Austin-based Graham Williams Talks Closing Margin Walker Presents: ‘There’s Only So Far You Can Go’

Graham Williams
Jay West / WireImage
– Graham Williams
Margin Walker Presents

Like many in the concert business, Austin-based Margin Walker Presents and its founder Graham Williams were on track for their busiest and most successful year in 2020. 

“The day before COVID hit, essentially, was the busiest and most successful my business has ever been, as far as the number of shows and success rate of shows,” says Williams, who opened Margin Walker Presents in 2016 after a decade of booking and managing Austin institution Emo’s, producing Fun Fun Fun Festival in the city and then co-founding talent buyer/promoter Transmission Events. “It’s never been any better for live music.”

Williams’ Margin Walker has booked hundreds of shows per year up and down the state, including at The Mohawk in Austin, the now-closed Barracuda in the Red River District, The Paper Tiger in San Antonio  and many others, with Williams saying he and his team of about 15 booked up to 800 shows in a year.

With the pandemic showing no sign of letting up and business surely looking different when it does, Williams said the writing was on the wall to take a break from Margin Walker for the time being. Jokingly adding that “I don’t even have a resume or know what one would look like,” he firmly believes in live music, which he says is a passion business that always finds a way.
Pollstar: That’s a tough decision to close your business. 
It sucks, it’s unfortunate, but it’s sort of been heading in this direction for a lot of folks and there’s only so far you can go. 
We have a couple offices , one in Dallas and one in Austin, both of our leases were up this summer, so that wasn’t too hard to walk away from since we’re having to work at home anyway.  Unlike a lot of the venues, we didn’t have leases and mortgages for big giant buildings that are adding up but we still did have costs. Before we shut down we were at 14-15 employees booking all over the state. We scaled down a lot as far as staff when things started spreading and from there that only went so far, even with some help here and there. Nine months of no shows adds up. We were looking at another at least another nine months of no real profit, so we had to make a tough decision but it wasn’t too hard when you see where we’re headed. You just can’t afford to keep pumping money in to keep everyone covered. 
I think when the dust settles and things start feeling normal again, there will be a music scene to come back to for sure, but it’ll be a different landscape.
Unfortunately the model wasn’t built around 25%, it was built around as getting as close to sold out as possible for there to be money made, that’s how people enjoy shows, a big crowd and you’re essentially at a party. If you take away that element it makes it hard on everybody. 
It’s just time to say goodbye and move on.  The folks I work with are some of the most talented in the business, and I’m anxious to do this again when the time is right. 
Can you talk about the venues you booked shows for and the venue situation overall, which is very bleak for many club owners?
We book in a ton of rooms and there’s a couple that are pretty much ours, Mohawk is our main venue in Austin, and then we did a lot with Barracuda who closed earlier this year, a lot of stuff with Stephen (Sternschein)’s venue, the Empire Control Room + Garage in Austin. Paper tiger in San Antonio, we book most of the stuff there. And there’s venues of all sizes, anywhere from a couple to 20-30 shows in a month, and we do 800-900 shows a year. We just have a lot of really good relationships  with venues, some we have contracts with, some we just do stuff here and there. 
My biggest concern now is the venues. They have so much piling up. We have so much piling up without their costs, that I can’t imagine sitting there with a crazy mortgage or monthly rent adding up with just no way of paying it. I’m shocked how many rooms have made it this far, some are so, so underwater. Everyone blames the greedy landlord but in the end most of them have a bank they have to pay as well. I don’t see how anything can function right now without some money coming down the pipeline. 
There’s been some positive news about COVID vaccines at least, right?
We know the vaccine is coming but it’s still going to be a long time before the general public is covered. We have a while to go. A bar can open at a limited capacity or even open at a full capacity knowing that shows may not be as strong in the beginning — people might be hard up for cash to go out every night of the week — but they’ll make some bar sales so it’s worth it. But for an outside promoter bringing in artists all over the world, it’s really expensive and there’s a lot of costs involved in touring and operating the show. To really get where it can make sense, I think it’s going to be a minute. We’re going to have to kind of rebuild the agency world that we love so much, it’s going to take some time once it starts going online. There will be some period of time and I don’t know how long that’ll be, to try to get it back where it was.

