In the months leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Asheville music scene was running full throttle. Venues featuring local and touring acts boasted busy calendars. But once the government-mandated shutdowns went into effect, concert halls temporarily closed. And in some instances — Mothlight and Ambrose West — the closures proved permanent.
However, even as governmental restrictions lifted, artist-required safety measures continued well into 2022, says Jeff Santiago, operations manager for The Orange Peel and Rabbit Rabbit. And for many musicians, he continues, the rules were moot. “Some artists decided not to tour,” Santiago explains. “So, we saw a few tours — ones we already had on the books — go away.”
Three years after the initial shutdown, Xpress caught up with several in the local industry for an update on the state of the local music scene, how individual spaces weathered the storm and what the future looks like for Asheville’s venues on the whole.
To each their own
Today, operations at music venues that survived the lockdowns are seeing a return to normal, note many within the local industry. And there’s strong incentive for that: Audiences are ready to come out and see shows, and the venues are ready to fill up their open calendar dates.
“There’s a small handful of artists who aren’t comfortable yet,” Santiago says. “But [nearly] everyone’s back at it.”
Meanwhile, vaccination requirements, mask mandates and enforced social distancing have all gone away. “The onus for attending shows has kind of reverberated back to attendees,” says Matthieu Rodriguez, marketing coordinator for Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville. “The ‘new normal’ is really defined by the people attending events.”
While the strict requirements of the pandemic era no longer apply to venues, Rodriguez continues, many touring acts still follow safety protocols. “Over the past year, we’ve seen artists maintain the same level of standard operating procedures for health and wellness backstage,” he says. “They make most of their money on touring, so it’s imperative for them to keep continuing testing and to wear face masks when they’re setting up.”
Santiago says that the same is true at his venues. “Our production team continues to wear masks when they’re working because they know they’re dealing with people who are traveling all around the country and coming into contact with a lot of people,” he says.
Making up for lost time
Meanwhile, VIP experiences and meet-and-greets, which were widely popular in the pre-pandemic era, are back in demand with levels near to what they were four years ago. “The artists want to get back to that,” Rodriguez says. “They miss people.”
“We’re seeing more and more meet-and-greet packages,” Santiago echoes. “Any kind of upsell that artists are doing is an opportunity for them to make more income. I think they’re just trying to maximize their income possibilities given the amount of income lost over the pandemic.”
This urgency to earn comes in the wake of inflation. But Rodriguez emphasizes that the city-owned Harrah’s Cherokee Center has a goal of “not pushing those rising costs onto our fans.”
And people are indeed coming out for shows once again. “We did see our drop count go down,” says Santiago, referring to the number of ticket holders who show up at an event. “But those counts have gotten increasingly [higher].”
The show must go on
Despite the uptick in sales and the general sense that universal safety measures are things of the past, the teams that run local music venues don’t want to get caught off-guard as they did in 2020. “We had plexiglass screens everywhere for a while,” Santiago remembers. “Between the monitor person and the stage, between our front-of-house technicians and the crowd, between bartenders and the crowd.”
And while all of those screens have now come down, they’re being kept handy. “We can’t afford to toss this stuff when we might have to possibly reuse it,” Santiago says.
As late as 2022, it wasn’t unusual for a concert to be canceled at the last minute due to an artist’s illness. That happens much less frequently these days. “And if a band needs to postpone due to COVID, we immediately try to rebook the show within a reasonable time frame, based on routing and venue availability,” Santiago explains.
It’s in everyone’s interest for the show to go on as soon as it’s practical to do so. “At this point, only a mandate closing down shows and/or venues can be considered a force majeure,” Santiago explains. “That motivates venues and artists to quickly work out rebooking a canceled show.”
Katie Hild, Salvage Station’s marketing director, says her crew has gained similar insights into the ways they approach their events. “All of the changes that took place due to the pandemic ended up making our team stronger, the venue better and the love for live music in Asheville to shine even brighter,” she says.
Ultimately, for local concertgoers, there are reasons for optimism. While Ambrose West closed at the beginning of the pandemic, a new venue, AyurPrana Listening Room, recently opened in the same space near Beacham’s Curve in West Asheville.
Director David Newman says that the new music venue has a character that sets it apart. “The Listening Room is a peaceful and pristine setting with stellar acoustics to enjoy music of diverse cultures, genres and traditions,” he says, noting that AyurPrana is alcohol-free and “focuses on the music.”
Meanwhile, talent booker/consultant Sam Katz of Charlie Traveler Presents is seeing more national performers returning to the area. “We’re getting huge [touring] acts in this city, and I don’t see that stopping.”
He believes that bands and ticket buyers alike recognize Asheville as a “destination town” for music. “It’s a place that people want to come to and bands want to play. And I see that continuing on for many years to come,” he says.
Back at The Orange Peel, Santiago believes that the pandemic has taught him some valuable lessons. In particular, he points to the formation of the National Independent Venue Association, which launched in 2020. The grassroots organization lobbied Congress for the Save Our Stages Act (renamed the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant Program). The initiative became law in December 2020, providing a fund of $16 billion in emergency relief for entertainment venues.
“NIVA was a big deal for coming together to help each other navigate through the problems we had to face,” Santiago says. “That was part of what helped us survive.”
Surviving the shutdown also emphasized to Santiago the strong role community plays in the local music industry.
“I think we’ve understood for a while here in Asheville that we are all part of an ecosystem together,” he says. “We watch and help artists develop. And because we’re such a tightknit community here — we all know each other, we’re all friends — we figure out how to make it all work.”
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