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Secrets of a Top‑Selling Independent Music Venue

How The Orange Peel’s eclectic audience helps the iconic venue keep the music playing, both inside the club and at a 2020‑launched outdoor outpost.

Photo by John Warner

The last 2 years have been tough for many small businesses, and live music venues have had it particularly grim. In the United States, tour cancellations were among the first signs in March of 2020 that life would be upended for the foreseeable future. And the road to reopening has held false starts, lower ticket capacities, and a whole new slate of nuanced responsibilities for club owners around the world.

The Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina is no exception. Known for its wide-ranging artist lineup and intimate feel, the 1,000-capacity club had been bringing world-class musical acts to the mountain town since it opened in 2002, gaining praise everywhere from Rolling Stone to Southern Living. When health advisories and local legal regulations caused the downtown venue to shutter in March 2020, Orange Peel Events (the group that manages the venue) continued their good work—not only presenting live streamed concerts and other morale–boosting virtual events, but also readying the launch of a new outdoor music destination across town.

The new open-air venue, Rabbit Rabbit, was an immediate hit when it opened in late 2020. But its seemingly overnight success was really a decade-plus in the making. Liz Whalen Tallent, marketing director at Orange Peel Events, says that Orange Peel Events’ robust email list was crucial in getting the word out about their new location. Here, we caught up with her about how her team keeps in touch with the iconic venue’s large online audience—and how that same audience helped launch another beloved new home for music lovers just a few miles away.

Photo by Jesse Callahan

You’ve been a Mailchimp customer for more than a decade. How do you use email marketing?

We have a pretty large email database. We send out an email every week, and we try to have that be one of the first places you'll hear about new show announcements. It's also exclusively the place where we give out pre-sale codes, which can be really coveted. We segment occasionally, but I am not a huge believer in writing 20 different newsletters for 20 different demographics. Even though we know that not everybody cares about every genre, the things that people attend can be really diverse! We hate to pigeonhole them.

The Orange Peel has gained a lot of national attention, and the city you’re in has become a popular tourist destination. Do you think about non-locals when you’re preparing your marketing?

We deliberately try to cast a wide net in terms of our subscriber list, and we put Subscribe to Our Newsletter front and center on our website. That’s always been a big part of our strategy. Of course, we know there are people who unsubscribe after they come to the one show they were traveling for, but a lot of people don’t unsubscribe, too. They may not read it every week, and they may not read it every month. They may only care about 1 out of every 6 newsletters they get. But that’s fine as long as we keep them in the fold.

It’s been a really rough few years for live music, especially indoor venues. What’s one factor you feel allowed you to weather this?

Having built up a really sizable database and having consistent readership for our e-newsletter has been really valuable in launching our new outdoor venue, Rabbit Rabbit. It was huge to not have to start from scratch to get the word out about the outdoor shows, particularly because Rabbit Rabbit is a much larger venue so there were a lot more tickets to sell. Being able to have that captured audience that we can go to easily—an audience that really wants to know what’s going on—has been super valuable.

Photo by Jon Lidell

Was opening an outdoor venue already in the cards before COVID-19 started shutting down concert halls?

We had already purchased the property and were working on it before the pandemic, and were slated to open in June 2020. Obviously, in March of 2020, everything was put on pause, and certainly by May of that year it became clear that we weren’t going to be able to do any of that.

We ended up opening [in August 2020] as a gathering space instead of launching with a big concert, because we weren’t allowed to legally hold big concerts at that time anyway—indoor or outdoor—in our state. It was great to have Rabbit Rabbit at all because it allowed us to give our employees some work and have some kind of income coming in.

Our first concert at Rabbit Rabbit was in July of 2021. We weren't able to have a full season, we did have a very solid half a season where we sold out nearly all of our shows. It was very well received by our audiences and by our bands.

Now that you’re managing promotions for 2 popular venues, are there any time-saving tools you use for your digital marketing—in Mailchimp or beyond?

We often write our newsletters in advance and schedule them for Wednesdays. We've moved to more graphics over words—big buttons and being consistent with formatting and band images. It makes it easy for people to open it and take a glance: see what's coming up this weekend, see this week’s on-sales, and find the pre-sale codes. Mailchimp makes it easy for me to make it orderly and easy to see, which at this point—with the volume of shows that we're promoting between The Orange Peel and Rabbit Rabbit—is important.

Where does social media come into the equation?

Socials are a huge part of our strategy. At first, we were really just using social media to interact with our fans and get content out. As time has gone on, we’ve had to start spending money, but we’re pretty judicious in how we do it. We also try to just have engaging local content and a brand personality that draws people in. Our booking is pretty special for a city of our size. Our customers know to stay tuned to what we're going to be announcing, both through our newsletter and through social media.

Photo by Sandlin Gaither

You’ve been getting the word out about The Orange Peel for more than a decade, even as many clubs are being bought up by larger companies. What do you consider essential to marketing success for an independent venue?

The Orange Peel has been the number-one ticket selling club-sized venue in the Southeast for a number of years now. I attribute that to a special, imperfect magical recipe of things. One thing I think is having been around for quite a while—we’ve established who we are for 20 years now.

Another thing that I think is hugely important is Asheville, where we're located. Asheville is a small market, so we're not competing with 5 other thousand-cap clubs. Some might think that would make it hard to even bring the acts in to begin with, and at first it was harder. But the more you do it, the more you get established for tour routing with agents. And once you're able to do that, you can really break out.

From the beginning, though, a real strength of ours has been to book a lot of shows and a wide variety of shows. You might like a completely different kind of music than I do, but one of us might be at the club on a Tuesday and the other on a Wednesday. We’re casting a wide net and really bringing in a whole lot of different people. You can't discount how important that continues to be.

Published: May 23, 2022

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