Asheville Music Venues in a Post-pandemic World, Part 1

In March 2020, music and entertainment venues across the U.S. closed their doors; virtually overnight, concert halls and clubs went from having a full schedule to turning out the stage lights. And while some venues were able to adapt to the new realities of the pandemic era, many didn’t make it through to reopen. In Asheville, music venues adopted a variety of approaches to deal with the restrictions brought on by social distancing regulations. As the three-year anniversary of the global entertainment shutdown approaches, we take a look at the post-Covid state of local music venues.

Changes overnight
In the months leading up to the shutdown in mid-March of 2020, the Asheville music scene was running full throttle. Venues featuring local artists booked live music several nights of the week. And venues featuring touring acts boasted busy calendars as well. But once the government-mandated health and safety rules went into effect, nearly every venue closed. Long-scheduled concert dates were canceled (or postponed, only to be canceled soon thereafter).

The fixed costs associated with running a club or concert hall ran up against an overnight loss of revenue. So whether for pandemic-relate reasons or other pressures, some Asheville music spots would close their doors for good. West Asheville’s popular Mothlight was the first to announce its closure; Ambrose West followed not long after.

Designed as downtown Asheville’s newest outdoor music venue, Rabbit Rabbit had the misfortune of scheduling its opening right as the shutdown began. “At the beginning of 2020, we already had Vampire Weekend on the books to open our first season,” says Jeff Santiago, Operations Manager for both the outdoor concert space and the Orange Peel. “We were in the middle of a build-out when the pandemic hit.”

A mix of governmental and artist-required restrictions continued well into the middle of 2022, Santiago says. But in many cases, the rules were moot. “Some artists decided not to tour,” Santiago explains. “So we saw a few tours – ones we already had on the books – go away.”

Help on the way
Even with significantly fewer shows and reduced attendance at those dates, music venues still had to contend with expenses associated with staffing and operations. But one of the rare upsides of the pandemic is that adversity brought businesses together. Launched in 2020, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) began as a means for venues across the U.S. to pool their resources and lobby for federal assistance during the pandemic.

The grassroots organization helped create and pass the Save Our Stages Act (renamed the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant Program). That initiative became law in December 2020, providing a fund of $16 billion in emergency relief for entertainment venues. “NIVA was a big deal for coming together to help each other navigate through the problems we had to face,” Santiago says. “That was a part of what helped us survive.”

Potentially post-pandemic
As the third anniversary of the lockdown approaches, day-to-day operations at music venues that survived the worst of the pandemic are returning to normal. There’s strong incentive for that: audiences are ready to come out and see shows, and the venues are ready to fill up their open calendar dates.

“There’s a small handful of artists who aren’t comfortable yet,” Santiago says, “but [nearly] everyone’s back at it.” Meanwhile, vaccination requirements, mask mandates and enforced social distancing have all gone away. “The onus for attending shows has kind of reverberated back to attendees, Rodriguez observes. “The ‘new normal’ is really defined by the people attending events.”

Matthieu Rodriguez, Marketing Coordinator for Harrah’s Cherokee Center observes that while the strict requirements of the pandemic era no longer apply, many touring acts continue to follow strict health and safety protocols. “Over the past year, we’ve seen artists maintain the same level of standard operating procedures for health and wellness backstage,” he says. “They make most of their money on touring, so it’s imperative for them to keep continuing testing and to wear face masks when they’re setting up.”

Santiago says that the same is true at his venues. “Our production team continue to wear masks when they’re working, because they know they’re dealing with people who are traveling all around the country and coming into contact with a lot of people,” he says. Any discussions about health and safety issues are addressed in the advance discussions between artist and venue, says Santiago; such matters are not typically part of the language of contracts.

VIP experiences and meet-and-greets had become widely popular in the pre-pandemic era. And both Santiago and Rodriguez note that the frequency of those premiums is now near the level of four years ago. “The artists want to get back to that,” Rodriguez says. “They miss people.”

“We’re seeing more and more meet-and-greet packages,” Santiago reports. “Any kind of upsell that artists are doing is an opportunity for them to make more income. I think they’re just trying to maximize their income possibilities given the amount of income lost over the pandemic.”

Some of the increased costs that came about during the pandemic are lingering even now. Global supply chain disruptions and inflation haven’t helped. But Rodriguez emphasizes that the city-owned Harrah’s Cherokee Center has a goal of “not pushing those rising costs onto our fans.”

And people are indeed coming out for shows once again. “We did see our drop count go down,” says Santiago, referring to the number of ticket holders who show up at an event. “But those counts have gotten increasingly [higher] in 2022.”

Click here to continue