House Concerts

...they're folk presenting!



Tom Neff
Grassy Hill Acoustic Concerts

Lyme, CT



this version: July 1998





Introduction

A few questions to start.

Do you like to sit up front near the stage at folk/acoustic concerts, so that it seems almost like the performers are playing a private concert just for you? Do you find yourself hunting for the magic spot in the house where the sound is perfect?

Do you like the kind of house party where people share good times and good music?

Is it a long drive (or a downtown parking nightmare) before you can hear music at your favorite club or coffeehouse? Have you wished that someone would open a great venue right in your neighborhood - someplace safe, clean and fun to visit?

If you're a performer, do you wish you could fill in "gaps" in your tour schedule with enjoyable gigs that built your mailing list, sold some product, and gave you a break from loading docks and Motel 6 lobbies? If you're an agent, wouldn't you like an answer when your client asks "what do I do between Wednesday and Friday?"

If the answer to any of these questions is YES, then you have a wonderful surprise in store: House Concerts. You can have perfect sound, a great party, and world-class music right in your own home or the home of a neighbor. There's no experience quite like it for the listener or presenter. And performers can round out schedules profitably while building new markets.

What is a house concert?

The definition's flexible, but generally, it's a show that's presented in someone's home, or a nearby private space (barn, backyard, shearing tent, you name it).

Usually, but not always, the audience capacity is smaller than at a coffeehouse or club.

The money collected usually (but not always) goes straight to the performers, with no "profit motive" on the presenter's part.

Often, but not always, house concerts are conducted "by invitation" (for practical reasons we'll get into later), rather than as "public" concerts like a club or concert hall.

Often - again with exceptions - there is little or no "sound system" - performers play and sing acoustically, unless someone needs a little amp for their keyboard.

Refreshments, if any, are usually either a "pot luck" brought by the listeners, or provided by the hosts using a bit of the gate receipts.

Sometimes - but definitely not always - the performers get a meal and/or lodging with the presenters as part of their compensation.

There are House Concerts being given in almost every part of the US and Canada. (If you have information about them happening in Europe or elsewhere in the music world, please let us know at the email address on the front cover.) Some house concerts are "one-shots," but most are presented as a series, usually every two to eight weeks over a "season" of anywhere from six to twelve months. Some concert rooms hold 200 people, some hold 20 or fewer. Some house concert series sell out every time, while others are lightly attended (without the presenters having to quit, as a for-profit club might!). Some are held inside, some outside. (There are reasons to prefer working inside if you can, as we'll see.) The whole house concert "scene" is a kaleidoscope of different experiences and personalities - and that's half the fun.

OK, great - what do we do?

Any and all of the following cool things:

Attend a house concert
Present your own
Perform at one
Book your acts into them
Spread the word

We'll take these one at a time.

I Want To Hear a House Concert!

Terrific - let's find you one.

Because house concerts usually operate on a modest budget and the presenters don't want to have to hire a cop to direct traffic, you won't see them advertised alongside Wrestlemania on the 6 o'clock TV news. But there are some reliable places you can look.

The Internet

Not everyone is online, but the Internet has become a valuable tool for building folk audiences, nowhere more so than spreading the House Concert message.

The premier online resource for finding House Concerts is Musi-Cal - an online cooperative database of all kinds of music in North America and Europe. They have a special "house concert" keyword you can search on.

(When we talk about presenting shows later, we'll come back to these resources and talk about making sure they have YOUR info.)

Other places to look

If your nearest House Concert presenters have done their jobs right, there will be several other ways to find out about their shows:

Contact your local folk/acoustic/public radio station and ask where the house concerts are. Hopefully they are announcing area shows in their "upcoming events" breaks.

Check the local arts weekly/monthly or your regional "What's Happening" section in the newspaper. You may not see the exact address of the show, because presenters usually don't want hordes of strangers (or the fire marshal - discussed later) showing up, but there will be a number to call for reservations and info.

