Feature

The evolution of the house concert: Tinder-like apps and top-secret sets

Photo by Anita Peeples on Unsplash.

What can lay a legitimate claim to being the first house concert? It’s a question ripe for debate. Should we point to Bach and his trio sonatas? Or should we look to the homes of the robber barons of the early 20th century, when they’d pay organists to come play? Or should we look a few rungs down the ladder of wealth and status, to rent parties in the Harlem Renaissance, or to the back yards of the Appalachians?

Wherever you plant your marker, if you are a roots musician, you’ve almost certainly attended and played house concerts.

But let’s assume you’re coming here from some odd Google search and asking yourself, “What is this article talking about?”

House concerts are primarily musical events that take place in private residences, rather than dedicated performance spaces. They don’t generally issue tickets or take prepayment, and they are generally smaller in size. Most of the time, artists receive all the money collected as a donation for their performance, as well as all the money from CD or other merchandise sales. Evenings will often include some sort of potluck food, people usually bring their own alcohol to consume, and there are times for the attendees to chat and interact – but house concerts tend to be “listening events” rather than parties where chatter dominates. If touring, house concert performers often stay overnight at the host’s residence and will likely get dinner and/or breakfast too. And while there are lots of musicians who benefit from house concerts (it would be criminal to ignore the long tradition of punk DIY “house shows”), it’s pretty easy to see how a solo or duo singer-songwriter act can fit perfectly into the model house concerts provide.

It’s easy to see the advantages of house concerts from the performer’s perspective: attentive audience, ALL THE MONEY, a (hopefully) clean bed, and (hopefully) good food. Hosts tend to derive their benefits in less tangible ways — knowing their efforts support musicians, the joy of introducing people to worthy artists, etc. Folk icon Mitch Podolak often speaks of the thrill of being “the impresario of your living room.”

But just as the recorded music business has undergone revolutionary change in the last number of years, so is the “business” of house concerts. Are new models of doing house-concert-like events a threat to musicians? The next Uber? The next Napster? Or is it all a bit more subtle than that?

Well, there are a lot out there.

An agency for house concerts?  Well, kind of …

Mitch Podolak and some of his creative partners may not have been the first to recognize the potential for adding a dash of organization to the house concert world, but they were among the first to address that need. In 2007, Podolak and friends created a not-for-profit called Home Routes / Chemin Chez Nous, which, in the years since, has shepherded literally thousands of concerts into being. The Home Routes 2017-18 season features 64 different acts. Each act is assigned to a “circuit” or circuits — a series of house concerts that are booked in advance. Artists receive a tour book from Home Routes with all the logistical information for their run. Presenters, likewise, know that they will have six artists appearing over a given period of time.

Home Routes artistic director Tim Osmond Other has some vague recollections of a similar scheme in the US in the 1970s, he said, but apart from that, it’s a new wrinkle in the way house concerts are organized.

“Home Routes’ biggest value, I would say, would be trust,” Tim said. “There is a long line of trust happening from the audience to the host to the artist and back to us. We represent the artists and the communities equally. The volunteer hosts, and their audiences most often have never heard of the performers we send them but trust that it’s going to be fun, engaging and a high quality performance. We diversify the series enough to include all sorts of folk music elements, contemporary and traditional. Age and gender parity are a big consideration in the booking process as well.
 
“The way the money works is unique,” he continued.” Usually the promoter pays the artist at the end of the gig; not the other way around. The artist gets 100 per cent of the door from every concert then send us our share of tour revenue (15 per cent) once they’re done. We implement an honour system with the artists who diligently complete our form to keep track of attendance and merch sales.

“Between Mitch, Ava, Leonard and me, we all make equal wages. Always have. We really aren’t making it rich here. The commission we get from the tours makes up about a quarter of our operating costs. We are supported by grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, Manitoba Culture Sport and Tourism, FACTOR and the SOCAN Foundation.

Photo of Nathan Rogers

Nathan Rogers plays a Home Routes show in Nova Scotia.

“For songwriters, we also process their SOCAN license fees of three per cent, of admissions, and forward their reports and fees to SOCAN. Artists actually license their own shows. SOCAN, per agreement with Home Routes/Chemin Chez Nous, distributes $100 per HR concert. Ava does this for every tour, and we charge nothing to make sure it’s done.”Home Routes has no shortage of passionate boosters in the music community. Dan Rubin is half of Tanglecove, a Newfoundland-based duo (the other half is Geoff Panting, formerly of Rawlins Cross).

“What struck us most of all during our Ontario tour a few months ago was the commitment and kindness of everyone we met along the way, from two Westjet agents who agreed to load our instruments on board for free (waiving baggage charges) to the car rental agent who understood our need for safe winter driving and provided a four wheel drive Jeep at no extra cost, to our wonderful hosts who housed us, fed us, and gathered an audience.

