After two smash-hit Moogfests and two decades of Christmas Jams, what will it take to make Asheville an A-list music destination? We polled a few local experts.
by Jess McCuan . photos by Zaire Kacz
hair by Cody Louise of Cody's Creations . makeup by Mendy Hoffman
In the music biz, half the battle is getting people to show up.
But at concerts in Asheville, that’s not the whole story. And sometimes, just filling an Asheville room is a trickier proposition than you might think.
To be sure, Asheville has a thriving music scene. Our fair city is home to Rolling Stone’s #5 music club in the country (The Orange Peel), and we’re frequently compared to the live-music mecca Austin. Rock icon and native son Warren Haynes invites high-profile collaborators like Phil Lesh and the Allman Brothers to town every winter for his Christmas Jam. Band of Horses guitarist Tyler Ramsey lives here; the Avett Brothers record here. The roots-music scene is bubbling, with MerleFest just a short drive away and award-winning roots-musician residents including David Holt (four Grammys), David Wilcox and the newcomers Dehlia Low.
And yet. Many of our best local musicians struggle to make ends meet. Musicians do that everywhere, but it doesn’t help when, as Forbes found in December, your city is the 13th worst metro area in the country to find a job. Jessica Tomasin, the longtime studio manager at Echo Mountain Recording studios and a band manager for local acts like Aaron “Woody” Wood, says there’s so little affordable rehearsal space in town that bands end up battling over West Asheville storage units. Indeed, Molly Kummerle, lead singer of Asheville’s Paper Tiger, says she and her crew practice in a Patton Avenue facility, but they have to pack up and leave when a metal band starts thrashing a few units away.
While excellent new small- and medium-sized venues pop up all the time (think of Sam Katz and Katherine Powell’s One Stop Deli and Asheville Music Hall), our biggest venue, the Asheville Civic Center, is known for truly awful acoustics. The Civic Center’s bad sound is a problem for big-deal acts in particular. “It’s a mushroom bowl in there,” says Crissa Requate, owner of Mason Jar Media and a former publicity director for both Asheville-based Music Allies and the New York City-based world music label Putumayo. She says the sound was so muddy for a late-night Moogfest act, Brooklyn-based TV on the Radio, that she could barely hear what was going on. One Greenville, South Carolina, music fan, Drew Price, said recently on the Civic Center’s Facebook page that he and his friends walked out early from a Widespread Panic concert because “it just didn’t sound good...I expected much more out of Asheville. They need to get their stuff together.”
In the spirit of getting our stuff together, VERVE polled a handful of music-scene veterans about how to (literally) amp things up.
In a downturn like the current one, people keep close tabs on their entertainment budgets. Especially in Western North Carolina, with so many locals unemployed or underemployed, “people are counting every dollar,” says Tomasin. “If you go by the funk jam at the One Stop on a Tuesday night, it’ll be packed out. That’s because it’s free or two bucks.” And, for a town Asheville’s size, there’s generally a lot of music to choose from. On any given evening, there might be a dozen bands playing at area venues. If you’re a well-known local act, you could draw a decent crowd. If you’re an unknown quantity, even though you may pack the house in a bigger city, Asheville crowds can be fickle. Erin Scholze, who runs music-focused Dreamspider Publicity and was named to No Depression’s roots-music “Twitterati” list last year, says it plays out this way: A solid band from Charleston or Atlanta might roll into Asheville and hear from club owners: “‘We don’t know who you are. You should find a local opener,’” she says. “A lot of times, [Ashevilleans] do go to shows for bands that they’re friends with, or that they already know. Everyone needs to get a little bit better about that.”
Still, the success of Moogfest in the past two years gives many people hope. Bob Moog, another of Asheville’s most famous musical residents, died in 2005. The inventor of the Moog synthesizer and an electronic-music pioneer, Moog left behind both a company and a legacy that reverberates in all corners of the musical universe. Ashley Capps, founder of Knoxville-based A.C. Entertainment, has been shrewd enough to capitalize and expand on that. Capps and his company, who run Bonnaroo and Vegoose, have been booking big acts in Asheville now for more than a decade. At some point, they learned that Moogfest was a small, one-day New York city-based event run by another team. In 2010, A.C. took it over, moved it to Asheville and rolled out what has become a buzzy, multi-venue festival extravaganza. “A lot of musicians have an emotional connection to Moog,” says Jeff Cuellar, A.C. Entertainment’s director of connectivity. “The musicians immediately saw [the concept] and gravitated towards it.”
