All three moves are examples of an ongoing shake-up on Asheville’s music scene as more and more venues open. With the increased competition, venues are jockeying for specific niches as they seek to put butts in seats night after night on the city’s vibrant live music landscape.
The changes also come as the city’s musicians have begun to get organized. The newly formed Asheville Music Professionals group is pushing to be sure local players get paid a living wage, and the city’s street-side buskers are talking with city officials about changing regulations that will help them make more money on downtown avenues.
Brian and Tiffany Lee opened the Altamont Theatre about five years ago after sinking thousands of dollars into an historic structure on quiet, leafy Church Street in downtown Asheville. Their plan at the start was to build a black box theatre on the ground floor and bring in top-notch New York acting talent for shows. The building’s upper levels were remodeled into condos for rent.
Over time, the black box theater morphed into a listening room, with Brian Lee booking talented smaller singer/songwriter acts into the small room reminiscent of Asheville’s revered Be Here Now listening room of 20 years ago. Now Lee says he’s done. The Altamont Theatre has music booked through mid-December, but Lee is working to lease or sell the space.
“The way the music businesss is shaking out, everybody is opening up new venues and it’s a hard business to start with and it’s just going to get harder,” Lee said. “It’s been fun and we’ve enjoyed it. But I’m tired of tilting at windmills.”
Just a stone’s throw away, the Asheville Music Hall has been booking electronic and jam band music for about three years. But co-owner Katherine Powell, known around town simply as KP, tells Ashvegas she’s ready to move on. Powell says she plans to maintain a house in Asheville, but wants to return to working with music acts on the road. She says she’s just begun talks about the possibilities of getting out of the business, one that she hopes will continue.
Sam Katz, an Asheville Music Hall investor who also promotes music acts, says he’s noticed the increased competition affecting the business bottom line. The Millroom and New Mountain have opened downtown in the past two years, as have The Mothlight and The Isis in West Asheville. There’s a new outdoor music venue planned at the Salvage Station on Riverside Drive, and both Sierra Nevada Brewing (Mills River in Henderson County) and New Belgium Brewing (Craven Street in Asheville) plan to have music venues on the site of their respective breweries. And don’t forget the free music in Asheville with summer festivals such as RiverMusic on the French Broad River and Downtown After Five on North Lexington Avenue in downtown.
Katz emphasizes that it’s business as usual for Asheville Music Hall. He says he’s hoping for a new owner who “wants to capitalize on the great brand and infrastructure we’ve built. I’m ready to fight for that.”
At The Isis Scott Woody, who works with his children in the business, says he’s taking a business approach to keeping his music hall alive. Woody is a longtime bluegrass fan, and he books bluegrass and country acts, as well as jazz, indy and the occasional DJ.
“This is a business, and I try to approach it like that,” says Woody. On approach he’s taking is to work closely with local bands who will commit to a residency. The idea is for the venue to promote the band, and for the band to actively work to promote its shows and the venue. Woody says he’d also like to see local venue operators work more closely together to be sure “we’re not shooting ourselves in the foot with the same gun” when it comes to booking acts.
Note: In the course of reporting this story, Brian Lee texted me this telling quote:
“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.” -Hunter S. Thompson