|Welcome to the new world of live music: House concerts inspire musicians & fans in intimate settings|
by John Sinkevics
The house concert revolution is here.
Earlier this month, upwards of 200 music devotees gathered over three days in the living rooms of four homes in Grand Rapids’ Eastown neighborhood to soak up the strains of more than 30 bands and solo artists – up-and-coming local talent as well as a few out-of-state acts – in ultra-personal fashion in the first-ever Lamp Light Music Festival.
While those numbers were relatively small, don’t be surprised if similar events keep popping up in dens, garages, decks, backyards and barns as serious-but-struggling musicians seek new ways to cut costs and deliver their music directly to audiences.
For many, it’s an increasingly popular method of sharing a “warm, glowing, casual encounter with the artist,” says John Hanson, a member of indie-folk’s Strawberry Heritage and a lead organizer of the Lamp Light Music Festival.
“This is music that fits better in a listening room rather than a talkative, alcohol-ridden commercial environment,” says Hanson, 27, a Traverse City native who moved to Grand Rapids from Chicago about a year ago. He’s embraced house concerts as opposed to conventional bar and nightclub shows, even as a way of touring from city to city, especially for less well-known artists.
“There’s no overhead and it’s an evening in an intimate setting. We do tons of house concerts all year long. It really is a viable new means of exchange in the music world. … Musicians are all dirt-poor. We all have to figure out how to cut the middle man.”
The Verve Pipe’s Brian Vander Ark figured that out as a solo artist years ago.
The East Grand Rapids singer-songwriter launched his first solo “Lawn Chairs and Living Rooms” tour in 2007, mostly out of desperation to help pay his mortgage, booking shows around the country in fans’ homes via email, website entreaties and phone calls.
He quickly discovered the joy and beauty of playing to adoring, accommodating and attentive audiences, and he’s since become the poster child for house concerts, playing 100 or more across the country every year – often playing two or more a day on weekends.
More important, he earns more money per show and sells more CDs on average than a typical bar gig. And the hosts – who often invite friends and relatives to these concert-centered parties – really care about the entertainer they’ve hired, so much so that 60 percent are “repeat customers.”
“They’re nice to you. There’s no surly sound man. They give you free food and they offer you a place to stay if you want,” Vander Ark says. “More importantly, you’ve got a listening audience that’s forced to listen to you. It’s really a situation unlike a club where there are all kinds of distractions and there’s people playing pool and people talking. This is for music lovers. That’s the best thing about it.” Concert hosts often collect donations from attendees to help cover the performer’s fee; many fans bring their own beverages and get to chat with the artist after the show.
Vander Ark has become so passionate about this trend, he’s even started a blog (onehitwonderful.wordpress.com) advising other musicians about booking these shows and what to expect, leaning on his experiences over the past five years. Hanson notes musicians often network with each other to set up house concerts in different cities, especially when traditional venues aren’t available or can’t even cover travel costs.
Vander Ark – who’s played living rooms, backyards, garages, even rooftops – encourages artists to heed what the host wants: Be willing to play cover songs in additional to original material, and ask ahead about favorite songs or birthdays to tailor sets to audience preferences, making it the best possible experience for fans.
“It’s so different from that wall that goes up between the artist and the fan. There’s no wall here,” he says. “I get song ideas from people … There’s no down side to this whatsoever.”
Not for solo performers and small acoustic groups anyway. House concerts can be less lucrative and more problematic for large rock bands and the equipment they require, though there are plenty of examples of full-band shows being held in barns and garages in West Michigan.
Some venues and bars have groused about the competition that low-cost house concerts potentially pose on the entertainment scene, especially because these shows don’t incur overhead costs related to liquor licenses, insurance and promotion. In his blog, Vander Ark even cites an incident along the lakeshore where a venue called authorities to complain about a house show.
Still, Vander Ark argues many clubs aren’t paying guaranteed fees anymore and often require bands to sell tickets to shows to earn their pay. House concerts, he insists, are a way artists can earn decent money while establishing a closer bond with fans.
“That’s what it’s all about for me as an artist,” says Hanson, who appreciates the one-on-one contact. “None of us are famous people here. This is real life. This is our lifestyle. We don’t need to be elevated on a platform. We like living rooms.”
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