Austin's Margin Walker Takes First Jump Into DFW Festivals With Fortress Fest
Graham Williams helped make Fun Fun Fun Fest one of Austin's most popular festivals. Now he's helping with Fortress Festival.
When Alec Jhangiani and Ramtin Nikzad set out to start Fortress Festival in DFW, they knew they needed help. The pair had spent nearly a decade working together with the Lone Star Film Festival and Lone Star Film Society and, as they looked to assemble their own music festival, sought out the man who had built Fun Fun Fun Fest into one of the best in Austin.
That man is Graham Williams.
The booking company Transmission Events set up offices in Dallas in November 2014 and ever since there has been speculation that the company would start a festival here as well. In the end, it was Jhangiani and Nikzad who helped make it happen. After they set up Fortress Presents in June 2015, a friend helped connect them with Williams. "We wound up talking on the phone about it and they were good people who wanted to do something cool for the area," says Williams. "It was a hole that needed to be filled."
Williams split off from Transmission earlier this year to start a new company, Margin Walker Presents.
They unveiled the resulting festival, Fortress Fest, earlier this week. It will take place April 29 to 30, 2017. While the lineup and other details are yet to be announced, a press release promised "internationally-acclaimed headliners alongside some of today’s hottest up-and-coming music acts, as well as a variety of local artists and boundary-testing musical pioneers."
Located in Fort Worth's Creative District with the help of the Modern Art Museum, the third partner promoting the festival, Fortress is a hybrid of Jhangiani and Nikzad's experience with film festivals and their desire to produce a music festival. But it shares a lot of sensibilities with Williams' way of putting on a show.
"It's still going to have that flavor, just because we get hired to do stuff occasionally and in each case we want to work on something that has the same aesthetic, the same style of music," says Williams, whose team will be helping with the booking and promotion of Fortress. "Which is what they wanted. They have good taste. So I think, by default, it will be the same thing."
That their first festival foray in North Texas would take place in Fort Worth and not Dallas was, as Williams puts it, a matter of him "following their lead." For his part, Jhangiani says it was important not only to have an urban location, but an event that was "tied to a city." "We just saw the opportunity there with the Creative District area, primarily. Plus I'm from Fort Worth, so there's definitely some hometown sentiment there," says Jhangiani. "The geography of the area, the accessibility of the area, the aesthetic, everything else — it fit exactly what we had in mind."
Aesthetics should certainly play a role in the presentation of Fortress, as the two stages will be set against such picturesque backdrops as the Modern's reflecting pool and the Will Rogers Memorial Center. While Jhangiani and Nikzad have never run a music festival before, they witnessed the overlap as the Lone Star events included music bookings. "Something we did experience in our time with Lone Star is this conflation of these kinds of events. They're becoming these fluid, almost cultural events," Jhangiani says.
The bulk of the nearly 18 months since Fortress Presents was established and the announcement of the festival was spent making sure they did their due diligence. "We were starting a business, raising money for that business. In a lot of ways it was like launching a startup: we were finding investors, putting together a business plan, studying the market," says Jhangiani.
That deliberate approach to steady growth fits in well with how Williams has approached DFW. He'd worked together in Dallas with Kris Youmans' Tactics Productions for several years before formally joining forces to create Transmission's Dallas office, and is only just now dipping his toes into the festival waters here.
"It has a stronger scene in Texas than some of the other cities. There are more people to support live music, but also a lot of great venues, so there's more options," Williams says of DFW, which is the largest metropolitan area in the state. "There are a lot of cities where there's only one or two good rooms, so a lot less bands will play there simply because there aren't as many options."
The Fort Worth Modern Art Museum will play host to Fortress Fest next April.
When it comes to festivals in the area, Dallas' size, and resulting sprawl, could potentially be a hindrance. But Williams sees an upside there as well. "Look at the East Coast, where everything is a train ride away and a big event can do OK because it can pull people from those other cities. Texas is so spread out," he says. "In Dallas, you have a few communities squished together that are within driving distance. It's reasonable to expect people to drive to Dallas from Fort Worth."
Of course, fans in North Texas are already in some cases making the trip to Austin and even Houston for their music festivals. But maybe not as many as you'd think: Williams estimates that somewhere around 30 percent of attendance for Fun Fun Fun usually came from cities outside Austin. (Margin Walker has started up a new festival this year called Sound on Sound, which is effectively replacing Fun Fun Fun.) "Boutique events tend to lean that way. They can be a one-city event," Williams says.
Still, with events like Austin City Limits Festival and Houston's Free Press Summer Fest already such big draws, there could conceivably only be so much room for a festival to grow in Dallas. The organizers of Lights All Night, for instance, chose to leave East Texas entirely to set up a second festival in El Paso, so as to not "cannibalize their market." Again, Williams sees plenty of room for growth in Dallas.
"When Free Press started down in Houston, it was just like you know what, we don't have festival. Why don't we have our ACL?" Williams says. "And they just booked it and it was a field of dreams moment. People started showing up and it just grew and grew and grew, and they sold it to LiveNation recently, and they get 35,000 people. And it was because there was just such a void there. [And] I feel Dallas has the opportunity to do that right now."
Fortress' ambitions are more modest than that, at least for the time being. "You have to stick around long enough for people to notice [the quality of your product]. A big part of that model is for people to realize you're here to stay," says Jhangiani. "Obviously, breaking even financially would be considered a success — and I think we have good chance to do that." But with someone like Williams on board, the sky could really be the limit.
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