Ben London doesn’t want Seattle to turn into a “music desert.” The image conjured is grim, one of a barren wasteland devoid of culture, a once-fertile artistic landscape withered beneath the beating sun of a spiraling cost of living. Here, people wander crazed with a thirst for beauty that will never be slaked, as what little this sterile land has to offer is tossed to the snapping jaws of industry to fuel an ever-expanding tech empire. Wait. Am I just describing South Lake Union?
Jokes and apocalyptic imagery aside, this turn of phrase is hardly hyperbole. London is the executive director of the Seattle arm of Black Fret, an Austin-based arts nonprofit that puts money directly into the threadbare pockets of musicians, and he gestures to San Francisco as a cautionary tale for Seattleites who value a rich and diverse local music scene. Drawing on the patronage model which has historically sustained the symphony, the opera, the ballet—all that fancy stuff deemed “cultural institutions”—Black Fret partners with corporate and individual donors to provide bands and solo artists $5,000 grants to further their music careers. The pandemic imbued these efforts with a new urgency, and Black Fret’s 2022 grantees will be receiving these funds at a particularly critical juncture for the future of live music.
The grantees, announced today, make that future seem awfully bright. Parisalexa, whose voice sounds like how putting on a mink coat feels (a thrifted mink coat, because, you know, fur); SassyBlack, whose profuse talents extend beyond the realm of music into literary arts and film; Beverly Crusher, a trio whose explosive energy and growling bass lines make you feel carbonated; these are but a few members of the Black Fret “Class of 2022.” Last year's class included Chong the Nomad, a fixture in Seattle venues and on the Pacific Northwest music festival circuit whose ethereal beats are as tender as they are danceable. The Naked Giants, who have the sort of floppy-haired youthful charm you’d expect from camp counselors but shred so hard it makes your teeth hurt, also got a boost from Black Fret last year.
London says, with droll cheer, that “it’s been a little triage” ever since launching the Seattle branch in early 2020. The Smokey Brights, purveyors of warm, ebullient rock and members of the inaugural 2021 class, were able to produce their upcoming album thanks to their Black Fret grant. Other recipients, London says, were simply able to keep a roof over their heads with their funds. This idea of providing musicians with no-strings-attached cash infusions, to use at their discretion, was both radical and painfully simple—so much so that London kind of couldn’t believe no one was already doing it.
Black Fret members pay $750 in “dues,” which goes toward these grants, and receive access to exclusive monthly performances by local artists. These performances, says London, are intimate and happen at “convenient” hours. They’re intended to provide the sorts of people who might have left the headbanging days of their youth behind at an experimental art punk show in a U District basement the opportunity to discover new music, now that having to find a babysitter for the night is a consideration.
Seattle has changed a great deal, it’s true, and there has been something that might be called an exodus of artists as people get steadily priced out of the city. But it’s not doomsday yet, and we don’t have to resign ourselves to the tired notion that tech is a death knell for 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 trying to do just that, and if this newest crop of grantees is any indication, they’re on the right track.