of Acoustic Guitar Magazine, pp 42-44:
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
The Joys and challenges of playing house concerts
by Cosy Sheridan
HOUSE CONCERTS--Where music lovers turn their living rooms into down-home performance venues--have been part of the acoustic music scene for years, but recently they've reached a kind of critical mass. Thanks in part to the Internet, which has helped presenters share information and promote their shows, these informal concerts occur in virtually every part of the country, and some musicians now do entire tours of only house concerts. The phenomenon has become so visible that, amazingly enough, it hit the front page of the New York Times in November.
As a performer used to playing in clubs, bars, and coffeehouses, I found my first encounter with a house concert a bit unnerving. I missed the microphone stand. It had always been a nice, safe boundary between me and the audience. In house concerts, there are for the most part no stages and no sound systems--ergo, there are no natural boundaries. In a standard concert situation, you know where to stand: on the stage, where the lights are, behind the microphone. You know there will be at least four feet (if not 15) between you and the front row. In a house concert, you might be faced with a jumble of people sitting on pillows at your feet. It takes a while to get used to standing in what feels like the middle of nowhere--maybe where the rubber plant used to be--and singing and playing.
You need to learn to define a space for yourself. Find a chair or a table where you can put a glass of water or a cup of coffee, your picks, capo, and set list. If you sit down when you play, find a chair and a table. Spend some time on "your stage" before the audience arrives--grounding yourself in your performance space is key. Make sure you're comfortable. If you're not, the audience will sense it, and the show will end up being more about your not being grounded than about the music.
Another difference in a house concert is the lighting. It's amazing how effectively lights can focus the attention and energy in a room. There might be only four people in a club, but if the lights are off where the audience is and on where you are, you can give a concert with a fantasy audience of 300. Your average American living room does not have stage lights. If possible, your host might turn off all the lights in the room except for the one near you, but it's still going to feel different than a real stage. You're going to be looking right into your audience's eyes.
If this makes you nervous (as it used to make me), then get to know your audience before you start the concert. Talk to some of them, if possible, or at least stand in the room and observe them. I once played a house concert where the hosts had told me that they preferred I didn't put the concert on my mailing list because they already had an audience of friends and acquaintances. So I stood around while everyone came in and kind of scanned the crowd. I noticed that they didn't look familiar to me--somehow they didn't look like my typical audience. It wasn't the clothes or the hairstyles or the age; it was something subtle. And they clearly knew each other. I asked the host, and he told me that they mostly knew each other from work: they made bomb simulations for the Department of Defense. I ended up having a great time with the bomb simulators, but the lesson was to get to know your audience beforehand. In many cases, these folks won't be fans on your mailing list; they will be your host's friends. This can be a real advantage. One, your material is new to them, which always makes for a wonderful concert. And two, an audience that already knows each other is more comfortable, more willing to relax and feel whatever emotion your music evokes.
The audience at a house concert comes to meet the artist, to see who you are. They aren't expecting well-rehearsed stage patter and a slick show. They want to get to know you. Bruce Rouse, who has run a very successful house concert in Austin for the past nine years, has found that "the more interaction between the performer and audience, the better." The sort of show that doesn't work so well, he said, is "the person who shows up with a pat show. No introductions, no comments. The performer that works best is the one who can really interact with the audience." So, if you find audience intimacy pure torture, then house concerts might not be for you.
Most house concerts will have a built-in audience, but some will not. Ask the host or hostess about listing the concert in a mailing or on your Web site. They may prefer that you don't include their name or address, opting for something like "house concert," with the town and a phone number instead. Many house concerts are reservation-only, which also gives the host or hostess a way to prescreen the audience. The Panzer house concert series in Columbia, Maryland, requires reservations mostly because the house is always full, but also, said Sherry Panzer, so that "if somebody weird calls, we can say, 'Sorry, we're booked.'" This is a good safety measure.
If you're a touring musician, house concerts can be a great way to make friends and also can offer a night in a real home instead of a hotel. Ask your host if the policy includes housing the musicians.
One big difference between a club or concert venue and a house concert is the finances. The overhead is usually very low, so you can take home a sizable percentage (if not all) of the door. An established house concert series might already have a policy regarding whether or not to take expenses out of the pot. Some house concerts are supported by the finances of the host. The host pays for all of the phone calls and the food and mailing expenses. Some hosts take the expenses out of the money from the door and give the performer the rest. Ask your host about his or her policy beforehand. If it's a new venue for house concerts, or maybe if it's a friend hosting it for you, they might not be sure about what approach to take. Ask if they had any expenses and, if possible, offer to cover those expenses out of the door earnings.
There are lots of established house concerts around the country, but that doesn't mean those are the only ones you can play. People often have to drive a long way to a concert in a big city because there's no venue in their little town. If a fan tells you that he wishes there were somewhere for you to play in his town, tell him there is: his living room.
Of course, there are many other considerations and questions for the host of a house concert. How do you spread the word? How should you set up the room? What expenses should be passed on to the performer? Where will concertgoers park their cars? There are more and more resources for the would-be house concert host. Check out www.houseconcerts.com on the Web; the site is run by presenters in Texas but includes information on concert series in many other states. Singersongwriter T.R. Ritchie has put together Bring It on Home: A Simple Guide to Producing House Concerts, a small booklet that answers a lot of these concerns. The book is available for $5; contact Ritchie at email@example.com.
House concerts are fun. Once you've become accustomed to their particular ins and outs, you'll find them to be some of the best venues to play.