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House Concerts: A Perspective

Recently, there seems to be quite a bit of discussion about house concerts so I thought I would come at the subject from the point of view of the artist rep. One thing that makes discussion cumbersome is that there is an enormous amount of variation within the term "house concerts". Some house concerts are held in small townhouses and can seat around 25 people. Others are held in "grand rooms" that can hold 85 people. Some are right in the middle of big cities where there is a great deal of musical competition and others are in rural regions where they are the only musical event for 150 miles in any direction. I did a deal for one "house concert" where, four times a year, the family hires a performer they like and invite in 75 friends to hear them. This begins to look a lot like playing a private party. One size does not fit all and this makes it tough to make any sweeping statements. However, it never stopped me before...

House concerts seem to really be coming into their own. Most artists that I know love them. Generally, it is a non-smoking atmosphere, they don't have to hassle with a sound system, they can connect with the audience in a way that can be difficult in a larger setting and they are treated superbly. In my limited experience, the house concert attendee seems more inclined toward CD buying than in other settings. Perhaps this is true because there is such an intimacy with the performer: smaller crowd, no microphone/monitor to create a visual barrier.

With that said, I do have a few observations. The first is timing. From where I sit, periodically it seems to me as if the entire presenter community wants to do an event on Saturdays and house concerts are no exception. Saturdays are seen as the ultimate "party" night - you work during the week; on Friday, you still haven't wound down from work; Sunday you are around home and thinking about Monday. However, since everyone else is thinking the same thing, Saturday is also the time when you face the most competition. Not only are there a myriad of other events for your audience to chose from but that performer that you are dying to host is getting the most calls for Saturday. To a certain extent, it depends on which artist you are setting your sights. For the less-busy artists, any day of the week may be workable. However, a higher profile performer will rarely have a Saturday open. From a booking point of view, I am thrilled when a house concert presenter tells me that they are willing to work their date into a tour. House concerts enjoy a flexibility that no club can match and they should use that to their advantage. I am more likely to put something together with a presenter who tells me they can make a Tuesday night work than the fellow who is locked into the second Saturday of every month. In many cases, there are simply too many other lucrative choices out there, especially for a touring artist who spends a limited amount of time in any one area. If we are talking about an artist who can sell out a 150-seat room with a $15 ticket and receive 70% of the door, the night's income will be $1575.00. No matter how much you enjoy doing a house concert, that's hard to walk away from. So much better if you can do the house concert in addition to the other date rather than having to pick between the two.

The second item is pricing. (For those of you who have heard this rant from me before, feel free to skip to the last paragraph.) I certainly understand that pricing may need to vary by location; the NYC market will, by and large, bear more than the small community of Tumbleweedtown, USA. However, for whatever reason, I see a tendency to underestimate the willingness of the buying public to pay the going rate for a house concert. In a world where a movie costs $8.00, we should not be agonizing about whether people will pay $10.00 to see a performer up close and personal. Every one on the planet has, at one time or another, paid $27.50 to sit in the nosebleed section of an arena to hear a performer who was a mere black speck on the stage. Here you are in a situation where you can practically reach out and touch the entertainer. Which is the more attractive experience? There is one house concert series that schedules afternoon shows on a Sunday at $20.00 a person. If that first show fills (which it does with some frequency), they schedule a second show in the early evening. It is an enviable format. Part of the trick is the comfort level of the presenter. If the host is practically apologizing for a $10.00 ticket, I'm willing to bet you that they have a high incidence of people questioning the cost of the evening. If it is presented as, "Gosh, all this for only $15.00", you set up a different scenario.

I used to worry about house concert presenters who turn over 100% of the door receipts to the performer. There are clearly expenses associated with organizing these events and I worried that these wonderful folks were creating a situation with which they would not feel comfortable in the long term. The last thing I wanted was for any of them to stop what they were doing because they felt they had to stay with an early-on fiscal decision even though the costs were becoming oppressive. More than once, a presenter explained that they had added up the costs of an evening out: parking, dinner, show, babysitter. They much preferred to spend that same money to bring the show to them and saw the costs simply as a re-routing of money they would be spending anyway. Moreover, they felt the house concert setting had many advantages the club atmosphere did not. I imagine that the audience likely feels the same way and would view pricing from that perspective.

As house concerts have become more prolific and successful, it is inevitable that there would be an occasional fly in the ointment. The Performing Rights Organizations (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, SOCAN) are turning an eye toward collecting fees. Parking and sound levels becomes a concern in some areas. Periodically, this blossoms into a full-fledged zoning or sales/entertainment tax issue. The right of a person to entertain in their home vs. the question of running a club in a residential neighborhood can be a touchy debate. I suspect that such things get decided on nuances, such as donations vis-a-vis cover charges. Fortunately, there seems to be quite a strong house concert community out there that you can plug into for information. (maintained by Flowers in the Desert house concerts in Brenham, TX) has a nice listing of sites and offers a house concert booklet. (maintained by Grassy Hill Concerts in Lyme, CT) has an online house concert guide, a discussion group (be warned lots of ads!) and a link to Musi-Cal so you can search for house concerts in your area.

© McShane Glover/Noteworthy Productions

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