Our House: The Cozy, Complex, Interconnected World of House Concerts
One warm spring evening not so long ago, I spent a few hours in the company of friends. We listened to music in their living room, shared food and a bottle of wine. It was over too quickly, as such gatherings always are. Sounds like a perfectly normal suburban happening, except the chairs were arranged in rows facing a musician who was performing for a group of around 30 people who each paid $20 at the door for the privilege. Many in the room I’d never met before, though by the end of the evening we were at least comfortable acquaintances; the musician in question was veteran folk music artist Jack Williams, who makes a habit of playing house concerts as the major part of his touring.
That scene, or one very much like it, is duplicated almost every night in some fashion across the country and around the world. The house concert circuit has been going strong now for a couple of decades, but it is receiving new attention as artists seek out alternative ways to tour independently of the major venues and traditional club circuits and better avenues to connect personally with fans. The rise of social media and the almost parallel decline of the recorded music industry has also made house concerts more accessible for artists, hosts, and fans, and all sides are reaping the benefits.
The concept is simple: book a touring musician to play a show in whatever space you have available, whether it’s a living room, a backyard, a garage, or a barn. Invite your friends, have them invite others, and ask for a donation of a set amount at the door. Sit back, enjoy the concert, and interact with the musicians before, during, and after the show.
It’s the details that are more complicated. While anyone can put on a house concert with those elements in place, it’s another thing to create a successful series that maintains both an audience and a continued lineup of excellent music. Many musicians are right at home playing in your home, others might not be so comfortable or appropriate. For the Americana scene, it’s a natural fit: the more acoustic, singer-songwriter style is perfect for the intimate interaction of a house show.
If you ask artists and hosts, both will tell you it is that personal, intimate connection that occurs in someone’s home that keeps them involved with the house concert scene.
Williams just released his 10th album, Four Good Days, on the Wind River label. A professional musician for over 50 years, he is the perfect example of an artist whose career has gone backwards to become more successful. His early years were spent in various rock bands and countless bar gigs. But, when he got serious about recording and releasing his own music in the 1990s, he turned to a more folk and blues-based acoustic sound and played mostly solo shows. Now a regular at the Kerrville Folk Festival, he occasionally appears on syndicated radio programs such as WFMT Chicago’s The Midnight Special.
Seemingly tailor-made for the intimate atmosphere of a house concert, Williams’ music is a blend of acoustic folk storytelling – focusing on his many years spent living in the Deep South – and a blues-based flatpicking-fingerpicking-hybrid guitar style. Further, the stories he weaves between songs are as much a part of the experience as the vividly rendered tunes themselves, and Williams knows he wouldn’t be able to do the same kind of show in a larger venue. His extensive touring schedule wouldn’t be possible without house concerts, a scene he first came across back in the early 1990s.
“The most memorable early ones,” Williams says, “were a pair of sold out weeknight evenings where I accompanied Mickey Newbury at Jimmy Riddle’s series in Columbia, South Carolina, around 1996.” Those early, positive experiences led Williams to skew his schedule more and more toward house concerts. “I gradually backed away from the larger commercial venues because I loved the intimacy of an up-close-and-personal audience,” he says. “Nowadays, I play 60 or 70 house shows annually.
“There is so much about house concerts which sets them apart from any normal venue,” Williams says. “Guests in a home behave differently from people in bars, restaurants, coffeehouses, or festivals.” Even in a nontraditional setting, the vibe can be very different, he explains, using a recent experience as an illustration: “I played at the home of some folks outside of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, whose house and grounds were built around a limestone quarry with four 50-foot-tall kilns that the hosts had used to create a remarkable outdoor living space for socializing and the occasional house concert. Their friends, who were no doubt used to coming into this space for parties and wandering the grounds, came upon the chairs set in concert fashion, which put the focus on the artist’s performance. It ended up being one of my favorite concerts this year.”
Susan Enan is no stranger to house concerts, either. The English born, New York-based singer-songwriter has tasted success via her song “Bring On the Wonder,” which included Sarah McLachlan on backing vocals and was featured on the TV series Bones in 2006. McLachlan recorded and released her own version of the song on her Laws of Illusion album in 2010, the year after Enan released her debut album Plainsong. Part pastoral folk, part formal songcraft, Enan’s songs are centered around her strong, plaintive voice, which retains more than a hint of her British origins. Enan’s foray into house concerts came in the wake of that debut, through a combination of necessity and serendipity, aided by social media.
