This past weekend marked one of Austin's new annual festivals: Fun Fun Fun Fest. This year saw reunion sets from Snapcase, Cap n' Jazz, Floor, The Gories and for the first time in a little under a decade - punk pioneers, the Descendents. Along those short lived reunions were big names like MGMT, RJD2, Slick Rick, Deerhunter and Mastodon. The booking company behind the event, and also a good chunk of shows in Austin: Transmission Entertainment. I sat down with Graham Williams to talk about any advice he might be able to give to both the local and national touring circuit.
First off, what's your background and how did Transmission Entertainment come about?
Long story. I was young and into music. I went to shows a lot. There weren't a lot of all ages rooms in Austin, other than the big clubs that nobody likes. All of the hardcore bands and punk bands had to put on our own shows. We put on shows at warehouses, VFW halls, garages and wherever we could find space. We did that forever. There was "Book Your Own Fucking Life" which Maximum Rock and Roll used to put out that had everyone's addresses and phone numbers if you needed to book a show. There were other Austin contacts if you needed to book your own shows too. I just started putting on shows throughout high school. That's how I started booking shows, out of necessity to have somewhere for my friends' bands to play or bands from out of town to play. When I got older, I ended up working at Emo's doing security and stage managing. I was about nineteen or so. Then I ended up moving up doing all the booking, because the other guy left. I was there for nine years booking and managing. I learned a lot there just because there were so many other types of bands that I didn't know about before or book before. Music was changing a lot. There was a lot of underground music coming out at the time that wasn't "punk." Long story short, I eventually got kind of bored with it being at the same place for so long. I may have been a little under-appreciated too. I didn't own the club. A guy who doesn't like punk music at all is the owner. He's a businessman who just made an investment and will probably sell the thing off as a hotel. It got to the point where "I have to do something for me and the scene." Venues open and close. The idea was that Austin hasn't really had the booking team that it deserves. So many other cities have these booking teams. We never really had that. I got with a few people. I got with The Mohawk. We decided that we should try and start something, that we could get into something for [local and touring acts] in Austin. There's C3Presents, but they're a lot larger and don't focus on the kind of stuff we do. Austin's kind of tribal and venues book against each other. It shouldn't be like that. Bands should be booked in the right room regardless. When we started, that was the concept. I don't know if we're the underdog because of what we do or how people respond. We're real cautious about the brand. We don't book bands we don't like. We build off what we support. That doesn't mean I listen to every band that I book, but I support what they do. Like I said, it just went off from there. It kind of exploded and it's really cool. We've only been around for a few years.
Transmission shows are certainly spread amongst the venues. If you're at Red 7, you're going to get a punk or metal show. If you're at Mohawk, maybe a little more indie. Do you feel as a booker right now that at a time like this, that the market is flooded? Is it best to spread out shows at niche locations in case people are like, "Oh, I want to go to a show tonight...," do you feel like that's the best opportunity?
It kind of depends. [When I worked] at Emo's, my philosophy was that "all underground music is the same." Whether you listen to underground hip-hop, punk, hardcore, DJs, it's all the same. A lot of [those bands] shared members and labels. A lot of those bands listened to each other. Even if the entire scene didn't know that. If 80-90% of the crowd was as open minded as they are, the music scene itself tends to be a bit more open minded. I wanted Emo's to encompass that. I wanted it to be this big tent that has sort of a rainbow of genres. That's why I started Fun Fun Fun Fun Fest. It's just a bigger example.
Especially with the separate stages.
Yeah. At the time, Emo's was the only game in town. We'd have Modest Mouse one night and then Jimmy Eat World the next night and then Agnostic Front the next night. It wasn't weird. Crowds would come in and out. It was a venue that just hosted music. Now, like you said, everything has grown so much. Indie rock has exploded into mainstream music. It's what you hear on the radio. It's what you hear on soundtracks. In a way, as that has happened more and more, there have been venues that want to cater to a certain genre. That's not a bad thing. I don't think it's bad that there are more punk rock clubs or more indie clubs. If you are a fan of indie and want to check something out and don't know where to go to, there's a 75% chance you'll like what's at Mohawk. I don't think it's bad. I don't think people should pigeonholed themselves too much. I've had [punk acts] play Mohawk and last time I booked Dirty Projectors was at Red 7. I do think it works as the scene has grown larger, that people can have their own room to do their own thing. Fun Fun FUn Fest is set up the same way, in which each stage has a theme. Granted, you can walk a hundred feet and go watch a completely different brand of music. While I may be excited to watch Snapcase, Yelle and Descendents, who are all very different and the bands I'm most excited to see, at the same time, I also recognize that not everyone is like me. I know that a good chunk of people will stay by those stages 75% of the time. But even of that 75%, there will be people who used to love the Descendents when I was in junior high but I'm into MGMT or whatever. These kids are able to step outside their comfort zone and see a bands like Mastodon whom they've heard of and are now able to see. But they don't have to necessarily be stuck in a room listening to the ten metal bands before them that they don't want to see because they're more into dance music. I've kind of set up each stage to stack them and keep everyone open, but also to keep their minds open. Each venue sort of has their thing, but we also promote all our shows as one company. Here's Big Boi. Here's Deakin from Animal Collective. Here's Scream. It's up to everybody else to sort of branch out a bit.
