Written by Chall Gray
Or, what we talk about when we are actually talking about the local music industry: A primer in venues, tourists, studios, promoters, musicians—and what may or may not be missing.
There’s a quote about the music industry, often attributed to Hunter S. Thompson, that goes thusly:
“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
Even though Thompson never actually said that, considering that two different people we spoke with in the music world used this quote as their email signature, it certainly holds at least some truth in it.
The city of Asheville has, for many decades, dominated the musical skyline of Western North Carolina, its home-grown music scene holding a central place in the mystique of the Land of the Sky. From the old-time music that has been in these hills for as long as anyone can remember, to the bluegrass that was popularized in the middle of the last century by local native Wade Mainer, among many others, and to the drum circles and indie rock bands that can be easily found downtown now, Asheville is definitely a locale that has always loved music. Yet it’s also a city in which music has never quite been at the forefront, often overshadowed by something else that seemed to make more sense for Asheville to be known for, such as craft beer, the Biltmore Estate, outdoor adventure, or yoga and alternative healing.
With that in mind, the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) has recently made Asheville’s music industry the focus of their newest tourism initiative and is putting a major push behind it. But where is the music industry in Asheville, really? Has the scene developed and grown in the last five to seven years, or is it in pretty much in the same place? Capital at Play decided to try and figure it out, by talking to a large number of people from all over the industry. Here’s what they had to say.
The Venue Perspective
Like most cities, Asheville has seen a great many music venues come and go over the years. Locals wax rhapsodic about their favorite rooms of yesteryear; rock club Be Here Now and the more punk/experimental-leaning Vincent’s Ear are two prominent examples, but the list could go on to include any number of others. Venues come and go because it’s a tough business. Booking an act typically means agreeing to their guarantee, whether the room is full or empty, and touring acts with name recognition often require such a large guarantee that ticket sales need to be brisk in order to make the artist fee back, leaving the venue to rely on bar sales to turn a profit.
Asheville is fortunate in that there are many great places to hear music—from intimate, almost living-room style venues, to listening rooms and theatre venues with good acoustics, all the way up to mid-size and large clubs and a couple of large auditoriums. One thing that nearly everyone we spoke to agreed on was that there are definitely more venues now than a half-decade ago. But does that mean attendance is stronger? Or is the competition making it more difficult?
Former owner of the Grey Eagle, Jeff Whitworth, currently operating his own booking firm Worthwhile Sounds (which does all of the booking for the Grey Eagle, as well as Downtown After 5, among others), said that while he hasn’t seen a dramatic difference, things are “trending in the right direction.” Whitworth also noted the impact of Asheville’s recent attention as a beer destination. “Where there is beer there is music, and as the beer scene has grown, our music scene has grown as well. Off nights, [such as] Tuesdays, have become easier than they were ten, or even five years ago.”
Amanda Hency, co-owner of The Mothlight with her husband, Jon, was even more emphatic. “In the almost three years since The Mothlight opened, there seems to have been a big boom.” She also noted that booking styles have begun to change. “There have been some ambitious bookings happening in this town in the last few years, bringing touring groups that didn’t have Asheville on the radar not too long ago. [But] I think once bands play here, they are eager to get back.”
The Tourism Push
Now that Asheville has been established as Foodtopia and Beer City USA, the local tourism folks are seeing many similarities to those past trends. “Music industry growth has been very similar to the culinary growth we saw,” Marla Tambellini, vice president of marketing and deputy director at the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, said recently. “We’re trying to provide visitors with the tools to have a great music experience, and also to make it [the music scene] more sustainable,” she continued. She noted that they had followed some of the examples of Nashville and the way they’d grown their tourism through music.
The Economic Development Coalition (EDC), an arm of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce like the CVB, has also been working on a study of the economic impact the music business has locally. Heidi Reiber, the director of research for the EDC, elaborated: “We are looking not just at music, but also at connections to other industries, and trying to get a broader view of what those jobs support. The purpose is to try to estimate the gross regional product related to music.”
Is that even possible, we wondered, in a business that has a notoriously high amount of cash transactions on nearly every level? Reiber claimed that it was. “With specialized software, we can take what we know through our analysis of the industries and model a ‘change.’ It would not be possible to capture everything, but we can make estimates based on what we do find. The model will give us an estimate of contribution, or impact, in the local economy based on the change we have created.”
While their study isn’t complete yet (it’s due to be released soon), Reiber said that they’ve measured tremendous growth in numerous categories, and that each segment of the music industry they measure has “a more concentrated employment presence than the national average.”
