House Concerts and Community-Supported Music
As I write this, I’m on a plane from Seattle to Boston, returning home from my band’s first-ever West Coast tour. In just over a week, we worked our way up the coast from Santa Barbara, California, to Mayne Island, a small island in British Columbia where some friends of ours run the Campbell Bay Music Festival. Although the travel on this tour was pretty brutal (early flights, early ferries, long drives) and the plane tickets and car rental stretched our budget, it was one of the best bits of touring we’ve ever done.
There were a lot of reasons for this: we saw old friends and made new ones, and we drove through some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. (Also, the Campbell Bay Music Festival absolutely rules.) One of the main reasons this tour was a success, though, was because most of the gigs we played were house shows.
Most every folkie knows that house concerts are a staple of the folk music world. But I think it’s worth elucidating just what makes house concerts so special, and why they’re crucial to the success of independent musicians. And I don’t say “success” to mean great acclaim or wealth; I simply mean that many independent musicians would literally be unable to continue doing this work without house concerts.
When you’re touring in a brand-new market, as we were, you generally can’t expect a good guarantee or a good crowd at a traditional music venue. We have a great booking agent, but no publicist, which means we’re responsible for every ticket purchased, every body in a seat. Your first time playing in a new town, you can often expect to get a small guarantee and some tip money to spend a few hours trying to get the patrons of a restaurant or bar to pay attention to you (a constant uphill battle). In a best-case scenario, maybe you can join a bill with a local band who has a good draw at a listening room, and then you’ll be splitting the ticket intake with the venue and the other band(s). You then have to pay for gas, food, and lodging, and you’ll be lucky if you have anything left over at the end of the tour to pay your rent.
House concerts, by contrast, allow a touring band with little to no local audience to show up to an intimate room filled with people who are there to listen. They’re friends of the hosts, community members, people who want to participate in the sharing of art, even if they’ve never heard of the artist before (we call that a “built-in crowd” in the biz). Since the audience tends to be more invested in the music, you’ll probably sell more merch, get more signups for your email list, and most importantly, these people will come back to your next show in the area. Whatever the suggested donation is, some people will pay more.
As for the hosts, they will usually put you up for the night, provide homemade meals, and take nothing from the donations beyond maybe a small amount for expenses. Some who are able will even provide guarantees, taking on a role in the music community as a kind of patron of the arts. Younger house show hosts and audiences in the DIY scene are generally less financially secure, so those shows may not be able to provide the kind of financial compensation that the folk scene can often provide, but it’s often comparable to what you’d make at a bar, and the community vibe and attentive crowd are certainly much better than a bar. (Interestingly, the phrase “house concert” usually tends to connote an older host and crowd, and the phrase “house show” tends to connote a younger, more DIY-punk vibe.) Either way, the hosts will almost invariably use the phrase “labor of love” to describe what they do. I am consistently floored by these people’s dedication to supporting independent artists, and any musician can tell you how grateful they are for the existence of house concerts.
I was thinking about this a few days ago while sitting in the back of the tour van, scrolling through Instagram, and I came across a post from indie-rock artist Sam Evian. The post contained screenshots of an email he’d sent turning down a booking inquiry from Sofar Sounds. Sofar, for the uninitiated, is a for-profit startup that hosts concerts in homes and office spaces (usually the latter) in cities around the world. Backed by venture capital, they were reportedly valued at around $22 million in 2015. They bill themselves as an intimate, unconventional, community-oriented live music experience – in short, very similar to a house concert. They generally sell out their shows while keeping their lineups secret, which means artists aren’t responsible for promotion. However, despite charging at least $15 per ticket and selling 50-100 seats, they offer their artists a live video recording of their performance and a $50-100 fee – a pathetic 10% cut of the door at best, compared to the industry standard of 60-80%. I’ve heard accounts from many people, including my friend Melody Walker of indie-bluegrass band Front Country, who have tried to get Sofar to elucidate their baffling payment structure to little avail.
Sam Evian’s response to Sofar stated “I do believe in the importance of house concerts, connecting the community, helping artists etc, but I hate how Sofar has introduced the techy middleman into a tradition that is as old as music itself. I find it to be offensive and disturbingly exploitative […] You are undervaluing the service that you are basing your business around.” A commenter (@sam.eliot.stern on Instagram) rightly added “The real tragedy about [Sofar Sounds] is that besides exploiting artists it also exploits a mainly suburban/yuppie white collar audience that craves connection to some kind of authentic cultural/artistic experience ... and presents a watered down contrived experience as something deep and communal. It's shameful.”
In my view, they’re co-opting the appearance of a house concert, abandoning its ethos, and using it to turn a profit. Many artists (including Lula Wiles, earlier in our band’s life) have played Sofar shows in order to gain exposure in new markets, and artists are certainly free to weigh those options for themselves. I do understand the appeal of a packed room in a new town that you don’t need to promote. But a real house concert does all that and puts the artists first, and these days I would much rather take a night off on tour than play a show that uses my work to line a few venture capitalists’ pockets. Landlords don’t accept exposure as payment – neither should musicians.
I don’t want to turn this post into a diatribe against Sofar Sounds. I do think, though, that the growth of this for-profit company makes it even more important to highlight the people who are hosting DIY shows and house shows for the right reasons. Ever since people stopped buying music, touring has become the only reliable way for musicians to pay the bills. If we can’t even make a living by touring, we (indie musicians) won’t be able to make music, which means we (everyone) won’t be able to listen to independent music because it will cease to exist. However, our experiences with house concerts on the West Coast and all over the eastern United States have kept my faith in the music community alive. Support your local house concert series!