Jack performing at a house concert in Rochester NY,
Steve & Leslie Lee Gretz, hosts
So, you’re thinking of hosting a house concert? But you’re not sure your house will hold enough people, or you’re shy about asking your friends to pay to come to your house? These guidelines and suggestions may help you decide whether or not you can do it, and how to make it happen. Just remember, your house concert is just that – yours! You can make it be whatever you, your guests, and your artist would like it to be.
“House concerts are my favorite venue….I love the intimacy and having the chance to chat with the audience. Every one is different, reflecting the tastes and preferences of the hosts. The guidelines below describe how you and I might set up a house concert, but I can be flexible.
I would love to perform for you and your frends!” Jack
Seating: Arrange seating to let people sit as close to me as they can stand it! We’ve even had overflow attendees sit on pillows on the floor right under my nose. I like this, but it may make some first-timers nervous. In a long room, there is more intimacy with me performing to the width, rather than the length, of the room, for maximum person-to-person contact with the audience.
Capacity: Many hosts are fearful that their “little room” won’t accommodate a good-sized audience. This fear is usually unfounded, since most hosts have, till then, filled the space with relatively large objects – sofas, tables, easy chairs, etc. They’re often surprised that, with some larger objects removed or placed to the side or rear, how many smaller seats (folding chairs, etc) can be arranged in the space. Some very enthusiastic hosts take the extreme measure of moving ALL their furniture out and replacing it with folding chairs! Most often, a space which the host estimates could accommodate only 15-20 people can comfortably handle 30 or even more. If the host is lacking in chairs but has plenty of space, it’s helpful to suggest that attendees bring a folding chair, or other seat which takes up little room – definitely NOT “festival-type” chairs which take up space. Of course, if the concert is outdoors, then such chairs are ideal.
Entrance: Having the entrance to the performance area behind the audience (if possible) helps reduce distractions when latecomers arrive after the concert has begun. It’s also suggested that the person greeting latecomers have them wait until between songs before allowing them to enter and find a seat.
Lighting: Most hosts enjoy “normal” room lighting and others like it to be “concert style” (with audience in the dark and artist in bright light). My preference is the former, and I’ve found that I can communicate with the audience much more if I’m not blinded by the lighting and can actually see the people’s faces. The ideal is where I can see every face in the room, and no one (including me) has bright lights in their eyes.
Acoustics: Unplugged vs Amplified
If I’ll be performing in a smallish room which is acoustically “live” (hardwood floors and other hard surfaces), a sound system is usually unnecessary. If the space is “soft” and sound-absorbent (carpet, rugs, drapes, cushy chairs) – or if the audience is large, spread out, or distant, then a small system is a big help. If a system is unavailable or inconvenient, then a small piece of wood for me to stand on helps greatly in reflecting sound both to me and to the audience. This could be a piece of plywood, as small as a yard square – possibly smaller. If a PA system is needed, the smallest, basic unit (2 speakers, and a small powered mixer – of the sort a solo artist might use in a restaurant) would do the trick.
An outdoor performance almost always requires sound reinforcement.
As much as I love playing, I can’t travel and play for free. This is how I make my living and pay my bills so I can afford to stay on the road and keep giving concerts. And, I don’t mind playing for a small crowd (house concert audiences are unpredictable!) but I do expect everyone who attends the concert to make the suggested donation. Many first-time hosts are reluctant to ask their friends to “pay to come to their house”, but please remember that they will be paying ME to perform instead. A concert isn’t a “party” (although there may be one afterwards!), you are allowing a touring musician to use your house to present his or her music, and the money donated goes to the artist, not the host.
You want to make it clear that you are not running a business, but are just providing music for your invited guests, and they are helping to pay the artist’s cost (no different from chipping in to buy a pizza). To that end, you shouldn’t call it a “ticket price” or “door charge”, but rather a “suggested donation”.
The best way to insure that everyone donates is to make sure they know what to expect, and make it easy, obvious and convenient for them to contribute. Starting with your first e-mail or other announcement of the concert, make it clear that there is a suggested donation for the performance, and that all the money collected goes to the artist. At the show, have a single entrance to the room with someone there to greet each person, to let them know what is expected of them, and to collect the donations. A small sign nearby, with “$15 suggested donation” (or whatever the suggested donation is) written on it would help. It’s common, too, for the host to mention, gently, in the introduction and again after the intermission, that anyone who may have overlooked the suggested donation at the door should please contribute at that time. Some venues merely put out a basket or container with a sign on it. This only works at concerts where the regular audience is well-acquainted with the drill and knows where the basket is and what to do. We’ve found that it does NOT work to leave it up to new audiences to remember to contribute.