Even if the infrastructure as an industry is stronger, and with the concerted marketing push underway to increase traffic for our music, is the scene ready for that? Does it have the depth, the talent, the breadth to support more traffic?
“The music business is a bit like the Wild West now, and it has been since the digital age really took over. The good news is that the playing field has been leveled, and the bad news is that the playing field has been leveled.”
The Recording Studios & Industry Group Perspective
If there’s one name from Asheville that is most likely to be recognized across the country to industry insiders, it is Echo Mountain Recording. Located in fairly unassuming building at the western end of downtown’s stretch of Patton Avenue, the studio has recorded dozens of stars, including the Avett Brothers (several times), Band of Horses, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, and Smashing Pumpkins, among hundreds of others.
Echo Mountain has grown to include two large buildings, a former church and the Salvation Army building, both overseen by Jessica Tomasin, one of the most well-known and universally liked people in Asheville’s music world. Tomasin has also spearheaded the development of the Asheville Music Professionals, a group dedicated to helping musicians better understand the business side of the industry and establish a standard for good business practices, while also being a common voice for the local industry.
She definitely sees the last few years as a transition period. “Music is more of a focus now, and we have more of an industry in Asheville than we’ve ever had before.” Like many people we spoke to, she has seen a lot of changes, but also recognizes that those changes haven’t necessarily made it easier for musicians. “The music business is a bit like the Wild West now, and it has been since the digital age really took over. The good news is that the playing field has been leveled, and the bad news is that the playing field has been leveled.”
New Song Music is an independent artist organization run by Gar Ragland, who founded the company 15 years ago. Among other initiatives, they have a boutique record label, a national songwriting contest, and a series of concerts and festivals, all overseen by Ragland from an office he rents in the Echo Mountain facility. Ragland moved to Asheville four years ago from Brooklyn, and has seen changes during that time. “Just in the last few years there has been a little bit of national attention focused on Asheville, and I think the scene here is just starting to capitalize on that.” He also noted the advantages present over other markets. “Echo Mountain has things to offer over L.A. or New York. There’s a quality of life that comes with living or working here that those other places don’t have.”
The Publicists & Promoters Perspective
The music business has long been peopled with larger-than-life characters, hucksters, and swindlers, as well as the genuinely good guys and those who are in it because they love it. If there’s anyone that has historically gotten a bad rap, it is the publicists and promoters. The most common image that comes to mind is of the iconic manager/promoter Colonel Tom Parker, whose omnipresent cigar would leave his mouth only often enough to ensure that his star client, Elvis Presley, was getting the right attention. But in truth, these background folks are the ones who make sure the music of lesser-known bands gets into the hands of radio deejays, bloggers, and magazine writers.
As recently as a decade ago, this segment of the industry was nearly nonexistent in Asheville, and while still small, there are now a handful of flourishing Asheville-based publicists. Erin Scholze, owner of Dreamspider Publicity & Events, started her business in 2008 and found there wasn’t really a precedent for it around Asheville. “I had worked for a few bands in different ways, and when I decided to turn this into a business I talked to the editor of [Asheville weekly] Mountain Xpress and told her I was going to focus on this and asked what I could do better,” she recalled. The response was that she didn’t need to change a thing about her approach. Now, eight years later, she has dozens of clients, including some of Western North Carolina’s best-known bands, such as Town Mountain and The Honeycutters, and national acts like Donna the Buffalo. Still, she finds it advantageous to be based here. “Everyone knows everyone and sees everyone here, so it’s a lot easier to connect as a community, and that has increased over the last few years.”
Mason Jar Media CEO Crissa Requate is another local mainstay, and she, too, has seen marked growth. “The local music scene [has] come together as a unified front,” she said, crediting a lot of that to the Asheville Music Professionals (AMP). “With the recent development of the Asheville Music Professionals group, there has been noticeable growth in the local music industry. It was really exciting to see the music industry microcosm that was somewhat hidden within the community. Entertainment lawyers, music producers, recording studio engineers, music publicists, promoters, bookers, club and venue owners, music journalists, band managers, etc. There is a significant force of creative folks working in the music and entertainment sector in Asheville, but until AMP started, I don’t think anyone realized just how many of us there were.” (Go to page 26 in this issue for our profile of Mason Jar’s Requate.)