“During the earlier tour we tied the whole thing together by performing on Via Rail as part of their Artists Onboard program. On that tour (which we recorded and released as our third CD, Home Roots: Tanglecove on Tour) we performed in a Jewish delicatessen in Toronto, a Chinese restaurant in Winnipeg, a club in Calgary and a dozen homes as part of our designated Home Routes tour.

We returned home to Newfoundland and have done more local house concerts here. Each time, the refreshing experience of playing acoustically to an intimate audience has proven to be perfect for our combination of story-telling and musical performance.”

But Home Routes is far from the only new way that house concerts are being created. Or is that curated? Supported? Or exploited?

A “franchise” for “secret” house concerts?

In 2009, Londoner Rafe Offer decided to hold a tiny concert in his flat. Eight people later, the for-profit company he cofounded is called Sofar Sounds (Sofar expands to “Songs from a Room,” and they offer events in several hundred cities, including Toronto and Montreal.

Sofar events are purposely mysterious: if you want to go, you either enter a lottery for a seat at an unknown location with secret artists, or you pay to be part of a “premium experience” with a corporate partner like Airbnb. In Toronto, a small team of volunteers organizes monthly Sofar events.

The day before the show, you’re emailed the location, but not the performer. According to the company’s press kit, shows are BYOB, there’s no talking or texting, and you’re expected to stay. The locations may be someone’s home; more frequently now, they are other nontraditional performance spaces like offices, warehouses, or galleries.

Jon Campbell is the “Toronto leader” for Sofar Sounds and a cultural programmer in his day job too. “I found out [about Sofar] via word of mouth back in 2012 or so,” he said. “Once I figured out what it was and attended, I was hooked and immediately started sending notes offering my services, as the local team was only hosting the occasional show, and eventually stopped altogether. I was part of a crew of people drafted into service at the tail end of 2014 to restart Sofar Toronto. After a few months, the team shifted, and with the founding of Good Kind Productions, a non-profit presenter/producer, in 2015, we took over the role of producing Sofar Toronto shows.“

Sofar Toronto is a bit of an outlier in the Sofar system, because money doesn’t go back to the parent company. And here is where Sofar has come in for a lot of criticism. According to an article posted at KQED radio, an NPR station in California, most first-time Sofar performers are “compensated with a ‘high-quality’ video of his or her four-song set; after that, a performer is considered a Sofar ‘alum’ and offered a 50-dollar stipend (depending on a room’s capacity, as low as three percent of the door) for an unfilmed gig.”

In Toronto, most Sofar shows are happening in venues with a capacity of around 120. The revenue goes into a few things.

“In Toronto, our deal is that you get a guaranteed minimum and a video, eventually,” John said. “So we not only pay artists performance fees, we pay for audio crew to mix live, and then to mix and master after; we pay for a video crew to be shooting and editing later, and a photographer. And often there’s some form of rent on a venue, insurance, permits to sell alcohol. We — as the presenter — are lucky to get out of there above zero.”

“The secret element, the fact that people have to arrive on time and listen quietly, the fact that we are creating spaces for music rather than trying to fit into existing spaces designed for music — all of that makes the experience unique,” John continued. “The other thing that Sofar Toronto is particularly good at doing is making real the diversity of the city around us by ensuring a mixture of artists and not worrying about traditional ideas of whether or not the bands “go together.” Because how is it a problem if a Persian classical husband-and-wife duo performs after an Afro-Caribbean Francophone banjo player who follows a classically-trained tenor and piano player making traditional Maliseet songs more accessible? All three are artists we believe more people should get to experience.”

Piper Hayes photo

Musician Piper Hayes sings the praises of SoFar Sounds.

The Toronto operation seems to contrasts with the “back of the napkin” math done by the KQED writer on a show she attended.

“The show I attended in Potrero Hill was at capacity with 150 people. About 70 per cent of those people were paying attendees, according to [Sofar San Francisco city director Dean] Davis, while the other 30 were volunteers, employees of the host company, musicians or friends of the band,” Emma Silvers wrote. “That means at least 95 paying customers, 75 of whom paid $15 to get in, 20 of whom paid $30. Credit card processing site Stripe takes 2.9 per cent plus 30 cents of every transaction, which comes out to about $80. There was no A/V team to pay out at this show, which leaves an intake of about $1,650 for Sofar Sounds. Assuming each of the bands was paid the standard $50 stipend for an unfilmed show, this means $1,500 – thirty times more than each band’s pay – went straight to Sofar Sounds.”

This, along with the fact that Sofar is a for-profit company that has received multi-million-dollar venture capital funding, leads some people to be critical of its model. But others – performers included – like Sofar shows.

Musician Piper Hayes, for example, has experienced traditional house concerts, Sofar shows, and used Side Door as well (more on them later). Sofar “is a fantastic community of hard-working and enthusiastic individuals who simply want to make community and host events that highlight awesome artists,” she said. “The secret factor is amazing and, as a result, the immense pressure of promoting is off … which really is fantastic. They pack the house with people who will love the music, and they also buy CDs! Which is fantastic. Artists are offered guarantees, professional photos and videos. As well, Sofar really does an awesome job of promoting its artists after the show too. You really feel like it is a collaboration.”

