Ben London doesn’t want Seattle to turn into a “music desert”. The image conjured up is bleak, one of a barren wasteland devoid of culture, a once fertile artistic landscape parched under the scorching sun of the rising cost of living. Here, people roam like mad with a thirst for beauty that will never be quenched, while what little this sterile land has to offer is left to the snapping jaws of industry to fuel an ever-growing tech empire. Wait. Am I just describing South Lake Union?
Jokes and apocalyptic imagery aside, this twist is hardly overdone. London is the executive director of the Seattle arm of Black Fret, an Austin-based nonprofit arts organization that puts money straight into the worn-out pockets of musicians, and he points to San Francisco as a cautionary tale for Seattle residents who are wealthy and diverse local music appreciate scene. Black Fret draws on the patronage model that has historically supported the symphony, the opera, the ballet—all those offbeat things that pass as “cultural institutions.” Black Fret works with corporations and individual donors to provide $5,000 in grants to bands and solo artists to further their music careers. The pandemic has brought a new urgency to these efforts, and Black Fret’s 2022 grantees will receive these funds at a particularly critical time for the future of live music.
The scholarship recipients announced today make that future look terribly bright. Parisalexa, whose voice sounds like putting on a mink coat (a saved up mink coat because, you know, fur); SassyBlack, whose rich talent extends beyond music to literary arts and films; Beverly Crusher, a trio whose explosive energy and snarling bass lines make you feel fizzy; these are just a few members of the Black Fret “Class of 2022”. Last year’s classes included Chong the Nomad, a fixture at Seattle venues and the Pacific Northwest music festival, whose ethereal beats are as smooth as they are danceable. The Naked Giants, who have the youthful, limp-haired charm you’d expect from camp counselors but shred so hard it hurts your teeth, also got a boost from Black Fret last year.
London says with droll cheering that “it’s been a little triage” since the Seattle office was formed in early 2020. Purveyors of warm, exuberant rock and members of the inaugural class of 2021, the Smokey Brights have been able to produce their forthcoming album thanks to their Black Fret grant. Other recipients, says London, could have simply used their money to keep a roof over their heads. This idea of giving musicians no-obligation cash injections to use as they please was both radical and achingly simple — so much so that somehow London couldn’t believe nobody was doing it yet.
Black Fret members pay $750 in “fees” used towards these grants and gain access to exclusive monthly performances by local artists. These performances, London says, are intimate and take place at “comfortable” hours. They’re designed to give people who might have left the headbanging days of their youth behind at an experimental art-punk show in a basement in the U District a chance to discover new music now that they have a babysitter for the Find night need a consideration.
Seattle has changed a lot, that’s true, and there was something that could be called one Exodus of the artists as people are constantly being pushed out of the city. But it’s not the end of the world yet, and we don’t have to resign ourselves to the weary notion that technology is a deathblow to the arts; Just look at KEXP brought to you by Paul Allen (among countless others of course) for an example of how all that money can be put to very good use. Black Fret is attempting to do just that, and if this latest generation of grantees is any indication, they’re on the right track.