Touring artists bring it home at intimate house concerts
Sept. 22, 2008
House concerts have been an underground staple of the folk community for decades, supporting fledgling and even bigger acts with intimate shows that guarantee enthusiastic audiences. Literally held in a music fan's house for no more than a few dozen people, the concerts gained ground as a way to sustain a lengthy tour. But these days, observers say gas prices and a shortage of venues have turned the offbeat shows into a lucrative method to keep live folk music going, pointing to tour circuits based entirely on house concerts.
Folk music lover Mitch Podolak started up Home Routes last year to connect musicians with homeowners willing to provide their abodes for money-making performances. As is the tradition, the host provides a bed and warm meal while the artist gets 100 per cent of the take.
"They make real money", Winnipeg-based Podolak says of artists who choose to go this route. The average folksinger in Canada is grossing somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000 (a year), and some of the performers have been coming off Home Routes making $5,000 net in two weeks. So you can see what the relationship is.
"Traditional venues are tough to book, with an increasing number of artists competing for a limited number of gigs", says Podolak. "Combined with rising costs for gas and accommodations, touring doesn't always make economic sense", he adds. With Home Routes, artists embark on 12-date house concert tours in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan or Manitoba.
And it's not just lesser-known artists that take part. John Mann of Spirit of the West is currently doing a house concert tour of Manitoba, with stops including Falcon Lake, Onanole, Lac du Bonnet and Winnipeg. Barney Bentall is slated to run through homes in Alberta and Saskatchewan in February, with gigs in Annaheim and Osler, Sask., and Hinton, Alta.
Podolak, who started Home Routes last year, says he's working on setting up similar runs in southern Ontario and Atlantic Canada. Participants tend to be folk or roots acts, but there are the occasional pop and indie rock acts that have staged low-key shows to vault their careers. "For obvious reasons, house concerts are best suited to solo or duo acts with acoustic shows or limited stage setups", says blues/folk artist Little Miss Higgins, who estimates she's done about 10 such performances in Saskatoon and Edmonton, in addition to larger shows at such established venues as Hugh's Room in Toronto.
"There's actually people who kind of retrofit their house to accommodate 30 to 50 people", says Higgins, on the line from Huntsville, Ont. "One couple even built a little stage and had lights in their living room. It was pretty cool. A lot of people love it because a lot of people don't want to go to a bar, and it's nice because they can just come and hang out at a friend's house or meet some new people and see a show. We've had a really great response and we usually sell lots of CDs."
Musician and house concert aficionado Fran Snyder says the phenomenon has grown significantly in recent years. The Montreal-born Snyder runs the online gathering post, www.concertsinyourhome.com, which has registered about 220 concert presenters, about 20 of them Canadian. "About 500 artists have signed up as willing performers", he says. "There's artists that'll make $500 at a house concert one night and then make $60 the next night at a club. That's just reality", says Snyder, who's based in Lawrence, Kan. "House concerts used to be sort of these filler dates - an artist would be going from one festival to another on the weekends and during the week they'd be looking to pick up any kind of gig they could, and so they'd email their fans or call their fans and say, ‘Hey, I'm coming through town, can we do something on a Wednesday night or a Thursday night, even if it's a small turnout?' But now, the economics have totally flipped around and guys like me, I won't tour unless there's a house concert involved because that's the only way I can afford to tour. I'll book the house concerts on the weekends and then if I need to, I'll fill in with the club on a Thursday night or Wednesday night when I'm on the road."
House concerts tend to thrive in smaller communities, where opportunities for live music can be limited. The eastern Ontario town of Perth is one hotspot, thanks to the efforts of Steve and Sue Tennant, who run a monthly show out of their home.
"If you were to come to our place when we're in the season, you know, our stage is up all the time, we hardly have any living room furniture", says Steve Tennant, whose biggest booking was Stacey Earle, Steve Earle's sister.
"We bought 30 chairs to go with the other 10 that we have. We kind of have a long living room across the front of the house and then we have a dining room that sort of L-shapes off it through an archway. And so we have about 10 or 15 people that sit between the kitchen and the dining room and another 30 that are in the living room. We've had up to 55 people at shows."
Publicity for house shows is generally spread by word-of-mouth, ensuring a tight-knit crowd that's there for the music. Running a house concert is obviously not for everyone, but anyone tempted to stage their own show should investigate local regulations first, advises Snyder. House concerts generally welcome a "donation" to skirt the appearance of a home-based business, he says. Meanwhile, the host should never accept money to run a concert, even if they've spent money to set up the gig, says Snyder.
"The hosts do it because they love it", he says. They become tastemakers in their community. It's a great way to bring their neighbourhood, their friends, their acquaintances together and experience music in a way that you just can't in traditional venues. The idea of hearing the stories behind the songs and getting to know the artist on a personal level, not just the guy up on stage who sings a few songs, but you actually have time, during the break and after the show, to chat with the artist and get your CD signed."
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