Do you feel there is a saturation to the point that it's harder for a booker to keep to their guarantees? It seems kids are finding it harder to make it out to every show.
We win more than we lose. I think it tends to happen a bit more because record sales have dropped due to downloading. I think that tends to slow things down. Bands are touring way more than they used to. Bands are coming two, maybe three times a year when they used to barely come out at all. Now they're having to tour a lot more to make money. If a band comes out two or three times, their fans aren't going to come out every time, especially in Austin where there's a lot of music. If you have five bad-ass shows in one week, not everyone is going to do well...We keep our prices as low as possible. There are venues that charge way more. Obviously there are going to be bigger bands with bigger guarantees, but we still try to keep it on the low end. I'd say 90% of our shows aren't too bad. Ten bucks or less. We try and make it affordable so a lot more people are going out. I think that has a lot more to do with Austin itself. There's a lot of bands and a lot of venues.
Do you find that local bands have a harder time breaking out here? I always here about how Austin "used to be," but I can't judge anything past that. I do hear from people that there is a lack of support.
I think there are a few reasons why it's partly true and partly not. There are so many great bands. Austin used to not be a stop. When I was a kid, bands did not want to drive through the desert twelve hours to play Austin and get the hell out of here and get to L.A. It almost wasn't worth driving to Texas. There's a scene that has grown so much, that people now go out of their way to do just that. We do do a lot more tours than before. Indie music has grown a lot. If you're going out to see music, you're going to go out to see your favorite band that you've been waiting to see, as opposed to a local one. On the flip side, local bands in Austin are terrible about doing this. You ask any club in Austin, they will bitch nonstop about local bands playing three or five times a week that don't promote. They don't flier. There are great acts that are out there that DO promote, send out e-mails, Facebook, Twitter and do a great job. There are a lot of bands that show up, play a show and ask for money when only four people showed up to see them. [Also,] they played the night before at another club and playing a free show the next night....because there are so many places to play music and it's so much fun, bands want to do it a lot. It's hard to say, we're going to play one show this month - maybe even one show every other month. When you're a new band, it's no big deal. No one knows who you are and you can get away with playing a lot. Once you get a following, people don't want to check you out every night. They don't care to see you every night. You wouldn't go to the same party every night or eat at the same restaurant every night. I think it's a balance of too many tours and lot of overplaying on local bands' part. A lot of venues are trying to stay open. They don't really care either sometimes. They need to fill a bill on Wednesday, they're going to let you play...a lot of clubs are guilty of overbooking. There are only so many bands to choose from in the pool of local Austin talent.
With illegal downloading, whether it's good for exposure, but negative because bands are having to go out on the road so much. What is the best advice for bands - is it still in the D.I.Y. promotion or the social networking aspect? What is the best way to promote your band? On the flipside, do you think there's a saturation of promotion on the Web?
I think, one, bands shouldn't rely on source to promote themselves. In the same way, I don't rely on one source to book my shows. I don't put out an ad and hope people will show up. I don't do a Facebook message and hope people show up. I do an ad, a Facebook message, have a street team who flyers, we do giveaways on college radio - because not everyone is on Facebook all the time or not everyone goes to record stores and sees flyers because they download all the time. You really have to try and get the word out anyway you can. Is there an over-saturation on [social networking] because it's the easiest - and not only easiest, but the largest amount of people. There are far more people on Facebook right now than Waterloo Records, unfortunately. It's obvious why people do it, and they should, but it shouldn't be the only way. Is it over-saturated because of it? There was a time when you looked in your inbox with a handful of things, and now you sit down with more and more and can't even get through it. Who knows? Maybe it'll go the way of Myspace where it got overly saturated with the commercial side of it and the junk mail. I think Facebook is too strong with the community side of it to let it happen, but like I said, it's possible. I still think people read it and look at it more than anything else, but you still have to do other forms of promotion. If people see a post from Fun Fun Fun, people recognize the brand...in a way you do have to work harder so people recognize you among the other acts.