On Halloween weekend in 2010, some of the hottest music acts in the country played Moogfest, including Big Boi of OutKast, the throwback punk-rockers Devo, and alt-rock’s MGMT. (Cee-lo Green canceled at the last minute.) More than 24,000 people came for three days of shows. In 2011, the festival blew up even bigger, with a lineup that included Moby and Tangerine Dream. Brian Eno, the godfather of ambient music, installed a special exhibit at the YMI Cultural Center in downtown Asheville, and area residents spotted Eno cruising around town to check things out. Attendance topped 28,000. “One of the biggest compliments we got from [festival-goers] was, ‘I didn’t know Asheville existed,’” Cuellar says. Tomasin, at Echo Mountain, says: “Events like Moogfest definitely put Asheville more on the map musically.” Stephanie Morgan, lead singer of Stephanie’s Id, has lived in Asheville for 18 years. In 2007, she created PopAsheville, a January indie rock fest, to help expand the local rock scene, but shut it down three years later because it lacked funding and she wanted to concentrate on making music. “Moogfest has done a lot,” she says. “There’s a machine turning right now” on the Asheville music scene. “There’s something happening.”
Liz Whalen, marketing director for The Orange Peel, is encouraged by Moogfest’s success, and by a few other trends. For one: dub. “It’s sort of exploded,” she says of dubstep, the British-born electronica and house music phenomenon. “It defines the college generation of right now.” It’s been good for live music everywhere, and good for The Orange Peel. Last November, the club landed one of the biggest dubstep acts, Skrillex, a 23-year-old DJ who was nominated for five Grammys in 2011. The club was jam-packed, mainly with 20-somethings, a category of concert-goers Whalen stays in tune with. “When you compare us to Austin, I say yes—but it’s just a much smaller city. Asheville’s not the capital, and there’s no university with 100,000 people. If I had a university of that size, I would sit back and put my feet up on my desk.”
Tomasin, at Echo Mountain, always seems to be brainstorming innovative ways to boost musicians. In July 2010, she helped Woody Wood pull together what was arguably Asheville’s first successful fundraising campaign for the making of an album via the website Kickstarter. (He raised $9,000 from 138 backers in 60 days.) At Echo Mountain, a deluxe and unusual recording space in a renovated Asheville church, she interacts with everyone from Kellin Watson to Dierks Bentley. The studio is relatively new, opened in 2006, by Steve Wilmans, co-owner of the Lexington Avenue Brewery. As Echo’s manager, Tomasin sits in a particularly powerful position on the local music scene. In March, she’ll coordinate a roadshow of sorts, Asheville to America, with Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band and other artists. While the popular funk Booty Band plays, another Ashevillean might paint on stage, she says. The multi-media, multi-artist tour will roll through Austin for South by Southwest, then continue to West Coast venues and back. “Basically, we’re just trying to let people know about all the cool things Asheville has to offer,” she says.
While many applaud her efforts, they also say the city, Chamber of Commerce and others should pitch in to boost music in bigger ways. Melissa Porter, who runs Asheville Event Company and handled logistics for an outdoor stage at Moogfest last year, says few festivals are as high-caliber as Moogfest. “I think there’s some real opportunity here,” she says. “Downtown After 5 and Bele Chere are nice, but the festivals we have are fairly small.” Following in Charleston’s footsteps, for example, Asheville could have several yearly festivals that draw travelers from afar. “We simply need to elevate the level of our special events,” she says.
We could also use a little more music-biz infrastructure, says Morgan, of Stephanie’s Id. Our best musicians always threaten to leave for Nashville, in part because they lack behind-the-scenes crew. “The city’s full of talent, but there are no booking agents, no managers,” she says. “People try to fill those roles, but they don’t do it at a pro level.” She admits she’s considered moving, but loves Asheville and has bought a home here. “It’s like we’ve got golden handcuffs at this point,” she says. “We have rock ‘n roll dreams, but we also have lifestyle dreams, and there’s an ethic about this town that I haven’t found anywhere else.” It’s an ethic that draws crowds of other people, too. Now, Asheville just needs to step up its music game to keep them.