SEPTEMBER 14, 2018

Episode 27 – Preserving Local Music

Colin Kendrick and Matt Ott from Black Fret

In this episode, we bring Black Fret to the studio. Black Fret is an organization restoring value in the music community by providing meaningful membership to local music fans. They currently operate in Austin, the Live Music Capital of the world, but look to expand the model to other cities. As a member, you get access to around 40 private concerts a year culminating in a yearly gala where grants are awarded based on membership votes. Grants for the artists are unlocked when they complete actions such as dropping an album, playing shows, or writing a new song. This creates a robust collection of metrics around Black Fret’s meaningful work in the community. Take a trip into the local music scene by listening now!

Lisa Graham (00:00):
Hi, my name is Lisa Graham, and I’m excited to welcome you to today’s episode of Change The Rules. Today in the studio, we have Dan Graham and Matt McDonnell of Notley, and we’re joined by our special guests from Black Fret: Colin Kendrick and Matt Ott. Welcome to the show, guys. So, I’d love to start off by hearing from you guys, what is Black Fret? What do you guys do?
Matt Ott (00:20):
Well, Black Fret’s an organization all based on the belief that our local music is true art. And as art, it deserves the support of the community. So we’ve created an opportunity for people who love their communities, love their city, love it’s music, to become patrons of local music. To pay their annual dues, to nominate the bands they love, to come to our events and, ultimately, award the grants to the deserving musicians of our great cities.
Lisa Graham (00:46):
And what are the grants? How does that work?
Colin Kendrick (00:51):
Let’s back up a little bit, because you know, Black Fret comes out of the concept that there was nothing like a symphony or an opera for the kind of music I cared about, right? And so Black Fret’s an attempt to build something like a symphony or an opera that serves popular local musicians and does so on a city basis so that we continue to support those parts of the art that make Austin, Austin. And many other cities with great local music scenes. So, Black Fret is doing that through a combination of professional mentoring and raising money and providing grants to our bands to create and perform new music.
Lisa Graham (01:28):
And so how does a more traditional ‘patrons of the symphony’ or ‘patrons of the opera’, how does that structure work? And how similar is that to what you guys are doing?
Matt Ott (01:38):
Well, I think when it comes down to it, you look at patronage through the ages and it all comes down to people who believe in whatever they care to support. Whatever art form it may be. Giving the funds to do exactly that. There have always been performance elements to that patronage such that if you give to the opera or symphony, you are going to ultimately go to those performances and enjoy that art and enjoy that music. With Black Fret, we make it a bit more of an immersive experience, where you are actually identifying the music you love, nominating that music and those musicians to receive these grants. Experiencing it, not over one or two events, you know, over the course of a season, but dozens of events. And then ultimately voting for the allocation of the grant dollars. To date, we’ve had 20 nominees a year. All of our nominees will receive a grant of one size or another, but it’s our members, again, who dictate who gets a smaller grant or who gets a larger grant
Lisa Graham (02:37):
And the musicians that you all are working with, can you give some examples of how these grants are used? What do they use them for? And how does that help to improve their music career?
Colin Kendrick (02:47):
So, an artist is awarded a grant, and then they’re told they need to unlock those grant dollars. And they unlock grant dollars through creation and performance of music. So, there’s a menu of things they can pick from. One is submitting a new lyric sheet. Another is a demo recording. Another is a recording done in a professional studio. Releasing an album for sale is an event that unlocks grant dollars. And on the performance side, it’s a combination of, effectively, tour support in that they unlock dollars when they play in any city outside of Austin, and more money if they play internationally. And the third aspect of that is we unlock a lot of money for the artists through having them select other 501c3’s they wish to support. So all of these bands are asked constantly to play for other charities. And so, we subsidize that by helping connect those charities with those artists and then unlocking grant dollars that way.
Matt Ott (03:46):
And there were a number of reasons we put this unlocking mechanism in place. Number one, bands often break up. So we didn’t want to award them a grant, cut them a check and have them then not be able to use the money for the intended purpose of our members. But, more importantly, it gives us a mechanism to understand what they’re doing to unlock the grant dollars, in that we get these really tight metrics around how many songs have been created, how many performances for other non-profits have been done. And after that come the great stories. You know, once we unlocked our grant dollars, we were able to go and work with our star producer that wouldn’t have given us the time of day had we not had that. Hey, once we unlocked those grant dollars, we were able to provide marketing support around the album we released, so that it wasn’t the tree that fell in the forest with no one around to hear, but we actually had true support around it. The economics of the music industry have changed dramatically, but only on the profit side. It still takes a lot of money to get your music heard. The ability to monetize that has simply been diminished. And it’s our hope with Black Fret and the institution of this patronage model around local music that we’re putting a rung in the ladder to restore value in the music industry.
