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Hear Fort Worth invests in artists to draw more tourism, business to the city

Njia Martin (left) and Landon Cabarubio (right) perform as the electronic R & B duo Cotinga. They will perform a set at SXSW on March 12.
Marcheta Fornoff
Fort Worth Report
Njia Martin (left) and Landon Cabarubio (right) perform as the electronic R & B duo Cotinga. They will perform a set at SXSW on March 12.

The Container Bar in Austin will feel a lot more like Funky Town as more than a dozen artists perform at the Hear Fort Worth showcase this weekend.

Hear Fort Worth considers the artists to be brand ambassadors, but unlike the sponsored content that runs rampant on social media, musicians represent the city in much more organic ways than shilling vitamins or clothing. In fact, the relationship between artists and Hear Fort Worth is less about brokering deals and more akin to a gardener watering seedlings.

Tom Martens, director of the Fort Worth Music Office, said the goal of the program is twofold: to create community and export music.

“When they’re on the road, they’re ambassadors for the city. They tell people how great it is. They tell people where they’re from,” Martens explained, citing Leon Bridges and Grady Spencer & The Work as examples.

Hear Fort Worth, an initiative of Visit Fort Worth, sprouted in 2016.

They help cultivate the local music scene by offering small travel grants, of up to $500, to artists who have booked three consecutive shows outside of DFW. They worked with United Way of Tarrant County on a creative industry relief fund that doled out $300 microgrants to artists who lost work during the pandemic. And this weekend, they’ve programmed three days of local music to showcase at the SXSW festival in Austin.

“That $500, we’ve seen, it’s just been imperative to some musicians,” Martens said. He recalled that the first artist to receive a travel grant had shows booked in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, but he was on the verge of being forced to cancel all three because a local gig that would have helped them pay for gas and hotel stays was canceled.

Visit Fort Worth and its offshoots understand that a thriving cultural scene isn’t just a nice amenity for residents—it also drives business to the city.

A 2021 report from Visit Fort Worth and Sound Diplomacy estimated the music scene was directly and indirectly responsible for 7,555 jobs and $256.56 million in earnings in 2016.

“We want to show that the city supports local music, but also we have so much talent that’s out there spreading the message,” Martens said.

Lorena Leigh is a local artist who will perform at SXSW and already sings the praises of the city.

“I think people in other Texas cities really underestimate Fort Worth and the talent that’s here and the support from the city,” Leigh said, noting that she wants to make a name not only for herself, but for Fort Worth as well.

Njia Martin is another artist who is excited to perform at SXSW. She makes up one half of Cotinga, an electronic R & B duo, alongside her bandmate Landon Cabarubio.

The duo started making music together at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic paused live performances. They have performed on live streams and a few small shows in town, but this will be their first show outside the city as a band, and they’re excited about the opportunity to expand their audience.

“I mean, just to be asked to play the show in the first place was great, but you know, to be compensated for it is awesome,” Martin said.Cabarubio, who has performed at SXSW with other projects, agreed.“It’s a huge help. Yeah, I mean, most of the time at South By shows, especially unofficial shows, there’s not much pay. It’s usually like, ‘Hey, you can play, you can come party. Free food, free beer and you can have fun. But you know, we don’t really have a budget to pay for you,’” Cabarubio said. “Getting paid also and such a cool show, it’s like a cherry on top.”

Hear Fort Worth recognizes the importance of making sure artists get paid. “Exposure bucks don’t pay rent, they don’t pay your car payment,” Martens said. “So it’s one of those things where the artists are an important piece of our creative culture that we’re building, our creative economy.”

SXSW is an important launchpad for many musicians, including Fort Worthian Leon Bridgesand Arlington’s Maren Morris. Hear Fort Worth hopes its three-day showcase of local artists could potentially launch the careers of many more.