Making ends meet in 21st-century Austin is a challenge that extends well beyond musicians. But because we’re known as the Live Music Capital of the World, efforts to preserve that cornerstone of the city’s culture have moved front and center in recent years.
They include the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, which helps connect low-income local musicians to affordable health care, as well as the SIMS Foundation, which plays a similar role for mental health needs.
Other nonprofits take different approaches. The Austin Music Foundation seeks to strengthen the city’s music business opportunities through education and innovative programs, while Black Fret provides direct grants to musical acts through membership fees from local benefactors interested in supporting the community.
Those four organizations recently became the focal points of another major player in advocacy for Austin music. When Keller Williams real estate co-founder Gary Keller’s nonprofit All ATX announced this fall that its primary function would be to support HAAM, SIMS, AMF and Black Fret, it brought a new focus to the organization’s role in the community.
With an annual concert at ACL Live the past four years plus accompanying compilation CDs, All ATX has sought to raise both awareness of local performers and money for assistive programs. A couple of years ago, Keller had his sights set on creating a multipurpose “music factory” with performance and rehearsal spaces as well as recording and educational facilities.
But last year’s Austin Music Census changed his tune. “Advocacy is absolutely what’s necessary,” he says. “When you read the census, you can broadly define it into two categories: One is the issue of affordability, and the other issue is support.”
Working with his small All ATX crew, Keller took stock of other local entities already entrenched in working toward those ends. “There are four that we found that, if they continue to be supported, the foundation is there for them to really do a great job,” he says. “Of course HAAM and SIMS without a doubt. But they’re underfunded, and they struggle with getting their money. So, let’s get them their money. Let’s fund them and get it off the table.”
Keller hasn’t specified the amounts that All ATX will provide to HAAM and SIMS, but both organizations clearly would benefit from the assistance. SIMS, which held its big holiday-season fundraiser last weekend at Emo’s, recently extended its umbrella to include music business professionals as well as musicians. And HAAM, which raised $500,000 at its annual HAAM Benefit Day fundraiser in September, faces the possibility of dealing with musicians who might lose Affordable Care Act options after President Barack Obama leaves office next year.
Beyond those two groups helping with wellness and affordability, All ATX looked at programs focused on education and opportunity. With the Austin Music Foundation, “you have an education organization that wants to move the meter,” Keller says.
One intriguing new AMF undertaking for 2017 is an Artist Development Program, a series of advanced mentoring sessions designed to provide business knowledge and other opportunities to a handful of Austin artists. The program’s inaugural participants are Charlie Faye, Gina Chavez, Jackie Venson, James Junius, Jane Ellen Bryant, Magna Carda and Migrant Kids.
The fourth leg of All ATX’s table is Black Fret, started three years ago by former AMF mainstays Colin Kendrick and Matt Ott. “They’re the newcomer here, but they are moving the meter,” Keller says. “They have the right idea.”
On Saturday, Black Fret holds its third annual Black Ball gala at the Paramount. The members-only affair will feature short performances by 14 of the 20 artists that Black Fret members nominated for grants this year, with winners of the 10 top-level grants announced at the show. (Membership details are at blackfret.org.)
Performing at the show are are Bee Caves, Calliope Musicals, Carson McHone, Dana Falconberry & Medicine Bow, Daniel Eyes & the Vibes, Golden Dawn Arkestra, Harvest Thieves, Leopold and His Fiction, Magna Carda, Peterson Brothers Band, Ray Prim, Suzanna Choffel, Swimming With Bears and Wendy Colonna. Nominees not appearing on Saturday are Brownout, Dan Dyer, Name Sayers, Nakia, Sweet Spirit and Walker Lukens.
When the organization began in 2014, it presented grants of $10,000 to 10 artists, with the other 10 nominees receiving $2,000 each. As Black Fret has grown — its rolls have nearly doubled from two years ago, to more than 350 members — the grant amounts have gone up. This year’s 10 major grants are set to be more than $15,000 each, with all nominees receiving at least $5,000.
“We’re ecstatic with the growth that we’ve made three years in,” Ott says, noting that “the grants this year are fully funded from our membership.”
Corporate donors including Dell, the title sponsor of this year’s Black Ball, help to cover expenses, which include payment to all of the nominees for their performances at the Paramount concert as well as at members-only shows throughout the year. “We never let artists play for free,” Ott says. “We want everyone to see that there’s value in playing music.”
Black Fret’s model calls for the $1,500 annual membership fees to continue funding the grants, but Ott thinks All ATX’s pledge of support will make a difference in long-term stability. “It’s going to really help us get to the next level,” he says. “We’re still mostly a volunteer organization, so adding formal staff that can dedicate itself to Black Fret will help us accelerate our growth.”
Those volunteer contributions have included all of Ott and Kendrick’s efforts in getting Black Fret off the ground. “We do hope that’ll change someday,” Ott admits, “but right now the money needs to go to the mission.”
The four nonprofits All ATX has earmarked represent just a sampling of the organizations aiming to give a boost to Austin musicians. Project ATX6, which covers expenses for six local musicians to play at a handful of international music festivals, celebrates its third year with a hometown show at Stateside at the Paramount on Wednesday featuring 2016 participants Jai Malano, Elijah Ford, Grace Park, Andy Bianculli, Beth Chrisman and Tate Mayeux, plus alumni Carson McHone, Leo Rondeau and Mrs. Glass.
And while All ATX has shifted away from its initial music-factory plan, another such effort is proceeding at an expansive building on East Martin Luther King Boulevard just east of U.S. 183. Dan Redman, whose teenage sons play in the local Warner Bros.-signed punk-rock band Residual Kid, says he hopes to have at least part of the space in shape for a public event during South by Southwest in 2017.
Meanwhile, Keller is proceeding full speed ahead with actions intended to preserve Austin’s live music reputation. One of his big concerns, he says, is that “we haven’t been haven’t been strong curators of protecting what we have.” So when the Saxon Pub, one of the city’s most important havens for longtime Austin performers, recently considered moving from its South Lamar location after a quarter-century run amid uncertainty over the property’s future, Keller stepped up to buy the building and extend the venue’s lease.
But it goes beyond just being a benefactor, Keller says. While he’s long played that role, providing major donations to help create local venues such as ACL Live and One World Theatre, he explains that he had to do some personal soul-searching to determine if he was willing to step forward as a vocal champion for the cause of local music. “It’s one thing to put your money where your mouth is; it’s another to put your mouth where your money is,” he says.
“I had to ask myself, am I in this or not? Do I really care enough to commit the time and energy and money? Having a party and making a CD to celebrate local musicians is one thing. But becoming an advocate, and actually being willing to talk about it, that’s something different. So I had to go and think about that. Do I care enough? And I discovered, yeah. I’m willing to do that.”