One Living Room
at a Time
by Mike Grebb.
This article first appeared
Musician's Atlas' June 2006 Atlas Plugged Newsletter
and is used by permission. The
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Live performance is a rewarding form of self-expression and
unparalleled opportunity for artists to connect with audiences.
But bars can be noisy. Big clubs can lack intimacy. And let's
face it: The constant whirring of that cappuccino-maker at the back
of the room destroys any illusion that the crowd will be able to get the deeper
meaning of your songs.
This hunger for an intimate, shared experience for both audience and artist
has led to the phenomenon known as the House Concert. It's predicated on the
notion that the most intimate listening-room on the planet might just be home,
sweet home. This new model transforms a fan, friend or some other warm body with
a mortgage or lease into club owner/promoter. They invite friends to attend the
show (usually acoustic, sometimes amplified), request a modest donation to the
artist and maybe an offering of alcohol or food to the collective pot. People
eat. People drink. People sit down to hear some great live music.
And because the Artist eats, drinks and shmoozes with the audience, merch
sales and fan mailing lists increase dramatically. Go figure. "At a club, you
might have 10 percent of the audience buy a CD," says Mark Aaron James, a
Singer-Songwriter whose song "Aquaman's Lament" is perhaps the first one in
which a superhero imbibes "seven gin and tonics" as he's hitting on a girl. "At
a house concert, half the people there will buy the CD. They know the artist.
You're their friend now."
Corin Ashley, a
Singer-Songwriter and member of the band The Pills recalls a recent acoustic House Concert
performance in suburban New Jersey. "I think we sold 25 CDs and a dozen
T-shirts, and there were only about 40 people there," he says. "We always had
really good luck playing someone's basement." That experience inspired Ashley to
build House Concerts into his solo acoustic tour to promote his new solo record,
"Songs from the Brill Bedroom." He tapped his friends and associates, as well as
fans connected to his MySpace page, on a hunt for people willing to host shows
at their abodes. He was amazed at the response and now typically works House
Concerts into the tour schedule. "The enthusiasm is infectious," he says. "Their
friends come, and they don't mind paying. Parents can even bring their kids to
expose them to music. People really like that as well." Try bringing your kids
to a bar or night club. Yet another house-concert advantage.
The House Concert concept-always popular among certain segments and
artists-has really gone mainstream in recent years. Pat Dinizio, lead singer
and songwriter for The Smithereens, was one of the first mainstream "rock
stars" to repackage his songs into more acoustic fare and create House-Concert
buzz. A few years ago, he set up a five-month-long "Living Room Tour" in which
he performed solo acoustic concerts in the homes and backyards of more than 70
Smithereens "friends and supporters" across the country. Dinizio logged more
than 65,000 miles in a Budget Rent-A-Car during that tour but now calls it "one
of the most remarkable and wonderful experiences of my life." He's not alone. In
fact, many Folk artists have been doing house concerts for years. What's
different now is that the idea has started to catch on not as an
afterthought-but as an integral part of every tour for many artists.
As a result, the House Concert scene has evolved into a circuit that,
in some cases, rivals the prestige of playing some of the best area
clubs. Those who run House Concerts report that artists, managers and
booking agents sometimes contact them and not the other way around.
House Concerts now come in all shapes and sizes. The "Concerts in the
Studio", series for example, isn't really in a house but rather a
photography studio in Freehold, N.J. Yet it still sports the House Concert feel.
Run by photographer Mark Costanzo and his wife, Elaine, the series has snagged
some impressive artists, including Marshall Crenshaw, Graham Parker, Willie Nile
and Amy Correia.
Take the experience of Jon Eckhard, whose House Concert series near Boulder,
Colo., has grown organically into a just-about-monthly affair. It started as a
simple gathering of a few friends in September 2004 to enjoy some acoustic music
by a local artist Arthur
Lee. "We started on a pretty small scale and with pretty small aspirations,"
says Eckhard. "It was a trial idea. I didn't know if we could even get people to
show up." Eckhard managed to gather about 35 people for that first
show-originally conceived as an outdoor event but quickly moved inside to avoid
a sudden rainstorm. "All of a sudden, the storm clouds rolled in, and we didn't
have much of a backup plan," he says.