Colin Kendrick (05:05):
I’d say that Black Fret’s smart in a lot of ways, the way the model is built, and the way the community comes together and supports each other. But at the end of the day, it’s that ability to measure success in terms of artistic excellence. We can say we funded the writing of 360 new songs, and we know what all of those songs are. We have 373 demo recordings, a hundred and some odd songs released on album, 600+ U.S. Tour dates, 80 international tour dates, and 140 charitable events in a five-year period, which unlocked a total of $810,000 in grants. And another quarter-million in direct artist payments. So, over a million dollars in impact just in Austin in the last five years. But you can see if you can do that, not just in Austin and grow it, but do it in 10 other major music cities, I mean, the artistic legacy in that body of work will be stunning.
Dan Graham (06:01):
And just to clarify the model, because I think it’s so interesting. So, you buy a membership and those dues go into a grant pool. And so in addition to helping support artists as a member, I then get access to, what? 20 or 30 private shows a year?
Matt Ott (06:23):
This year, we’ll have almost 40. Capped off by our gala event, which we’re holding in the Moody Theater at ACL Live this year. So, traditionally that’s 12 to 15 bands playing in the space of three hours and we’ll give away another quarter-million dollars there this December.
Dan Graham (06:40):
Wow. So I get to go to 40 events for my membership, plus I get to vote on where grants go, which kind of creates an unlocking mechanism that really promotes these bands succeeding in the business of music. Is that accurate?
Colin Kendrick (06:56):
Yeah. I mean, it’s also a plus one ticket. So it’s not just you, it’s you and another person, right? You have to come to experience this. You end up at 40 parties a year with the same group of people. You get to know them pretty well. And it’s not that big a group of people.
Dan Graham (07:15):
How big is it?
Matt Ott (07:17):
Right now? You know, we’re getting close to 500, but a big part of this model is something that we refer to as limited equitable patronage. The limited part is that we’re going to cap membership in each chapter to make sure that the organization, any chapter of the organization, continues to feel intimate, continues to feel cool. The equitable comes in that we ask everyone to pay the same amount in dues a year. It’s $1,500 a year to gain these rights to nominate the people you love, to vote for the allocation of grant dollars, and attend as many of the events as you want. You don’t have to come to all of them. You come to the ones you want to. And of course the donation is the patronage part that funds the grants and the events. And one thing we really like about that is that, you know, we’ve both given to a number of charities over the year and I’ll make what I feel is a pretty sizable donation, but it got me at the kid’s table in the back of the room in the nosebleed seats. At Black Fret events, everyone’s equal. You pay your member dues. We don’t ask you for money when you come to the events. You’re in. That’s it. You’re in for the year and you have a great time. And if you want good seats, come early and sit on the front row.
Colin Kendrick (08:31):
What that manifests in is – someone once jokingly referred to Black Fret as the fantasy football of local music, right? Which I thought was beautiful in that, effectively, 500 members, 400+ bands, 40 advisory board members, all of those people are participating in the artist nomination and selection process. And it results in this year-long kind of lobbying your friends to find the best bands in town, right? And so not only are you getting a curated experience of Austin music just by coming to the events, but you’re very likely hanging out with people that are going to say, “I got this band I really want you to vote for, and they’re playing Tuesday night at this coffee house. Why don’t you come out?”
Dan Graham (09:16):
Does there tend to be a type of music that does well in the voting process? I imagine diversity or variation of type of music is sort of an interesting challenge.
Matt Ott (09:31):
What we’ve seen year after year is that, frankly, the music that resonates is what’s being recognized in the nomination process. And it is such a complex and beautiful thing to watch in the course of the year as bands come and give, like drop dead life-changing performances for people where we hear, for example, people say, “Man, I was not a hip hop fan, but I love that band. Oh my God, I’m voting for them for a major grant.” Because, you know, they were into their genre of music.
Matt Ott (10:28):
You know, there’s a study that came out that said that people get locked into their genre in their twenties and thirties. And they’re kind of stuck there for the rest of their lives. And to see Black Fret unsticking people from their genre, to see their minds blown and expanded when they see music that they would not have otherwise gone out to see, but they’re seeing it because we’ve curated the season and brought it to them is really, really beautiful. So, hip hop, rock, singer-songwriter, pop, country, and western. You look at jazz and bluegrass. One of our major grant recipients last year – Whiskey Shivers – is blowing up in Europe now. There’s a huge Americana resurgence and they’re headlining festival slots playing to 15,000 people over in Europe right now. It’s beautiful to see.
