Executive Interview: Resound Presents CEO/Executive Talent Buyer Graham Williams

Graham Williams (Photo by Daniel Cavosos)

Graham Williams remembers his sister taking him to see Fugazi – or was it The Dead Milkmen? – at the late, lamented Liberty Lunch in Austin, Texas, when he was a kid. He’s not sure which of the two was his first live show, but it hardly matters – he was hooked.

Williams says he’d go to the record store and buy new cassettes, wear them out, then trade them back in for credits to buy new ones His parents were into music; other family members were in bands. It’s no wonder he sought out a career in live entertainment.

Or, rather, that live entertainment would find him.

Williams, 45 and the founder and CEO of Resound Presents in Austin, has been booking shows since high school – mostly as entertainment for himself and his friends; to sell enough tickets to cover the cost of the band and the VFW Hall or whatever venue would rent to him and maybe a little left over to put toward the next show.

Eventually, he’d begin booking Emo’s – in its original location on Red River Street – realized he could get paid for what he was already doing for free and an entrepreneur was born. In time, he’d leave Emo’s and launch the community-oriented, free Fun Fun Fun Festival under the Transmission banner and expand booking to other clubs and cities including San Antonio and Dallas. He’d build another company, Margin Walker, only to close it down during the pandemic, and open Resound Presents on the other side, in 2021.

Resound Presents focuses on booking, marketing, creative events and brand activations in Central Texas, with an eye toward “elevating community.” It exclusively books Austin’s Mohawk (with 900- and 150-capacity stages, Empire Control Room & Garage (1,050- and 300-cap), Parish (400-cap), and San Antonio’s Paper Tiger (1,000- and 200-cap).

The company also presents shows in dozens of other rooms in the region, including Austin’s Paramount Theatre (1,200), Antone’s (400), ACL Live at Moody Theater (2,500), Far Out Lounge (500- to 2,000-cap stages), Hotel Vegas and San Antonio’s The Espee (3,500) among many others.

Resound Presents also now stages the annual Levitation Festival in Austin
Williams, truly an independent spirit, was a founding member and tireless volunteer of National Independent Venue Association, and still gets out to see a good punk rock show when he’s not promoting one.

POLLSTAR: You worked for several years booking Emo’s before branching out and doing festivals. Was there an inflection point for you in trying your hand at larger events?

Graham Williams: I was at Emo’s from probably the late 1990s until about 2006, when I started a festival series with friends at Alamo Drafthouse. We did a summer series in a park down the street from Emo’s. It was a film and music event, free to get into and paid for by a sponsor. We had live deejays and VJs. We got Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow and different, really cool people.

Later that year, I got hit up by a bunch of different acts that needed shows in December. Peaches needed a show. The Circle Jerks needed a show. Spoon needed a show.
I remember the whole first weekend was booked with other shows and I thought, “This is the music capital of the world, supposedly. This is crazy. I can’t say no to these bands and these agents.”

[Emo’s owner at the time] was very strict but wasn’t very music savvy. He was like, “You work here; you do the shows here.” Emo’s clearly could have done what The Bowery Presents did and done an ‘Emo’s Presents’ thing, expanded their brand and their reach and had more history with more artists. But he wasn’t looking past what was in front of him. I would just pass shows on to other clubs whenever they came through.

I hit up Amy [Corbin] from C3 Presents, and asked her if Stubb’s Bar-B-Q was available. Peaches needs a show. Back then, Stubb’s would close Dec. 1, rehab, and then reopen closer to South By Southwest. Then I called La Zona Rosa, and they had Ziggy Marley that night. So I called up Tim [League, founder of the Alamo Drafthouse cinema chain] and said, “Hey, do you want to do that [festival] event again? But this time, we’ll do it as a ticketed event because I have a bunch of bands I’ve been concerned about – like, a mini-festival with two or three stages.”

We went down, measured the park, did some sound tests and decided, “Let’s do it.” So we launched the Fun Fun Fun Festival. The first year, it was like 3,500 people. Not huge, but solid. All of those bands I mentioned: Spoon, Peaches, Circle Jerks, and a mix of other acts were there. One stage was kind of punk. Another was kind of indie rock, and another was kind of dancey; electronic and hip-hop leaning.

