On October 6, roughly a month before the knights were set to storm the castle, booker Graham Williams was forced to cancel the medieval-themed Sound on Sound Fest because an investor pulled out. A few weeks later, Williams has managed to mitigate the financial loss for his company, Margin Walker, by booking an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the artists scheduled to perform into club shows around Austin, including 15 events that will happen over the weekend of Nov 10-12, when the festival was supposed to take place at Sherwood Forest Faire. But he says the whimsical event that rose from the ashes of Fun Fun Fun Fest last year, to pair indie rock, hip-hop and retro punk sounds with fair maidens and merry men, is likely dead.
“I don’t know. It was such a new brand, such a new name, still in, like, the growing phase, teaching people what it was,” he says. He doesn’t want to speak for everyone involved and, with a busy weekend of shows on the horizon, next year seems very far away, but “it feels a little hard to see that happening again.”
“It’s such a bummer that this thing was so close to becoming this pretty epic event annually and we just got basically screwed and left holding the bag,” he says.
Williams says SOS Fest ticket sales were on track and the investor, who he declined to name, just got “cold feet” about the festival market in general. A devastating mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas at the beginning of October didn’t help. “A tragedy of that magnitude made this week even harder for potential plan b investors,” he said on Oct. 7, the day after the cancellation was announced.
For well over a decade, Williams has been the music scene’s premier torch-bearer for a new school version of “Austin Weird.” First with Fun Fun Fun, then SOS Fest, he’s demonstrated an uncanny knack for combining well-curated music with brilliant moments of absurdity to create memorable experiences. (Mini bike hot dog jousting! Punk wedding officiated by Henry Rollins! Taco cannon!) But the festival landscape has evolved in ways that make it much more challenging for an independent promoter to stand up an event without outside financial backing.
“Back in the day, festivals were different,” he says. “Bands got paid, production got paid, everyone got paid that weekend, when the bar sales were in, when the sponsors had handed off the check, when all the ticket money came in to the bank account.”
These days, after well-publicized flops like the Caribbean island disaster, Fyre Festival and Pemberton Music Festival in Seattle, which declared bankruptcy two months before it was scheduled to take place, everyone from artist management to the production companies who provide festival essentials like fencing, lighting and sound, demands more money up front.
“I feel like we’re, kind of, one of many smaller events that are independent, that don’t have a massive company behind them who can put a couple million dollars into an operational account,” Williams says. “So that’s why you need, kind of, investors for festivals…That’s why a lot of the festivals have now been bought by Live Nation — so they can fund it and pay themselves back at the end of the festival.”
Williams feels the mainstream festival market has become oversaturated. “I’ve been saying for years that the bubble is going to burst,” he says.
He believes, the “mega fests” like Coachella and Bonnaroo will survive because they have enough backing, but many fests on the second tier will struggle. Williams didn’t mention Austin City Limits Festival by name, but it’s worth noting that Friday and Sunday single-day passes for both weekends and 3-day passes for the weekend two were still available in the days leading up to the massive event at Zilker Park this year.
“When people used to go to a festival that has 80,000 people at it, and it was the only festival for 500 miles, half the audience were tourists… out of towners,” he says. “Now there’s a version, it may not be as good, but there’s a version of that festival within 100 miles of every other city.”
Williams believes some of these events, “that all have the same lineup in a slightly different version,” will eventually phase out.
It’s still up in the air whether his own company will attempt to stage some sort of a festival in Austin or outside the city limits next year. Williams says there have been conversations, but nothing concrete. “Finding the right brand and right concept is what’s important for me … if the event works, if we can make it work, if the idea is cool and the location works, I’m always happy to get involved.”
But right now, he feels good about the crunch turnaround, booking over 50 SOS Fest artists into club shows to salvage some of the fest’s spirit. A week out, tickets are moving well. He suspects about half of the shows will sell out and the other half will come close.
Going forward, he’s primarily thinking about ways to build Margin Walker’s core business, the roughly 700-750 live shows his company routes through Texas each year.
“We have some ideas going around, we’re talking to some folks, but my biggest focus right now is just doing what we do,” he says.