“I finished my first album in 2009,” she says, “and was asked to do a concert in a church, which I discovered made it easier to communicate with the audience, and easier for them to listen, in the more intimate, alternative space. Then I wrote a post on Facebook asking if anyone wanted to have a house concert while I was visiting a friend in Nashville for a week, and the host I got a response from was amazing — I was sold on the concept right then. I loved the fact I could connect on such a simple, intimate level with an audience.” It wasn’t long after that when Enan began to realize she could fill her schedule with house concerts. She did just that, and has been using the format exclusively ever since.
“I posted about my experience in Nashville on Facebook, and by the time I got home to New York, I started receiving requests from other people wanting to host shows, both in the United States and overseas,” Enan says. “I received an email from a musician in Germany who wanted to bring me over for a tour, so I was able to try out some house shows while I was there, and they were more successful than the club shows. After that, there was no turning back.”
From churches to living rooms, there are as many different house concert settings as there are different houses and people hosting them, as Williams has found over the years. He has a soft spot for one particular variety of house concert venue, however: the “barn concert.”
“Some of the barn concerts I perform for are in working barns, where the seats are among bales of hay,” he says. “Others that are no longer functioning as barns have been outfitted with complete seating, sound, and light systems, and those old wooden structures have the best acoustics anywhere.” Williams notes several excellent concert series that take place in barns, including Aten Place in Michigan, Fishstock in Wisconsin, and several others in New York, Oregon, and California.
Like any touring musician, Williams can tell his fair share of stories about his house concert gigs. “I’ve had to deal with many things in an outdoor setting, from barking dogs to airplanes, traffic nearby, and loud children. I had to stop performing once for about 20 minutes on a Los Angeles patio while three police helicopters thundered overhead, searching for a criminal in the area.”
It’s not just unexpected noise and distractions that can add color to the artist’s experience, though. The unorthodox method of paying for admission to most house concerts, where a donation is “requested” in lieu of publishing an actual ticket cost — usually to get around having it deemed a business or commercial event subject to zoning laws and other local restrictions — can present its own difficulties.
“In Palm Desert, California, I was playing a show in an extravagantly sumptuous home and had been guaranteed the donations at the door would equal a certain amount,” Williams says. “Halfway through the evening we noticed that very few donations had been taken — the host admitted she was unwilling to ‘ask friends for money to come into her home.’ What she misunderstood about the whole idea was that the money wasn’t for paid entrance but for the artist performance, and his earnings for the evening. She was essentially allowing dozens of friends to have a free concert, at my expense.”
Williams isn’t the only one with stories. Traveling the world and playing house concerts in 18 different countries has given Enan some particularly special memories, as well. “I played a house show in the Arctic Circle, in an apartment, that was incredible,” she says. “We also held our first cave concert last May. I played by candlelight.”
Strange, unexpected experiences aside, Enan is thankful to her many hosts for making all of the shows happen. “I’ve been from New Zealand to the Arctic playing house shows. That’s a world tour that would never have been possible for me any other way,” she says. “I’ve traveled to places you would never normally get to go as an artist, many of them tiny villages or towns. I took a video camera and made video blogs about each location and the people I met. I got to experience life in these places, not just hotels and airports.”
One of the simpler advantages of house concerts for Enan is as basic as logistics. “It used to be stressful driving to clubs in the middle of big cities by myself, trying to find a place to park, unload my gear, not get a ticket,” She says. “Now, I just pull in to a driveway. It sounds so small, but those things can push you over the edge on a tour.”
Not every artist can manage to create a touring itinerary solely based on house concerts, but even more traditional club acts are finding room to include them in the mix. Nashville’s Julie Lee is one such artist. A celebrated behind-the-scenes songwriter (for Alison Krauss and Pam Tillis, among others), Lee plays club shows with a band and does solo or small ensemble house concerts in between the bigger gigs. Her sound – most recently explored on her 2013 album Till and Mule – is gentle and contemplative in a timeless, rural fashion, making house concerts a natural fit for her and her music.
