Small is the new big,
and why house concerts could save touring artists.
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
- you can fill, and
- 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?
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.