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Thursday
Mar052009

Small is the new big, and why house concerts could save touring artists.

This post by Fran Snyder originally appeared on the ConcertsInYourHome.com blog.  Fran is a touring singer-songwriter, and founder of ConcertsInYourHome.com

House Concerts - Mozart was onto something.
Mozart was well known for performing “parlor concerts,” in the homes of rich patrons who would delight in the opportunity to show off their acquaintance with him. Things have changed, however, and you no longer need to be rich to have access to some of the finest talent available. Furthermore, many of these artists are genuinely interested in their fans, and enjoy an opportunity to connect in a way that rarely happens in traditional venues.

Breaking New Markets = Breaking the Bank
Most acts, regardless of talent, are lucky to draw 30-40 people when they play in a new area. The resources needed to get beyond those numbers are getting more expensive and less effective all the time. Publicity and radio promotion can cost many hundreds if not thousands of dollars per week, and these methods employ people to beg, bribe, or cajole overwhelmed media personnel (writers, DJs, music programmers) who can rarely make the returns worthwhile. Ask any act how many “butts in seats” result from a nice article in the paper. Few, if any. Likewise, airplay doesn’t yield much unless it is sustained. Posters and flyers? Don’t get me started.

It’s been universally accepted for years that touring is so important, that artists should be willing to do it at a financial loss. Furthermore, it’s often suggested that you play anywhere and everywhere, because you never know where a new fan (including one with some power to help in a significant way) will turn up. And if you return consistently, you’ll build an audience.

I say it’s nonsense.
Of course, if you are an artist on the road, not every gig is likely to be a part of your grand strategic plan. But it is wrong to start with the premise that you should play in rooms where people don’t pay attention, and where the financial prospects are gloomy at best. That mentality is a disservice not only to your music, but to professional artists everywhere.

Shame on us. For decades we’ve been teaching audiences that it’s perfectly O.K. to sit 5 feet away from a performer, and carry on conversations at the top of their lungs. Who started this? Has anyone built a lasting audience this way?

Play Rooms You Can Fill - Play Rooms Where You Can Connect.
Without a fat budget and a dedicated team of smart supporters, I believe the best way to build an audience is to play rooms that 1. you can fill, and 2. that allow you to really connect in a personal or powerful way with the audience.

But where are the rooms you can sell out with 40 seats? Specifically, where are the ones that don’t have an espresso machine screaming during your ballads?

Shrinkage!
The potential audience for live music in traditional venues continues to shrink and fragment. People have more choices than ever for entertainment, and many of those choices increasingly keep them at home. Rentable and on-demand movies, xBox 360 and Wii, and the increasing variety and breadth of sports events and programming provide serious competition to the concert business.

In addition, despite the good they’ve done to society, stricter DUI laws have reduced the number of people who go out to listen to music, and smoking bans force “would-be listeners” out of the room during the show. We now have 200 capacity clubs who routinely have 50 people show up, and a majority of the audience spends half the night outside.

So venues have to diversify to stay in business.

Pool tables, televisions, electronic trivia - anything to bring in more bodies, sell more drinks, and stay in business. They have to do this, regardless of how it affects (distracts) from the core vision of the enterprise - putting on live music shows. Artists (who seemingly have no better option) gladly walk in, set up, and waste their evening playing for ungrateful, inattentive patrons, and force their true fans to watch a show while drunks are screaming about the latest touchdown.

And everyone accepts it. That’s life.

Wanted: Hundreds of Geniuses
The fact is, it takes a genius to run a music venue that can turn a profit (consistently) by presenting shows with audiences of less than 50 people. The economies of scale mean that running a club that is 50% smaller than before might only trim your overhead by 20%, all else being equal. The ones that do succeed often split the club (restaurant/venue) physically - by creating a separate room for the music. Eddie’s Attic, in Decatur Georgia is a good example of this, but has had its share of tough economic times.

The fact is, as audiences continue to fragment and dwindle, many clubs will go out of business unless they downsize or change what they are doing. Especially if they are not doing it well. Artists have long accepted second jobs or being broke as a way of life - some club owners have as well. In the long term, it’s not sustainable.

In the absence of geniuses, how can we have profitable concerts with an audience of 30-40 people? You create an event that is so special that one person (the venue) is willing to let the other (the act) keep all the money. Who would do such a thing? A house concert host.