You seem to not have wavered in your belief the quality and demand for live music, however.
Things were on a really great trajectory as far as live music. It’s still there to be built on, people are passionate and hungry to get back out there. Between lack of venues and people and the general public being upside down dollars wise, hopefully we can pick the pieces back up together and get creative as we see what the music scene is like this time next year. 
The good thing about live music is it’s a business mostly driven by passion, so people who work in it either behind the scenes or on stage love to do it. They’ll find a way to make it work, because it can be both your livelihood and your hobby, so it’s a perfect job if it’s a job you want to do. I think people will work it out, but it’s not going to be easy that’s for sure. 
While it’s likely that more venues will close and many festivals will take a break or go away, what do you think the touring market will look like in the near future? 
The touring market is one of the biggest unknowns. Not knowing which venues will be here between now and a year from now makes it hard to plan out a tour for booking agents. But once you do know what venues are left, knowing that a number of places will end up inevitably closing — in theory a lot of those will reopen at some point but that will take a while — if you’re planning a 30-date tour and 10 out of those 30 cities don’t have enough options, and a couple venues left have hold after hold for every other tour trying to do the same exact date, it’s going to be hard to find a room you can get your artist on stage, and if there’s only enough for  20 dates, they depend on being on stage as many days as possible on tour. A lot of times, especially if you’re an up-and-coming or even medium-sized act, those small and in between cities are what cover enough costs to get to the bigger cities and the best-paying shows. If you’re down by whatever percentage of markets and cities and options, then it’s going to be tough. 
I think people will do it and find a way but it’s not going to be as easy as it was, and it was a lot of work before. My gut says there will be a lot more local and regional artists in cities doing dates first, and then when tours make sense, you’ll have to navigate the best way to do it. The good news is people really do want to get back out there as soon as they’re able to. The fans are there when they can afford it and able to do it, we just have to kind of build it out so it makes sense.

While agencies have been hit hard as well, a lot are going out on their own and taking their artists with then,
I have enjoyed watching so many great agents quickly gather steam, start working on their and form up and join new agencies. That’s nice to see. I think we’re hoping that will continue across the board in the independent world. I think there’s so much value to the indie market in terms of quality and talent but also there’s just more hustle, people are doing it collectively like that and i think we’re going to see a lot come out of that, but it’s going to take time too, because they can’t really function and make much money until their artists are on the road.
There’s been a lack of direction and assistance from the government as well, which has been frustrating to say the least I’m sure. 
The message from the top has been so confusing across the board – aside from the government response that led to this, just the general messaging – mayors not agreeing with governors, governors not agreeing with presidents. It’s hard to kind of plan that out from state to state, but in the end that almost doesn’t matter because we all know that packing a couple thousand people in a room shoulder to shoulder at this point doesn’t make sense. So we have to wait regardless of what we’re being told legally to do until things normalize a little bit, then we can fight to make it make sense. No one ever predicted this obviously but it’s interesting being in the music business, we’re in the one part of the music business out of all businesses, the most affected and it really was the first thing — live entertainment — the first thing to go, and it will be the last thing to make sense to open at full capacity. 
So what’s next for you? You sound committed to coming back when it makes sense.
I would imagine I’d be doing something similar. Honestly I have a horrible resume, I haven’t even made one and don’t know what it would look like. I’ve done the same thing most of my life at this point. I don’t think I could get a job at a restaurant or anything else at this point (laughs), so this makes the most sense. But I’d rather be excited about things and creative and not have the burden of the bottom line of this company and trying to fix something that is clearly broken and it’s no one’s fault other than the virus and where we are at. 
I want to take this time to figure out what’s next and build something out. I do think there’s a lot of opportunity and like I said before it’s a passionate and hungry bunch of music fans and music business folks who want to do it. It’ll be exciting when it comes back and starts to happen again, but realistically it’s hard to focus on that and be motivated when you’re staring at a blank screen instead of staring at a blank canvas where we can actually create something.