Eight years ago, Shelby Earl sold $10,000 of her Amazon stock to devote a year to her music and record her first solo album.
The Seattle-based singer/songwriter got halfway through making what would become “Burn the Boats,” when she couldn’t pay her rent. So she started a Kickstarter campaign to raise what she needed to finish the record — another $10,000 — and was off.
NPR music writer Ann Powers named Earl her “new favorite songwriter.”
But in years since Earl managed to realize her musical dream (she is still enjoying the success of her third record, “The Man Who Made Himself A Name”), Seattle — and the music industry — have changed dramatically.
The cost of housing is at an all-time high, while recorded music has been demonetized. And there are fewer places for musicians to be noticed, since most headliners travel with opening bands, and don’t pick from local talent.
Enter Black Fret, a nonprofit that awards grant money to up-and-coming, local musicians. The funds must be used for recording, touring and creating new music. The money is raised through annual memberships funded by people who want to support the future of Seattle music.
“To me, new problems require new solutions,” said Ben London, the executive director of the new chapter of Black Fret, which was started in Austin, Texas five years ago.
For a $1,500 annual donation — 80 percent tax deductible — members are invited to 12 intimate, curated music performances every year. Private spaces, recording studios, small venues. All of them will be held at reasonable hours — 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. on the weekends. That way, donors can stay out or go home humming.
“We’re looking at people who are passionate about live music,” London said, “but who have been busy with work and family and have become separated from it and are trying to plug back in.
“Whether they are from here, or new, they look at the music listings and don’t know who anyone is,” he said. “So we’re curating the best and brightest for them, in different genres.”
Black Fret is built on the simple idea that local music is art, worthy of community support just like the symphony and the opera.
Members can nominate and vote for the artists they like for the annual grants, in addition to the artists applying themselves. The grants are given out annually, and recipients can unlock dollars by performing for a nonprofit of their choosing as a way to pay it forward.
“This work is a community lift,” London said. “Not a single person writing a check. Everyone has a little skin in the game. And it’s bright and shiny enough for donors not to set it and forget it.”
London was the inaugural chair of the Seattle Music Commission, served on the advisory board of KEXP and the governing board of The Vera Project. He also plays in local bands Alcohol Funnycar and Stag.
“I don’t know it all,” he said. “But I’ve seen it all. And this is one of the more elegant solutions I’ve seen to date. It’s a reverse funnel. A small group of people making a big impact.”
Musicians have to pay for their instruments, recording time. Even their laptops are a huge expense, London said.
“It’s all putting money out,” he said. “But how do you do it when there’s no money coming in?”
Since launching in Austin, Black Fret Austin has given out more than $1.5 million, keeping up-and-coming musicians afloat, creating — and local. At its last gala, Black Fret Austin gave out $250,000 to 20 Austin acts.
London needs 100 members to pay $250 each in earnest money to launch the Seattle chapter of Black Fret, which he plans to do next year.
“This isn’t a program for who can fill out the forms the best,” London said. “It’s to magnify the best of what our region is generating.”
Still, he worries about creating false hope: “This is not the solution,” he said. “This is a solution.
“But the longer we wait, the more we’re going to see our music community atrophy.”
For more information or to join Black Fret, go to: www.blackfret.org/seattle.