What is a House Concert?
It’s an invitation-only concert in someone’s home, presented by a host who does not profit from the event. Although there are many exceptions and variations from these guidelines, house concerts are usually…

  • held indoors and on weekends
  • attended by 20-50 people
  • paid for by a $10-20 donation per guest (for the performer)
  • known to include light snacks, beverages or a pot-luck dinner
  • attended by the host’s friends, neighbors, co-workers, and maybe a few fans of the artist
  • attended by a 25-60 age group
  • performed by solo, duos and small groups
  • performed with little to no amplification
  • very intimate - the audiences sit close and are attentive
  • performed as two, 40-minute sets with a 20 minute break
  • stronger for artist’s merchandise sales than traditional venues
  • booked without a financial guarantee (sometimes a modest guarantee to cover expenses)
  • known to house and feed the artist for the night

The Growth of House Concerts
All over the world (but mostly in America) music fans are discovering that putting on a house concert is a lot of fun, inexpensive, and a great way to entertain friends and acquaintances. They also get a kick out of having personal time with the artists, and knowing that they are playing a very important role in their careers. And thousands of these events happen every year.

Due to space considerations, these house concerts are more likely to help singer-songwriter acts and small ensembles, but the variety of genres and spaces available continues to grow. Jazz combos, instrumental acts, or any act that can comfortably fit in a living room might really enjoy performing in these intimate spaces.

Until we have enough geniuses to develop a commercial infrastructure for small, profitable concerts, house concerts will have to fill the void. In the meantime, small clubs owners, since they often lack the purchasing power to get A-List performers, should connect with these non-profit promoters to take advantage of block-booking opportunities and “double buys.” Even when they are in fairly close proximity, there is usually a very small overlap between house concert and club audiences. House concerts often draw people who don’t like late nights and driving downtown.

Are house concerts the perfect pill?
So far you would think so. But a house concert host can have just as much trouble building an audience. Some hosts have a natural ability to gather crowds (through personality, standing in the community,etc.) but some really have to work at promoting their events. Booking a “stiff” act or two can seriously damage your reputation as a host, and start a downward trend of the audience you’ve worked so hard to build. House concerts are subject to all the same “acts of God” and “acts of Playoffs” that traditional venues deal with.

The upside, however, is that even a modest turnout (15-20 people) can be very satisfying, profitable, and not leave the artist scrambling for a hotel at the end of the night. Many house concert hosts provide food and a guest room for the night - two of the biggest expenses of being on the road.

Rebuilding Our “Infrastructure”
House concerts are filling a key missing ingredient in the live music infrastructure. They provide the venue for artists who cannot draw the numbers necessary for a traditional “for profit” live music venue. This provides opportunities for niche artists, such as

  • great talents who are not famous* yet, or not famous anymore
  • great talents who aren’t chasing fame or major commercial success
  • world class performers who’s fame and market share are limited by the genre (i.e. folk) they inhabit
  • developing talent
  • * substitute “well-known” if you prefer.

In the absence of house concerts, these acts play in bars and coffeehouses, serving no particular purpose. They don’t make a living wage, and neither does the venue. They don’t fully express their art, because a distracted audience simply cannot participate fully in the show. These “concerts” are often another missed opportunity to do something smaller and more rewarding.

Never before in our history has there been so much talent available, yet so much of that talent is “stuck.” There are not enough venues where small successes are possible - places that are the necessary stepping stones for an artist building a regional or national fanbase.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the development of new house concerts, by enthusiastic and savvy fans, is necessary - always has been. Just ask Mozart.

Reader Comments (19)

Excellent post, Fran!

There's a guy in Orlando named Mark Fodor who has been going the semi-extreme route of house concerts in his backyard. He built not one, but two stages - landscaped the area, installed a permanent sound system and lights and has been organizing shows with an acoustic opening act on the smaller side-stage with a headlining act, usually a band and sometimes nationally known, on the main stage. What's he get in exchange? He likes to say that he gets to hear some of the best music ever, without ever leaving his house. I've played there (opening for Scott Ainslie) and his most recent show was blues songstress Candye Kane.

The reason I mention that is because, as you mentioned, it takes something of a genius to run a venue where the audience size is around 50 people. I'm not sure we're going to find that in a mainstream commercial enterprise anytime soon unless, as you said, the infrastructure radically changes. But enterprising music lovers like Mark and others like him with the passion and desire to make the initial investment are the wave of the future. It can't be done for the money though (although it's a necessary by-product) - like any real artist, or genuine promoter, it should be done for the love; everything else will follow.

