There are certain aspects of touring that never change, says Alex McWalters, drummer of local band River Whyless.
“In a practical sense, so much of a tour is spent in your ‘bubble,’” he explains. “You’re crammed into a van together, and you’re vying for space and air and privacy.”
These issues, while par for the course, presented unique challenges in the immediate aftermath of COVID-19 lockdowns. And though the majority of these obstacles have subsided, many local musicians note the pandemic has had a lasting impact on the way tours unfold. Some point to concertgoers’ less predictable purchasing habits, while others in Asheville’s music scene say time away from travel has changed their perspectives about life on the road.
Turnout, says McWalters, remains one of the most notable differences for touring acts since the onset of COVID-19. “It’s all become a lot more unstable and unpredictable,” he says, “in a business that was already unstable and unpredictable.”
Before the pandemic, McWalters continues, River Whyless could generally predict ticket sales in a given city based on the previous night’s crowd. That’s no longer the case. “One night’s really good,” he says, “and the next night, it’s like, ‘What happened?’”
McWalters has his own theories about the erratic nature of today’s audiences. “I think the pandemic has had an effect on live music in two ways,” he says. “One, there’s still fear of the virus: ‘I’m not comfortable with the risk; I don’t want to be in a room with a bunch of people.’”
Secondly, McWalters continues, there’s been a shift in how folks experience art and entertainment. “I think the pandemic created habits, for better or for worse,” he says. “People got used to staying home, staying within [their] little bubble.”
Nevertheless, McWalters says advance ticket sales for River Whyless shows are as robust today as they were before the lockdown; however, day-of sales are more modest, suggesting anecdotally that audiences on the whole are less spontaneous than they once were.
Quality over quantity
When it comes to ticket purchasing patterns, Ray Worth, guitarist with local band Bask and an independent show booker, echoes some of McWalters’ observations. Before COVID-19, Worth says, it would be typical to assume, “OK, we did 75 tickets in presales, so we might get 200 in here tonight.”
Now, he continues, the script has flipped. “If you don’t have [sales] upfront, it’s going to be bleak.”
Of course, these days, the band isn’t traveling nearly as much as it once did. And forced time off changed the group’s outlook.
“Four or five years ago,” Worth says, “we were hitting it really, really hard with 100-150 dates a year.” He doesn’t see the group returning to that kind of heavy-duty touring. “We’ve all stepped back and said, ‘Let’s focus a little more on quality over quantity.’”
One of the band’s most recent runs was a short, four-city mini-tour. Worth believes that this new, measured approach “has created healthier dynamics within the band. We don’t want to do shows just to do them.” And for now, that means “hunker[ing] down and focusing on [making] the next record,” he says.
And while Worth and his bandmates — bassist Jesse Van Note, drummer Scott Middleton and guitarist/vocalist Zeb Camp — may not be in a hurry to get back on the road, they aren’t shutting down future tours.
“Things have been hitting my inbox,” Worth says. Among the requests, Bask has received inquiries about booking shows in Europe in late 2023 or early 2024.
Despite the optimistic future, Worth says the uncertainty that marked much of the last three years still affects everyone in the band. “There’s always a sense of ‘When’s it all going to crumble again?’”
Off the road
Other artists have all but given up on the idea of live concert touring.
Zach Cooper and Vic Dimotsis are the duo behind King Garbage. They both write, produce and play multiple instruments. Their sound is difficult to pin down, spanning many genres from soul to rock to funk, all wrapped up in a hypnotic and psychedelic melange.
In addition to releasing two highly regarded albums — 2017’s Make it Sweat and 2022’s Heavy Metal Greasy Love — Dimotsis and Cooper earned a Grammy for their contributions to Jon Batiste‘s Album of the Year, WE ARE. And the duo continues to work with a growing list of artists, including Leon Bridges, Ellie Goulding, SZA and the Weeknd.
With their current focus on songwriting and recording, the pair is not prioritizing live shows. “King Garbage hasn’t done much touring,” Dimotsis says. “And I don’t plan on doing much in the near future.”
Travel, he continues, has become a war of budgets. “Only those backed by support are able to take the risk of going on the road,” Dimotsis believes. While conceding that live performances are “one of the few ways to make money as a musician,” he says that he doesn’t plan on doing much of it in the future. Instead, he and Cooper are working on their next album.
Gearing up to go
Whereas King Garbage remains hunkered down and focused on recording, River Whyless is eyeing the open road. With summer just around the corner, McWalters says he and his bandmates — Halli Anderson (vocal, violin), Ryan O’Keefe (vocals, guitar) and Daniel Shearin (vocals, bass) — are gearing up their latest round of shows.
If nothing else, McWalters says, his group is prepared for the inherent unpredictability of touring. As an example, he points to the band’s most recent run of dates in the fall.
“It was three days before the end of the tour. We had been as careful as we could be,” he says. “Nobody had gotten sick for two whole tours.”
Then, while in a restaurant in New Mexico, Shearin — after noting that he didn’t believe in jinxes — remarked on their good luck.
“Literally the next day, he had [COVID-19] symptoms!” McWalters says. “It was hilarious and ironic.”