"We never have the same audience twice."
by Joanne O'Sullivan . photo by Brent Fleury
Catching a bluegrass concert in Asheville has never been tough. But not long ago, seeing a buzz-worthy indie-rock band might have meant driving to the Cat’s Cradle club in Carrboro. For a good hip-hop show, you might have gone all the way to Atlanta. Increasingly, says Liz Whalen, marketing and special events director at Asheville’s The Orange Peel, it’s more like a reverse commute: the Peel is attracting the kind of shows that music lovers are willing to travel for. Now, she and her colleagues are working to put Asheville even more solidly on the music map. Last year, the Peel poured $300,000 into an expansion and renovation, thanks to a loan guarantee from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority. The makeover includes 400 additional square feet of space and a swanky members-only downstairs club, Pulp, which opened in December last year. At a time when many local businesses are holding their breath, The Orange Peel is rockin’ right along.
In the world of music venues, capacity is king. “There’s a line between a thousand people and twelve hundred,” says Whalen. When booking agents and band managers are scoping out show sites, the Peel, which maxed out at 942, came up slightly short. “We would lose bands to cities with a slightly bigger venue,” says Whalen. The club’s space always had room for improvement. It was built as the Skateland Rollerdome in the ‘50s and later occupied by a series of R & B clubs, the last of which was called The Original Orange Peel. The basement was unfinished, and within the cavernous main floor, a few areas were underutilized. Through the years, management came up with ideas for changes, often based on customer input: box seats, for example, and serving booze at a second bar. But with last year’s credit crunch, a major renovation was a financial challenge. The solution, Whalen says, came from looking at the changing nature of the club’s audiences.
Since joining the management team four years ago, Whalen has helped beef up the club’s “street teams” (well-connected individuals who can help build buzz for a show), adding players in cities like Knoxville, Charlotte and Greenville. They put out flyers, posters and show calendars, but more importantly, they build interest by word of mouth. The club has also been building its brand at regional music festivals such as Bonnaroo, putting magnets and show calendars into the hands of a built-in audience—those who are willing to travel to see bands. In analyzing ticket sales, Whalen says, she discovered that up to 60 percent of the audience for certain shows came from out of town, bringing tourism dollars with them. When Smashing Pumpkins chose the club for a nine-show residency (a practice run for their comeback tour) in 2007, fans from around the world camped out in Asheville. Which may have helped secure the Peel its Top 5 Club honor in Rolling Stone in 2008. Those stats and honors proved the club was a music destination and helped secure the loan from the tourism authority.