Read Dirty Linen Magazine's concert listings - they list house concerts along with the regular clubs, coffeehouses and festivals.

Look at the bulletin board (or ask the proprietor) at your local clubs, coffeehouses, and music stores. They should know what's going on in the area.

If you are on the mailing list for your favorite performers, watch those postcards! As more and more musicians discover house concerts, they are listing them in their itineraries, so if you have a choice of shows in your area you can give one a try.

I found a house concert nearby! Now what?

Go have fun! And try to do the following:

Always call (or email) and make a reservation, even if you are a return visitor who attends this series regularly. Reservations help the presenter budget for refreshments, chairs, and party hats. If you add or drop a guest at the last minute, so be it, but if your six in-laws decide to join you at the last minute, call and say so.

Ask what to bring if it's a pot luck. Let them know if you have food needs or phobias - you may be the fifth vegan, convincing your host to go meatless this time.

Arrive on time. The layout of the house may make it painful for parties to walk in after the show's started.

Ask directions unless you've been there recently. Roads close, house numbers confuse, travel times stretch like rubber bands.

Check first before bringing small children or pets. There may or may not be a place for them; other guests might be allergic.

Bring a friend! New listeners are folk's lifeblood. Be creative - try inviting someone from another "walk of life" who might enjoy this new experience.

Bring small bills, not just twenties and tens, so you can make correct change for the performer donation and/or CD sales afterwards. It's a cinch some folks will need change, so this is your chance to be a hero.

Bring a copy of this Guide to give away - to the presenter if they haven't already got one, or to an interested guest or performer after the show if they want to learn more about giving them. As we say - STEAL THIS BOOKLET!

Once you're there, you'll have a great time. After the show, here are some cool things to do:

Sign the mailing lists of any performers you liked, as well as the list for the series itself. Give your email if you have one, in addition to your street address. (If any of the performers, or the concert presenters themselves, don't have a mailing list, ask for a blank sheet of paper, write MAILING LIST on the top of it, and start one for them!)

Buy the CDs/tapes of any performers you liked. This is pure profit for the artists, and can justify the visit economically above and beyond what they made at the gate.

Tell the presenter how you heard about the show if you're a newcomer. This tells them which publicity "channels" are working. If you asked any of the obvious sources (Internet, folk radio, local clubs, etc) and came up empty before finally finding info on this concert, tell the presenter about it - they should be covering those bases. (That's one reason to bring a copy of this Guide.)

Offer to help in any way you can - setting up or taking down chairs, cleaning up afterwards, directing parking before or after the show, making more coffee, spreading the word in town or on the Internet, etc. You have no idea what sweet music this will probably be to the host! If they're covered this time, let them know you're available next time.

Thank people for their hard work! That includes presenters, performers, volunteers, lasagna recipe wizards, etc. Meet people, network, hey, you never know, someone could have a snow blower you could borrow.

Spread the word! Take some brochures or postcards, if they have them, to post on your company bulletin board or church coffee room or record store. Post a review on the Net or in your local paper. (Just be careful not to give out the address if the presenter wants it private.)

Once you start attending house concerts, you'll probably be hooked. You may end up picking up that guitar again and thinking about performing at one yourself... or eyeing the coffeemaker in the pantry and asking yourself, "Could I put on one of these?"

Yes, you CAN put on a house concert!

Putting on a house concert is like giving a good party - "plus." But the "plus" parts are pretty straightforward, and this Guide will give you a blueprint to follow. It is a very good idea to attend some house concerts before starting your own series, although some presenters just jumped in and are doing fine - I'm actually one of them, although I had a lot of contacts from other folk community work.

The parts of a house concert

What does a house concert really need? It boils down to this:
A place to play
Performers to play there
People to come listen

That's really it. Let's look at each part in detail. Then we'll run through a timeline.

A place to play

Choosing your performance room is an important step. Presenters have come up with ingenious solutions over the years - everything from driveways to haylofts to the master bedroom! But as you look at your house (barn, etc) and make your choices, think about the basics.

