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House Concerts - You're Probably Doing it Wrong

It’s been an interesting week for house concerts. First, David Via gets attacked outside a residence before a house concert… and Billboard does a 4-page spread. I thought this piece would be well-timed for an appearance in Hypebot. 


Billboard Magazine featured a compelling 4-page story about house concerts in a recent issue. They collected quotes from a variety of hosts and performers - from the traditional acoustic show types, to the more off-the-wall “house shows” that describe indie and punk bands stretching the house concert tradition in ways that we feel need to be addressed.

Although ConcertsInYourHome has focused on small touring acts from the beginning, we do not want to imply that bands should not have the same opportunity to connect with their fans. However, it’s important to notice and prevent some of the problems that can make a full band show a risky proposition for someone’s residence. Young folks, alcohol, smoke, high volume and high energy can quickly make you realize why these shows usually happen in sparse, dingy caverns that are regularly inspected by a fire marshall.

However, the following information is vital for anyone hosting or playing house concerts, regardless of the size of the group or audience. Not knowing the law does not protect you from the law.

Public vs Private - there’s only one correct choice.

This is one of the most common “rules” of house concerts that we see ignored. If you treat someone’s home (or your own) like a public venue, you are inviting several types of liability with potentially serious consequences.

  • Homeowner’s Insurance will not cover a homeowner claim if they discover it was a public event. If someone gets hurt on the property, they could make several people’s lives rough and/or expensive for a while.
  • Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) could come after the homeowner/venue for licensing fees. ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC, in the United States (all other countries have a single PRO) have a mandate from congress to collect for the public performance of music. It’s not enough to say your music is original - if any of the performed material (even your own) is affiliated with a PRO they have the right to collect, and the way they do that is through licenses, which can run hundreds of dollars per year for small spaces.
  • Zoning Complaints are actually the most common reason that house concerts (even small acoustic ones) get shut down. Residential areas don’t like to see public events on their streets, and zoning officials often prefer to satisfy the complainer (voter) rather than look into the details of why a house concert might actually be a good thing for the community.

In short - private events are by invitation only.

There’s very little case-law on house concerts, and each organization/locality could have different reasons to make their case against a house concert host. Here are some ways that they could argue that your event was public.

  • posters and flyers around town
  • ads and mentions on radio/tv (yes, we’ve seen this)
  • information on performer’s website, especially if you list the address.
  • information on the host’s website, especially if the address is listed.
  • failure to require RSVP. If people (the public) can just show up un-announced, without knowing or communicating with the host/organizer… that’s a public show.

So how do you get the word out?!

For obvious reasons, many new hosts and performers are eager to have a big show, and simply aren’t aware that with more preparation and partners, they can safely and steadily build audience for a house concert, especially if it’s intended to become a series. Here are some of our suggestions.

  • The hosts start as small as needed, and builds a mailing list over time.
  • The hosts invite all their friends, co-workers, and neighbors to attend.
  • The hosts create a team of trusted co-hosts, to expand the number of real connections.
  • The hosts attend events to expand their list of people they’ve actually met.
  • If the performers have actual friends in the area, those friends could certainly be invited. A friend, however, is not just “a drunk who signed your email list at the last show.”

The second most common mistake we see is the money.

Tickets & Cover charge vs Suggested Donation
Anything other than a donation makes your concert a commercial activity, which is often forbidden in a residential area. The IRS may also have some issues with this, especially if the money passes through the hands of the homeowner. For shows attended by adults, we’ve found that a suggested donation of $10-20 is usually better than passing the hat.

Really, a donation.

Let’s not forget that house concerts are more than just a good gig for the performer. This tradition also has a long history of forging great friendships, and bringing communities together. In that spirit, it’s common and healthy for a house concert series to be accessible to friends who can’t quite pay the suggested donation. Over time, good hosts train their audience (those who can afford it) that the suggested donation is more or less expected.

It is possible to honor the spirit of donations while encouraging your guests to also honor a professional touring artist with respectable income.

No splits or percentages.

Back to the IRS. Performers are responsible for paying their own taxes on income from house concerts. We believe that 100% of house concert donations should go directly to the performer. If the host tries to keep a percentage (for expenses) they can expose themselves to greater IRS scrutiny - they use the web, and they have reached out to house concert hosts before.

We know that most hosts and artists who don’t follow this advice usually do so out of ignorance of the law, an anxiousness to have a big crowd, and/or simply not knowing that there are alternatives to allow us to safely build audiences.

At ConcertsInYourHome, we’re seeing the audience grow, and we’re actively working on creating symbiotic relationships between house concerts and public venues. If we’re smart about how we put on house concerts, we can get closer to our fans, keep them out of trouble, and we can grow an audience that supports house concerts as well as our best public venues.

That’s the right way to do it.

Fran Snyder is an artist, and founder of, the largest and most active community of house concerts around the world.



Reader Comments (1)

Hey Fran,
You post great information about house concerts and keeping out of trouble with the law and the PROs. However, I'm pretty sure that one bit of info in this article is not quite correct. You say, " if any of the performed material (even your own) is affiliated with a PRO they have the right to collect...." BMI's agreement with it's songwriter members specifically states in Paragraph 5(c):

You, the publishers and/or your co-writers, if any, retain the right to issue non-exclusive licenses for performances of a Work or Works in the United States, its territories and possessions (other than to another performing rights licensing organization), provided that within ten (10) days of the issuance of such license or within three (3) months of the performance of the Work or Works so licensed, whichever is earlier, we are given written notice thereof and a copy of the license is supplied to us.

See: You'll need to scroll down to page 7 of the pdf. The complete agreement runs from pages 5 thru 12.

As I read this, any BMI member retains the right to publicly perform any of his/her own songs because he/she can do so by the simple expedient of granting a license in perpetuity (i.e., forever) to him/herself and then sending BMI a copy of that license within ten days.

Further, a BMI member can license any venue he/she wants to to play for any time period that member chooses to grant the long as the member plays only his/her own songs. Again, all the songwriter has to do is send BMI a copy of the license within 10 days of granting it or within 3 months of the performance of the work.

This is a legal right that songwriters need to be made much more aware of. And it is a right that BMI is darned cagey about admitting exists!

I have friends who are BMI members who wound up paying BMI's licensing fees in order to play their own original music at a local farmer's market so that they could sell a few CD's and get their music out there. Ridiculous! The farmer's market didn't care about the music and wasn't about to pay the fees for them, but, once BMI came calling, refused to lease booth space to them to play in unless BMI got it's licensing fees because the farmer's market didn't want to get sued! They're currently in the process of getting BMI to back down and - maybe - give them back the couple of hundred dollars they paid out last year in licensing fees just for the right to play their own songs in a booth space that they had rented!

I haven't been able to find a copy of ASCAP's songwriter agreement anywhere online but I suspect it contains very similar language.

August 14 | Unregistered CommenterBev

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