by Jordan Lawrence
With a newly renovated arena complex in the U.S. Cellular Center and a number of theaters and rock clubs strewn throughout the city, Asheville books what would be an impressive array of musical entertainment for a town five times its size. We checked in with three of the city’s successful venues — U.S. Cellular Center, The Orange Peel and The Mothlight — to find out how they compete with larger markets.
The Orange Peel
With a capacity of about 1,000, The Orange Peel works in an uncertain middle ground between large arenas and smaller rock clubs like The Grey Eagle or Asheville Music Hall. And while booking The Smashing Pumpkins for a week-long residency or Jack White on his 2012 tour — both of which The Peel has done — will certainly pack the place, the venue most often works with bands that are either still on the rise or have an established midlevel appeal. Either way, the club’s managers are never really sure how many people will show up.
But The Peel doesn’t tackle these issues on its own. Since opening 12 years ago, the room has partnered with AC Entertainment, the booking colossus that produced last year’s Mountain Oasis festival and continues to put on large-scale events such as Bonnaroo in Tennessee. AC secures all of The Peel’s national acts. This partnership, admits Orange Peel marketing and special events director Liz Whalen Tallent, has been vital to the business’ success. “AC Entertainment knows all the big, big agencies,” she says. “That’s why you see acts like Jack White and the Beastie Boys and The Smashing Pumpkins coming through here, when otherwise, they certainly weren’t looking to do a thousand-person venue in Asheville.”
US Cellular Center
AC books shows in other Asheville spaces, as well. U.S. Cellular Center general manager Chris Corl says this makes for a perfect feeder system into the 7,200-capacity ExploreAsheville.com arena and the 2,400-capacity Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, which form one interconnected complex downtown.
“Over, like, a three- or four- or five year period, you’ll see a group play The Grey Eagle, then play The Orange Peel, then work its way up to Thomas Wolfe and then hopefully the arena,” he says. “Umphrey’s McGee, for example, came in on Valentine’s Day and sold out [the Thomas Wolfe]. While they were here, I toured their manager and their promoters through the arena and was like, ‘You sold out the Thomas Wolfe. Maybe we need to look at the arena.”
The competition for acts that can fill such large rooms can be fierce, and Corl says he’s constantly working to wrestle bookings away from nearby markets like Greenville, S.C. But he emphasizes that it’s also important for the venue to collaborate with its counterparts in other cities. Last fall, for example, he conspired with The Fillmore in Charlotte to secure a performance from popular indie rock group The National, offering up two flexible dates and letting the band’s handlers determine which night worked best in each city.
With a capacity of 250, West Asheville’s Mothlight is comparatively tiny. And while this gives its owners more options for artists who will fill the room, the same can be said of the acts they’re chasing. Trendy outfits like The Men and Deafheaven, which both hit the room this year, have a plethora of options — Kings Barcade in Raleigh, Local 506 in Chapel Hill and Krankie’s Coffee in Winston-Salem are just three of the Mothlight’s North Carolina-based competitors.
For such small venues, pulling in good shows is as much about personal connections as anything else — one reason why The Mothlight is doing so well. Having worked at Chicago rock clubs such as the famed Empty Bottle before moving to Asheville, owners Jon and Amanda Hency were already on a first-name basis with many of the agents and artists. In addition, Jon operates the respected experimental imprint Bathetic Records, another connection that helps The Mothlight attract talent. “That’s been years of just trading records with people, booking one-off shows, doing DIY things,” Jon says, “When I meet someone or some band, I don’t think I’m a total stranger.”