Local companies serving the music community tackle COVID-19 in their own ways

MASK TRACKS: Echo Mountain Recording engineers Kenny Harrington, left, and Dowell Gandy adapt to the studio's new COVID-19 safety policies. Photo courtesy of Echo Mountain Recording

Any musician in Asheville can tell you the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected his or her livelihood. To varying extents, the same is true for local businesses that serve the music community. Many have made changes to adapt to the current set of circumstances, as well as plans for the future. And while staying clear-eyed and realistic, management at three of those local businesses express a positive outlook for music in a post-pandemic world.

Payment plans, discounts and analog sweetening

Echo Mountain Recording got out ahead of the coronavirus crisis, canceling sessions even before local business shutdowns became widespread. “We finished up a couple of audiobook [sessions],” says studio manager Jessica Tomasin. “Because those were really easy to do and control the environment, cleaning before and after.”

The studio temporarily closed at the end of March, but Tomasin continued to get requests for booking. “And I totally get it,” she says. “People are at home, writing a bunch of music, and they want to come in and record it.” So as the studio made plans for a careful reopening in late May, it also made some changes to accommodate the new reality.

“Just like everybody, you’ve got to pivot and get creative,” Tomasin says. One solution is Echo Mountain’s installment payment plan, an option that the business has always offered but never made a point of promoting. Now, tough economic times for musicians make that kind of flexibility more important.

Tomasin notes that many self-quarantined musicians have been writing and recording on home equipment, prompting the studio to offer discounted rates through Aug. 1 “to let people run their mixes through our console, to sweeten the sound a little bit with some vintage analog gear.”

Businesswise, 2019 was the best year yet for Echo Mountain. Most of the studio’s new business comes via word-of-mouth, but Tomasin says that the slowdown and nearly two-month closure provided an opportunity to take a more proactive approach. “We’re focusing more on marketing,” she says.

Conducted by Tomasin and Echo Mountain’s engineers, a new series of interviews will explore topics of interest. “They’ll talk about some of the records that they’ve done,” she says. “What’s their favorite signal chain for vocals? What’s their favorite piece of gear at the studio?” She adds that beyond its use as a marketing tool, the interview series is a way for Echo Mountain to “highlight these great producers and engineers who have come through the studio.”

TRANSPOSING: A Moog Music employee makes a piece of personal protective equipment. Photo courtesy of Moog Music

Synthesizers and face shields

Moog Music has reacted to new challenges in both expected and novel ways. While a number of the electronic music instrument manufacturer’s 100 employee-owners are working from home, those at the Broadway facility have long since made adjustments. “We introduced social distancing measures, [personal protective equipment], temperature checks and other measures before they were suggested,” says chief marketing officer Joe Richardson. “One of our core values is to love and respect all humans — we couldn’t live up to that standard if we failed to protect our employees from this crisis.”

In mid-May, Moog unveiled its newest synthesizer, the Subharmonicon. But the announcement had originally been scheduled for much earlier. North Carolina’s stay-at-home mandate resulted in reduced production, and the company faced delays in materials from suppliers as well. “This disruption also substantially reduced the volume of global supply available at launch,” Richardson says.

But while supply is a considerable challenge, Richardson says demand remains strong for Moog products. “We are finding new artists and creators interested in spending their time at home with music as a means of exploration and creative expression,” he says. Richardson does note a recent shift of consumer interest toward the company’s lower-priced instruments and away from products like the Moog One, which retails for around $6,000.

Recent expansion of the company’s facility makes social distancing more practical. It has also allowed Moog to temporarily shift some production from synthesizers to critical PPE. To date, the company — partnering with local cycling apparel company Kitsbow — has produced more than 12,000 face shields.

Richardson remains optimistic about Moog’s post-pandemic future. “Bob Moog believed that, ‘To be human, to be fully human, is to need music and derive nourishment from the music you hear,’” he says. “And that belief forms the basis of our positive outlook for the future.”

The future of sound

With its headquarters for the Americas in South Asheville, d&b audiotechnik makes loudspeakers and amplifiers for live music and other applications. Manufacturing is done at the parent company’s factory outside Stuttgart, Germany, and the Asheville office — which opened in 1998 — employs 23 people. The company’s audio systems are used worldwide in venues including London’s Royal Albert Hall and the Sydney Opera House, and locally at The Orange Peel, Biltmore Church and other venues.

CEO Larry Italia classifies d&b’s markets into two parts: mobile and installations. “Our touring, production sound business has been severely impacted,” he says. “Because all the shows and sporting events are canceled, and we’re in the mass gathering business.”

Fortunately, d&b equipment is also used in permanent, nonmobile applications like concert halls, churches and large arenas. Italia says that, so far, COVID-19 has had little to no impact on the installation side of the company’s business, but challenges remain. “There’s no federal leadership on this,” he says. “Every state, county and even city does its own implementations of stay-at-home orders and reopening phases.”

Italia says that the pandemic hasn’t affected the company’s long-term plans, but he believes that large-scale live music events aren’t coming back soon. “Returning to it as it was before — which means 50,000 people sitting in the Hollywood Bowl without masks and protective gear — that will be 2021 at the earliest,” he says.

Even against that backdrop, Italia expresses guarded optimism. He says that the consensus among major players in the industry is that “when [live music] comes back, it’s going to come back bigger than ever before.” The pent-up demand of concertgoers, coupled with the motivation of artists to get back on the road, makes it possible that small and medium-sized venues could see a resurgence of business. And because health and safety protocols are easier to implement for outdoor events, festivals may come back soon as well.

For its part, d&b began implementing safety measures as early as Feb. 7, says Jackie DeLaCruz, the company’s human resources manager. By mid-March, the company instituted a voluntary work-from-home policy.

When the pandemic’s danger eventually subsides, DeLaCruz says that d&b is “planning to bring people back in [to the office] gradually. We’re not in a rush — we want to make sure everyone is safe.”

While making it clear that her primary concern is the well-being of d&b employees, DeLaCruz is optimistic about the company’s business, too. She vividly recalls something Italia told the company’s assembled workforce in the early days of the crisis. “’The music never dies,’ he said. ‘This is temporary. You can’t stop music. And we’re going to bounce back.’”


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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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