“Back in 2004, when I was touring my Stillhouse Road album, I started hearing about house concerts through my manager and other touring artist friends,” Lee says. “I slowly discovered there was a whole circuit of house venues all over the world that I had been oblivious to.” Lee appreciates the ability of house concerts to build new fans one at a time rather than having to fill a club in a town she’s never played before.
“It’s a wonderful way for grassroots artists to grow their fan base in a new region over time,” she says. “The financial pressure of filling up a venue in a town where you are a virtual unknown is pretty daunting, and I’ve toured enough to know it’s hard to get people out to a show even if you’ve played there several times. However, if you have one fan in a new area willing to open their home and host a show for 30 people, paying in at $15 a person, it makes it viable. Not to mention you usually get a good meal and a lovely guest room to sleep in.”
House concerts could not happen without the hosts — people who not only open their homes to strangers and itinerant musicians but who spend hours planning, preparing, and promoting the concerts. Despite the informal nature of the shows, logistically it’s like running your own tiny venue, complete with all of the small details and decisions. Do you offer or solicit food? Do you advertise or use word-of-mouth? How much of a donation can you ask for? All of this, and more, confronts the would-be host before a note is played in his or her living room. Sometimes a person’s host status comes about almost accidentally after a tentative first step or two, and sometimes it’s a conscious decision brought on by personal experience with other house shows.
Bill Wagman of Davis, California, is a good example of the former, a music fan who fell into hosting duties. “In 1987, a friend asked me if I would be interested in hosting a concert in my home, it turned out to be for Martin and Jessica Simpson,” Wagman says. “It was a really wonderful evening, and when another friend found out some time later that the Berrymans were going to be in the area, I again said yes to having them for a show. Word began to spread and I started being contacted by others. It all grew from that.”
Wagman’s House Concerts has hosted a number of the most well-known names on the folk and singer-songwriter circuit, including David Francey, Rod Picott, Johnsmith, Mark Stuart & Stacey Earle, and others. Despite the parade of notable artists, Wagman is hard-pressed to distinguish any single evening as more notable than another. “I have had some really wonderful concerts, to the point where it would be hard to pick a favorite moment,” he says. “Getting to meet, hear, and get to know folks like Chuck Brodsky, Eric Taylor, and Harvey Reid has been the best part of it.”
On the other side of the country, in Columbia, South Carolina, music fan and regular house concert attendee Cathy Stayman is only in her third year of hosting shows at her Little Yellow Music House, but she has already brought in an impressive list of performers. Stayman benefited from experiencing house shows from other hosts in the area; doing her own was something that sprang directly from their example, she says. “My friend Bentz Kirby was doing house concerts and I was asked to go to one with a friend,” Stayman recalls. “It was Danny Schmidt and Carrie Elkin. I enjoyed it so much, I ended up buying all five different CDs they had with them and thinking, ‘I want to do this.’” The opportunity presented itself on an occasion when Nashville’s Tommy Womack asked Kirby for a particular date to do a show and the regular host wouldn’t be in town. Stayman stepped in and offered her home instead. “I had no email list, no way set up to promote the show, but we did it anyway and it worked,” she says. “Now I have people who contact me. The booking is the easy part, except for the limits of how many shows I can offer in a year.”
Her list of past shows includes a wide range of artists that reflects her own diverse musical taste, and some don’t even fit into the typical house concert stereotype. “I have enjoyed having Jeff Mosier, he’s a unique individual and very personable,” she says. Mosier is best known for his time in the jam band Blueground Undergrass and his friendship with the guys in Phish, but his recent work has been more in a solo Americana vein, which fits well within the house concert scene.
“Eric Brace and Peter Cooper was another night that was special,” Stayman adds. “Their dialogue back and forth during a show is just crazy.” Other notable nights Stayman recalls include country singer Jon Byrd and the rockabilly cabaret duo of Kristi Rose and Fats Kaplin.
For the hosts – and maybe also for the audience – the pleasant surprises are the best part of house concerts. The fact that touring musicians are willing to make themselves available to play a house concert continues to surprise veteran host Wagman. “There are some folks who contacted me that surprised me,” he says, “So many well-known performers are willing to play house concerts.”