‘A music version of Tinder’

If you want your alternative to house concerts to come with a touch of maple flavour, perhaps Side Door will be more to your taste. Side Door is a startup based out of the East Coast, co-founded by music industry veteran Laura Simpson and singer-songwriter Dan Mangan. Laura described her vision for Side Door as a “music version of Tinder,” where, “when a host and a venue ‘swipe right,” magic begins.

“We’re working as a virtual booking agent for artists,” Laura said. “We try to lay out the groundwork so there can be a really fair transaction and some transparency and security with the exchange of funds. The technology just facilitates the making of a show,” she said.

The technology she refered to is an app that will match artists with hosts – house concerts or other less-traditional spaces – where everything required for the show matches up, and then contracts are made quickly and easily. The goal, Laura said, is to “really cut down on the back-and-forth” of artists and hosts asking one another, “Do you have this, do you need that?”

The main difference between Side Door and the other “new” models for making music events happen is that her and Mangan’s creation doesn’t curate artists, Laura added. Essentially, it’s a software-as-a-service option for making concerts happen, not unlike Freshbooks for accounting. Another difference is that under the Side Door model, hosts and Side Door take 10 per cent of the event’s revenue each, leaving artists with 80 per cent. Currently, Laura is a full-time employee of Side Door, which has sought out private investors to bankroll development of the app.

“Culture in private space”

Finally on our tour of new models is Artery. This new startup was created by Salimah Ebrahim and Vladic Ravich, two journalists-turned-entrepreneurs with a passion for culture.

“Culture in private spaces is not new,” Salimah said from Toronto. But having worked around the world as a journalist and experienced scenes from living-room jazz in Cairo to house concerts here, she came to believe there was an untapped appetite for culture, and that many people found traditional venues to be barriers to that.

“Half the time, Artery is filled with people who haven’t seen live cello before, or live ballet … there are issues of access, of intimidation, of cost … But if a friend is saying, or if the platform is saying that down the street, for $15, is a 60-minute performance of classical music from Iraq … ‘Let’s go!’” Artery events are in some ways similar to Sofar events – shorter performances, small crowds, non-traditional spaces, BYOB – but a major difference is in what happens to the money. Artery takes 5 per cent of ticket sales, and hosts and artists are left to make their own arrangements around what to do with the remainder.

What to make of it all? After long phone or email conversations with lots of people, I’m not sure. As a longtime house concert presenter myself, I kind of like the independence. But there are things that appeal to me about a number of the models.

In his many years as a working musician, Halifax’s Kev Corbett has experienced all the models – including the good old bar gig.

“I’ve always worked in bars, and I always will, but it’s very hard to run a good show on your own,” he said. “No matter how Steve Poltz level funny you are, play like Fearing, sing like Rose Cousins, I’ve been mostly finding the experience to be very flat. (Bands are a bit different; it’s easier to make the magic happen. I’ll return to this.) …  Houses and nontraditional spaces are the answer.  The Bluegrass Underground is a cave in Tennessee. Germany is dotted with decommissioned churches that have been turned to arts spaces. Galleries can make great gigs.

House concerts are great because they pay, and the crowd is there to listen (unlike bars). Likewise, HomeRoutes is a hell of a slog, but a great pay check. SoFar is fun, but they need to pay. I guess it’s good for super new artists to get some video, but I’m very suspicious of them. Side Door events are cool in that [Laura Simpson’s] approaching it not as an Industry vet, but as a music fan who loves the gig magic: there’ll be otherworldly lighting, bunting, people will dance because it’s a jubilant wonderland dance party, the way a Flaming Lips show feels halfway between an explosion and an acid trip.

There’s room for everyone. Ottawa’s Music Strategy is a huge step forward, while Halifax has effectively squandered its once-touted Music Hotspot status. The new model of booking, which includes women and nonwhite folks for once, is being warmly received here. It ties in nicely with the craft brewing trend. As the business contracts, it’s gotten harder to bring people out to shows, so events need to be “Events.” Sofar might be the Uber of music in that people want something for free, but I’m not into it. I’m excited for what Laura turns up. I joined a synth-pop band in Glasgow and played in an old veterinary operating theatre with animations and haggis and weird naked dance and it put all the colour back in my world.”

Perhaps Tim Osmond of Home Routes summed it up better than I can: “The difference between companies like that and organizations like ours, is that we curate entire two-week tours, sending artists on a route, and we provide a season of artists for our hosts.

Those other organizations are web-site matchmakers that introduce individual hosts with individual artists, for one-off performances. Both models serve a valuable purpose, but it seems they come at it from a business headspace … So the long and short of it is that we are all adding to the infrastructure. We are all putting on small intimate shows. We are all creating new work for professional artists.”

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