‘Money always helps’

Music patronage nonprofit Black Fret launches a Colorado chapter to support local artists

Bevin Luna performs at a Black Fret event. Credit: Jason Reschka

Last November, Miguel Alvina headed to the recently opened Meow Wolf Denver for a series of meetings that would set the course for his year to come. 

The first was to see if the experiential creative space would be the venue for the annual La Posada event, a showcase of local Hispanic and Latin musicians curated by Alvina with his rock band iZCALLi to close out each year. The second was a focus group of area musicians discussing the possibility of a Colorado chapter of Black Fret, a music patronage organization with roots in Austin. 

In the end, both meetings were a success — iZCALLi and other La Posada musicians were the first live show at The Perplexiplex inside The Convergence Station at Meow Wolf Denver last December. The group (Alvina, his sister Brenda on bass and Luiggy Ramirez, drums) focus on original rock in Spanish, in line with the Rock En Tu Idioma movement of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Over the last decade and a half, the group has established itself as a mainstay of the Denver music scene.

This year, Black Fret launched the Colorado chapter — its third in the country — naming iZCALLi one of its initial 10 grantees, which came with a check for $2,500 for the band to spend as they pleased. 

“It’s been a good partnership so far… I mean, money always helps,” Alvina says with a laugh.

But it’s been more than that. He says Black Fret came to Denver asking what local musicians need most and how the nonprofit could leverage the engaged local fan base along the Front Range to support emerging and established voices alike. 

The patronage model

What started in Austin in 2013 by music fans Colin Kendrick and Matt Ott has grown into a national nonprofit with additional chapters in Seattle and now Colorado, with plans for more to come. Since its inception, Black Fret has infused $4 million — including $2.5 million directly to musicians — into these cities’ local music scenes, building community along the way. 

“For generations, the symphony, the opera and the ballet have benefited from patronage — individuals who support a full season of activity,” says Kirsten Vermulen, executive director of the Colorado chapter of Black Fret. “The patronage model for Black Fret is a curated season of opportunities to discover new artists.” 

The Austin chapter gives away about a quarter of a million dollars a year, Vermulen says, with a patronage of about 700. Currently, the Colorado chapter has about 40 patrons, with a goal of reaching 100 by the end of the year. That would put them on a sustainable track for years to come. 

With 80% of dues going toward grants, Vermulen says the organization runs on very little overhead. For those interested in becoming patrons, there are three levels of engagement: a single annual membership for $750, a duo for $1,500 or a “party” membership for three people at $3,000. 

Membership offers listeners access to Black Fret benefits, including public and private music events throughout the season and mixers with musicians and industry experts. Members can also ​​join in nominating the annual group of Black Fret artists. 

“The folks who are investing in Black Fret want to be changemakers and want to invest in the journey of these artists,” Vermulen says. “And it isn’t a consumption, it’s a partnership.” 

It helps that the Black Fret launch committee is composed of Front Range industry heavy hitters like Dani Grant, owner and general manager of Mishawaka Amphitheatre, Robert Leja from KUNC and The Colorado Sound, and Dave Kennedy from Boulder’s Roots Music Project, among others. 

“I am a big believer that the arts really make places great places to live,” Kennedy says. “And so if you’re a fan, you’re kind of obligated to help the scene in my opinion. But it’s not always easy to do that,” 

But Black Fret isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel or replace what other arts organizations are already doing in Colorado, both Vermulen and Kennedy agree. They say it’s more of a complement to the existing structure, rather than a competition. 

“We’re trying to help the local music scene in a lot of different ways,” Kennedy says. “Black Fret is providing a fan base and a base of experts. If an artist wants to tap into that community and expertise, they can.” 

Bridging the gap

Black Fret is also attempting to subvert the prevailing systemic structures of the corporate music industry, which — like many U.S. institutions — has favored predominantly white and male artists. Women make on average 25% less than men in the music industry, while only a third of global record industry investments go to women. 

When it comes to people of color, labels and other music industry companies report median pay gaps between 25% and 35% in favor of white employees. But at least 50% of all artists across Black Fret chapters are BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists, Vermulen says, which is a step toward addressing that disparity. 

“Through Black Fret’s granting program, they’re elevating the voices of some underrepresented artists by basically giving us resources to make art and circumvent traditional industry models like labels by having that type of funding,” says singer-songwriter Alysia Kraft, an inaugural Black Fret grantee.

As a queer artist from Wyoming, Kraft says she moved to Fort Collins years ago to be a part of the supportive music ecosystem. She quickly made a name for herself with projects Whippoorwill and The Patti Fiasco, but used the Black Fret support to help launch a solo career with the release of her debut album, First Light, released June 17. The money is also helping seed her next album, already in the works. 

“I don’t have to stop and figure out where the money’s going to come from for what I’m making next — that’s the type of thing that can really slow an artist’s momentum,” Kraft says. “I feel like I’ve spent a long time trying to set my sail in the direction of where I want to go, and getting the grant is just like getting a big gust of wind behind that sail.”

Alvina and iZCALLi also used Black Fret funding to finish their latest album, REBIRTH, and launch it at Levitt Pavillion on June 18. Alvina says iZCALLi spent years only fielding requests to play for Cinco de Mayo and Día de los Muertos events due to their Latin background. And while that still happens, Alvina says they choose to play these events periodically, seeing it as an “opportunity to expose a different side of music …  a different side of culture.”

This mission is also at the heart of Black Fret. The idea is to expose Colorado’s engaged music fan base to artists they may have never heard before, from genres they may not normally consider, all in the hopes of falling in love with new music and becoming patrons. 

“Our approach to curating is to really mix it up and to make sure that if you think you’re signing on for the indie rock band, you’re gonna get surprised by something really different,” Vermulen says. “Mashup is sort of our brand.”

On the bill: Black Fret Colorado Listening Session with The Original iLLs and I.O. Underground. 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, Roots Music Project, 4747 Pearl St., Suite V3A, Boulder. Free. Find more upcoming shows.