Booking philosophies are much different for a house concert series than they are for a club venue, and not just because of space issues or even the host’s individual tastes. Even though she’s relatively new to the process, Stayman already has developed a sense for who will and won’t work for her series. “There are a lot of artists who contact you wanting to play, but you may not know their music,” she says. “Even after I check them out online, there may not be a connection for me to what they are doing. I try to make sure that people I bring into my home are ones that I can feel some sort of connection with, if possible.”
Wagman’s advice to those thinking they want to try out the host side of house concerts is to take it slow. “Everyone has their own style of doing house concerts, and it takes a while to find it,” he says. “It is a lot of work as well as frustrating at times, trying to round up an audience. I wish I could fill the house every time. When I don’t, it can be very discouraging to me as a host.”
Stayman is wary of something else as well, and has implemented a strategy to avoid it. “I don’t want to fall into a rut with the same people back every year,” she says. “I really don’t want them back sooner than every two or three years at this point, mainly because there are so many people on my list of possible performers. Now that I’m in my third year, I’m not booking more than three repeats in a year.”
Artists have interesting insights into house-concert hosting as well. Having made such a habit of playing house concerts, Jack Williams includes a page of advice on how to host one on his website. It’s a good place to start for any potential host just getting into the scene, with Williams’ usual conversational tone softening the “suggestions” and making them more than just “rules.” He has encountered all kinds of situations but says there are really two different kinds of hosts:
“The first is a true lover of music, whose attention is riveted on the performance while the concert is underway. The second enjoys the music but also enjoys hosting and entertaining in their home. My advice for a host in the latter category is never lose sight of the primary reason for the concert — to enjoy a quiet, intimate audience for live music.”
Williams also has advice for hosts on how to gently remind the audience of where it is they are — in someone's home, not a bar or concert venue — and emphasize certain points of etiquette.
“It helps to address the audience at the start and explain the location of things like restrooms, refreshments, the artist’s CDs and merch,” he says, adding that you should be aware you may have people there who have never been to a house concert. He suggests helping them to help you make it a good experience:
“Before the show is also a good time to gently explain that this part of the evening will be a listening concert, not a party, and that anyone wishing to talk during the performance should do so outside — it’s also a good time to remind them of the suggested donation in case they have forgotten.”
There are also other, more serious issues that can arise. One of the biggest things many hosts encounter is getting too popular and drawing either unwanted legal attention or just outgrowing their space to the point they can no longer present the shows the way they would like. “Many hosts I know have had issues with local governments, neighbors, and neighborhood associations,” Wagman says. “Be wary of that and know what you are getting into.” Even inviting the folks next door can be helpful, as it discourages them from complaining about the noise. Letting the neighbors and associations know about house concerts ahead of time can also help alleviate difficulties before they start.
Stayman agrees. “I had a parking problem with one of my larger shows that got me in trouble with the neighborhood association, which is one reason I’ve begun to put a limit on what I can do with the concerts. I’ve built it to an average of 30-35 people, and that’s about as much as I can handle.” Still, she is realistic about the costs and benefits of hosting concerts, observing that it usually means she spends her own money for various expenses. The payoff, however, is in great music. “Spending my own money on promotion, all the time spent preparing for a show, it adds up, but it’s worth it to me,” she says. “I get a free concert in my living room.”
Luckily, it’s not free for everyone. The economics of it are a large part of the benefit for many artists. In some cases they can earn more from a small house concert gig than from an opening slot for a big name or a headlining show in a small club, with less of the hassle and overhead. “I get artists looking for shows who ask how I handle the fee,” Stayman says. “I tell them my average attendance and the suggested donation, which is $20, and they do the math themselves and are usually fine with it.” Add to that collection basket the fact that the artists usually stay in a guest room in the host’s home and even eat a meal or two with them. On a monetary basis alone, it makes good sense for many, before even taking into account the lasting value of personal connections made with both hosts and audiences.