The Musician Perspective
While music has never been at the cultural forefront, it has nevertheless always played a key role locally, from the weekly old-time jams that could (and in some places still can) be found at various places around the area, to the many stars who have vacationed, lived, and played in Asheville at one time or another. Marian Anderson played on Depot St. in the thirties. The blues great Rev. Gary Davis lived in Asheville in the teens; a pill-popping Elvis accidentally shot his personal doctor, George Nichopoulos, in a room in the Grove Park Inn in the seventies; the list could go on and on. These anecdotes have also always been complemented by a vibrant local musician presence, coupled with a small but ardent assemblage of concertgoers.
“Asheville values original music, which isn’t always the case,” explained Silas Durocher, a local staple and the lead singer of the Get Right Band. “But it’s still a small town in that there isn’t a lot of national industry representation.” Many people we spoke to noted how the local makeup has changed significantly with the arrival of new bands. “There are lots of bands moving here, as a band, and that’s a sign, right or wrong, that they [bands in other markets] are beginning to see Asheville as a hub for music.”
Andrew Scotchie, one of the leading local up-and-comers with his band Andrew Scotchie & the River Rats, agreed: “With the number of really talented bands moving here, it has forced the rest of us to really up our game, which is a good thing; it’s refreshing.”
Scotchie also noted the increased opportunities for collaboration. “One of the great things about the Asheville Music Professionals meetings has been how many new things have come out of it. New weekly jams, more networking opportunities, new collaborations, new events. I also feel like musicians here are more welcoming to people from other genres.” Every musician we spoke to for this story—and in fact, every person we spoke to—mentioned how vital the Asheville Music Professionals group has been and continues to be to the growth of the local industry.
But, even with the vastly increased number of venues, many feel that that hasn’t made it easier. “Ten years ago there was more demand than supply for musicians. Even with all of the new venues, there are so many new artists here, that from an economic perspective it’s harder now to make a living as a working musician just playing in Asheville,” said Jay Sanders, longtime bassist for Acoustic Syndicate and a resident of Asheville since the mid-‘90s. (Sanders is also a contributor to this magazine.) “There is also more ambivalence in general now from local audiences,” he added, “but I think that’s partly due to how the overall demographics here are changing.”
NPR music program World Café, which WNCW airs, recently devoted an entire weeklong series focusing on Asheville.
What’s the Frequency, Asheville?
As with many things related to music (and a great many other things in general), Asheville has more radio stations than one might find in many similarly sized small southern cities. But despite the number, there aren’t many stations that have both a large listening audience and a focus on a wide range of local music.
AshevilleFM, a primarily volunteer-based organization based on Haywood Road in West Asheville, broadcasts at 103.3 FM. “I’m proud that we highlight local music, and also focus on when bands like Floating Action or the Ahleuchatistas make it onto a national chart,” says Kim Roney, a deejay and longtime volunteer at the station. WPVM, located in downtown Asheville, also consistently plays local music slightly up the dial at 103.7, but the listenership remains small for both stations due to their signals having a fairly limited range. Both stations command a great deal of respect in the community, but neither has been able to develop into a broader force in the local and regional music community, much less beyond.
There are a number of nationally owned stations in Asheville, with locally topical names like The River, The Brew, The Mountain, and a handful of others. Some of them have shows that focus on local music, but they are typically relegated to the Sunday evening time slot. Western North Carolina has always been able to boast a strong public radio presence, with downtown Asheville’s WCQS (88.1) and WNCW (88.7), located just over an hour away in Spindale. But both of those stations are primarily focused on a single genre or style, classical and Americana, respectively.
Joe Kendrick, director of programming and operations at WNCW, has definitely seen a lot of growth across the spectrum.“As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. It feels like everything has been accelerating [in recent years] with the local scene.” He noted that the nationally syndicated weeknight NPR music program World Café, which WNCW airs, recently devoted an entire weeklong series focusing on Asheville, in the process spotlighting River Whyless, the Honeycutters, Jon Stickley Trio, Tyler Ramsey, the Steep Canyon Rangers, Rising Appalachia, and the Get Right Band. Also aired that week were Kendrick’s own local picks: the Marcus King Band, the Broadcast, Unspoken Tradition, the Hermit Kings, and Floating Action. In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that WNCW does the most for the local music scene as a whole, but it is still constrained by the fact that numerous genres only find their way onto niche shows on the station (if at all). It also should be mentioned that there are many parts of Buncombe County, such as pretty much everything north of downtown, where the reception is somewhere between barely perceptible or nonexistent.
All in all, Asheville is a place that has a plethora of radio stations, which run the gamut from the cookie cutter commercial stations that can be found anywhere that has the demographics to support them, to public radio, to upstarts fueled by passionate volunteers. But they are all constrained in one way or another, whether by their owners, their mission, their genre, or limited signal strength, from helping catapult the local music scene forward to the next level.
