Houses will never replace traditional venues, but many artists have come to consider them an indispensable part of their touring routine. “For the past couple of years, the most helpful thing someone could do was book us for a house concert,” says David Wax, leader of the Boston folk troupe The David Wax Museum. Wax has been playing house shows since 2007, when he set up an event at his own house — having found he couldn’t get a gig anywhere else in town.
These days, The David Wax Museum play about a quarter of their concerts at private residences. Admission is cheap or free, but Wax says the band usually makes up the difference in merchandise: “People always buy so much stuff because they’re not paying a cover,” he explains. Interest in these intimate shows has grown so much that Wax says the band can’t possibly honor every request. “At first, it was the only way we were able to get by,” he says. “We have to turn some of them down now. They’re just overflowing with people.”
David Wax Museum house show tour 2010 from Kitchen Sessions on Vimeo.
And that’s just one way the profitability of house shows can be limited by the houses themselves. Only so many people can squeeze into a living room before it becomes a safety hazard. Paradoxically, organizers who want to attract new and different audiences have to keep the bar for entry low — that means keeping cover charges modest, often using a suggested donation or tip jar model.
There is, however, a small subset of independent bookers who can always pay their talent handsomely: students. Colleges and universities across the country offer on-campus concerts during the school year, many of which are booked and produced by student activities committees. College gigs aren’t always easy to get, but financially, they’re one of the safest bets a rising band can make.
“It’s one thing to invite people out to a concert — it’s another to say, ‘This is a band I love so much that I’m having them play at my house,'” says Wax. “It doesn’t take that many people getting together to make it extremely valuable to the artist.”
Bigger cut for artists
But the free-for-all is hardly free. Like anything else in the music business, this pleasure has its price tag. Fans will often pay a premium to see a national artist in a house environment, and most of the time, hosts won’t take a dime from the door — especially when capacity is limited at 40-50 people per show.
This lean model of fewer people and higher ticket prices enables artists to make a living — and avoid the rock clubs and coffee shops that offer a completely different experience.
Bazan will tell you the joy of no sound check, no PA, no waiting in green rooms. It’s just him and a guitar — no technology to muck things up.
The money’s also not bad. At a club he’ll make $5 for every $10 ticket sold — compared with $19 (or closer to $14, after paying his booking agent) on every $20 house ticket sold, he said. He can sell more tickets at a club, but the experience and hospitality is usually better at somebody’s home.
“The people are often lovelier at house shows than they are in rock clubs,” said Bazan, who will live out of his van and cook his meals on a camp stove for the next six weeks.
Civility and respect are key at a house show. It’s not uncommon to see and hear people talk through a show at a club — whether it’s a rock band or a singer-songwriter playing. That doesn’t fly at a house show.
Johnson takes RSVPs for his shows — including a sold-out show March 10 with songwriter Joshua James — and cancellations are rare. His concerts are also over by 10 p.m. so as to be considerate of his neighbors — but half the time, his neighbors are in attendance.
Browne hosted Seattle act the Head and the Heart at her borrowed space in Colorado Springs last weekend, and she was taken in by the reverence the fans showed to the band.
“(It) was really cool to see how the crowd reacted throughout the night to the intimacy of the house-show setting,” Browne said. “I don’t think a lot of folks there had been to house shows before, and they started out spacing themselves far back in the room for the first set, from Ravenna Woods. But slowly as the night wore on and people started to understand the connection and get comfortable with that level of musical intimacy between band and audience, they started moving closer.”
Neither Browne nor Johnson has received any money from their home concerts. It’s a preferred way of listening to live music, and they’re not alone.