Jack Williams takes note of both sides of the story in his own assessment: “The obvious main benefit is the opportunity to have an artist present their music in one’s own home and to get to know them personally in a relaxed setting,” Williams says. “The benefit to the artist is equally obvious — a paid gig that’s occasionally well-paid, a home-cooked meal or two, overnight accommodations in something more welcoming than a motel, and several hours in good company.”
Welcome To the Future
The house concert concept is such a throwback to the early days of musical minstrels, it’s hard to conceive of the fact that technology and the rise of social media is facilitating a great deal of growth in the format. The ease of accessibility between fans and artists is a big part of that. Singer-songwriter Graham Colton recognized the benefits of connecting directly with fans a long time ago and has been working with some business partners on an app called Fanswell, which launched this year.
“I've been a touring artist for 14 years,” he says, “and what I noticed is that, as we enter into this new era of the music industry that’s all about relationships between artists and fans, the one part lacking has been the touring part. There are Kickstarters and other platforms to help make albums but no real way to get help with touring or offering unique experiences.” Colton is about as fan-friendly as artists get, so he went looking for a way to put his concerts in the hands of his supporters. Fanswell is the result.
He explains what it is by first saying what it is not. “It was important to not build another [website like] houseconcerts.com. That’s not what we are. This is an artist tool to communicate where they want to play, when, and what they need to make it happen.” The concept is simple in practice: an artist can go into the app and build a campaign that lists where and when they want to play, creating a tour with different parameters that take into account food, lodging, fees, and other variables. Fans can then offer their spaces — houses, yards, an office, whatever they have that will work — for a show that fits the request.
“It gives fans the opportunity to help the artists they want to support, to collaborate with them and make great shows happen,” Colton says. “It doesn’t have to be a professional host who does 12 concerts a year in their home. This is more for the fan who has never done one, giving them the chance to connect with an artist they like on a truly personal level.”
Colton sees Fanswell as adding to and complementing the already established house concert scene, not replacing it. “There are people out there like Seattle Living Room who are wonderful, but 99 percent of other fans may not know they can do it, too,” he says. “We’re entering into this shared space economy with things like Uber and Airbnb.com.”
Artists such as Williams, Lee, and Enan have been doing this in their own way with Facebook, Twitter, and their email lists for a while, but Fanswell offers an organized and centralized method behind the booking madness. “When you’re on tour, and it’s Monday, and you have a night off because you can’t get a club date that makes sense, what do you do?” Colton asks. “Take it on the chin, play a not-so-good show somewhere, or take a fan up on an offer and make a great show happen for them and for you?”
While Colton’s app is aimed at connecting touring artists with willing house concert hosts, another trend is emerging to flip the house concert scene upside down: online streaming concerts, many of them done right from the artist’s home. Yahoo Music has grabbed headlines with this lately with Yahoo Live nightly concerts from venues around the world. But, on the grassroots level, sites such as Stageit and Concert Window offer ease of use, accessibility to all, and the chance for artists to play without leaving home.
The concept with an online show isn’t much different from the real thing, except the artist can’t see the audience. Some of the sites require payment before viewing access, while others, such as Concert Window, will give the option of “tipping” the performers during a free stream. With broadband access fairly common and streaming a mostly seamless process these days, it’s yet another option for artists to get their music into the ears and eyes of fans while retaining the intimacy of a living-room performance.
Making Music, Making a Community
There wouldn’t be a need for house concerts without the kind of artists whose music lends itself to the intimate format and listening experience, though, and the artists themselves are acutely aware of the symbiotic relationship this creates. “The only way to survive as a touring musician these days is to give your fans the power and control to help you,” Colton says.
Jack Williams likewise sees the format’s merits — beyond just monetary — for artists. “There are hundreds of tales of long-lasting friendships, beautiful homes in gorgeous out-of-the-way places, and enlightening conversations with interesting, interested people,” Williams says, recounting the many ways that house concerts have benefited him personally and professionally.
Julie Lee, meanwhile, recognizes that “house concerts are about building community, not a business. The more I play them, the more at home I feel in these non-traditional venues.”
For Enan, as for Williams, it’s the only way she’ll play these days. She doesn’t plan on heading back out for a tour of club dates unless house concert touring is no longer an option. But that’s something she doesn’t foresee happening any time soon. “As long as there’s a house,” she says, “you can have a house concert.”