The storm had only begun to gather when South by Southwest made the painful but necessary decision to cancel the entirety of its 2020 conference, sending shockwaves through the creative community in Texas and around the world.
As everyone processed the enormity of such an unprecedented step, Fort Worth singer-songwriter Rachel Gollay understood swift action would be necessary.
“People started to see the writing on the wall a little bit,” Gollay remembers. “With the cancellation of gigs, you’d be seeing a lot of service industry folks probably getting shifts cut or just not as many tips as they’re used to. At that point, I didn’t quite grasp that everything would be shutting down.”
On March 12, days after SXSW’s cancellation, Gollay launched the Fort Worth Artist & Service Worker Relief Fund on GoFundMe, with the aim of providing $200 microgrants to the city’s creative sector, whose livelihoods had been vaporized by the pandemic.
In just 48 hours, the fund surpassed its initial $5,000 goal. The fund ultimately reached $10,000, allowing 50 recipients to receive a money.
“It rippled out much further than I thought it would,” Gollay says. “Unfortunately, the need was just astronomical, and at a certain point, I had to close off the [submission] form because I was getting so many submissions. … I was truly blown away that it took off the way that it did.”
Roughly a week after Gollay began soliciting donations, the city of Fort Worth reached out, asking how it could help. The result was an unprecedented alliance between a city and its creative class — a vivid demonstration of loyalty in a moment of crisis to a sector of society often overlooked and undervalued.
Taking the lead from Gollay’s GoFundMe campaign, Hear Fort Worth and Film Fort Worth, two initiatives tied directly to Visit Fort Worth, the local Chamber of Commerce, and its city government, teamed with the United Way of Tarrant County to establish the Creative Industry Relief Fund, with a goal of raising $20,000, and distributing one-time grants of $300 to Tarrant County-based musicians, filmmakers and artists.
The fund will remain open to donations as long they continue to be made.
“We have this community that stands up for its city because they believe in it, so we need to stand up for them,” says Tom Martens, creative director for Visit Fort Worth.
The charitable sentiment extended all the way to Mayor Betsy Price’s office, with her team telling Martens that Price wanted to “be plugged in” if she could help at all.
For Fort Worth artists like rapper Lou Charle$, such support does not go unnoticed.
“It’s really amazing, to be honest,” Charle$ says. “I feel like when you have a place that’s telling their artists they matter and they’re not forgotten in this weird time, it does definitely give you this innate sense of pride.”
That the city of Fort Worth was able to seamlessly step in and provide crucial assistance at such a fraught moment speaks to the work done behind the scenes over the last four years through the Hear Fort Worth program.
A city-driven collaboration designed to foster connections between tourism and art, Hear Fort Worth also allows musicians the tools — such as the recently launched streaming platform Amplify 817, in conjunction with the Fort Worth Public Library Foundation — and the means needed to forge a career.
“What’s cool is they pay you up front to license your music,” Charle$ says of Amplify 817. “You’d have to do at least close to 100,000 streams on Spotify for what they’re willing to pay you up front. That’s huge for artists.”
For the city of Fort Worth, joining forces with Hear Fort Worth had obvious, immediate dividends — Leon Bridges’ rapid rise to stardom meant there was a sudden, intense interest in Fort Worth music and those who make it — but also more abstract, intangible benefits.
“Creativity is connectivity,” says Mitch Whitten, executive vice president for marketing & strategy for Visit Fort Worth. “Whether you’re talking about music, film, food, art — it creates discussion, brings people together and creates conversations between different parts of town, between cities and between people. It’s the energy that fills public spaces.”
According to Brendan Anthony, director of the Texas Music Office, Fort Worth’s success in harnessing that energy makes the current crisis a bit easier to bear. The Texas Music Office has closely collaborated with Hear Fort Worth since the latter’s inception, and in 2017, the Texas Music Office designated Fort Worth as its first “Music Friendly Community.”
“I have conversations with people who are in cities and communities that don’t have programs like [Hear Fort Worth], and they’re almost unable to do what Fort Worth has done,” Anthony says. “As a test case, in an unprecedented crisis, having that system that we helped build there has been remarkably helpful for people in Fort Worth.”
Contending with the larger and more long-term devastation the coronavirus pandemic will inflict upon the state’s creative economy — “The 2019 Economic Impact of Music in Texas” report calculated $20 billion in annual revenue from music-related business — is something Anthony is presently not prepared to do, especially since the full scope of its effects are unknown.
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“This is going to be a different place on the other side of this,” Anthony says. “We’re losing the lifeblood of the industry, which is the live conference, the live festival and the live concert, from the incubator venues all the way up to the sheds. There is no way that we will not be a different industry in this state, nationally and internationally after this is over.”
Fort Worth, compared with its eastern neighbor, took nearly a week longer than Dallas to issue its emergency declaration and restrict gatherings of more than 50 people. However long the storm lasts now, the city of Fort Worth and its artists will continue to work together to make it through this bleak moment. Martens says Amplify 817 recently rolled out a new series of singles from local musicians like Ronnie Heart and Summer Dean, dubbed the “Niles City Sound Studio Sessions,” overseen by producer Josh Block.
For her part, Gollay is not yet looking ahead creatively (“Some folks are able to take this and make it really great fodder for their writing, and I just haven’t; I can do nothing more than scroll through my phone,” she says) but remains heartened by the city she calls home and how Fort Worth has shown its creative class how much it matters.
“My hope is there’s more of an understanding of creative work as actual work — it often gets batted to the side like a hobby, or something people do for fun,” Gollay says. “The only way there can be more music and more art is if we invest in it.”