Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, much has been made of the odysseys that performers, venue owners and club managers have weathered in navigating a range of new rules and restrictions to bring back live music to the Asheville area.
But what about venue employees in charge of making sure the nightly shows go on? For these front-line workers, their professional lives over the past two years have been a mix of anxiety-inducing challenges and sonic rewards.
When bands unload at The Grey Eagle, Andy Eubanks is typically the first person to greet them. As production manager, he’s responsible for addressing performers’ needs — anything from the group’s stage layout to its hospitality items and everything in between.
“I’m just here to make it work and make it as easy as possible for them,” Eubanks says. “Touring life is pretty hard, and you just want to make them comfortable.”
Once the musicians’ equipment is amplified and patched into the house system, Eubanks labels his mixing board, and the sound check begins. After some tinkering, and once he and the band find the right balance, they break until showtime.
“There’s those few seconds when I bring down the house lights, bring up the stage lights and turn everything up that I get nervous that something is going to go wrong,” Eubanks says. “The moment when the music starts and everything goes as planned is what keeps me doing what I do.”
Over at The Orange Peel, responsibilities are similar for production manager Max Elias and his senior audio engineers, Sunset Appleton and Justin Baumann. As crew chief, Appleton directs newer sound-tech colleagues on nights when his team is running the boards, but on occasions when a band brings its own audio engineers, Elias helps set them up with whatever house gear is needed.
Such interactions went on hold in March 2020, as restrictions in response to the pandemic shuttered music venues across the country. During this time, both venues eased back into production by offering livestreams of performances and implementing strict guidelines among staff and artists to deter the virus’s spread. The Grey Eagle also gradually cycled in patio shows with limited capacities, taking advantage of its outdoor space.
Throughout the uncertain times, both crews have felt tremendous support from their respective management as policies were formed to encourage a responsible work environment within a wildly fluid public health situation. Such mindfulness was especially evident at The Orange Peel in March 2021. As restrictions lifted and the venue began contemplating bringing back live music with in-person audiences, management sought feedback via employee surveys.
“Everyone got asked, ‘What things do you need to see happen in order to be comfortable with this?’” Appleton says. “The way that that was addressed was very appropriate and effective.”
Today, Elias’ whole tech staff is vaccinated and tests daily. And with the rise of the highly transmissible omicron variant, The Orange Peel’s door staff has also started testing every day.
“[Management is] spending the money to make sure that we’re doing everything we can do,” he says. “Honestly, that’s all I could ask for. I think that’s all any employee could ask for — just taking every precaution necessary and making sure we’re all right.”
While both crews are thankful to be back working, they’re upfront that business still isn’t quite what it was prior to the pandemic and remains on shaky ground.
“It’s definitely scary. If one of my tech guys gets COVID and we’re all around each other, chances are we’re going to be canceling some shows,” Elias says. “But that’s the same for any band coming in. If one of them gets sick or a crew guy gets sick, it’s usually a canceled show. So that part of the business has been tough for Sunset [Appleton] and other sound and tech guys who don’t have the luxury of being on salary.”
Eubanks is in a similar situation to Appleton. When shows are canceled a week or two out, he and other Grey Eagle employees lose their shifts, but he feels fortunate that most shows have proceeded as planned and is grateful that most of the artists have been compliant with venue policies.
“If [musicians] are not vaccinated, we give them a rapid test, and if they’re negative, then the show goes on,” he says. “We haven’t had one positive yet — knock on wood. But most people are vaxxed because they know how fragile the industry is.”
Despite the same entrance requirements for customers, Eubanks still gets a little nervous with larger crowds, especially since he says The Grey Eagle has had incidents where people have reported they’ve contracted COVID-19 from its shows. Eubanks was among them in November and had to quarantine for 10 days, which he describes as “a horrible situation.” Unable to work, he lost out on significant income.
“It gets stressful,” Eubanks says. “When you have a large crowd and people aren’t wearing their masks and adhering to our policy, we’re constantly going around and telling people, ‘Put your mask on unless you’re actively eating or drinking.’ And when people drink, they just forget. You don’t want to kick them out, but we’ve had to in the past, and it’s stressful in that sense. You just want everybody to have a good time.”
The Orange Peel sound crew has thus far remained unscathed by the virus but has had a few bands come through unaware that one of their musicians or crew members had COVID. Rather than receive the news directly from the group, Elias says he’s had to find out on social media the next day. And while he doesn’t think these artists are being malicious, he’s adamant that transparency is key to maintaining industrywide health.
One day at a time
Even with these workplace risks, Appleton still loves what he does and feels privileged to be able to see the good that his labor brings to the world. But like any job, not every shift is rosy.
“I might have a rough day, I might not like the music, I might not like the attitudes of people I work with occasionally,” he explains. “But then I see how much joy [a show] generates and how rewarding it is for people to be able to be there. And coming out of lockdowns, that was absolutely cranked to 11.”
Meanwhile, Eubanks says his end-of-shift drink with colleagues has taken on more meaning these days. There is a stronger sense of camaraderie among fellow Grey Eagle staffers, he notes. And even with the industrywide fragility and the toll that the pandemic has taken on him, he believes live music events offers reassurance to the audience and crew alike.
“It’s the nights that are special — the nights where you know you’ve got a good mix and the crowd’s totally into it,” Eubanks says. “You know it when you feel it, and it’s a great, great moment. And I live for those moments.”