As a proud member of ConcertsInYourHome.com and frequent performer at house concerts, I truly hope that more people decide to join this wonderful music revolution and expand the number of venues available in which artists can perform. It brings the connection back that has been lost in the commercialization of music and with that heart comes hope.

Aloha nui loa!

Bing

March 5 | Unregistered CommenterBing Futch

One of the great things about house concerts is they come in all shapes and sizes. Some book up to a year and a half in advance, and hold concerts once or twice a month. Some only do one or two a year when an artists they really love comes through town. Some are hosted by an artist who sits in with the touring artists. Some are huge - holding 80 - 100 guests. Some are very quaint and cozy with audiences averaging around 10.

The commonality is that they are put on for the love of it, not as a business, as Fran points out. So... artists wanting to try this out, please do your home work! Every host is different. Nothing will turn them off faster than receiving your standard venue email pitch. They care about the music, and they care about who you are as a person and a performer. And remember that their "venue" doubles as a home. The CD table is used for doing math homework most of the time, and the nights you aren't in their living room they may be having a 12 year olds slumber party.

I point these things out because apparently they are not obvious to everyone. Over the years we've been hosting house concerts, you've no idea the rediculous emails we've received from artists.

And as artists ourselves, I must say that hosting house concerts and getting to see how others interact with their audience has been a tremendous education. For those artists who stay put long enough and can host a series, I highly recommend it.

March 5 | Unregistered CommenterBev Barnett

Thanks for a great post, Fran; barely knew the concept existed - this filled in a lot of blanks. While house concerts don't fit my situation, I like to keep up on what's out there, and will pass it along, with your site, to friends who may benefit.

March 6 | Unregistered CommenterDg.

Thank you for this post- would definitely like to see some followup with a more specific guide on how to organize these events.

March 6 | Unregistered CommenterEthan Waldman

Great post Fran! I to believe that the house concert movement is absolutely for real and have had many myself. The key, i believe, in the future will be artists reaching out to fans and having 'fan driven' private concerts once the concept is accepted holistically in the 'mainstream'. Websites like mptrax.com are set up to enable the movement and look forward to see the continued growth.

March 6 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Malloy

Jonah Matranga of Far, onelinedrawing, Gratitude and New End Original fame has been doing this for years. Great way to make fans for life and truly connect. Good post.

March 6 | Unregistered CommenterRick Gonzalez

When I traveled Chile some years ago I talked to an artist working similar than I and he said: "Under the regime of Augusto Pinochet everything happend in living rooms, very private. I am so happy that after Pinochet we started to move into the space, opened ourself and acted in public."

- Why shall I leave the public and settle my art in a shell called privacy?

- Why shall I expose myself as a touring artist to people I don't know in their private space?

- Why shall I downscale myself. I get downscaled by the system anyhow.

- Why shall I act like a waiter working for tips.

Sounds all like tupperware party to me. Sounds all like social networking in real. Sounds all like "an artist to touch" to me. Sounds all like downgrading to me.

But maybe after 20 years of permant upgrading (up to mega defrauder-hypsters like B. Madoff) the whole system is that much upside down that people need it "small" or "real", at least for a moment.

What do I do?
I talk to people and organisations who have space and similar perspectives on how to present and monetarize art.
I'll try to find the best space for what I wanna present. From galleries to public spaces, from ships to castles. I work out a budget and try to involve again people and organisations to invest money, scalable from little to big.

greetings Wolfgang

PS: Yes, Mozart gave concerts is houses of rich aristocrats, but he did not play for 20.-$ x 30 people = 600.-$
He made about 60.000.-$ or more when he played for aristocrates. Sounds more like Vegas or Dubai to me.

March 7 | Unregistered Commenterwolfgang

Great post, Fran!

I first learned about house concerts from the folk world, and have been playing them (usually duo or trio) with my mix of pop and jazz for several years now. They are so much fun! They are intimate shows where I can actually talk with audience members, and they can talk to each other. It's a great way to build community around music!

