Transmission Events has been a leading light in the Austin music world for the past nine years, ever since co-founder and national talent booker Graham Williams left the city’s venerable indie rock club Emo’s to start his own promotions company. What started as a company booking rock clubs like Mohawk, Club de Ville, and Lamberts became a statewide powerhouse with a national presence, expanding to Dallas and, increasingly, San Antonio. On top of that, the annual Fun Fun Fun Fest that the Transmission team has put on in downtown Austin every year since 2006 quickly established a reputation as one of the country’s best music festivals, featuring Austin’s pleasant early November weather, oddities like pro wrestling and skate ramps, and a late-night component that saw the festival’s various acts spill out into nearby clubs for additional shows until two in the morning.
But when rumors started circulating last week that real estate firm Stratus Properties, which owns ACL Live’s Moody Theater and invested in Transmission in 2014, was looking to take control of the company, the status of the festival was cast in doubt. That doubt got a lot more serious after Williams, along with fellow co-founder James Moody, announced that they’d be leaving Transmission to launch a new company, Margin Walker (named after a song by the fiercely independent post-punk band Fugazi), and that Fun Fun Fun Fest was staying with their old company.
A source who remains at Transmission told Texas Monthly last week that Fun Fun Fun Fest would still be happening—but if the festival does happen in 2016, it’ll probably end up looking a lot different without preeminent talent buyer Williams and a large part of his staff.
The future of Fun Fun Fun Fest aside, the changes at Transmission—and Margin Walker—can and will have a big impact on the live music experience in Austin, as well as in San Antonio and Dallas. Those aren’t all going to be negative, though. We caught up with Williams on Monday night to get some more details on what the future holds for his new company, his old company, and for a downtown Austin music festival—whatever it may be called—booked by his team in 2016.
What led you to leave Transmission and launch Margin Walker?
We’ve been doing a Transmission for a decade now, and I think in the end, the group of folks we work with just decided to split into two halves. They’re going to continue with production, sponsorship development, corporate clients, things like that, and we’re taking the music half of it—shows, live music, concerts throughout Texas. The stuff we started the company doing in the first place. It’s pretty much the same staff that has broken off to start this.
How would you characterize Margin Walker’s relationship with Transmission going forward? Are they a competitor, a collaborator, or just someone in a totally different line of work?
I don’t think of it as a competitor, because we’re doing two different things. But collaborator—I guess we’ll just see what happens. It’s hard to say right now, because we’re doing live music. But I’d imagine, if they’re doing production and sponsorship work, and we book live music, the way that it was set up before, we would handle bookings whenever there were bands associated with that, and I imagine this will continue.
How does Margin Walker differ from the consumer experience that people were used to with Transmission? If you liked to go to shows that Transmission booked, will you notice?
Right off the bat, it’s the same experience, the same shows, the same genres of bands, the same number of bands, possibly more, the exact same team—same talent buyers, same marketing people, same folks who’ve been doing will continue to do it. Same clubs we worked in Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas. So that part’s the same, which I think is a good thing. That’s something we’ve been very proud of, and that we’ve been building on for a long time.
In addition to that, we’re very happy to kind of branch out, and be our own bosses, and do our own thing. I think we’ll have a lot of really exciting stuff as we move forward, but in the meantime, it’s going to be a lot of the same experience that people are used to.
What does this mean for Fun Fun Fun Fest?
You know, I don’t know. I don’t know exactly what they’re going to do. The way that it’s papered up, me and James Moody are no longer involved with the LLC, and that owns the name Transmission and Fun Fun Fun Fest. I’m not currently sure—they have said that they want to talk more about it next month more publicly, I guess, though you’d have to ask them about that.
I know that they didn’t take a talent buying or marketing group, so no one over there does booking or marketing, really—that’s all with us. I’m honestly not sure who’s staying with Transmission at this point, either. There are other folks that handle sponsorship and production work over there that are currently employed by Transmission. They haven’t fired anyone as of now, or anything like that.
Are you going to be involved in booking a music festival in 2016?
I plan to, yeah.
So what does this mean for events that are currently booked through Transmission that are held at venues that Margin Walker now books?
Literally all the shows are just changing over to Margin Walker. That was part of the separation. I don’t think they as an entity wanted to continue doing live music. Eventually new logos will be on all the posters and all the digital assets online.
Is it a hassle to have spent ten years building this company and this brand, and then have to start with a new name and a new identity at this point in the game?
A little bit. Anytime you’re working on something for a long period of time, you have to refocus a bit. Definitely it’s extra work, but I don’t think it’s that big a deal. The majority of what we do isn’t too complicated in terms of changing that over. I booked Emo’s for, God, almost a decade. I feel like that was asked so much—“How are you gonna move forward?”— like it was a really important thing. And it was, for me and a lot of people. But in the end, you know, I left and started a company and I get to do way more now than I did when I was booking just one club, and that club sadly closed. So I think we’re in kind of a similar scenario here, where I’m just leaving to do something new that’s sort of building on what I was already doing. I think the Transmission brand is more local-centric, but it’s more tied to the people, and it’s the same people and the same venues, with a lot more freedom and a lot more room to grow. The Fun Fun brand, I think, is a little different. It’s more of a national brand, so as someone who’s been a big part of that thing, what are my thoughts? It’s hard to say. I mean, yeah, I put a lot into it, but I’ve kind of done that my whole life. So the fact that I’m still continuing to do festivals and book shows, it’s kind of like being in a band that breaks up, and you start a new band the next day and put out a record a few months later.
Transmission has been closely been associated in Austin with Mohawk, Sidewinder, and Barracuda. Is Transmission going to continue having relationships with places that you weren’t necessarily as close with like ACL Live?
Transmission was already doing a lot of shows that fill some seats, so we’re going to continue to do that, and do some more. I think we did like 25 shows at the Parish last year. Same thing with North Door, and Beerland, and ACL Live. We’ll continue to do that. ACL Live, obviously they’re owned by Stratus, which is a real estate company that handles this now, but they love the shows we bring and we love doing shows there. It’s a great room, so I don’t foresee that changing.
What’s the future of Margin Walker in San Antonio and Dallas?
It’s great. We started doing Dallas just a year and a half ago, and we’ve just doubled the amount of stuff we’re doing there now. San Antonio came on right about a year ago, and that’s been amazing. It’s just grown more and more. They have great scenes and tons of people. It’s been pretty awesome. I think we’re going to more with those towns, as well.
When you say that this frees you up to do things, what sort of things does this free you up to do?
We’ll unveil some of that as we move forward. Everything from new festivals, new events, new creative ideas, booking shows, booking more places—I think right now, when you’re in a partnership, there’s a lot of different things going on, and there are a lot of ups and downs. The good thing is that you have a team, but you’re limited by what that team wants to do. The thing here is that we have an entire team of people who are working in live music. It’s all music people—all music marketing, music promotion, talent buyers. It’s people that want to grow what it is that we’ve been doing, so that’s really exciting for us.
When you name your company after a Fugazi song, that sends some kind of message. Is that something you had in mind?
A little bit. Not so much. You don’t want to be too compared to Fugazi, but they’re a band we love, and they’ve always had this great DIY mentality, and ethics in music, and I think that’s something we do, as well. The name has a nice ring to it. I like the concept of Margin Walker—not right down the middle, or too obvious. We had a laundry list of names, and narrowing down the name was by far the hardest part of the last week, other than having the company change the way it did [laughs]. That definitely wasn’t an easy thing to do.