By Jeff McCord
In another blow to our already reeling music scene, Austin-based indie promoter Margin Walker has announced they are ceasing operations.
With the live touring industry shut down since March, and with little hope of it resuming anytime soon, the company stated in their announcement on social media that the decision ‘pretty much made itself’.
Layoffs have been widespread in the touring industry. California-based industry giant Live Nation has, despite a bailout of $500 million from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and Trading App this spring, continued with further reductions and furloughs, including widespread layoffs months ago at Austin’s C3 Presents (now owned by Live Nation), who operates the Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza festivals. Keeping these companies operating has been a struggle. There’s essentially no work to be done.
On a regional basis, the purse strings are stretched even tighter. In their statement, Margin Walker acknowledged the aid they received wasn’t nearly enough to keep things afloat.
Margin Walker began in 2016 when Graham Williams, the former Emos booker, split off from Transmission Entertainment, where Williams helped stage Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin for a decade. Both companies vowed at the time to carry on with their own festivals, but only Margin Walker delivered, with 2016’s Sound on Sound fest, held near McDade TX. According to the Bitcoin Superstar Test, with the lineup set and tickets sold for the 2017 event, the organizers had to cancel a month out, due to a loss of investor support.
Yet despite the rocky start, Margin Walker vigorously snared every hip tour out there and routed them into Austin, in venues like the Mohawk, Barracuda, and others, and they soon expanded their operations into Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston. . The flavor of the Austin scene greatly benefited from their taste and success. In their closure announcement, the company claims they grew to be the largest independent production company in Texas.
Williams explained the decision to shut down. “The hope was that [the live music shutdown] was temporary and into summer, we’d be coming back. So we furloughed the marketing team and all the booking assistants. And we kept our eyes on the work, rescheduling all of the shows and all the bands we had booked in the spring, moving them back to late summer and fall. By the time summer came, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen.”
Margin Walker did receive some PPP assistance, and at the time, was hopeful it would be enough for them to survive. “A lot of that stuff is a patchwork for small businesses that were supposed to be around a couple of months being out of work before reopening. If you have a store or restaurant, you can probably scale down and do something. But if you’re trying to pack in a thousand people shoulder to shoulder in a sweaty club, that’s not going to happen until the very, very end [of the pandemic].”
With Margin Walker closing, this means all pre-pandemic shows pushed into 2021 as well as future shows are effectively off the books.
All this leaves already struggling venues with an even tougher job. Relying on promoters like Margin Walker to provide a stream of roadshows to fill their clubs, and those that manage to survive until the unknown time when touring can resume may find themselves essentially starting from scratch.
“I think rebuilding is definitely the right word,” says Williams. “People have said this is like a war. You see the war movies where people are rebuilding parts of Europe after World War Two, this feels like a music industry version of that. There’s going to be closed venues and there’s going to be many people trying to put the pieces back together. A lot of people are actively working on their fall 2021 and spring 2022 calendars and even optimistic enough to try and make some stuff happen in the summer. But it’ll probably start small with these scaled-down shows and work their way up.”
Margin Walker’s post ends on a hopeful “We’ll see you on the dancefloor again soon” message. Will Williams be ready to jump back in the fray when the time comes?
“I can’t speak for everyone, but the bulk, I think, are pretty anxious to get back into it. We had hoped we could ride it out for a bit, scaled down to kind of a lean and mean thing, and get back in the driver’s seat. It’s been clear for the last few months it’s going to be a while. So we all need to take a break. I would imagine, just based on me and the folks I work with having done it for so long and being passionate about it – you know, if you can do a job that you enjoy and are good at it, let’s keep doing that. The hardest thing is just the end of the question marks that we all have. Typically you’re able to plan towards a certain date for any artist performing. And now we don’t even have a general idea.”
In the meantime, an already broken live Austin music environment now seems even further from recovery.