A couple of months ago ConcertsInYourHome.com (CIYH), the largest and most active community of house concerts on the web, released its 48-page House Concert Guide and 2010 Calendar. As noted when the calendar was released: “The booklet is available as a free download, and hard copies are free for a limited time ($4 for shipping is the only charge.)…The guide, written by Fran Snyder [CIYH founder], provides all the basics for launching your own house concerts series, or simply hosting one show. It also shares tips and suggestions for experienced hosts to get the most out of the experience – how to engage your friends to attend, how to prepare for the evening, and how to attract the best talent possible.” The main goal of the website (which sports the fun motto of “Living rooms were made…for live music”) is to connect musicians with house concert presenters. I recently got a chance to do an email interview with Snyder about the guide and CIYH in general.
Tim O’Shea: When and how did you come up with the idea for CIYH?
Fran Snyder: At the end of 2005, my wife and I were contemplating another move (Texas to Kansas – for her job) and I needed a break from the gig-chasing rat-race. I had recently performed my first house concerts and was smitten with the idea of doing them on a regular basis, in different parts of the country. My online research turned up so many dead-ends and out-of-date information, that I decided someone needed to fix the problem. Someone, (me,) had to create a place where house concert presenters could form a community, inspire others to participate, and allow professional, talented artists to connect with them in a simpler way.
I quickly found out how much work that would entail, and the investment it would take (mostly for serious web development), so I decided to see if artists would be willing to pay for this service. It is tough out there for touring artists, and most artists were thrilled to discover what I was doing, and happy to pay a reasonable fee to participate.
O’Shea: How many house concerts were you involved in before you realized folks (unlike at traditional concerts) did not like to sit in the front row?
Snyder: You pick up on that quickly, especially with a new house concert, because most people have never had the opportunity to sit that close to a performer. In most venues, the front row is 10-20 feet away. At a house concert, the front row is practically in the performers lap! So you encourage a few of your friends (ahead of time) to sit in the front row to show people it’s really quite safe. (In most cases.)
O’Shea: In a given year, how many CIYH events do you help facilitate–and how many do you attend yourself?
Snyder: That’s really tough to answer because we aren’t a booking agency. We enable a lot, but most of these events happen through direct emails between the artists and hosts. Also, our hosts have no obligation to book CIYH artists. They can book whoever they want, so we find out about events indirectly most of the time, aside from the ones that hosts will list in our house concert calendars. I bet we’ll have a constructive role in thousands of events this year. Because of my sporadic tour schedule, I don’t attend as many as I like, but there are a handful of good ones in my area (Lawrence, KS.) I recently saw K.C. Clifford put on a really great house concert in Olathe, KS. She’s getting a lot of acclaim from her new CD, and inspiring a lot of her fans to put on shows for her.
O’Shea: Can you single out a few of your favorite house concerts–not for the musical artist per se, but by other factors–the home, the host, or maybe the audience dynamics?
Snyder: We’ve had several in our home – Beth Wood, Edie Carey, and Noah Earle certainly stand out as performers that really connected with us and our friends. Big concert halls can sometimes mute the personality of performers. It’s great to see them let their hair down in the house concert setting, and to see the audiences really respond. There’s always someone in the crowd that feels comfortable enough to ask questions during the show, and the artists love that. And when you hear Edie Carey talk about how music literally saved her life (she was a temp at Cantor-Fitzgerald and left to pursue music not long before 9/11), and you hear that from 10 feet away in your friend’s living room, it leaves a lasting impression.
The hosts and homes come in all shapes and sizes. There are some opulent, expansive homes that regularly seat 65+, and many smaller house concerts that are full with 25 guests. Most people are surprised by how many people they can fit in their living room. Selia Qynn in Houston, Texas has converted two side by side residential lots into a wildlife habitat. It’s an amazing atmosphere (there’s a gazebo) to perform in, and several dozen doves will coo during parts of the performance. If you get their approval, you’ll get the crowd’s too. Don’t step on the turtle.
O’Shea: One lesson that you try to convey to potential CIYH hosts–just because they may have not attracted as many guests as they’d hoped is not necessarily as bad as they think. As you advise: “a low turnout house is better than none at all”. How important is it for potential hosts to understand all the fiscal and logistical perspectives (theirs as well as the artists) in the process?
