House Concerts Turn Shindigs into Gigs

As summer looms and thoughts of in-home entertaining begin to percolate, consider tapping into your inner-Bill Graham and join a trend that’s been quietly developing the past decade – host a house concert.

A staple on the folk and singer-songwriter scene in recent years, house concerts are just the ticket for party-throwers tired of simply passing around hors d’oeuvres and topping off drinks. Perhaps you’re familiar with a popular local or regional musician or perhaps you’ve discovered a talented café troubadour that you think the world should hear. By hosting a small scale, private music event in your residence you can go from toastmaster to tastemaker for guests with open minds and, of course, open ears.

In her book “The Complete Guide to House Concerts and Other Satisfying Alternative Venues,” Sonoma musician and author Nyree Belleville discusses the practicalities of creating such an event. Though written from a performer’s point of view, the informative tome also has many tips for those interested in creating what often turn into unforgettable occasions.

“You can make a house concert anything from a backyard barbecue to special fundraising event,” says Belleville, who, having made a name for herself with several successful music projects, alighted on the notion of house concerts several years ago when promoting a new album. No longer interested in the grind of an old-fashioned club tour, Belleville decided instead to take her live act directly to her fans’ living rooms. The results were revelatory for Belleville and eventually led to an international tour and a surfeit of media attention.

“It was really interesting – the day I sent that first e-mail, I got 12 responses within the first hour,” says Belleville of her initial query to fans to suss the viability of a house concert tour. What ensued was a tripartite symbiosis between artist, host and audience that anyone with the space and inclination can create for their guests.

There are some minor legal issues to keep in mind when running an impromptu, unlicensed nightclub in your home. Unless the event is a fundraiser, for example, all proceeds generated must go to the performer.

“It’s technically illegal for money to go to the host,” Belleville reminds. “All proceeds go to the artist, unless, of course, it is a concert for charity, which is fine.”

Belleville has learned from experience that the most successful house concerts are those that are well-planned. Guests should know upfront what is expected of them in terms of donations, arrival time and the duration of the performance.

“I’ve found that house concerts work best when they’re extremely organized. To have the best possible house concert, you have to treat it like you’re turning your backyard or your living room into a venue,” says Belleville. “That means you rent matching, folding chairs, you set it up with an aisle down the middle with rows and make sure that it comfortable for people to sit. You should also set up a separate area for food and mingling – the concert area should be entirely its own thing.”

Other tips include making a schedule and committing to it. To prevent interruptions, be sure your guests know to arrive prior to the concert’s start time. Creating an aura of professionalism, says Belleville, will buttress your audience’s positive reception of the event.

As for kids, Belleville, a mother herself, advises keeping them separate from the concert (unless they are the intended audience). Children tend to get wriggly after a few minutes and would likely prefer playing with their peer group than grooving on your latest musical discovery. To wit, Belleville suggests hiring a babysitter and corralling children, one’s own and one’s guests’, in the part of your home furthest from the concert area.
“People like to know what the rules are,” she says.

Belleville has learned from experience that it’s important to be upfront about what’s acceptable and expected at home concerts. Likewise, if the host is receiving donations for the artist or a cause (though some hosts have been known to pick up the artist’s fee themselves), she suggests asking for higher rather than lower rate.

“What I’ve always found is that charging more is better than charging less because – of course, the artist makes more – but it’s also about perceived value. If you pay $25 for a concert you’re going to listen,” says Belleville. “There’s enough informality that you get really close to the performer. It’s probably the most intimate venue that you will see a real world class performer. At the same time, the more you have set it up to mimic an actual concert venue, the better the evening will go,” she explains, then adds “This is a concert, not a party.”

To that end, Belleville encourages preserving the “mystery” of the artist by providing a backstage area, or at least a space that affords the artist some privacy prior to her performance. Afterwards, of course, most performers enjoy meeting and schmoozing with their audiences.

A well executed home concert should result in a win-win-win situation between the performer, audience and host.

“It can be an amazing night and experience that they would never have dreamt of having – or hosting,” says Belleville. “People love hosting these. They’re the heroes – everyone always tells them ‘You’re so cool! That was totally cool!’”

Originally publishedin Fine Life.