Singer Lorena McNahon, AKA Lorena Leigh, was ready to meet as many new people in the music scene as she could when she moved to Fort Worth in 2018.
Transitioning from an eight-year stay in New York, the Keller native had a hard time getting involved in the growing Fort Worth music scene.
Through some different networking events, she heard about Amplify 817, a music streaming service offered by the Fort Worth Public Library that offers a platform to exclusively local artists. McNahon was immediately pulled in, she said.
“Whatever there is to do in music that’s part of the community, I want to be part of that,” she said.
McNahon joined Amplify 817 on March 9 and is one of the most recent additions to the program. Last week, the library began announcing the addition of a dozen new musicians, which will add to the already existing cohort of 41 artists on the platform.
What is Amplify 817?
Library director Manya Shorr said Amplify 817 plays well into the library’s six major strategic focus areas: customer engagement, arts and culture, education and growth, books and reading, community vitality, and employee empowerment. The program hones in specifically on arts and culture and community vitality.
Fort Worth has a vibrant music scene, but local musicians don’t always get the attention they should, Shorr said. Too many people think that the music that’s hot in Fort Worth is strictly country — although there’s a thriving country music scene, there are other options, too, Shorr said.
Sometimes it’s hard for those smaller artists to grow, Shorr said. So the library wanted to help homegrown musicians survive as artists. Amplify 817 was born.
“If our musicians can not survive being musicians, they will not thrive in our community,” Shorr said. “So it’s really important that we help them economically.”
The program runs through a partnership between the library and Hear Fort Worth and is primarily funded through the Fort Worth Public Library Foundation. The musicians are paid $300 to license their music for three years.
That might not sound like that big of a check, but Shorr said the most important thing for small struggling artists is to get paid upfront. With other streaming platforms like Spotify, musicians are paid based on how many streams they get. For smaller artists, that number, and the resulting pay, might not be very high.
“It’s primarily large, well-known artists who make actual money on Spotify, and everyone else just kind of tries but doesn’t,” Shorr said. “So having that upfront money is really important.”
Artists also have other opportunities to make money through the program. Amplify 817 hosts various public programs and commissions artists to perform for additional pay.
On average, the platform garners about 600 to 700 total listens per month. About 5% of those listens are music downloads.
How does Amplify 817 work?
Music librarian Rita Alfaro, who coordinates much of Amplify 817, said the program takes submissions twice a year, usually once in the winter and once in the summer. About 50 to 60 artists have applied during each submission round since its start in February 2020, Alfaro said.
Alfaro and five other curators, who are members of the Fort Worth music community, listen to each of the tracks and select the artists to join the program.
New curators are selected each year, and applications are open to the public. Library staff selects the curators while making sure to get experts in diverse music genres and from diverse cultural identities.
The curators judge artists’ music submissions based on a variety of criteria, such as music genre, quality, composition and originality. The artists must be either from Fort Worth or regularly performing in Fort Worth, must have an album or EP from within the last five years and must own the rights to all their music.
Another aspect that the curators look at is online presence, Alfaro said. If the curators do a quick online search for an artist, does their social media pop up? Are they on YouTube? How often do they perform in the area?
These are all questions that the curators ask when sorting through artist submissions.
“But just because you don’t have as big a following as someone else doesn’t mean we’re not going to select you,” Alfaro said. “It’s sort of the hustle — the hustle is something that we look at.”
If an artist is clearly making good music and trying to put themselves out there, then Amplify 817 can give them that extra push needed to help them gain traction, Alfaro said.
Curators try to select artists from a range of music genres who can represent the diverse originality of Fort Worth, she said.
Shorr said the curators work hard to ensure that they’re representing all of Fort Worth when it comes to music, not just one specific sub-audience.
“When you listen to songs on Amplify, if you like every single song, we might be doing something wrong, right?” Shorr said with a laugh. “Because no one likes every single form of music. So you’re probably going to find some stuff on there that you love and some stuff you don’t love as much but you can rest assured that they’re all Fort Worth musicians who have been paid.”
Once each curator chooses their top picks, they convene to relisten to the music and collectively decide their top ten artists. From there, they’ll extend an official invitation to the artists to join the platform. The selection process can take more than a month.
For those who aren’t selected, there’s no limit to how many times you can reapply for the program, Alfaro said.
After the artists accept the offer and the agreement is finalized, it’s up to them how much music they want to upload to the platform. It’s usually a minimum of four songs though, Alfaro said, and artists are expected to upload the music they submitted with their application.
After the three-year contract is up, artists can choose whether to remove their music or to submit a new album. If they choose the latter, they can reapply with the program, but there’s no guaranteed selection because the library wants to continue amplifying new and diverse artists rather than continuously recirculating the same artists.
How does Amplify 817 benefit local artists?
The major difference between Amplify 817 and Spotify is that the latter doesn’t push local musicians, even if they’re in a genre that listeners enjoy, Shorr said. It’s not the nature of their business or algorithm.
“If I’m going to discover a Fort Worth musician on Spotify, I’m going to go there because I heard of someone,” Shorr said. “So people should listen to Amplify 817 because they know that it is all Fort Worth musicians. We’re not letting anyone else in but Fort Worth musicians.”
McNahon said the musicians, curators and organizers involved in the program have helped her make new connections in Fort Worth. Since Fort Worth is such a large city and she lives on the north side, she doesn’t have the opportunity to just run into other artists at a local coffee shop, she said. So having a network available to up-and-coming artists is an invaluable tool to not just her but other local musicians.
Although a large city, Fort Worth is more neighborly and accepting than Dallas or Austin, which can often feel isolating to new artists, according to Alfaro.
“Fort Worth is a very tight-knit music community, but it’s also a very welcoming music community,” she said. “So once you make that connection, I don’t know one musician here in Fort Worth who isn’t willing to work with somebody or help somebody out.”
How does Amplify 817 impact the city?
Tom Martens, music director at Hear Fort Worth, said local music is local business. Many people don’t think of it that way, but local musicians are people who make a living off of their music, and Amplify 817 puts money in their pockets.
Fort Worth’s music scene is diverse, and it’s growing every day. Working with exclusively local artists spotlights different pockets of the community that may not be as well known, Martens said.
One of the city’s biggest music exports currently is Leon Bridges, who’s on tour with Abraham Alexander, another Fort Worth singer. Their artistry isn’t what people typically think of Fort Worth music, Martens said. Many people think of Fort Worth as a country western town with solely white male acoustic guitar singers, but that isn’t an accurate depiction.
“I think we’re breaking the stereotypes of what Fort Worth music is, and Amplify 817 is just another extension of the community’s outreach to do that,” Martens said.
Public libraries are a cultural institution, Shorr said. People go to them to be exposed to culture, whether through lectures or concerts or author meetings.
“We have a unique opportunity to try to expose people to cultural experiences that they either can’t afford or that they have never tried before,” Shorr said.
Alfaro said local music communities have a rich historical story to tell that contributes to a city’s cultural landscape. Each of the musicians on Amplify 817 have a connection to the city’s music history but also have potential to tell its future.
“It’s a really great story to tell, what we’re all telling with this platform,” Alfaro said. “Highlighting what Fort Worth is and how Fort Worth has changed.”
The music librarian said it’s important to note that this program isn’t just a pet project for the library.
“It’s not just [the library] being like ‘we like this music so come and listen to it,” Alfaro said. “That is one part of it, but it’s also working with these other Fort Worth entities and also kind of adding back to the community vitality and also adding back to the music business of it.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated Oct. 19 to clarify that Amplify 817 requires only a library card to download music.
Fort Worth Report fellow Cecilia Lenzen can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.