The artist's life

Some thoughts on house concerts

Ian Tamblyn has written more than 1,500 songs over his lifetime and released more than 30 albums, earning a Juno nomination and a Canadian Folk Music Award in the process.  So we were thrilled here at Roots Music Canada when he offered to share some of his wisdom with us.  Ian has reflected on and written about many facets of artistic life over the years, and we’ll be publishing some of those writings in the coming weeks.  Thank you, Ian!

There are several ways that one can view the emergence of house concerts as a venue for acoustic and roots musicians across North America.

Some would see this forum as an outgrowth of the democratization of the music, recording and performance world that has grown with the development of home-based studios, indie records and CDs and independent artists who wish to circumvent the biz to have a more direct relationship with their audiences. 

Some see the house concert as a return to the kitchen or grass roots concert that had its genesis in the kitchen parties and ceilidhs of Cape Breton, Newfoundland and Quebec or the grassroots political rallies of the 1930s, where guitars killed fascists, union songs were sung, etc. 

Some see house concerts as a way of getting back to something more real than the star system or the I/thou relationship between audience and performer. House concerts could be seen as an opportunity to spend time with the audience and hosts of the concerts.

Some performers find it the best venue to play across the country where other mainstream venues are not available to them. Others see house concerts as a way to play “under the radar,” where revenues from house concerts are not reported to the government. (This latter modus operandi is not recommended if one might be claiming gas mileage but not concerts revenues)

Others might see the house concert as a way of seeing the world.

Some see house concerts as ways to fill in gigs between others across the vast landscape of this country.

Still other performers find house concerts to be a step down from the bona fide gigs across the country, believing that house concerts threaten an echelon system of performers.

Others find spending hours with a host who takes on some proprietorship of the artists after the house concert, cloying and distasteful at best.

Some find that house concerts threaten a system that saw performers work their way from coffee houses to community venues to small soft- seaters to concert  halls and beyond, depending on the talents of the artists and their ambitions – or those around them. This last advancement of a performer, however, comes with a coterie of other actors, which might include manager, agency, publicist, record label, etc., and they too could be threatened by a house concert network, which, for the most part, is a direct relation between performer and presenter – or at least that’s the way the house concert system began.

I mention this last point because, in a few short years, the house concert has morphed its way in some cases into being “the” venue in a given town; the house concert is the only gig in town, and this phenomena has then attracted the mainstream to the house concert in that town. Sometimes this attention has elevated the presenter from enthusiastic amateur to self-important poobah whose strutting cache is only that they present.

I think that the house concert has elements of all the above, and, to various performers, is all things above and more.

Speaking personally, I find the house concert brings me closer to an audience I enjoy and one that I can reach. I have tried my hand at getting gigs in the larger centres, such as at Toronto’s Hugh’s Room Live or Vancouver’s Rogue Folk Club, but I am an independent artist without anyone to represent me, and I have found it near impossible to find a place in those houses despite national recognition and awards.

It is my belief that those gigs would prefer to talk to their system of agents and managers and not to independent artists unless they are seen as ”on the way up .“

I suspect some will scoff and say that Hugh’s Room Live and The Rogue Folk Club are not that high up the ladder, but I use these examples to illustrate that the ladder exists even at the lower rungs, and for those who do not have access to the ladder for lack of agent, the house concert is a valuable way to reach an audience. 

The house concert is a great way to travel the fragile tangent of this country; it is populist based for the most part, and it is a way for me to reach communities that are at the centre of my artistic work and, because they are at the centre of my artistic work, I love going to Red Lake, Sioux Lookout, Dawson City and Rankin Inlet.

The truth is that I am inclined towards the house concert.

I think there is some truth to the notion that the house concert can take you out of the game, that it can cheapen your worth as a commodity in the marketplace and lessen your value artistically. But it was also said that if you played Sudbury for example you were definitely headed down the mountain. As a person from a town off the grid I find that view condescending at best. 

It should be confessed that I am speaking as a person who has been tangential to the biz most of my career and have chosen to do it that way. I never moved to Toronto. I chose to live away from the centre of the music industry. I courted the record business but got out of it to become an independent artist for most of my career. I have followed this path for strong philosophical, political and spiritual reasons. 

Perhaps because of this, I found the house concert phenomena closer to the way I have always seen my place in the community, and so have seen its emergence as a good way to reach an audience. I also must acknowledge that I am at the senior end of my life in music. I am not an espoir who someone in the biz is going to invest in, though I admit if I could sell out now – I might!  

And so, the house concert is a way for me to continue playing for a demographic that appreciates my music and approach to writing.  This should not be construed as a confession of failure, but rather as finding an audience through house concerts, an audience I have been seeking across this country and throughout my life in music.

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