In the end, it was an incredible show. Soon after, Eckhard started getting
emails and phone calls from his friends asking about when he might do it again.
Things snowballed from there. Since that first show, Eckhard and his wife,
Luana, have welcomed hundreds of people into their home to listen to various
acoustic artists under the banner of Front Porch House Concerts. Between 65 and
80 people usually show up. The two music fans even set up a Web site to
keep their friends and associates abreast of the latest shows. "People find us
through the Internet," he says. "And now it's taking on a life of its own."
Eckhard's friend, video producer Brian Patrick, has even created professionally edited videos of several House Concerts. "We typically record each
concert with one or two cameras depending on what is available," Patrick says.
"The purpose is to publish the audio and video content on the Front Porch House
Concerts website, and to make the material available as audio and video podcasts
via Apple iTunes and other podcast directories... Jon recently added a couple of
lights to illuminate the artists. It seems like each house concert gets a little
better, and grows in a grassroots kind of way-slowly but steadily." Patrick
recently started incorporating interviews with the artist before or after the
show as a bonus. "Maybe one day VH1 will produce a reality show about the house
concert, hiring me as the producer/director of course," he says.
Pipe dream, perhaps, but the series has certainly received some buzz. Eckhard
has managed to book some well-known acts since that stormy first night,
including Pierce Pettis, Steve Seskin, Billy Jonas, Peter Himmelman, Vance
Gilbert, Willy Porter, Christopher Williams, Cheryl Wheeler with Kenny White,
Peter Mayer, Cliff Eberhardt and Jill Sobule. On August 27, the Eckhards will
welcome the legendary John
Gorka into their home for what should be an incredible show.
Of course, Eckhard says that snagging bigger artists has a host of challenges
for house concerteers. For one thing, many artists are contractually
restricted from playing a gig within a 60-mile radius, so House Concert
hosts must be careful to hold their event as a strictly private show and resist
the urge to advertise it as a public event (Do you really want a bunch of
strangers in your house, anyway?). Interestingly though, House Concerts may gain
acceptance as a benefit rather than a detriment to other nearby gigs. "A House
Concert can be great promotion for a gig," says Mark Aaron James. "Once people
have had a drink with you, they're much more likely to come to a show two days
later. And they've been listening to your CD in the car." (James, however,
advises artists to always check with the club owner to see if it's okay... just
in case). Eckhard actually coordinated the Gorka show with Swallow Hill Music
Association, which has booked Gorka for the Swallow Hill Folk Festival on Aug.
But even when a House Concert has the seal of approval from the artist and/or
local venues, it's still vitally important to collect money from people as
a "donation" to the artist rather than a cover charge, which could create
all kinds of zoning issues with local jurisdictions. (It's best to have people
write checks or hand cash directly to the artist so there's no question where
The other big challenge, according to Eckhard, is that bigger artists demand
an often-sizable minimum guarantee before they'll consider playing a show. If
Eckhard can't collect enough donations to cover it, he has to pay it out of his
own pocket. "We lose money on every show we do," admits Eckhard. "But as long as
people keep coming, we'll keep doing it."
The bottom line is that House Concerts are becoming bigger, more frequent and
more sophisticated nationwide. Artists have enormous opportunities to connect
with fans in a more intimate setting, sell more merch and perhaps enjoy a better
live experience than could be possible in a noisy bar-even for someone who
hasn't reached the John Gorka level of fame. "It's like getting the kind of
respect that Janis Ian would get in a bar, but you're getting that at a house
concert," explains Mark Aaron James. Ashley, who is planning a solo-acoustic
tour over the next six to eight months, hopes that House Concerts will make up
at least 25 percent of his gigs. "I have never done one that was a waste of
time," he says. Judging by the increasing scheduling of House Concerts by
artists of all stripes, it seems that few would disagree with that statement.
(Mike Grebb is a writer, journalist and singer/songwriter based in
Washington, D.C. He has written for numerous publications, including Wired and
Billboard. His debut solo record, Resolution, is available at www.mikegrebb.com, as well
as digitally on iTunes, MSN Music, Musicmatch, Yahoo! Music Unlimited and other
sites. And you can also be his friend on MySpace! www.myspace.com/mikegrebb).