We'll put the living-room table in the garage but keep the couch and chairs in here for seating,' my husband, Patrick, suggests. I nod and simultaneously imagine how the carpet dimples created by the table and chairs will soon share company with new impressions from a microphone stand and a drum kit. We are preparing to host our first house concert. It's hardly a new concept, but it's gaining momentum.
According to the do-it-yourself Web site www.houseconcerts.com, residential live shows are now taking place in 36 states as frequently as once a week before crowds of 30 to 125 guests. Besides appealing to fledgling artists, these private venues also appeal to well-known performers like Tim Easton, Jeff Tweedy, M Ward, and Lucinda Williams.
'I prefer playing at homes because there's no stage, so there's no distance between our audience and ourselves,' says Two Gallants' singer-songwriter Adam Stephens. 'It's cool because I'll be playing guitar and actually bumping into sweaty bodies and elbows right beside me.'
In addition to giving musicians a chance to perform close to a devoted listening audience, house concerts can yield higher profit margins than a traditional bar or club, especially for those who have more of an underground following. 'You definitely sell more CDs at a house concert than at a bar,' says Darren Schlappich, lead singer of Pennsylvania's alt-country outfit Frog Holler. 'Plus, at all the ones we've played, there's a potluck dinner beforehand, so you're eating and hanging out with the guests and then you play. The environment encourages people to support your music.'
'All of the performers like the better pay [compared with bars and clubs],' says Tom Yeager, who hosts a house concert series in Houston. 'They often make over $1,000 in donations here and have never taken less than $500.'
Motivated by the cozy atmosphere and financial rewards, Pat DiNizio organized a five-month, nationwide 'living-room tour' for his band, the Smithereens. Austin resident Paul E. Barker held some house concerts in the late '70s and early '80s, and was fortunate to host Lucinda Williams. Lizzie Wann of San Diego boasts, 'Tim Easton performed in the first year of our series.'
Following the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy played for 50 people in a neighbor's home. 'Jeff sat in front of the fireplace,' recalls Dave Kresl. 'There was no amplification except for a mic plugged into a small amp for vocals and harmonica. A few songs that were requested he declined to play, partly because of obvious arrangement problems that couldn't be translated to acoustic guitar, like the song 'Jesus etc.' But he did play a lot of requests. I think he played two 45-minute sets with a smoke break in between. It was neat and weird at the same time because I got to hear songs in a different, stripped-down arrangement in a living room.'
Stories like Kresl's are enough to get music aficionados daydreaming about turning their living rooms into concert halls, and other than a few washable carpet stains, there's little downside to hosting a show at home.
Still, a wannabe host should do some homework. 'Houses are tricky to play because most of the time the host doesn't know anything about sound, monitors, or engineering,' says M Ward. For $15, the creators of houseconcerts.com will send a 34-page booklet explaining how to book artists, find an audience, and plug in the amps (if you live in Canada, Arm Chair Entertainment Ltd. will organize a show for you). There are also dozens of homebound promoters on the Web who are happy to dole out a little free advice -- and encouragement.
'I know enough about the business to understand that, unless they're one of the lucky few in the upper echelon, musicians desperately need two things: exposure and cash,' says Mary Ann Werner of Washington, D.C., who has hosted shows for the Brindley Brothers and Rosie Flores. 'These people work really hard to sustain themselves, and even if they have a record label, no one is handing them big chunks of cash to pay the rent and put gas in the van. So these parties help a little.'
Excerpted from the music magazine Harp (May 2005). Subscriptions: $19.95/yr. (8 issues) from Box 99050, Colingswood, NJ 08108; www.harpmagazine.com