Lots of people are willing to open up their houses for parties, but what about inviting strangers to attend a concert or other artistic performance?
Jan Stephen, a teacher living in of Pasadena, did it last Christmas when he hosted a house concert featuring blues musician Chris Osmond, a former student of his.
While he knew all but six of the roughly 25 people who showed up, it was such a great experience for Stephen that he is willing to start doing it on a regular basis. In fact, he has removed a wall in his pool room that serves as the performance space in his house so it can now accommodate around 40 people. Dubbed The Vinyl Garage, the venue features a stage and walls adorned with some of Stephen’s personal rock memorabilia.
His next house concert, a show by Toronto-based musician Eamon McGrath, is May 31, and he hopes to do shows every month or so.
Patrons would pay for admission, usually by advance tickets, and would bring their own refreshment of choice to enjoy during the performance.
Stephen is a longtime music lover, who considers going to blues festivals and concerts a passionate recreation. He said he had always wanted to do a house show.
“Instead of having to go to them, I’m trying to get them to come to me,” he said. “It’s kind of a new thing. They’re intimate and cool. It’s a comfortable setting and it’s a safe setting. Everyone is kind of relaxed.”
Hosting house concerts is nothing new for Dean Stairs of Lewisporte. He operates Citadel House, a recording studio and listening room located in an old Salvation Army citadel he and his wife Stevie have been raising their 10 kids in since 2001.
Stairs has hosted around 200 house concerts at Citadel House in the last five years since opening his home’s doors to live shows.
The strategic location just 12 kilometres off the Trans-Canada Highway in central Newfoundland makes Citadel House an ideal stop for acts touring Newfoundland and looking for a small show on their way across the island.
Stairs, whose shows are for all ages with no alcohol permitted, had no reservations about letting people he may not know into his residence to take in performances.
“We don’t mind showing people where we live,” he said. “It’s not a bar and it’s not a dance. It’s usually a very appreciate crowd because it is a listening room.”
House concerts provide a chance for music lovers to have that intimate and interactive experience that really took off with the MTV Unplugged concert series popularized in the 1990s.
Stairs said he has some acts that regularly sell out and has a core group of dedicated patrons. Often, though, the shows feature acts that are not well known.
Playing a house concert benefits the act by having an opportunity to more effectively introduce themselves to a new audience on a smaller scale, rather than be diminished in a larger venue.
Some well-known acts, like the late Ron Hynes, often prefer smaller listening rooms like Citadel House because they know the crowd will be there to listen to the art being created and not for a party atmosphere.
It’s also a great way to expose people to new music.
Stairs said he first narrowed his target audience to music lovers, but has since whittled it even further to what he calls music discoverers.
“They have to be willing to come see somebody they haven’t heard,” he said. “They learn to trust the curating of the venue.”
Neil Targett of Corner Brook has been on both sides of house concerts as an organizer and a performer. He arranged a few shows about a decade ago for acts passing through Corner Brook, looking for an extra show on their way to gigs in St. John’s.
When he played bass for Sherman Downey and the Ambiguous Case a few years ago, the band played a number of these kinds of shows, mostly in Ontario.
“We always looked forward to them because it gives you a chance to really connect with your audience, people who are there specifically to see you play and are generally more likely to support the artist by purchasing an album or t-shirt,” said Targett.
Often the host will also feed the artist or house them for a night, sometimes in lieu of being paid for the performance.
Targett recalled paying one show in Peterborough where the home owners had a stage and risers in their living room that converted to beds for the act once the show was done.
The Eamon McGrath show at Stephen’s house later this month is being promoted by Steady Entertainment, founded by Dustin Parsons in Corner Brook two years ago. Parsons has hosted house concerts in his own home and said the approach works great for the right artist and the right venue.
“If you want to hear someone play folk music or listen to someone read passages from a book they wrote, what better place than a living room or a comfortable space where there’s not a party on the go and everyone is there to just listen,” he said.
Folks who spend good money to buy advance tickets at a premium price are also more likely to be respectful of the homes they are going to, noted Parsons.
“I wouldn’t recommend having a hip hop act in your living room and charging $2 to get in,” he said.
Parsons believes there are lots of acts out there wishing to see more house concert venues and opportunities made available. He would also welcome others to create a network of people willing to offer up their homes to these sorts of shows.
“I would love to go to a show in somebody else’s living room and meet some people who are into different stuff,” he said.