Mar 12, 2023 - News

New initiative is helping Denver rethink how to support local music

Illustration of a piano keyboard made of a hundred dollar bill.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A new venture is asking a simple but grand question: What if local musicians were supported the same way as the symphony, opera or ballet?

State of play: Sonic Guild — formerly known as Black Fret — is testing the theory in Denver by recruiting patrons to treat local music like art and offering grants to help musicians boost their careers.

  • An annual guild membership starts at $750 and comes with perks in addition to supporting the grants.

By the numbers: In 2022, the guild's first full year in Colorado, the nonprofit collectively awarded $25,000 to 10 Front Range artists — some established bands and others up-and-coming — based on a vote of its members.

  • Seven of the 10 grant recipients produced new music, one launched its first national tour and two signed with record labels.

What they're saying: Sonic Guild doesn't take full credit, but the Colorado chapter's executive director, Kirsten Vermulen, says the grants help break an unsustainable economic system that barely allows musicians to make a living.

  • "The audience primarily is music lovers. … They are short on time, they are interested in giving back, and they want to see the scene thrive here," she tells Axios Denver.

The big picture: Founded 10 years ago in Austin, Texas, the organization is expanding to help more bands across the nation and creating local chapters in Denver, Seattle and the Ozarks.

  • Denver is a natural fit with its dozens of music venues, but the market for local live music is unsteady, falling to No. 16 in the nation — down eight spots from the prior year— with $134.6 million in ticket sales in 2022, according to Pollstar data.

Why it matters: That's what makes the guild a key player, not just for the industry but for the community.

  • "Their support really helps to elevate the talent," says Kori Hazel, the manager for local band N3ptune. "It's important for people to get behind bigger acts from the place they live and have that connection."

Zoom in: Claire Heywood, a Denver-based singer-songwriter, works a day job as a marketing copywriter and spends nights performing. She received one of the $2,500 grants and used it to hire a producer to record her first full-length indie rock album, which is set for release later this year.

  • Being part of the program also helped her score more gigs, and better-paying ones, all advancing her hopes of making music her livelihood.
  • Sonic Guild is "kind of a different entity than anyone I interacted with before," she tells us. "Giving musicians lump sums, rather than a little here and a little here [from shows], is just energetically different."
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