Ever since statewide restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 temporarily closed music venues in March 2020, White Horse Black Mountain owner Bob Hinkle has said that he would reopen his business 10 minutes after Gov. Roy Cooper allowed such a move.
On Feb. 24, Cooper announced that, starting Feb. 26, such spaces could go from hosting 25 people to 250 people or 30% capacity, whichever was less. And on Feb. 27, not all that far off from Hinkle’s somewhat hyperbolic claim, White Horse welcomed cellist Franklin Keel and pianist Vance Reese to the stage — and opened the doors to the public. The show attracted nearly 50 people, the venue’s maximum capacity at that time within the state’s requirement that events be seated.
“We just got into it as fast as we could,” Hinkle says. “I have literally been figuring out how to keep the bus on the road, especially for the last three or four months when things were getting a little thin.”
In addition to the prospect of improving business finances, fellow area music venue reps agree that now feels like a good time to reopen. Spring’s warmer temperatures are arriving, encouraging spaces with outdoor stages (e.g., Salvage Station, The Grey Eagle) to resume booking acts. COVID-19 infection rates throughout North Carolina also continue to decrease, aided in part by more people — venue staff and concertgoers alike — getting vaccinated.
Still, Cooper’s executive order caught a few reps by surprise. Jeff Santiago, operations manager at The Orange Peel, says the announcement arrived “at least a couple months” ahead of when he and his colleagues expected. But instead of rushing to reopen, he notes that the venue is making sure it’s “doing things correctly and can promote shows properly.” The venue’s first socially distanced show will be on Friday, April 30, featuring Woody Platt and Graham Sharp of Steep Canyon Rangers, with additional events scheduled through July.
“We needed to take a little bit more time, [being] a larger, high-profile venue that has a lot of overhead costs associated to figure out how we could [host shows] safely,” says Liz Tallent, the Peel’s marketing and events manager.
Pulp, the Peel’s intimate downstairs venue and bar, will not reopen just yet, but Santiago says various options — including private rentals — are being discussed to best use that space. Upstairs, tickets are sold as “pods,” reserved blocks that seat up to six people, and attendees are required to wear masks, except when seated and drinking. The Grey Eagle is taking a similar approach, with tables available for two-six people. Since both businesses are already maximizing their available space, neither John Zara, marketing coordinator for The Grey Eagle, nor Tallent expect to change their floor plans in light of Cooper’s Executive Order No. 204, which took effect March 26 and allows for up to 50% capacity for indoor venues while maintaining mask and social distancing rules.
“Because the exec order still requires full seating and 6 feet around each group of seats for guests that arrive together, it unfortunately does not allow us to fit any more seats in the room,” Tallent says. “We are already at close to our maximum under the distancing and seating requirement, while still leaving ample space for 6-foot separation in lines and egress areas.”
White Horse, however, has the floor space to accommodate the increased attendance allowance. Hinkle says seats and traditional cabaret tables are set up specifically to allow for 50% capacity, and if a group larger than the usual two-four person party arrives, seating is moved around so that everyone remains socially distanced.
Survive and advance
For now, venues are primarily leaning on local and regional acts to keep costs down and, in the words of Zara, “get us on a path for getting back to normal.” He says the Grey Eagle relies heavily on food and bar sales, and that the combination of patio shows and reduced-capacity indoor events, both of which fit not quite 80 people, “are really just kind of enough to keep [the business] going.”
Since the venue also includes an in-house taqueria, it’s been able to host several in-person events prior to the Feb. 26 executive order under the same guidelines as restaurants — as has Isis Restaurant & Music Hall — but Zara and owners Sarah and Russ Keith are hesitant to take full advantage of those capabilities.
“If we wanted to have a standing-room, ticketed show, we are allowed to do that,” Zara says. “We aren’t ready to do that. We’re staying away from those type of shows for now.”
With the economics not yet working out to have major national touring acts indoors — prompting the rescheduling of numerous shows to 2022 — outdoor options are filling that void. The Grey Eagle is reviving its drive-in concert series at the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds, which brought the likes of Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires to Haywood County last fall. High-energy, dance-friendly bands Too Many Zooz and BIG Something are slated for Friday, May 28, and Zara says the drive-in model has been slightly tweaked to improve the overall experience.
When bigger acts are ready to tour, Tallent says there’s a good chance Rabbit Rabbit, the Coxe Avenue outdoor space that The Orange Peel co-owns with Asheville Brewing Co., will host those events. The rescheduled King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard show remains on the books for late October, and Tallent is hopeful that other nationally touring groups will be able to perform there in late summer, possibly with some crowd spacing still in place.
The big picture
To serve music fans not quite ready to return to venues, reach people around the world who can’t make it to the show and bring in extra revenue, White Horse and The Grey Eagle plan to continue livestreaming concerts. As for the Peel, Santiago says he and his staff are looking into making the service a part of its ticketed offerings after successfully hosting the Downtown After 5 concert series last summer in a partnership with local livestreaming company IamAVL.
“We want to keep our staff safe. We don’t want to put anyone in a situation that wouldn’t be responsible,” Tallent says. “Especially being a standing-room venue that really ultimately needs to go back to a full standing-room capacity for the economics of our business to work, we’re just so grateful to the scientific community that there is an effective vaccine and that it’s moving so quickly and that it looks like all Americans are going to be able to be vaccinated — those over 18 — by early summer. And that will really mean the return of what we do.”
Federal financial assistance will also be key to bringing these businesses back to pre-pandemic operations. The U.S. Small Business Administration will at last open applications for Shuttered Venue Operators Grants on Thursday, April 8, though Tallent describes it as a “pretty nuanced” program, meant to get funds to the right businesses and not a guaranteed life raft.
“A lot of venues are reaching that threshold of being like, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can hang on.’ And I think that’s why you see people trying to reopen in any way they legally can at this point, just to try to eke out more time,” she says. “We’re all facing well over a year of debt and of having continued to pay our bills with no revenue. And the [SVOG] program ends on Dec. 31, 2021, no matter when they get it started.”