Jordan Kelley and Jason Huber of Cherub perform at Austin’s Stubb’s Bar-B-Q in October. (Getty Images)
Graham Williams has seen his hometown of Austin grow up from a sleepy college town — and an afterthought to most concert tours — to become one of the most prominent cultural and economic powerhouse cities in America. Since he started promoting underground punk and metal shows as a high schooler in the mid-90s, he’s grown into one of the city’s best-known promoters, and his company Margin Walker Presents is the largest independent promoter in Texas, with regular events in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio. In the mid-2000s he co-founded Transmission Events, which promoted in most of Austin’s biggest clubs and midsize venues and earned national acclaim during the 10-year run of its multiday Fun Fun Fun Fest.
VenuesNow caught up with Williams by phone to talk over what’s happening in his fast-growing and ever-changing city.
You operate in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio. How is Austin different from other cities?
San Antonio does about half as many people for the same show in Austin generally, though some artists do get the same crowd. In general if 1,000 people show up in Austin, then 500 will show up in San Antonio. Austin has a whole district along Red River Street, which helps things a lot since there’s lots of venues and nightlife in one place so you can get dinner, see a show and then be able to pop into another place in the same night. You’re constantly around music here.
How has Austin changed in the 20-plus years you’ve been promoting?
It’s bigger and more diverse in terms of the kinds of bands. When I was a kid Austin had a sound, with the blues-rock thing in the ‘80s along with the space cowboy thing with Stevie Ray Vaughans and Willie Nelsons all over the city. In the underground scene there was the weird druggy stuff like Butthole Surfers with all the noise-punk stuff and some funk as well. So for a while you kind of knew what bands from here sounded like. Now there’s so much going on with so many different big and small genres. Overall everything is just bigger since we’ve been America’s fastest-growing city and the population here has doubled since I was in high school.
Are there any gaps in the kinds of venues in Austin?
There’s no shortage as far as number of clubs and there’s tons of small venues with caps below 1,000. But then things jump all the way up to 2,200 and above at Stubb’s, ACL Live and Bass Concert Hall, and the only venue in between is Emo’s, and that’s not downtown. So you can either play a small room and turn away 500 or 600 fans or play a big room and know the back third or half is going to be empty and feel weird. There’s an even bigger gap between those 2,500-cap rooms and what comes next, which is 14,000 at Frank Erwin Center or Austin360 Amphitheater. Those places can get creative and cut their venues in half or not use the lawn outside but that’s still an 8,000-person setup. If you’re a band that can sell 4,000 or 5,000 tickets, and there are a lot of artists at that size, you either have to play two nights at Stubb’s or ACL Live or play one show at a very empty giant room. And then you get into not being able to pay the artist what they’re worth because of the room cost.
What’s the price sensitivity in Austin?
Dallas and Austin are pretty similar. San Antonio is definitely the most price sensitive, in part because there music hasn’t been such a big focus as in other cities. But Austin is still much cheaper than your big cities like L.A. and New York. Here a handling fee might be five bucks whereas in those other places it gets a little insane with $10 or $15 in fees on a $25 ticket. We can’t push it too much more than what it is.
Is South By Southwest still as vital for venues as it was 10 or 15 years ago?
It’s definitely dropped off some but I’ve watched that thing roller coaster up and down through the years. We’re at a point where the music part of the festival is smaller while the tech, education and interactive side is bigger than it’s ever been. I tend to handle non-South By shows so I can’t speak for the venues where it all depends on bar sales. But because overall live music is doing better than the rest of the industry, venues are able to see more growth throughout the rest of the year to make up for however things have dropped off a bit in mid-March. … There’s less of the mega acts like the year when there was Prince and A Tribe Called Quest in a tiny club, but that stuff was never what South By was supposed to be about and as a promoter I don’t care about that. I want to see Soccer Mommy or Anderson .Paak or whoever the new big artists are in a given year.
Is Austin no longer a secret?
In movies and TV shows people are constantly referencing Austin as the cool place a band member or someone else needs to get to. It’s just like saying Brooklyn or anything that’s thought of as a cool or hip city. We’re definitely one of if not the place for that in the entire country. There are people who don’t like it now that we’re not a secret or a private, hip little spot. I always laugh at the “Stop moving here” mentality, because none of the people saying that are from here originally.