Faster Than Sound: Growing Up Margin Walker

I've only ever experienced Texas music under the independent reigns of Graham Williams. I didn't know how lucky I was.

Explosions in the Sky at Sound on Sound Fest in 2016 (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

During my teenage years in San Antonio, I had a much cooler best friend with a punk dad. As such, his children annually attended Fun Fun Fun Fest, the cultish music and comedy festival held at Austin's Auditorium Shores. I joined in at age 16, just months after returning from a 2012 summer mission trip with my church choir.

Upon entry, the singer of Chicago shock act the Dwarves dislodged my sunglasses and told me to let my hair down as I bobbed nervously (and happily) before the heavy-genre Black Stage. I got properly high for the first time waiting for Hannibal Buress in the tented Yellow Stage, dropping a stranger's joint because I didn't want to burn my fingers. I'd journeyed to Austin for a few shows, but I'd never been to a music festival.

The next year, I upset my high school boyfriend by fanatically lunging to touch a stage-diving Mac Demarco in Thee Oh Sees crowd. When my best friend ditched me to hang out with hardcore kids from McCallum High, I sat in the big field in front of the Orange Stage and cried into my Doc Martens. Seems that the most vivid moments of my youth happened at events curated by promoter Graham Williams, where indie rock, hip-hop, pop, punk, and everything else co-headlined ahead of their time.

I didn't know how lucky I was.

Last week, Williams and his team announced the closure of concert company Margin Walker Presents. After a venue extinction year, cessation of the state's largest independent promoter sounded an ominous death knell for live music as we know it for the foreseeable future. Their social media statement called it a decision "that essentially made itself."

Williams and co-founder Ian Orth launched Margin Walker in 2016 after ACL Live developers Stratus Properties absorbed the former's previous promotions company, Transmission Events, and its festival offshoot Fun Fun Fun Fest. Local scene vet Rosa Madriz headed talent buying at Margin Walker, its moniker borrowed from a Fugazi EP. Their new event, Sound on Sound, took its name from a song by Big Boys just like Fun Fun Fun pulled from an EP by the seminal Austin skate punks.

As a junior at UT, I wrote to then-Digital Media Manager Bianca Flores asking for an internship. My overenthusiastic letter reveals longtime use of music events to measure time and personal happiness – a habit that's left me completely untethered this year. Referencing Margin Walker's oversight of around half the Mohawk calendar, I gushed:

"Growing up in San Antonio, my favorite thing ever was going to shows at the Mohawk. As soon as I got my driver's license, I remember buying tickets on the Transmission site and feeling so excited that I had something outside of my town to look forward to. I can already tell that Margin Walker and Sound on Sound Fest are the best parts of Transmission with even more creative freedom and independence."

As unresourceful marketing interns, we mostly made Facebook events and social media posts. I remember a particular incident in the office kitchen when I couldn't uncap a Topo Chico, and Booking Coordinator Mariah Stevens-Ross had to show me how to use a bottle opener. Knowing her as one of the cool girls from Sailor Poon, I was mortified.

The bosses knew how to find fun from the endless email chains behind concert-making. When our response to a 15-year-old fan's adorable message asking about Sound on Sound set times bounced back, Flores turned it into a social campaign, "#FindEric." The company shook out similar fairy dust to launch "We Can Do Magic!" in the nebulous days following the March cancellation of South by Southwest 2020. Rescheduled gigs held for some 48 hours before state COVID-19 guidelines quashed gatherings, but Margin Walker nevertheless managed an upbeat concept complete with art by Creative Director Orth.

Yours truly at Fun Fun Fun Fest in 2013 (Courtesy of Rachel Rascoe)

Back in the fest-planning mania of the inaugural Sound on Sound in 2016, I learned to stay calm, wear black, and call dibs on a golf cart. Visiting the Renaissance fair site in McDade and witnessing a medieval-themed music festival grow under towering trees felt like being backstage at indie Disney World. The lineup – working in Beach House, Run the Jewels, Courtney Barnett, Descendents, Big Boi, Dead Milkmen, and a reunion of post-hardcore gods Thursday – continued the genre-divergent spirit of Fun Fun Fun.

I also learned the difficulties of weather-permitting events during storm delays that initial Sunday. Angry fans flooded Facebook comments we interns were supposed to respond to. As skies cleared, the team managed to reschedule Young Thug, a major source of worried DMs, before Explosions in the Sky closed out the night.

We didn't know that would prove the only year of Sound on Sound.

Investors pulled out weeks prior to the 2017 edition, whose remnant partially rerouted to Austin venues. Other Texas festivals at remote sites ended around that time; Levitation pivoted to a multi-venue model after its own last-minute cancellation the previous year, and downtown Houston's Day for Night also closed out in 2017.

Before COVID-19, Margin Walker booked more than ever before. Their trademark blend of big crowds, little crowds, rare Texas appearances, and locally sourced openers spread across Mohawk and Barracuda (R.I.P.) in Austin, White Oak Music Hall in Houston, and Club Dada and Ruins in Dallas. My teenage self pined for their schedule at San Antonio's Paper Tiger, routing tons of acts who wouldn't have stopped in years past.

Last September, I saw Stereolab play my hometown for the first time ever before joining their sold-out reception at Mohawk the next evening. Singer Lætitia Sadier raised her fist and declared, "Don't become the new Austin. Resist."

Most recently, Margin Walker operated out of a small office on the Chronicle footprint. Once, as fellow music writer Kevin Curtin and I walked over to ask for guest spots, we noticed we both had on vintage Fun Fun Fun Fest tees. We figured they had to put us on the list.

Williams let go of that lease over the summer, along with a Dallas office. Even after furloughing much of the team, as he told Curtin on our Daily Music blog, "reopening with an insurmountable amount of debt makes no sense." The announcement spawned an outpouring of appreciation for the team's support of myriad music industry careers.

Personally, I wrote my first concert review for a random college site after winning an Instagram giveaway for Death Grips tickets. I've never lived in a music scene without oversight by a tasteful regional promotions company with DIY ethics at heart. Happily, recent inclusion of the Save Our Stages Act in the long-awaited national stimulus package gave hope to indie venues nationwide Sunday evening, and Williams and Orth suggest an eventual return to concert-planning.

I hope they're scouring the American punk oeuvre for a new name as we speak.

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Margin Walker Presents, Margin Walker, Graham Williams, Ian Orth, Fun Fun Fun Fest, Sound on Sound, Transmission Events, Stratus Properties, Rosa Madriz, Bianca Flores, Big Boys, Mohawk, Mariah Stevens-Ross, Sailor Poon, Stereolab, Lætitia Sadier, Save Our Stages Act

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