The performers will need a stage area of some kind - maybe just a throw rug, maybe something more elaborate. They'll need to get to and from the stage without bodily injury. When they're "on stage," they'll need to be seen and heard by your audience.

The audience will need seats of some kind, from which they can (again) see and hear the performers. They need to be able to get to and from those seats, not just at the beginning and end of the show but (to some extent) during, in case someone has a bladder attack or gets beeped by the Pentagon in mid-show.

Everyone - performers and audience alike - will need to be comfortable during the show in terms of temperature, glare, noise, smell, etc. And everyone needs to be able to get to the room itself, from the entryway of the house or yard, without risking life or limb.

As a practical matter this means paying attention to G-L-A-D, which we'll cover in detail:

Getting around
Lighting and sightlines
Acoustics
Disturbances nearby

Getting around - this basically means making sure people can reach your room and move around in it. You might have the perfect attic to play in, but you can't expect people to crawl up a spiral ladder to get to it. You might be able to cram 40 chairs into your den, but without aisles for the performers to get to and from the stage, and for listeners to get to and from their seats, it will be unworkable. The fewer staircases and twisty little hallways you make people traverse from the entryway to the "snack room" to the performance room, the better.

Ideally, you would like the audience to enter towards the back of the room (away from where you put the stage) so guests won't cross in front of the performance once it's underway. At least one aisle on the side or center would then lead them into the seats. The performers can enter either the same way as the audience (with enough room to bring their guitars to and from the stage) or somewhere up front.

[Note: If you work out a particularly delicate solution to this problem that still lets you put 40 chairs in the room, you might want to draw a little layout of how it's supposed to be set up, and keep that handy (in a house notebook) for the day when two brand-new volunteers are setting everything up. ]

Lighting and sightlines are perhaps the most-overlooked considerations in house concerts I've attended. When we live in our homes we pass from room to room and the lighting is often dim and haphazard. But when we are at a concert, focusing all our attention on a Susan McKeown or Ellis Paul or Karen Almquist twenty feet away in someone's living room, and they are backlit into harsh silhouettes by sun-glare bouncing off the neighbor's Chevy, or buried in murky gloom even though the sofa to their left is brilliantly lit, or blocked by sea of hair and shoulders, it tends to detract from the experience. Good lighting can be simple to do, and unobtrusive to the audience - it makes the whole show more enjoyable without the listeners ever quite noticing why. Good sightlines aren't always as easy, but at least you can do your best.

Three simple rules for house concert lighting:
Highlight the performers
Dim (but don't black out) the background
Dim (but don't black out) the audience ("house").

Highlighting the performers is the biggest key. You don't want harsh glare, but gentle (and, if possible, tinted) illumination that flatters their skin tones while letting the audience see what their faces and hands are doing.

I bought a pair of clamp lamps for $2 each from the local hardware store. Instead of conventional frosted white bulbs, I use standard base mini-spot bulbs that don't get too hot. With black PVC tape I cover each clamp lamp with an orange or blue "gel" - my only "theatrical supply" expense, but one that you can order at any lighting or party store or over the Internet, or ask your high school/college drama department to donate a couple of squares. (Don't use cellophane, it'll melt, real gels are made to take the heat.) After the first season I went to Home Depot and got a couple of in-line lamp dimmers, $5 each, and installed them on the clamp lamp power cords. This lets me "tune" the lights for day or night shows. Before each show I "focus" the lamps on the stage area, then ask a friend to stand on stage while I adjust the dimmers. Then I just plug them in at showtime.

I mount the lights high and wide, well above the performers' sightline to the audience, at about a 90 degree angle from each other. (Stand on stage facing the house, hold your arms out in a wide V, tilt them upwards, and see where they end up pointing.) My rooms happen to have beams and stuff that I can clamp to; in a plaster ceilinged living room I would probably use a tension rod (from Sears curtain supply) mounted vertically along the side walls, unless bookcases or fixtures were nearby at the right height. The final effect - gentle orange light from one side, cool blue from the other - is awesome... except when I have a straggling line of three or four performers all over the stage, or a musician who likes to wander into the audience, but you can't control everything.

