Sounds like money: New projects seek to increase local music tourism

SIGHTS AND SOUNDS: The Moog Music factory hosts tours of 20-40 people from all over the world every day. Here, Paul Gaeta (aka local musician Panther God) leads a group. Photo by Alicia Funderburk
SIGHTS AND SOUNDS: The Moog Music factory hosts tours of 20-40 people from all over the world every day. Here, Paul Gaeta (aka local musician Panther God) leads a group. Photo by Alicia Funderburk

Asheville may never be able to swipe the “Music City” moniker from a certain similarly named titan of sound in Tennessee, but several new initiatives aim to boost this area’s image as a serious music destination.

The Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, building on its success in helping nurture the city’s growing national reputation as a food lovers’ paradise, is now developing a marketing campaign to promote Asheville and environs as a world-class music mecca.

Tourists already spend about $1.5 billion in Buncombe County each year; the idea is to explore ways the local creative sector could boost that number while deriving more benefit from it. The boom in music venues, events and overall cultural interest has reached a tipping point, says Stephanie Brown, the agency’s senior vice president and executive director. And now, “The CVB has an opportunity to be a leader in the branding of these experiences to create some assets that really help the industry. This is part of a process of developing awareness of things that Asheville does well.”

Accordingly, the CVB is developing a website, due to be completed by the end of 2014, that will include a venue guide, streaming music and a comprehensive calendar of local events. It will be part of exploreasheville.com, which some 3.5 million people use to plan their vacations each year. The bureau hopes the new site, in tandem with an advertising and publicity campaign, will steer national media attention this way. The CVB’s Foodtopia site, says Brown, has “been that kind of focal point to our brand that’s opened the door to a lot of other opportunities.”

She’s also seeking partners to create a downtown Asheville box office “where you could walk in and learn everything that’s happening and walk out with tickets. … I feel like it would be really amazing to have a physical icon of arts and music where visitors are drawn, like TKTS in New York.”

The marketing campaign, says Brown, will “not only help promote that aspect of the Asheville visit but also help that segment of our community to thrive, because it’s creating more customers.”

Hot on the trail

These efforts come on the heels of Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina, a website launched in April that aims to promote traditional music across 29 WNC counties. A corresponding guidebook was released last year, and a map of music venues and historical sites will be distributed at visitors centers across the state.

The goal is “to connect people with great musical experiences,” says Rob Bell, director of programs for the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Partnership. “It will also help provide more work opportunities for musicians and dancers.”

A 2011 survey conducted by East Carolina University for the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area and the N.C. Arts Council suggests that old-time, bluegrass and folk music events already have a significant economic impact, notes Bell. The study, which measured visitation at just 26 of the region’s more than 200 traditional music venues, reported a $20.7 million impact. Bell hopes the new efforts will help increase that number in years to come.

Liz Whalen Tallent, photo by Tim Robison
Liz Whalen Tallent, photo by Tim Robison

And though the CVB hasn’t tracked exactly how much money music tourism pumps into Asheville and Buncombe County, information provided by folks working in the local industry suggests that it’s significant. Roughly 35 percent of ticket buyers at The Orange Peel live more than 120 miles away, says marketing director Liz Whalen Tallent; last year, she figures, they had an economic impact of at least $2.1 million.

Knoxville-based AC Entertainment has produced many of Asheville’s biggest pop, rock and electronica shows since 1991. And founder Ashley Capps reports that in shows he’s staged at U.S. Cellular Center during the last three years, more than 60 percent of ticket buyers have come from outside the region.

“There’s no question that Asheville’s a destination, and given a choice to see a show in many other cities or in Asheville, many would opt for Asheville if they possibly can,” says Capps.

Long and winding road

Yet there are still significant hurdles to enhancing Asheville’s musical pedigree.

One is the limited availability of downtown lodgings, says Capps, but he hopes that will start to change with the opening of several planned hotels.

The area could also use a better outdoor space for major festivals, he believes. Both McCormick Field and Memorial Stadium (perched just above it) show promise, though Capps says the city has denied him permission to use the stadium in the past. Another potential outdoor venue is the New Belgium Brewing site now under construction in the River Arts District. Although the facility isn’t due to open until late next year, “We’ve had some conversations,” he reports.

As for indoor music venues, one of the most pressing needs is renovating the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, where Capps recently staged a sold-out show by pop star Beck. “It needs some help, in terms of what’s expected in modern amenities for a concert,” the promoter maintains.

In the past, says Capps, he hasn’t “seen a lot to indicate that there’s a real push [by tourism officials] to identify Asheville as a music scene,” but he’s glad their mindset seems to be changing.

Not every key player in the local music industry is happy to see increased investment in luring tourists here, however.

“I really think we need to change the mindset from tourism to technology,” says Moog Music CEO Mike Adams. Moogfest, which he took over from Capps this year, drew thousands of tourists to town back in April, but Adams says that wasn’t his principal goal.

“It definitely filled up hotels, and people went to eat. … We’re doing our part for the tourism bit,” he says, noting that an economic impact study is in the works to measure those immediate benefits. And the iconic instrument factory itself, he continues, hosts daily tours for 20 to 40 people from all over the world. “But the majority of the powers that be here over-invest in tourism,” Adams asserts. “What I’m saying is, let’s … use the tax money that derives from that and put that into attracting some high-tech entrepreneurs who could bring some good-paying jobs here. … I’m not trying to be exclusionary, but we need to look at things a little bit differently.”

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning writer and reporter who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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