Snyder: Touring is a difficult challenge. It’s important that hosts don’t take the commitment lightly. Canceling the show, or not making a strong effort to fill the room, is something that can have a serious impact on an artist’s livelihood. Low turnouts happen, and it’s not the end of the world. But it’s important to remember these artists are not on vacation. They have responsibilities and commitments too. The wonderful upside of house concerts is that the hosts usually provide meals, a guest room or couch, and give 100% of the donations to the artist.
O’Shea: Are there some artists that you thought would be great for CIYH and turned out not to be? And why? Vice versa are there any that surprised you in terms of how well they clicked with the CIYH audience?
Snyder: I listen to every artist that signs up, and I turn many away. Consider the emotional and time investments made by the hosts (promoting, arranging the house, accommodating the guests and artist.) It’s important to me that I stack the odds in their favor, by minimizing the chances that they have a lackluster or bad experience.
The tricky part, is that there are some incredibly talented artists who do not have the personality (or emotional maturity) to thrive in this format. Some artists are not comfortable being that close to the audience, making contact, shaking hands and making genuine conversation. I attend a lot of music conferences (like Folk Alliance) that feature the opportunity to see artists in very informal formats, and I encourage our members to attend these great networking and music-filled weekends. It gives us all a chance to connect, and many of our hosts attend too so they can personally scout out talent for the whole year!
I’m happy to say that we now have full time, free help for hosts that are just getting started. Jeff Robertson is doing an amazing job coaching a lot of new hosts for us, and helping them connect with the best and most appropriate talent for their house concerts.
O’Shea: Concert dynamics-wise am I correct in assuming that given the intimacy of a house concert, one avoids the hecklers or drunk audience members shouting for their personal favorite song?
Snyder: I’d say that’s about 90% true. Drunkenness is rare at these events – it’s really up to the host and their friends, but house concerts don’t seem to attract those kinds of people. Any heckling is usually instigated by a very comfortable performer, and usually ends with a big laugh. Thou shalt not utter “___ bird” at a house concert.
O’Shea: One line in the House Concerts guide–“it’s not a party with music” is that a mantra you’ve always had or one you learned through experience?
Snyder: I thought it was so self-explanatory. House Concert. It’s a Concert, in a House. Then someone turns to you and says, “yeah, I’ve been to a house party before… cool!” That’s a real problem for me, because it’s so important to set the right expectations when a new host gets started. For the past 40 years acoustic artists have basically said “OK, you can sit right in front of me and talk at the top of your lungs while I play.” That’s what you get in many clubs, cafes, and restaurants. So if the host doesn’t make the rules clear, some guests will get up right in the middle of the set and go talk on their cellphone in the other room. And two people will wander to the kitchen and start chatting. If people are ignoring the artist, that’s a party, not a concert.
O’Shea: How many artists do you currently work with in CIYH?
O’Shea: I was really intrigued by the opening act concept for CIYH events. Have some of the opening acts grown into CIYH staples?
Snyder: Opening acts are actually not very common at house concerts, and we don’t recommend them for new hosts. Since the artists are paid with a suggested donation, and whatever CDs they can sell, an opening act can offset CD sales for the main act, and either shorten the main act’s set, or make the evening last just a little too long. Some hosts manage it really well, but it can be a challenge.
O’Shea: Is there anything you’d like to discuss that I neglected to ask you about?
Snyder: The biggest challenge that house concert presenters (and artists) face is getting enough people to show up, and getting people to honor their commitment to show up. Since house concerts are private events, you can’t post flyers all over town and allow complete strangers to walk up to your door unannounced. So we’ve created some nice tools (eflyers, invitation video, etc.) to help hosts do a great job of inspiring their friends and neighbors to attend.
We also have house concert calendars on the site, which allow people to introduce themselves to hosts in their area. If you’re interested in hosting shows in Dallas, but maybe want to attend a couple of them first, you can look at the Texas House Concert Calendar and introduce yourself to hosts in the area. Most of them are very friendly, and are likely to respond with an invitation to one of their upcoming events. The #1 reason people start hosting concerts? They go to one, and fall in love with the idea.