Dimming the background helps you highlight the performers more easily, while minimizing distractions. (For a while I had a big wicker flower holder hanging on the wall right behind the performers in the rustic barn room at Grassy Hill. One day I watched a show and found my eyes wandering to the wicker thing. After that concert I hung it somewhere else. You don't want to upstage the musicians.) Just kill any extra lights (or windows) behind the stage. Dimming the house is done for the same reason. The reason you usually don't want to totally black out the house and the stage backdrop is that it kills the "house concert" ambience. As you look around, it should still look like a room at home. It's just that the brightest things in it are the performers.

Acoustics is more of an art than a science, but in a house concert you really only have to watch out for a few things. The basics: sound comes from the performers, radiates outward in all directions (or at least not all straight towards the audience's ears), bounces around or is absorbed or whatever, and finally gets heard by your listeners. The more of the original sound that you can salvage and throw the audience's way, the louder and fuller what they hear will be. Since sound reflects off of flat surfaces and more or less dies on rough complicated ones (or in empty space), you can guess what will happen in various configurations.

Performing outside "in the middle of the yard" is practically impossible in a pure acoustic setting. Most of the sound flies away into the blue, and all the surrounding noise pours in to compete. This is why doing a house concert indoors is best unless you have a bandshell or a sound system (and no angry neighbors to complain about it).
In the middle of a big room with empty space behind - almost as bad unless the room is quite cozy. Sound flies away then bounces (delayed) off the far walls.
At one end of the room but smack in front of an open door or hallway - same problem.
At one end of the room but surrounded by curtains or paperback bookcases - nearly as bad.

So what would be totally ideal? Think about classical recital halls.

Performing in front of an end wall of the room
Not plastered against the wall, but a little distance away
Wood (not glass, metal or plastic) surfaces nearby
Any reflective surfaces angled towards the audience if possible.

We are lucky enough at Grassy Hill to have basically a couple of wooden rooms (it's an old farmhouse). I throw a rug on the floor near one wall and we're set. Even so, in the "long" room (which I only use when there are too many listeners for the smaller barn room), it can be a bit hard to hear in back unless there's a sound system. That's life.

If you're trying to choose, throw some chairs in a room, have someone stand where you're thinking the stage might go, sing the Star Spangled Banner, and see how it sounds. Or put a boom box up there, not too loud, playing guitar/voice songs, and walk around the room listening.

Disturbances refers to sights, sounds, smells etc that might drift in from nearby during a show and mess it up. Some (like swooshing cars on the road outside the window) you can avoid by the right choice of room, while others (the cappuccino maker, the phone, kids running around, a TV set) need rules/adjustments if you're going to neutralize the threat. Close certain doors, turn off the entertainment console, switch off the kitchen phone ringer, etc - these would all go in your checklist (see later) for day of show. If some disturbances can't be prevented - a heavily used phone or late arrivals through the back door, for instance - be prepared to station yourself or a helper to intercept them when they hit.

Other things to think about:
A clock in the room, where the performer can see it. I went out and got one of those big $3.99 wall clocks from Staples. This helps avoid acts running "long"!

Adequate chairs. Your kitchen and dining room chairs may be fine, but overstuffed chairs and sofas are a very inefficient use of space, so watch out. When our audience first started to grow, I rented chairs from our nearest party store at 75 cents per chair, but after a few shows I went to them and said "Would you like to sell me some used chairs?" and they did, for $3 apiece, which paid for itself the first season - and best of all, I no longer had to schedule pickup and drop-off!

Note: you may want to put some comfy cushions all the way up front, for kids and laid-back adults to sit on - it helps the sightlines and lets you squeeze a few more people in. But don't crowd the stage - and don't set up too many empties before you're sure how big your attendance is! Nothing looks more dismal than twelve people sitting in thirty chairs.