Lisa Graham (11:19):
You know, living in a city like Austin, you know, live music capital of the world. You know, we kind of brag any night of the week and just go see live music. But I think you’ve really highlighted what sets your performances apart. You get great quality. It’s an equal opportunity performance, right? You can come. Everyone’s there. But how do you guys set yourself apart from some of the other performances that are around town?
Colin Kendrick (11:48):
It’s about artistic excellence, right? And so we’re very focused on delivering a premium listening experience, which is a combination of hiring. We use Nomad Sound, who does all the sound and production for Lollapalooza. You know, comes into homes and small venues and does sound for us. But also the culture of shush, we call it. We try to get everybody to shut up when the band plays and that’s really hard to find in any club in town.
Matt Ott (12:19):
One of the things our members really enjoy as well is the fact that we do these at human hours. So the doors open at 7, the music starts at 8. You know, our main programming is always done by 10 or 10:30. If you want to go out afterwards and burn the midnight oil, great. If you want to get home and relieve the babysitters, awesome. It’s all up to you. But you’re going to get a great night of entertainment and be home at a reasonable hour, which is something I personally appreciate.
Lisa Graham (12:46):
Yeah, I mean, I think after going to a Black Fret show, one of my first thoughts was, Oh my gosh, I didn’t have to stand around for two hours and have the band start at 10. And I mean, get tired an hour later. And I think also you were mentioning the venues, you know, there are private homes and stuff. And I think one of the best venues I’ve been to in Austin now was a private home, which was amazing.
Matt Ott (13:06):
Yeah. The music scene is a huge community. It’s an ecosystem. And to look at where we do our events, wherever we do them, we make sure that they’ve got that special touch and feel. The people there, the community is really a big part of that. But I’ll also say that, you know, whether we’re doing it in a private home or whether we’ve taken over a venue for the night, it’s going to be a private event. And that’s a critical part of it, largely because of this culture. Because people, you know, understand that when they’re there, they’re there to love and appreciate the music. And there’s a real vibe of respect that runs through the entire organization. You know, members respecting each other, respecting the musicians, and vice versa. And it’s something that’s palpable. You can really feel it.
Colin Kendrick (13:55):
I do think we’re delivering a significantly superior experience than you can find in most places. And the price point, just to hit it, right? 1500 bucks is a lot. That’s a hundred bucks a month after tax breaks. If you work for a major employer in and around town (Dell, Apple, IBM), they all match grants, right? So in many cases, your membership is down to 60 bucks, 70 bucks a month. You know, frankly, you can spend that parking downtown these days, right? If you’re a person who goes to see music twice a month, Black Fret membership is comparable. And you’re getting this whole community and this whole level of engagement with the artists that you don’t normally get.
Matt McDonnell (14:38):
And you guys have known each other for quite some time, right?
Matt Ott (14:43):
Yeah, I snuck out of the house when I was 14 years old in 1984. I should ask my son to turn off the podcast too. Do as I say son, not as I do. I snuck out of the house in 1984 to go see some music downtown and met Colin through a mutual friend. And yeah, so that was 32 years ago.
Colin Kendrick (15:10):
In an alley behind a club where we bonded over skateboard violence.
Matt Ott (15:15):
Yeah. Two people were beating the crap out of each other with skateboards. I’m like, that’s the dumbest thing. Why would you start swinging a skateboard? It’s like mutually assured destruction. I mean, this guy is my best friend and I performed his wedding ceremony.
Lisa Graham (15:56):
I love learning now why there’s a no skateboard clause in Black Fret.
Matt Ott (16:04):
Yes, exactly. It’s all good times. But Colin called me in 1999 when he was getting his MBA, and he said, “Hey man”. I was living in Silicon Valley at the time. And he said, “I’ve got this idea. Can I come out over my spring break and talk to you about it?” I said, sure, you know? And he showed up and we spent a week in California hanging out. And that idea became the Austin Music Foundation, which is the first organization we started together, whose mission was to provide business education to musicians in order to help create a sustainable middle class of artists. Between the time of that spring break, and three, four years later, Napster happened. The wheels fell off the bus of the music industry. Things changed dramatically really quickly. And, you know, Colin started saying again, man, we gotta figure out how to get money into the pockets of these musicians. And he kept saying it to me over and over again. And I was like, yeah, yeah, we do, we do, we do. And you know, he’s tenacious. He just kind of keeps at it. And you know, out of that then grew Black Fret. And you say it so eloquently when you talk about how the industry’s changed and how CD sales have evaporated.
