to pitch my music to film and television. It’s just been so valuable to have the perspective of these individuals in the industry who’ve been doing this for decades, just to learn all the do’s and don’t’s I can from them. It’s been great.”
Fellow minor grant recipient Jane Ellen Bryant echoed that enthusiasm while mingling with fellow artists and Black Fret members in the Paramount lobby. “Because we’re nominees, we get to utilize all of the Black Fret advisors, and I’ve made some really great relationships this past year through the program,” said Bryant. “And it’s not just the advisors, but also all of the artists working together, seeking advice from each other … It’s just a wonderful community that I don’t know where you would find anywhere else besides Austin. So, no matter what happens tonight, I’m just so grateful that I have all of these people in my contact list now. It’s so exciting.”
And needless to say, all those grant dollars — “major” or “minor” — are greatly appreciated by the nominees, too. Because as any of them can tell you, making records ain’t cheap — and making ends meet both on the road and at home in the high-rent “Live Music Capital of the World” is no easy endeavor for an independent artist or band, either.
“I love Black Fret,” enthused drummer Joseph Mirasole of Bright Light Social Hour outside before showtime. “I am so grateful that there are people who basically want to take wealth and distribute it to musicians. Anyone who wants to Robin Hood themselves to give to artists …I’m into that.”