Someplace to put mailing lists and merchandise. The "merch," in particular, should be within your sight during the show, or else easy to put out of harm's way and take out again during intermission. You may prefer to pass around the mailing lists. I got one of those cheap pens on a chain and stuck it onto a legal size clipboard, and that's where my mailing list lives.

Refreshment area - I'm assuming you know how to put on a coffee and cupcake get-together. Definitely get disposable supplies like cups, plates, napkins etc - if you use your personal utensils and crockery, they will break. Buy stuff in bulk from your local Costco or party warehouse, because you'll run through it.

Parking - you probably have enough room, but if you're in Pacific Heights or Park Slope or someplace else where parking is at a premium, make sure your directions include the location of the nearest garage! In the suburbs, decide whether you want to use the lawn, the road, or whatever, and let your guests know. Since your performers will (hopefully) arrive early, make sure you don't block in anyone who needs to leave before the others.

Setup and cleanup - the first few times you do this all by yourself, you'll be so euphoric at your successful show you won't care, but eventually you'll start to hate it. So try to get some help - including asking listeners to pick up after themselves when they leave. Make sure there are trashcans or wastebaskets handy.

Accommodations - If the performer has indicated they'd like to use the guestroom, make sure you have one and that it's clean and suitable. Ditto for dinner afterwards or other hospitality. Try to make it clear (at least by the morning of the show) what hospitality you will be providing. Never force hospitality on a performer! One of the horror stories you most often hear is when Such-and-so played this house concert after 23 days on the road, all they wanted was to get to the motel and kick back and watch CNN, but the hosts practically blocked the doorway and made them stay and eat yucko food in a messy house with squalling kids while they peppered them with dumb questions, etc. A house concert is not a petting zoo for folk performers. Offer what you can, have alternatives ready, and accept the musicians' decision with a smile.

Getting performers to play at your concert

Booking your shows is one of the most fun and interesting parts of presenting house concerts. When you get going regularly, you will get a chance to juggle schedules, evaluate talent, negotiate with players and their representatives, and - most rewardingly - express your own musical tastes in the way you "build a show" or a series.

Each show needs at least one performer, but from there on it's entirely up to you. You might have a 4-person song swap, a "micless open mic," a single solo artist, a two-performer co-bill, a traditional "opener" and "headliner," or variations on these; and you might change this from one show to the next. At Grassy Hill I have done most of these with great results.

Who will play at your show? You'd be surprised! Many well-known folk and acoustic performers enjoy playing house concerts, and lots of others are curious to try it. And of course, local and beginning performers will be delighted to have the exposure (although they may draw fewer guests at first - or maybe more!).

A good rule of thumb: if someone is still playing coffeehouses, and not selling out 600 seat halls, you can probably "get" them, if you route properly (we'll come to that). When in doubt, ask! (We'll come to that part too.)

Your mission, Jim...

This is also where your own aesthetic vision (or other mission) comes into the picture. You may love Celtic traditional music and want to bring more of it to your town. You may be trying to develop what you think is a promising local music scene by showcasing hometown performers. You may want to help raise funds for a kidney dialysis machine for the local senior center. There are lots of legitimate missions for a series, and your booking will reflect yours. (Grassy Hill, for example, is focused on strong songwriting, and that has a very big effect on decisions.)

Use the Net

Unless you are already booking another club or coffeehouse and have a Rolodex full of performer and agent names, or you work in the music business in some other capacity - if you want the best selection of talent for your house concert series, now is the time to get on the Internet if you aren't already. The Net offers bountiful resources and a great communications channel for managing your series and attracting listeners. You can sign up through your phone company, AOL, IBM, or any number of other services. (There are separate guides available for this - ask your nearest musical Net-head for some pointers.)