Whether to have refreshments – none, a little, or a lot – is up to the host. Most hosts provide at least a minimum of something to drink and some munchies. Some hosts enjoy the “community-building” aspect of the potluck approach, and we find that guests are often happy to bring something to share with others. If you decide to offer a full meal along with the concert, this works best when the meal is NOT planned for the intermission, but rather before or after the show.
Introductions, Comments, Announcements
It’s a good thing to have someone introduce me at the start of the concert. This may be the host, or anyone who feels at ease with this task. This is the best time to “herd the cats”, ie: get everyone settled down and give “housekeeping” information – such as where to find restrooms, the order of events (for instance, set-break-set-potluck), when and where refreshments might be served, where to find CDs, etc. The introduction of the artist should be brief, a few sentences about the artist, and perhaps a few words letting the folks know how the host and artist came to know each other, etc. It’s very important NOT to make announcements at the very end of each set – as people are applauding or discussing the music. That is the artist’s and the audience’s moment. Anything needing to be said – such as announcements of other area concerts and events, etc – are best made at the start of the 2nd set, as a way of “herding the cats” once again.
I usually play two sets, from 50 minutes to an hour each – depending upon the mood and relative restlessness of the audience, or upon the day of the week (work- or school-day, etc). The break between usually lasts until people are no longer visiting with us at the CD table – from 15 minutes to 1/2 hour. It’s best if nothing else is planned for the break-time which could break the “flow” of the evening. Other events and activities work best if they follow or precede the concert.
We need to have a small, well-lit table or space (about card-table size) where Judy can sell CDs, exhibit the mail-list, and meet the folks. We’ve found that the placement of the CD table makes a great deal of difference. Having it near the refreshments and/or somewhere along the exit path is best.
I avoid situations where I’d be in the presence of smoke from cigarettes, cigars or pipes. I also avoid situations where alcohol is the main beverage for the evening, to the point that the music becomes a backdrop for chatting and drinking. Many hosts serve beer and wine, or allow people to bring their own, when an audience is there to listen to the music, and there are no problems maintaining an intimate listening situation. But, occasionally, a drinking audience becomes noisier and this desirable ambience is lost.
If you’ve decided upon a maximum attendance in your home, please allow for 10 to 15% of the people making reservations to NOT attend. This happens like clockwork! Folks who say they’re “definitely attending” regularly fail to show up. Having a waiting list is preferable to refusing new reservations when the maximum is reached.
Unless requested by the host, I don’t publicize a house concert – in newspapers, radio, posters, etc, except to list it on my website and send postcards or e-mail announcements to only people on my mail-list. Unless requested, I don’t list the host’s home address on my website or mailings. Usually, it’s best to have interested people call or e-mail for info and directions.
My preference at house concerts is not having an opener. However, in planning a longer, more diverse evening, some hosts like to have another artist perform before the featured artist. This only works well if the artists are compatible or complemetary, if the opener has something of a local draw (thereby increasing the potential audience size), and if the opening set is no longer than 20 minutes or 4 songs (in 20 minutes or less). The two hours of music plus intermission of the featured artist are often the maximum most audiences will enjoy. Some hosts, unfortunately, have even presented two opening acts, giving them up to 30-40 minutes, and relegating the feature to a shortened single set. This system cuts into the featured artist’s opportunity to present his/her full performance to potential new listeners. It is sometimes a fallacy that a local opener may help draw local folks, especially if he or she performs often in the area at venues where there is little or no door charge.
I’m not extremely picky about performance situations and require no “green room” with champagne, green M&Ms, round purple towels, and have no long contract riders. However, a little space for warming up, out of the traffic-flow, is always helpful.
If possible, I like to arrive at least a couple of hours before a performance to relax after driving, perhaps take a nap, change guitar strings, and get the feel of the performance space. This also has the advantage of my having some time to get to know my hosts and talk with them a bit.
Pre- and Post-Concert Food
I’m often invited to join my hosts for a meal before the concert. Unfortunately, I’m unable to eat in the hours before a performance, but I do like to have a light meal or healthy snack afterwards (soup, salad, sandwich, etc). Sometimes the host provides this and sometimes it’s helpful to know (in advance) if there’s an after-hours restaurant nearby.
Many hosts have friends who are writers and/or “pickers”, and invite them to remain after the house concert for a “song- or pickin’-circle”. I appreciate being invited and enjoy taking part when possible, but I shouldn’t be expected to participate, especially if I’ve been driving – or am about to drive – a long distance and need to rest.