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MOON OVER AUSTIN: 2015’s Fun Fun Fun Fest at Auditorium Shores in Austin, Texas. The 10th anniversary festival, booked by Williams, featured Jane’s Addiction, Wu-Tang Clan, Chromeo and more. | Photo by Ashley Garmon

There weren’t a lot of multi-genre festivals on the landscape at that time, except possibly Coachella.

I had never been to Coachella, I had never been to mega-festivals. I just knew that whenever I saw the lineups, they didn’t quite appeal to me as kind of a music nerd and really into progressive stuff. We launched [Fun Fun Fun] just to help the artists out, but we also thought maybe we could create something. It went well, and we decided we were going to do it again.

It didn’t quite work out that way and you decided to go it alone. What was your thinking?
Tim and his company had launched Fantastic Fest, which is a big deal in the film world, and it was just starting to take off. So we just kind of shook hands and I said, “You guys focus on Fantastic Fest; I’m going to keep doing Fun Fun Fun.” I decided I’d travel and went to Sasquatch! up in the Seattle area, and other festivals like Pitchfork just to see how they are.

I thought of Goldenvoice and Bowery Presents, and they book all these venues and do tons of shows in a lot of venues. I felt like I’m doing a disservice to artists if I tell an agent, “Hey, just a heads up. I can only book you at this one club. That is a great club, but maybe it’s not right for that band.” It seemed silly to be tied to one stage when the music scene is far beyond one stage. And if you’re working with a bunch of different acts, you should be flexible to work with them no matter where they’re needed.

So you left Emo’s and started booking shows into other clubs at that point?

In about 2007, I decided to leave Emo’s. I found a few partners who were interested and started booking other venues. Mohawk was the main one, and we still book it today. There were a couple other venues that have come and gone over the years, but we started growing from Fun Fun Fun independently while we were also growing this little booking company called Transmission that was handling multiple venues in Austin. Over time, we started going into more venues but also other cities. We added a venue in San Antonio, we opened a Dallas office and handled some venues up there.

What happened with Transmission and Fun Fun Fun Festival?

After about nine or 10 years of doing them, we had a few different partners coming in and out, especially toward the end, around 2016 or 2017. We worked with Ryman Hospitality Properties, which is a corporation that runs totally differently than we do, with all the paperwork and reports that publicly traded companies have to do. Fun Fun Fun made it 10 years, which is great. We simply had a partnership that just did not work. Over time, it was like “We’re all friends here, but, you know, we’re kind of a smaller, scrappy company.” So that’s when we branched off of Transmission and launched Margin Walker Presents, which was basically the same company with the same staff booking all the same venues. But the Fun Fun Fun entity and intellectual property unfortunately went away because that was tied to the old partnership that was dissolved. So that’s the sad ending; different from fun.

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HAVING A HANG: Graham Williams (center) stops for a backstage chat with photographer Chad Wadsworth (L) and NIVA Chief Operating Officer Cody Cowan (R).
Photo by Daniel Cavasos

So Margin Walker essentially picked up where Transmission left off?

We did Margin Walker and it was right on track and everything was going great. And then the pandemic hit and we had to decide what to do. Like everyone, first we furloughed the marketing team because we couldn’t market any shows. We kept some of the booking staff on and started moving shows back. As you remember, we were going to flatten that curve in six weeks and we’ll all be back to do it. So we moved everything back to the summer, then into the fall, and then clearly things weren’t going in the right direction. So we finally just decided to wind it down.

And yet you were able to pick yourself back up, dust off, and come back as Resound Presents.

Most of us knew we wanted to do this in the future – we have a great design team; great marketing people. If we’re going to rebrand, what better time than when every booking agent I’m dealing with is emailing me from Gmail accounts because all of them have gotten cut off of their agency or are trying to start new agencies? We were all sort of in this limbo. We decided if we relaunch and we have a new concept, this would be a good time to do it. So in 2021, we came back that summer when folks were starting to poke their head out a bit, post-shutdown, and that’s how we ended up with Resound Presents, which is sort of a continuation of what we’ve been doing with some of the same folks, but with a new name, essentially. And that’s what we’ve been doing since then.

It sounds very much like the same company, but you did start smaller and with another partner this time. What does your business look like now?

We wanted to start small with a half-dozen or so of us. After going a little deeper and given some time, we worked out a partnership with another group called Heard Presents who essentially handle some of the venues. We still book Mohawk. We’re booking Parish, and another one called Empire [Control Room & Garage] and Paper Tiger. We sort of absorbed [Heard’s] booking and marketing teams and they still exist, but more as venue operators. They handle other venues or stages. Empire has two rooms. Mohawk independently has its own team internally, too. We just handle the calendar.