Colin Kendrick (17:17):
The origin of all of that for both Matt and I, we were children of the eighties, right? Being digital. You could see the digital revolution coming. I was finishing my undergrad in audio engineering. I was working at Austin City Limits, which has a spectacular non-profit history as a music organization, but they were struggling financially. And they’re sitting on a vault of original content of Dolly Parton and Tom Waits and they had no way to make money with it. And so it was the combination of seeing the lack of a non-profit model that was supporting the musicians I cared about. Seeing digital revolution starting to allow download of one minute of music with 10 minutes of dial-up. And seeing all of my friends running to buy Apple computers so they could get a low cost digital audio workstation solution, so they could lower the cost of recording. And all that just looked so incredibly promising and empowering for musicians. And it went the other way. I mean, the digital revolution crushed the music industry. They’re just now starting to have as much revenue as they had 20 years ago. It’s been a really dark time in the music industry. And if you’re a local musician who’s working a part-time job and, heaven forbid, trying to have a family and make a living while trying to build a 100,000 fans and touring 200 nights a year…
Matt Ott (18:40):
Or even 1,000 true fans. I mean, it’s a struggle.
Colin Kendrick (18:44):
And the result is that there’s absolutely this plethora of stunning music that goes nowhere.
Lisa Graham (18:53):
So when you have a community like Austin that does have a lot of musicians, or even like, you know, Denver and Nashville, what are the unique challenges that the music community has in those cities?
Colin Kendrick (19:04):
I might start with what’s common, right? Let’s list all the major music cities that we all know had histories, right? Detroit. New Orleans. Chicago. LA. New York. Nashville. Seattle. I’ll guarantee you the one constant in those markets is rising cost of living, right? And that’s the other edge of the sword that’s making it hard to be a musician these days.
Matt Ott (19:29):
Yeah. And when I look at all those cities, I would contend that the biggest thing is the devaluation of music. That what we actually are seeing, in addition to the rising costs, is the taking for granted what it actually takes to make this music. That people have gotten used to free. They’ve gotten used to “ripping” music. They’ve gotten used to free downloads. And, you know, streaming is coming back. Paid streaming services. They figured out how to get enough value in there to where people are truly subscribing for the premium Spotify instead of the free Spotify. The premium Apple music, instead of the free version. And well, there’s no free version of Apple music. But that’s beginning to put value back into that.
Matt Ott (20:14):
But one of our advisory board members who provide mentoring to our artists stood on stage at our very first Black Fret Ball. And, this is the man who produced Pearl Jam’s Ten, Robert Plant’s Now In Zen, and all of David Bowie’s Tin Machine records. His name is Tim Palmer. He lives right here in town. He stood there with a bottle of water. And he said, if you had told me 20 years ago that I’d pay $2 for a bottle of water, but expect to get my music for free, I would have told you that you were crazy. But that’s exactly where we are. People are willing to pay $3.50 for a bottle of Lifewater, and then say, “What? I have to pay cover at this show? What? I’m supposed to tip the band?” It’s upside down. It’s backwards, you know? And, it’s up to everyone who loves music. It’s up to everyone in the industry, to the fans, to the musicians, to not accept that.
Colin Kendrick (21:11):
And I think that’s the part that gets me most excited about what we’re working on. The opportunity here through the model we’ve built for individuals to get involved at a very up close and impactful level is huge, right? We’re building. And we’ve got a long way to go and a lot of other cities we want to get into. But it’s still a relatively small community of people at a national level that can significantly impact and change the lives of some exceptional musicians.
Lisa Graham (21:47):
So how does that look? Both of y’all mentioned other cities in United States that are just classic music cities. How does Black Fret look in those cities? How do we get this model to start supporting folks nationwide?
Matt Ott (22:04):
Well that’s something that we’re particularly excited about. Having grown up here in Austin, we know this city like the back of our hands. We love this city. I travel a lot in my day job. I don’t get to do Black Fret full-time right now. But I travel to a lot of these cities and I go and see a lot of music there, and what’s most exciting to me about this is that as we grow Black Fret, as we expand into other cities, and take this model of limited equitable patronage and the community that comes along with that, that all of these Black Fret chapters are going to adopt the character of that city. That they’re going to be wholly contained little worlds of what makes that city’s music scene awesome. I want Black Fret New Orleans to be completely different than Black Fret Portland and Black Fret New York, and the four Black Frets that will probably eventually be in the greater LA area. I want them to all feel different and reflect the tastes and priorities of that city. A bunch of really cool downstream effects come, though, when we do have these networks of cities that’s really empowering for the artists.
