Grass roots work-arounds are popping up all around the music biz. It isn’t just the major labels that are failing the needs of many music fans:
- At the end of a tree-lined cul-de-sac in Falls Church, I park and make my way up the winding brick path to the front door of a house I’ve never been to.
Through the window I see a crowd of people, wine glasses in hand, and I don’t even knock before turning the doorknob and walking in. I’m a stranger but don’t feel at all out of place among these folks, who ignore me as I walk among them. I wander over to a dining room table filled with food — cheese, chips, dip, lasagna, chili — and load up a plate. I pour some excellent merlot (Lindemans Bin 40, not cheap) into a plastic cup and make my way down a short flight of stairs. I join a few dozen people in a rec room lit by two standing halogen lamps and plop myself onto a folding chair, one of about 50 aligned in rows.
I smile to the couple next to me, and when they both smile back I ask, “Do you go to many house concerts?”
House concerts are exactly what those two words say — concerts that people hold in their houses — and they’ve become something of a nationwide phenomenon during the past 10 years. While there has always been live music in homes — classical drawing room salons, rural front-porch hoedowns, Harlem rent parties, rock bands in basements — the current style of house party has flourished because of a confluence of circumstances, the primary one being the graying of the baby boomers.
These are people who grew up with music as a central part of their lives, who used to hit the club scene regularly, who still buy new music and who have succeeded enough in their careers to own a decent-size home.
But these are people whom the machinery of pop culture routinely ignores. They’re too old for Britney, they don’t care about Celine Dion, they prefer their music mostly acoustic, they don’t like smoky clubs where it’s hard to find a seat or a parking space, and they’re proactive enough to search for an alternative.
The second key factor in the rise of house concerts has been the Internet, where people can find musical acts that might be up for playing a house concert, where they can find like-minded folks to become potential audiences, where they can promote shows and, in some instances, where the initial inspiration for a house concert can be found.
Rob Litowitz is an intellectual property lawyer in Washington who’s been hosting nationally known musicians in his living room for more than four years — a performance series he’s dubbed “Live at Roxy’s” (Roxy is the family dog). “It was all made possible by the wonders of the Internet,” he says. “I’m a big music fan and came across something on a music discussion board talking about a ‘house concert’ in California, and I had no idea what they were talking about. I put ‘house concert’ into a search engine and found this amazing world where people around the country were having concerts in their homes, which was a totally foreign concept to me at the time.”
One day later, Litowitz heard an interview with singer Ana Egge on his car radio, “and I put two and two together,” he says. “I’d never heard of her before, but she was good, and I used to book acts into the coffeehouse at college, so I thought, ‘I’ll book a show, and it will happen to be at my house.’ ” He wrote a letter to Egge’s manager, and after a few e-mails and phone calls, there she was in Litowitz’s living room in Bethesda, playing in front of 70 people.
“It was a Thursday night, and she was on tour and was in between someplace and someplace, and it made sense to do it,” Litowitz says. He invited his friends and friends of friends he thought would enjoy Egge, asked for $15 at the door, put out some wine and cheese and played the happy host. “She made a fortune,” he says proudly. “And we had a great concert.”
There are about a dozen people in the Washington area who regularly present house concerts, and the home I’ve strolled into without knocking belongs to Beth Auerbach and Norman Stewart. They host mostly local and regional folk performers, bringing them in every three months or so. They call their concert series the “Sleepy Hollow Folk Club.” The night I’m there, those 50 folding chairs are arranged to face Charlottesville songwriter/guitarist Terri Allard, joined by her frequent musical sidekick, Gary Green, on harmonica.
The duo plays for about 40 minutes, then takes a break. Allard walks up to the kitchen ready to do commerce. With a warm smile on her face and a kind word for every fan, she sells disc after disc, inscribing them all, often with something personal learned while conversing with the buyer. They all sign her e-mail list for future gig announcements and walk away happy, pouring themselves another beer, soda or glass of wine before the second set begins.
They’ve each paid $12 to attend the concert, money that sits in an upside-down black felt top hat near the door. All of it goes to the performers, and combined with the money from CD sales, Allard and Green drive away at the end of the night with more than $1,000, a figure much higher than most folk clubs or coffeehouses could guarantee them.
“I have done a lot of house concerts the past few years,” Allard says, “and it’s so wonderful for a musician. They’re sort of a break from the normal touring thing — you don’t have to worry about sound systems, how many people have paid at the door, what the beer sales are. To some extent it takes the business and the politics out of the music. It’s still business, I guess, but you’re just hanging out in someone’s house, and the people who host them really, really love musicians, and they really just want to help out.”
Allard admits to being skeptical when first presented with an offer to play at someone’s house. “I generally love playing with a sound system and thought it would sound bad without one, and I didn’t know how comfortable I’d feel in someone’s living room.” Then after performing a few, she felt liberated. “There’s no microphone to hide behind, and it’s amazing what happens when it’s not there. You sing to the audience, not to the microphone. It’s a very different experience than say, playing at Wolf Trap or some other large concert hall.”….
These work-arounds are about flexibility and dealing with the issues of overhead – too many middlemen between the artist and the music consumer. Hear the industry moan.
Refer to the WaPo story for more and a list of links for the Washington area.