Since then, you’ve diversified into marketing and branding activations, as well as the Levitation festival and other events?

We started to work with a few other groups that handle sponsorships that we help with. And we have been working with Levitation fest for quite some time. It used to be called Austin Psych Fest about 10 years ago and kind of morphed into Levitation over the years. It’s a small venue-based fest, mostly downtown, up and down Red River Cultural District, which is like the music corridor in Austin. But they also have some satellite, larger events throughout the city as well. And then we relaunched Austin Psych Fest. Years ago it was a full campaign event with multiple stages on a ranch. Now, it’s a two-stage outdoor event at a venue. It’s a one-weekend thing, less of a heavy lift, but we do that in the spring as well. Contractually, we also help out with a brewery and some light stuff to get things like free entertainment. We also book shows at ACL Live and Paramount Theatre. Far Out Lounge is a great new larger space in Austin. It’s a 3,000-capacity venue.

So business is good in 2023?

Right now it’s in full swing, like we’re starting to see 2019 numbers. Everyone thought 2022 would be like this but there were these [COVID] spikes that canceled tours or spooked people and made it a little harder. But once things leveled out, this year has been really on track and it feels like it felt before in terms of attendance. Trajectory-wise, it seems like everything’s on track. But yeah, I do remember that moment where we weren’t sure what was next. And when we decided to relaunch and start a new company. It’s just moved so quickly. There were four or five of us in an office, and now there’s 20-something people a year and a half later, and we’re busier than ever. And there’s more and more stuff being added to the calendar and more venues to work with, more artists touring, people are going out to shows left and right.

It feels like it is still a bit of a buyer’s market, as opposed to agencies trying to find places to get their artists booked, at least at the larger buildings. How is it on the club level?

There’s ups and downs. Summer here is always tough because it’s so miserably hot. With climate change and everything, this is the hottest summer on record. And in Texas, even at night, it’s tough where your bands are like, “We’ll tour there another time. Let’s skip Texas in June and July and August.” There’s always a summer drop. But overall, our springs and falls have gotten to a good place. I can’t complain compared to how bad it was. It feels amazing, compared to the shutdown.

You mentioned earlier that you run a “small, scrappy” company, which is kind of a hallmark of independent promoters. And you have an important role to play in artist development. Let’s talk about that.

How would artists develop without independent promoters? A large company isn’t going to give a chance to a lot of small artists if it doesn’t make financial sense. It doesn’t make sense for your hourly costs, for your staff at that level, to book shows and market these shows and show up and pay them – you’ll always be upside down. There’s not as many people with their ear to the ground that are in the music scene and tied to it a bit more. For a lot of independents that are growing with the artists, like us and some others, it’s important to continue those relationships and continue to work with the artists as long as you can in larger and larger rooms. You’re not looking to get involved and then bail as soon as the numbers change. You’re trying to follow that artist’s growth and help get them as far as you can. There’s a lot of hustle there that goes into that independent spirit. There’s plenty of really great, hardworking, passionate people at every level. But there’s something unique that I think happens within that independent market more often than not.

Are you concerned that the larger companies may, or are beginning to, encroach into the club and theater spaces?

I’ve seen it more and more. I’m sure they could argue the same, that they’ve seen more independents going up into larger rooms over time. For a while, it didn’t make as much sense. But I’ve seen more of that, more clubs either being outright owned by larger companies or just having deals with smaller venues or just going in and presenting or co-presenting smaller stuff.

The first time I heard that, I swear it was in Canada; I think in Toronto. And I met this Live Nation club buyer. He was like, “Oh, I book the 200- to 400-cap rooms you guys book.” I’m thinking, well, it’s in Toronto and not that much in the States. But this is a sign of something to come like I had never heard of. There’s a guy in Chicago now and there’s a growing bubble, but not across the board. I still think there are financial reasons not to do it, to overdo it, on that end. But you are seeing more and more of it and seeing more and more tours. It’s definitely true. It’s concerning from an independent point of view because you can only go so far and pockets are only so deep. But at the same time, most of us do a pretty good job of what we do and have gotten this far.

And independents have gotten there by knowing their markets better than anyone, and are part of the communities they operate in.

