House Concerts: Performances in the Privacy of Someone’s Home
“House concerts are an experience most musicians and hosts won’t soon forget,” says 58-year-old Lafe Dutton, one half of Coco and Lafe, a bluesy, original singer-songwriter duo that also features Coco Kallis. Lafe worked for record companies most of his adult life, including Warner Bros. Records for 10 years as an international sales manager. Nowadays, he tours four to six months of the year, traveling between a home in Vermont and an apartment in San Diego, playing mostly house concerts. “All with a beagle,” he quips. “She lip synchs.”
What’s a house concert?
House concerts are musical performances generally held in private homes and hosted by fans, friends, or relatives of the performing musician(s). Audiences are usually 25 to 35 people, but can sometimes be as large as 60 or more, and a donation of $15 to $25 is generally requested, but not required. Oftentimes, there is a potluck dinner involved, but wine and cheese events are most common, with guests encouraged to bring a drink to share. Hosts will even sometimes put performers up for a night.
Though performing in someone’s house may seem pretty casual, it’s important to point out that house concerts are not parties—the artists are not background music. The host is expected to provide a formal concert setting with an attentive listening audience. Hosts may even decide to use a ticketing platform, such as Eventbrite, to manage donations or sell tickets to an upcoming house concert. Whether you desire to tour regionally, nationally, or just pick up a few local gigs, house concerts can be a solid way to build a following, get some sleep, and/or cover travel expenses. Conversely, if you want to host a house concert, it’s a great way to develop deep, meaningful relationships with musicians whose music you love.
According to the website Concerts in Your Home (CIYH), there are about 400 homes in the US regularly hosting music. And let’s face it, with the current state of the music business, not only has it become harder to draw audiences to clubs, but promoters don’t make the task any easier when many of them push pay-to-play deals.
Without house concerts, Coco and Dutton probably wouldn’t be touring four to six months a year. “When we played our first house concert, it was to a full house, about 60 people, at $15 each, and we sold 20-plus CDs at $15 each,” recalls Dutton. “That was with Canyonfolk House Concerts, who had been running a series for eight years—we were hooked. And they became close friends of ours, as have hosts from San Diego to Nebraska to Oklahoma, and all the way back
What you need to know
If you’re interested in playing house concerts, it’s important to know that a professional repertoire is expected, and even vetted, by some organizations, particularly CIYH. “It’s not enough to be able to play,” says 45-year-old Fran Snyder, founder of CIYH and a house concert performing singer-songwriter himself. “You must also provide a context for your songs, like stories, so that the audience can take a journey with a beginning, middle, and end. You can’t skip that step, if you want to play for listening audiences and develop a fan base, which is what house concerts are all about.”
Snyder, who has a degree in business from the University of South Florida, began playing house concerts a few years before creating CIYH in 2006. At that time, there were only a handful of websites about house concerts, most of which he says were unmaintained and not very helpful.
“I had a need and felt that many other talented musicians could benefit from having an updated house concert resource,” he says. “Once I realized how much work it would be to create something worthwhile, something that could grow and inspire more hosts and artists to create more opportunities, I decided to make it a membership-based site so it could pay for itself.” Today, CIYH sees about 2,000 events per year through the site from around the world. Membership to CIYH is vetted by professionals and existing members.
How to get started
Dutton says the first thing you’ll need is content. So book your own house concert and film it. “Your video can be songs from the same house concert, edited into a one-song video,” he advises. “Pick the best three or four songs from the night—intros and crowd reactions are the key here, so invite a bunch of friends and relatives and play a concert to make the videos. You can even ask them to make a donation of $15 or $20 and make a simple meal or just serve wine and cheese and have a great time.” He suggests shooting the video on an iPhone and getting someone with basic editing skills to edit them into songs with something as simple as iMovie.
