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The new concert tour—performed out of fans’ homes

To make money today, musicians need to perform on tour, and tours can get pricey. Once a musician or band has paid for travel, hotel rooms, meals, and rented venues, tours can leave them bankrupt. Especially when playing in small spaces with small audiences, they may find the cost not be worth the reward.

There is an alternative. House concerts, which have gained ground over the last 20 years or so, give artists more control of their tours and let them keep more profit from their labours. This type of concert gives artists a place to play and stay, saving them large sums and earning them more because they don’t pay a percentage to the venue.

For up-and-coming folk music artists, this alternative is one of the only ways to survive. Pubs and coffeeshops typically have too loud an environment for their style of music—which could however thrive in a more intimate setting like a home. Musicians need look no further than their fans’ living rooms for the perfect stage.

How house concerts work

Jacob Moon, a folk artist from Hamilton, Ontario, has been a professional musician for 20 years, and has done house concerts for the last 15. He says the setting can be intimidating, but also powerful.

“A miracle happens when you can turn that group of unassociated people into a group that is related to one another through the musical experience that they just had,” says Jacob Moon, here performing in Hugh’s Room, a folk music venue in Toronto, Ontario. [Photo taken by Andy Wright]

Jacob Moon performing in Hugh’s Room, a folk music venue in Toronto. [Photo © Andy Wright]

“A miracle happens when you can turn that group of unassociated people into a group that is related to one another through the musical experience that they just had. It sort of binds them together.”

House concerts are almost always acoustic, small or solo acts. Tickets range between $10 and $25, and all revenue goes to the performer. Typically, the host provides dinner to the artist, and a bed for the night, which beats paying for a hotel.

Moon says he invites fans across Canada to organize concerts for him. He says it’s a great way to create a dedicated fan group, and that to survive as an artist today, you need to take any and all venues you find.

Folk singer Fran Snyder knows this well. Snyder is the founder of concertsinyourhome.com, a website helping artists plan house concerts worldwide, though it’s most popular in North America. Snyder says that, through house concerts, he wants to change how people listen to music, and that this inspired him to found the website.

Musicians need look no further than their fans’ living rooms for the perfect stage.

“I think it’s important that we try to encourage more people to discover that they can actually enjoy sitting with their mouths shut listening to music, instead of talking through a performance,” says Snyder.

The website provides information to potential hosts, and for a membership fee helps artists to connect with those hosts and book house concerts.

Snyder says house concerts are becoming more popular because artists are recognizing they can make money on weekdays when they’d normally be staying in a hotel, waiting for their weekend gig. As well, Snyder says house concerts give a venue for emerging singer-songwriters, to play original music when public venues look mainly for cover artists.

Snyder is writing a book, House Concerts and Modern Touring for Small Acts, to help inform artists and hosts who want to be involved.  He says, “They’re so vital to the development of new talent, that we don’t want house concerts to get compromised by people who don’t understand what they’re doing.”

A house concert set up in Lawrence, Kansas.  [Photo taken by Fran Snyder]

Intimate and elegant. A house concert set up in Lawrence, Kansas. [Photo © Fran Snyder]

In the book, Snyder explains his 10-10 concept of 10 songs and 10 guests, for $10. He says this system encourages fans to organize a show because it’s not as intimidating as bringing together a large audience.

Snyder says hosts should advertise concerts by word of mouth or direct emails, to control the number of guests by having them RSVP to tell the artist how many to expect. Because selling alcohol without a permit is illegal, Snyder’s guide says guests can bring their own liquor, but only if the host is comfortable with the liability risks.

A boon to fans and artist both

Nicole Colbeck, the host of Westboro House Concerts in Ottawa, makes a living as a manager for house concert artists on tour. She says she’s had more clients lately because of a lack of venues for emerging artists who tell a story through their music, especially an original story.

In Ottawa, Colbeck says, only a few spaces are suited to solo or acoustic acts, and some of those are too large for a newer artist to fill, such as Centrepointe Theatres, Fourth Stage at the National Arts Centre, and the Great Canadian Theatre Company.

“There’s a real thirst for house concert hosts on the part of artists. Artists are really looking for quality venues where people will come and sit,” and ultimately listen well, says Colbeck.

House concerts benefit lesser-known artists because audiences trust the host’s choice: they’ll come no matter who’s playing.

Colbeck hosts about two concerts a year.  She says house concerts work for lesser-known artists because guests trust the host’s choice. In a traditional concert venue, people may come only if they recognize the artist, but in a house concert, if they know the host has good taste in music, they’ll come no matter who’s playing.

Kathy Jarrell got into attending house concerts in Calgary six years ago. She says she loves the intimacy of it, and has a good experience each time she goes.

“I just trust the people who are hosting, that they’re putting on a show for someone who’s deserving of being listened to. And it has me stretch my usual music repertoire, and that’s great,” she says.

Folk singer Joe Cousineau, performing in June 2011 at Westboro House Concerts, held in Nicole Colbeck’s house in Ottawa.  [Photo courtesy of N. Colbeck]

Folk singer Joe Cousineau performs at Nicole Colbeck’s home in Ottawa for Westboro House Concerts, June 2011. [Photo courtesy of N. Colbeck]

Roch Parisien, a music journalist, and founder of Rocon Communications, says the real problem with traditional venues may not be venues or the people hiring.

“There may be more opportunities to play now than there ever used to be,” says Parisien about all types of performance venues, house concerts, traditional, and online, “but there are more people trying to take advantage of those opportunities.”

Parisien says online music sharing sites have made it easy for anyone to be a musician. He says house concerts are good because hosts act as gatekeepers in the music business, by filtering artist applications. Snyder says this guarantees a performer whom at least the host believes in.

Organizing the movement

The house concert landscape is changing because what used to be only privately organized has become more formalized. Home Routes is a not-for-profit organization involved in that process. Founded in 2007, it organizes exclusively house concert tours throughout Canada.

The group was founded by musicians who saw the difficulties artists face trying to make a living touring in Canada, says Selena Bewsky, program coordinator and operations manager at Home Routes. She says house concerts weren’t always so well known a venue.

“We’ve definitely brought the idea out there, and it’s become more popular as a result,” Bewsky say.

Home Routes tours are scheduled over a two-week period, with the artist performing somewhere new every night, other than two nights off. This increases the profitability of tours, according to Bewsky. Home Routes provides the musician with maps, contacts and, she says, anything else needed to make the tour a success.

Artists pay a membership fee to Home Routes, which registers them with SOCAN, the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada. Through SOCAN, artists get money back whenever they perform their original music live.

As house concerts become more popular, SOCAN is continuing to raise awareness with hosts about licensing, and how it can benefit the artist and support the art form.

An artist plays in a corner of a bar. The room is loud and busy. Now the scene shifts. The chairs are turned one direction and the room is stripped of everything but chairs and a few family photos. All eyes are on the performer, and the show begins.

[Front page photo courtesy of Jacob Moon]

SOCAN will pay when you perform original music

SOCAN (the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) wants artists to know they can earn royalties for playing their music at house concerts.

SOCAN Licensing Manager James Leacock says there’s been an increase in artists applying for such royalties. He says artists are gaining awareness of about how they can benefit from registering with SOCAN.

Royalties can be expected up to nine months after the live performance, and only if the venue, as well as the artist, is registered with SOCAN. Hosts purchase an annual license, or one per concert, with the fee being three percent of the ticket price.

To be reimbursed, musicians need to:

  • Submit a Notification of Live Music Performance (NLMP) form
  • Provide proof that the performance took place
  • Submit within a year of the performance