Absolutely. They’re the folks in the trenches. That’s not to say there aren’t larger-scale promoters that go to shows, by any means. I run into folks all the time. But the kind of people that eat, sleep and breathe it, those are the folks who tend to work for these independent companies.

They’re the folks who own the club, who opened it because it’s a passion project and they always wanted to be involved with music or came from that. Their goal was to work within a community. So you tend to have a lot more people that are deeply involved – it’s not just their job and their interests, but also their community. And you’re around the artists more, you’re around the clubs more, you’re on the scene more and you’re building off of that, you’re building your local scene, you’re building artists that come through your brand within your area.

I can’t speak for all, but I know a lot of independent promoters nationwide. I travel constantly and they are mostly cut from the same cloth and are pretty heavily involved. If I go out with anyone from any city, everyone seems to know them wherever we go, because these are their people – no matter what club you go into, whether or not it’s a venue that these folks own or whether or not you’re at a restaurant having a bite. It’s like, “Oh, hey, what’s up?” There’s a real bottom-up approach in terms of how you work with the artists around you and the community that’s built around them as opposed to coming in at it from a different angle and kind of dipping down into it when it’s needed.

You talk a lot about community, doing free events to get people out and about in their neighborhood, and supporting your local scene.

I remember there was a study done during the shutdown, that I think was actually used by NIVA, showing for every dollar spent at a show, there’s $12 spent within a mile of the venue. You spend on the cab or the Uber or the parking, the food you buy two blocks away, the drink you got at the place. Everything is connected. We’ll often do promotional crossover things with other like-minded businesses that aren’t necessarily show related. It might be a vintage store, a record store, a cool coffee shop.

There’s a lot of like-minded, independent businesses in any particular community that feed off of each other. They weave together and they’re all connected. People don’t realize when you shut down big pieces of the puzzle, it’s like taking legs out from under a table.
My wife runs a vintage clothing store on a very popular street that’s mostly local businesses, but it’s a cool, hip, local shopping district for that reason. Larger businesses come in, and that’s okay, but they have to be really careful because it can change the feel of it.

IT TAKES A VILLAGE: Graham Williams (front, seated) and his Resound Presents staff gather ’round the desk in their Austin, Texas, headquarters. Photo by Daniel Cavasos

You mention NIVA, and you’ve been very involved in that even though Resound, as a new company, wasn’t able to benefit from the legislation you helped push through to help independent venues.

I was one of the founding members. I’m here to support. I’ll volunteer, I’ll host panels and help raise money. I’ll book bands for these free online concerts that we did, like the Save Our Stages benefit. I jumped in a million times and did a ton for NIVA.

Since [Margin Walker] went away, we actually didn’t benefit from the Small Venue Operator Grant. We didn’t get any money from the government because we shut down before that went through. When we relaunched, your company had to have been around for at least two years to get any relief from the government.

Resound was a brand new company, but I am a big supporter and remain a member and I’m the president of the Texas chapter. Each state has some folks that help with certain things.

The recent NIVA conference in Washington, D.C., included a visit to Capitol Hill to lobby for ticketing reform. Did you go to that?

When I was in D.C., one of the goals was to meet with congressional folks and chat about some of the issues that people are facing. I introduced Sen. John Cornyn, who is the Texas senator, and Dayna [Frank] introduced Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who’s the Minnesota senator. It was bipartisan Republicans and Democrats coming together. They’re the ones who pushed through Save Our Stages and kind of get it.

NIVA has moved on from SVOG to tackling the secondary ticket market. How do you feel about the current situation with ticketing?

Imagine you’re going on tour and you have discussed with your manager how you want to price your tickets for your fans. That’s a negotiation I’ve had. Between the agent, the promoter and yourselves, because you’re like, “Our fans are here and here’s what we think they should pay and what’s fair and here’s how much we’re going to get paid off these tickets.” And then someone just comes in, buys your tickets, doubles the resale price, and keeps all the profit.

Now the fans are pissed and you priced that based on what you thought your fans could afford. The fans are mad at you. They’re mad at the club. They might not come back and
see you the next time because they’re priced out. Or, if you’re going to play a festival,
they feel like, “Man, I just spent 100 bucks to see that band. Now do I want to spend that much more?” It’s such a crazy thing because the secondary market doesn’t take anything into consideration except for what it can convince someone to pay, who doesn’t know any better. And because there’s no ceiling, it just keeps going and going and going.