The next step would be to join an organization like CIYH, but Dutton says it’s not a deal-breaker if you don’t get accepted straight away. “If they won’t accept you, then you probably aren’t good enough yet,” he says. “It costs about $200 per year, less than what you’ll make at one house concert.” Dutton doesn’t actually even book his own concerts through CIYH, but says there are other reasons to vie for membership. “We use their promotional tools and link to their videos for every single show. And it raises our credibility with strangers.”
What about material? Covers or Originals?
As for material, Snyder says there’s a strong preference among hosts for originals, and that’s also the core value of the network. “If you are doing covers, there’s plenty of work out there for that kind of stuff,” he says. “We exist primarily to support artists who want to make a living playing their own stuff.” Original acts will, however, throw in one or two cover tunes per set. Why? Because 40 minutes of new and obscure material can be challenging for an audience. “It’s a nice breath of fresh air to bring in something familiar from time to time,” he adds. There are, however, notable exceptions—blues, jazz, classical, Celtic, and traditional folk are genres that often emphasize interpretation. “Within these genres, we see a lot more covers.”
Facts, rumors, social media, and a doorman
As with anything in life, there are some pitfalls you should avoid. “Don’t believe the artists on the Internet talking about 60 house concerts in 60 days,” says Dutton. “There are a ton of those claims, but do the math: 80% of house concerts happen on weekends, and there are only eight or nine weekends in 60 days. Thirty concerts would be an incredible stretch—we’ve never done even 20 house concerts in 60 days.”
Though most house concerts take place on weekends, “dinner and a song” is a concept developed specifically for weeknight performances. “These are like house concerts, except the host only invites eight or 10 people over for a simple dinner and 35 minutes of unplugged music,” says Dutton. “Everyone chips in $10, hopefully they buy your CDs. You get a free dinner, and a place to stay on a weeknight. Maybe you’ll even get breakfast the next morning.”
If you do book a house concert, the worst thing you can do is simply show up without advertising independent of, or in conjunction with, the hosts, even if it’s an established series. “Help them promote,” advises Dutton. “If you have a Facebook page, create an ‘event’ and spend $15 to promote it (via Facebook) to everyone in that zip code.” If your sound is similar to a more famous act, consider spending $25 with Google Ad Sense and make a mini poster with your website on it and target fans of that artist. (Don’t do this, if you don’t have a website!)
“We target fans of John Prine, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Bob Dylan, for example,” clarifies Dutton. “Google knows who those fans are.” Most importantly, if it’s a new host, send them a sample e-mail invite. “The one they come up with will sound like ‘be my friend and come.’ Yours will say ‘this is going to be an incredible evening with a few friends and a funny, talented, story-telling traveling minstrel’ and it will have links to your videos and website and a ‘reply now’ button. We use MailChimp, which is free for less than 1,000 e-mails, and cheap after that.”
CIYH has a free guide on their website for hosts. It covers parking and inviting the neighbors (so they don’t complain about parking or noise), renting chairs, rearranging furniture, and much more. “Go read it, use it, or write your own, but communicate with the host(s) all the way,” says Dutton. “Do they need a poster for the workplace? Is there a local folk association, or classical, or whatever genre you play? In other words, promote it. Three extra people isn’t just $45 more in your pocket—it’s more CD sales and more fans, and guess what? You will book house concerts at their house and receive invitations to ‘stay at our house anytime’ from them.”
When it’s time for the show to start, you’ll want to have someone at the door. If you’re not traveling with someone, get a fan or one of the host’s friends to sit at the door with the donation jar and welcome people. “Hosts can be shy about saying ‘any donation for the artists can go in here: we suggest $15-$20,’” says Dutton. “In the early days, we had concerts with 40 people, but there was only $300 in the jar. We learned.”
Like everything in life, and music, there is more to it than what is presented here, so check out our sidebar for additional info and surf the websites provided. Talk to other artists and search the Internet.
“It’s much easier than booking clubs,” attests Dutton. “And definitely more intimate and rewarding, and it can lead to lifelong friendships. Have fun.”