Colin Kendrick (23:15):
Yeah. I think the vision there is that if a city like Austin, we’re pretty confident we can build the amount of grant dollars we’re getting to a number way higher than it is now. You know, the symphony in Austin runs on $3 or $4 million a year, right? So, if you accept the fact that there’s an age wave change happening and who the donor base is for music, it’s reasonable to think we’ll grow. If we can replicate that in the 10 major cities in North America, we’re talking about tens of millions of dollars a year in grants to the top 500 or 1000 bands in North America. And the money helps. And the access to the mentors is even better. But it’s the ability for the organization to build mind-share, to attract consumer spending, and to put our artists on tour between those 10 major markets, such that a band from Austin, currently they work all year, they save their money, they rent a van, they take two months off, and they hit an East coast tour.
Colin Kendrick (24:17):
And the first time they do it, they played at 10 people in each bar. And two years later, they go back and play to 50. And two years later to a 100 or 200, if they’re lucky. It takes years to build to a critical audience in a new market. Well, enter Black Fret, where I have the ability to take one of the hottest bands out of Austin and have them open in Chicago for one of the hottest bands in Chicago. I can accelerate that time to critical audience dramatically. And you should see the phone calls we’re already getting from advertising agencies who are looking for ways to find talent to license music from, right? And so, we jokingly refer to what we’re building here is a minor league of music, right?
Colin Kendrick (25:01):
It’s the ability to create something that record labels and private investors can reach into, and effectively what we’re trying to do is eliminate the risk that has always been the enemy of the music industry, right? Which fundamentally the reason we ended up with seven album deals that had Prince writing slave on his forehead. The reason that happened is because the music industry had a 10x worse investment track record than venture capital. I mean, they would take a thousand bands, throw a hundred thousand bucks at each of them, and one of them would break even, right? And so, yeah, they had to have these oppressive contracts to make money. And so what we’re hoping is by creating something that’s never existed before in the music industry, we reduced the risk to investors and bring not just the value and the appreciation for music back into it, but also the capital.
Lisa Graham (25:50):
And so if someone were interested in joining, coming to a performance, what does that look like? How do you get involved? Is there a performance coming up that people need to know about, or how do people get involved?
Matt Ott (26:00):
You know, we have performances – two or three a month. So there’s always an opportunity to do so. All you’ll need to do is go to www.blackfret.org/join and there’s a form there where you can join Black Fret, or you can just ask us a question. So absolutely simple to join up at any time and very simple to reach out to us. Some of my favorite experiences with Black Fret have been when I do get these questions from people curious, and the resounding theme is always, you know, “Hey, I’ve really wanted to support this music that I love. And you’re showing me a way to do it.” You know, this is hugely fulfilling and we’ve got members who joined us five years ago and who are still with us today, which is in fact, a lot of them. A lot of them. They become friends.
Lisa Graham (26:45):
And I’ll just say too as like a local Austinite growing up, going to live music, what I get excited about is I’m now a bit older. I have three children at home. And I love the fact that I can show up at 8, see some really quality music, get exposed to something I wasn’t exposed to before. Listen to music and say, “Oh, I didn’t think I’d be fan a fan of that type of music.” I have a great night and I’m able to get home and it’s always a good time. So thanks for what you guys do. That’s really great.
Colin Kendrick (27:13):
Thank you for the chance to be here today.
Lisa Graham (27:17):
Well, thank you for joining us. And it’s always a pleasure to work with you guys. And we love what you guys are doing and cannot wait to see what comes next, because I think what you guys offer this community is completely invaluable and it’s going to change the way musicians do their work. As I said, we are proud members of Black Fret, and we love going to the shows. So if you’re interested in joining, as Matt said, go to www.blackfret.org/join and check it out.
Lisa Graham (27:45):
The Change The Rules podcast is sponsored by Chez Boom Audio. Chez Boom Audio is the leading audio post-production company for TV, film, advertising, audio books, and podcasts in Austin, Texas. And we’re so honored to work in their studio with the wonderful Shayna Brown. You can find her studio at https://chezboomaudio.com/. And if you want to hear new episodes every week, please subscribe to Change The Rules on iTunes. And we will see you again next week.