SXSW 2017: Graham Williams stresses importance of small venues during Saturday panel

Discussing the high rate of turnover in the small music venue segment of the Austin ecosystem Saturday, local promoter Graham Williams made a startling observation; that the Continental Club is perhaps the only small full-time music space from the first South By Southwest still in operation. Also more recently, there are perhaps only a handful of music-first spaces from the 2007 festival still in operation.

JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The point of those thoughts – offered during Williams’ participation on the “Saving Small Venues & The Independent Music Scene” panel – was that in Austin and other music cities across the country small clubs have a way of sprouting up and filling the demand for music fans and artists.

“The title of the article that comes out every two months is that the music scene is going away, and it has changed but it feels like places pop up too,” said Williams, founder of Margin Walker Presents and co-owner of The Sidewinder club. “It’s frustrating running a club and it is hard, and we need to work more with the city. But if you’re strong and passionate about it you’ll find a way to work it out.”

Williams was joined on the panel by promoters and club owners in New York and San Francisco, other markets where surging real estate markets have a tendency to price out incubator clubs after only a few years of operation. Just as East Austin has become home to more clubs in recent years, small venues in New York have moved out of Manhattan and deeper into Brooklyn each year, while Oakland has become the release valve for venues and artists priced out of San Francisco.

“Williamsburg started as a place where artists were living in the venues they operated out of, then all the waterfront got redeveloped and we had to figure out how to stay around,” said a former owner of the Glasslands Gallery venue in New York City. “When you do events you have to take responsibility for what it is you’re doing, and realize that when the attention gets bigger it becomes a business and that is something you have to protect.”

Much of the discussion revolved around industry issues such as the inability to generate digital content revenue at the small venue level, and the effects of radius clauses for emerging acts playing festivals, which are thus barred from playing competing clubs in a market.

While the city of Austin has taken initial steps to improve the fortunes of artists facing higher costs of living and stagnant music revenue, Williams said more needs to be done from a regulation and permitting standpoint so venue owners know what is expected of them to operate in compliance with local laws.

“The thing that keeps coming up is, how can we work with code and permitting because we have headache after headache from getting different rulings a year apart from people telling us what they see as dangerous that we have to spend money to fix,” Williams said, “We’ve almost had cases where weren’t able to talk to (building) to get a permit to fix something code enforcement said was wrong, and we could get shut down because two departments couldn’t talk to each other.”


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