March 7 | Unregistered Commenterelizabeth!

i love, love house concerts/ shows. but just for some perspective, it is a "scene" in itself, just like anything else. it's great if your own fans are setting them up for you, but for the more already established series, forget it. most hosts already have their list of performers set a year in advance, and won't even consider booking those they haven't seen perform live.

it would probably be better to get started having your own fans/ friends host them at first. or else maybe going the "house shows" route, which in my experience is different than "concerts." usually, it's a younger crowd with less $ floating around between everybody. but still a nice environment with attentive ears :)

March 7 | Unregistered Commenterchantilly

Good points, house shows are great, closest you can come to a truly authentic experience. But, register with my website and get to play them??!! What What? At first I saw this post as well intended, but now I see it as nothing but a shill. Way to take something simple and humbling, something that's supposed to be a level playing field, a true DIY experience, and ruin it. I thought people didn't get into doing house shows for the money?

March 11 | Unregistered CommenterDallas

in Soviet Union we used to have a similar thing since all the stages belonged to the government and were not so easily opened for anyone who'd have a song and a voice.
since the country side is not very developed most of those private gigs happened in apartment buildings in some larger flats.
then we had a little period when alternative and commercial music was allowed and was in demand.
for the last 10 years the piracy blocked development of any healthy music industry growth and many singer-songwriters and small bands constantly play that kind of gigs - in private flats.
that sometimes means 60 people scrambled in a 40 qm room listening to a guy singing and playing guitar.
In St-Petersburg there's a place where they hold "kvartirnik" up to 4 times a week - it became a solid venue for many artists.
usually the fee is around 5-15 USD.

March 11 | Unregistered Commenteratmoravi

Here in NYC we call em' "Loft Parties", and with clubs constantly ripping you off and a general disconnect between those making the music and those who just want to be seen in a scene, it's certainly a way to go. It's not even about the money - the gigs are more fun, more authentic, the memories sweeter!

March 12 | Unregistered CommenterBetty Shambles

I was so pleased to read this - expressing very well the nature of the problems and a workable formula for overcoming them. It's the same way that we're approaching our 'Second Sunday' series, even though, thanks to a supportive pub landlord, our concerts are in a licensed function room. It's artists working with and for each other, on the basis of mutual affection and respect for great work. We've had some of the funniest moments and some searingly powerful performances. Long may it continue - if someone remembers to buy me a drink it probably will.

March 13 | Unregistered CommenterDrBo

i'm an evangelist for house concerts for listening music, for all the reasons fran espouses above. but let's not forget that public concerts are still (and ought to be) a complementary and very necessary part of building careers. the benefits to the performer and his/her art that derive from dialectical relationship between the performer and *diverse* audiences, and the public profile that comes from playing "regular" concerts, are part of what attracts the notice of the house concert presenter in the first place. the two types of concert experience go hand in hand. however, as fran intimates, pick the venue for your public concerts wisely.. play a room that fits your music and audience.

March 15 | Unregistered Commenterdan kershaw

This is a great article and many truths are in it. Along with Amanda Brewer we are an acoustic folk rock duo from Waterloo, ON Canada and are making our first venture into the US via house concerts. It takes some research to find them especially ones within reasonable distance but we know that they will be worth it in the end.

Canada I think is relatively new to the House Concert compared to the US. But they have really caught on here and we performed at our first one last year and it was incredible. We still play everywhere and very rarely are picky about a venue but we will be concentrating on House Concerts (not exclusively) from now on.

Finally if anyone reading this hosts a house concert, we would be interested to connect with you to set up a performance.

Thanks again Fran.

March 15 | Unregistered CommenterWarren Muzak

Great post! Our band in New Orleans rarely takes a venue gig. We have a short tour in three weeks consisting of 2 venue gigs and 6 house parties. I wish they were all at houses!
- Reid
bluepartymusic.com

March 19 | Unregistered CommenterReid Martin

I love house concerts. They are win-win-win, audience, presenter, and artist-friendly. I don't think I'd be able to make a living without them. No sound system, either- that's incredible. The relationship between artist and audience is so intimate that some artists can't handle it. I thrive on it.

I like it so much that Corin Raymond and I wrote a song in tribute to the small-time scene, where, as you point out, an artist can actually make more money than in the "big time". www.myspace.com/corinraymond, the song is called "There Will Always Be A Small Time." Third verse is about house concerts, "The music's come back home again. Nowadays we're playin' in the parlor's like the way they used to do. The big time's are a-changin' fast. The only thing that's gonna last is folks like me singin' songs for folks like you."

ten dollars is crazy expensive for a basement show. try five to seven.

October 11 | Unregistered Commentermatt

I do have some questions:

1. Where do the police allow amplified music in neighborhoods?
2. Is there an online location for these house concerts?

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