What’s the difference between a rock concert and a house concert? Let’s look at the extremes. On the one hand, you have, say, the monstrous spectacle of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra: An enormous stage chock-full of musicians with giant swinging stage arms extending into the stadium crowd, nearly 1,300 blazing lights and lasers, so much fog it could blanket the eastern seaboard, enough blasts of pyrotechnics to singe the first 20 rows and stacks of speakers and amplifiers. The massive production with 240 touring personnel requires 40 trucks and 20 buses.
On the other hand, you have someone with an acoustic guitar, strumming and singing for 25 friends in a living room. There are no lights to speak of, and often no amplification equipment at all. The artist, who doubles as the roadie, can fit all the equipment in a Honda Civic and have room left over for a St. Bernard.
James Walker started holding concerts at his home in Traverse City in November 2013, when folk duo Seth and May posted online that they were looking for homes to perform in across the state. “It was great fun. All I did was host it,” Walker says. The next year, he and WNMC station manager Eric Hines hatched a plan to sponsor more such shows at his house. Now he typically holds four or five shows from October through May as the WNMC House Concert Series. Among the artists he’s had perform are Laith Al-Saadi, the Crane Wives and Medicinal Groove.
The benefits for the audience are clear: The intimate setting offers closer seating than in the back of an auditorium or a club. The laid-back vibe provides a clearer—or at least different—snapshot of the music and artist. Plus the parking is going to be easier, the drinks cheaper, the seats comfier and the bathroom lines smaller.
For the artists, they offer a chance to really connect with fans. They don’t have to struggle to be heard over the sound of clinking glasses or conversation or worry about technical glitches with the sound system interrupting the flow of a performance. For touring artists looking to fill open dates, they can provide a bridge, both geographically and financially. While the income from house concerts may not rival that of large-scale shows, all the profit goes to the musician. The hosts don’t take a cut, and they also typically provide food and lodging for the artist. Not a bad deal at all.
As far as Claudia Schmidt is concerned, house concerts are a lifesaver. “I like the up close and personal aspect,” she says. The longtime folk and jazz favorite estimates about half her performances are house concerts. That’s coming from someone who has appeared in concert halls and at festivals across the country, and as a regular on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.
House concerts are nothing new, of course. Schmidt says she performed her first one back in the 80s. She says those hosting and attending are there for a love of the music, rather than any profit-making exercise.
That holds true for Caroline Barlow, the volunteer and events manager for Blissfest. She enjoys the music of the performers at the annual three-day Blissfest Folk and Roots Music Festival but was disappointed she only got to hear them once a year. When the band Big Dudee Roo asked if she could get the group a gig in Petoskey, she took a leap of faith. “I said, ‘Yeah, I can totally do that,’” Barlow says. Then she had to figure out a way to do so, eventually booking them at a backyard party. But what she really wanted was to host a concert, not a party. When Blissfest board member Susan Scott volunteered her home, the Tiny Room Shows series was born. Its first show was Scott Cook, followed by Rebecca Loebe (one-time contestant on The Voice) and Joe Shields.
Schmidt says the music industry often tosses aside established artists in favor of the next big thing. “Clubs want to have younger people, younger bands. People like me are getting aged out. Yet we’re absolutely in our prime,” she says. But if clubs and theaters aren’t beckoning these performers, their fans are. And the benefits extend further than just another show. “A lot of artists say they sell more merchandise than at a regular show,” Barlow says.
While it’s a time-tested approach, house concerts are getting more recognition. Local, regional and national acts are filling houses across the country. Billboard Magazine and NPR have published articles on the new/old trend. There’s now an online resource for those looking to hold shows, ConcertsInYourHome.com.
Walker and Barlow say they try to mix the style and appeal of the acts. While the artists are often solo folk artists or duos, that’s not always the case. Walker has hosted Soul Patch, a genre-hopping band with guitar, keyboards, bass, drums and a horn section. “We had the Go —that’s a four-piece rock band. They set up and plugged in,” he says.