“In a way it’s like, anything you do, there will be ten thousand other people doing the same thing. There are new opportunities, but there are a lot more people vying for them, so it’s a double-edged sword.
With all of these things going on, what isn’t happening that needs to? What are the things that are holding Asheville back? Why hasn’t the music scene ever gotten to the level of fame that, for instance, the relatively nearby Athens, Georgia, has enjoyed?
Of course, there isn’t one simple answer. Publicist Scholze said that having a prominent conference or music festival in Asheville that encompassed many genres would have a big impact; the twice-annual LEAF music and arts festival, held in Black Mountain, consistently sells out and has become a regional institution, but its focus tends to be more on roots, folk, and world music. The short-lived Moogfest, which primarily presented electronic music, began in 2010 to great acclaim, but subsequently moved to Durham after several years in Asheville, amid dissension between organizers.
Capital at Play managing editor Fred Mills, who has also worked extensively as a music journalist, pointed out that, along with the annual Warren Haynes Christmas Jam, Moogfest “probably did more to help put Asheville on the radar of the national and international music media than anything else in recent years.”
When asked what Asheville needs to get to that next level, Jay Sanders succinctly stated, “A successful band.” Numerous other people pointed to the fact that no current Asheville rock band has been able to break out and scale nationally. The Grammy-winning Steep Canyon Rangers are arguably the closest to fitting that bill, but their name recognition doesn’t extend too far beyond the bluegrass and roots music audiences. Rock/blues/R&B outfit The Broadcast is presently making waves with sophomore album From the Horizon and is touring extensively behind it, including an upcoming six-week tour of Europe, but it’s too early to tell what the group’s lasting impact will be.
Folk/indie rock singer Angel Olsen may turn out to be the proverbial puts-the-city-on-the-map artist, having notched considerable international acclaim to date; her fourth full-length, My Woman, has been selling extremely well since its early September release on Indiana-based label Jagjaguwar. Still, for some observers Olsen, as a relatively recent Asheville transplant, is most closely identified with the Chicago scene, where she initially came to the public’s attention.
Gar Ragland observed that breaking a band on a national level would have the biggest effect, but was quick to add, “We as an industry need to help and facilitate that, and provide the infrastructure for it to happen.” In a similar vein, and with an eye toward the overall ecosystem of the industry and making sure all genres are represented, Echo Mountain’s Tomasin worries that there aren’t enough outlets for urban music, whether live on the radio, or in terms of print coverage.
In addition to the lack of a nationally prominent local band or a large, multi-day music festival capable of regularly drawing attendees from beyond the immediate region, another fundamental piece that’s missing is a record label.
There are several in-house boutique labels, such as Harvest (an imprint of West Asheville record and CD store Harvest Records; go to page 76 in this issue for our profile) and Make Noise Records (part of electronic synthesizer company Make Noise Music); and scores of area musicians self-release their own music on a regular basis, but there do not appear to be any standalone labels boasting a consistent national presence. “If there was a local record label that had physical distribution, that would do a lot,” said Andrew Scotchie.
With the profusion of new acts and the lack of an infrastructure that would allow them to easily grow beyond Asheville, it’s increasingly harder for bands and solo performers to differentiate themselves, as several people noted. “In a way it’s like, anything you do, there will be ten thousand other people doing the same thing. There are new opportunities, but there are a lot more people vying for them, so it’s a double-edged sword,” Durocher of the Get Right Band observed.
What Does It All Add Up To?
“You can see live music seven nights a week in Asheville,” Jessica Tomasin said. And it’s certainly true that your choices on those nights are much broader than they were even just a few years ago. If you scan the club listings, you’ll see more bands, and more and more types of music as well, each one with an array of new and different tools and opportunities that they can utilize as they strive to achieve their goals—not to mention scores of other talented individuals striving for the same goals, using the same tools and opportunities.
Asheville remains one of the most beautiful places to live in the country—if just spending some time in the city doesn’t prove that, there are dozens upon dozens of best-of lists that include Asheville. “To be involved in music and be based here is a mutually beneficial proposition,” Gar Ragland said. And it is. Will it become even more mutually beneficial? Will the CVB succeed in bringing new tourists to Asheville? Will someone local finally break out and make it on a national level?
Only time will tell. But know that there are lots of people working, right now, at this moment, trying to make it happen, and if you want to buy some music by a local band and listen to it, or go out tonight and see live music, you can. And chances are you’ll be able to find something interesting, something new, something different. Maybe they’ll even be the next big thing someday.
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