Choose a schedule

Before you can map out a performer roster, or do much of anything else, you need to decide when to run so you know what dates you can offer. You will get some ideas about what works when and if you attend other house concerts in your area, but basically these are the options:
Weekend vs. weekday
Daytime vs. nighttime

Your choice will depend on location, season and mission - and you may need to try different schedules (just don't change too often).

Competition

If your local "market" includes one or more successful folk clubs or coffeehouses within half an hour's drive, it will usually be smarter not to compete for audience with them by scheduling your shows on the same day they run. So if the ABC Coffeehouse is 15 miles down the road and has shows every other Friday night, you should pick Thursday or Saturday unless you can guarantee to run on their "off week." If you have several venues nearby that pretty much "cover the bases" on Friday and Saturday nights, you will want to look at Sunday or Thursday.

If you are in a rich enough area that there's local music four or five nights per week, you will have to compete, but don't be discouraged - you will find a spot to fit in, often by featuring local or beginning performers that your established coffeehouse "neighbors" don't have room for.

Routing

If you live within 150-200 miles of an acoustic venue that has 150 or more seats, you should consider arranging your schedule so that performers can "route" through the region, playing first the big club and then yours the next day. This lets you track, say, the bookings for a club in Minneapolis, and then contact the performer/agent who has a Saturday night date there, and say "Look, you're going to be in Minneapolis, we're two hours' drive away, how about adding a Sunday afternoon house concert to your itinerary..." The farther out you live, the better an idea this is. There are a number of small venues in Alaska that wouldn't get artists of the same caliber if they were in Massachusetts, but once performers have paid for the plane ticket, they want to perform as much as possible before returning.

Frequency - and burnout

You may be tempted to do a show every week, especially after the first one or two go well, you get lots of performer interest, audiences are signing your mailing list, etc. Beware! It's easy to bite off more than you can chew, and once you start falling behind schedule and resenting the chore of endless shows, it's a short step to quitting. Burnout is the primary reason house concert series are lost. So do yourself a favor and start slow, until you're sure how much time you really have to sustainably give to house concerts. Every four to six weeks is a good start. If you get volunteer help and genuinely enjoy the "cycle," you can ramp up to every three or two weeks later on. At Grassy Hill, we've settled on approximately five weeks, with allowances for event conflicts and holidays. With less career insanity, we would probably go every four weeks. (Later we'll discuss ways that a series can run more often - without burning you out!)

Scouting

Part of being a good presenter is being a listener or scout for new and interesting talent. When you announce to people that you're starting a series (especially on the Net) you'll get tapes and CDs in the mail and at shows. But you should be prepared to do your own research by going out to hear people who perform in your area - especially local talent that may not be adept at publicity yet. Bring a notebook and make notes either during or after the show, because six months later when you have an opening, it may be hard to remember names and songs.

Listen to local folk radio if you have any, not only as a way to hear new music, but also to familiarize yourself with local DJ's, something about their tastes - and about other concerts in the area, if they announce them. (You'll probably want them to announce yours too!)

Check with local music and record stores for names of local talent, as well as new names on the folk CD racks or in the pages of Performing Songwriter, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Sing Out! and similar magazines.

Putting booking all together

All right, let's say you have decided on a schedule: you'll run on Sunday afternoons once a month, with August off. You want to focus on red-hot guitar playing, and also do some local "scene building." What's next? Make a list! You already know who your favorite guitar players are - write em down. Some may be available soon, some later, some never. You may or may not know who all the likely local talent are yet - list those you do know, and add new names as you scout them.

If you have any performer friends, your first show might be a good time to ask them to do you a favor and play. That way if you make a few rookie mistakes, you won't have to worry about alienating the talent! And the anchor date can help get your series off the ground with a good crop of new listeners. At Grassy Hill we were honored to have Bob Franke at our inaugural show, and we'll always be grateful.

If you have a few candidate names, consult the Internet (at your local library if necessary) to get contact information and their current tour schedules. Start at and select "Find..." to search for Web resources and Musi-Cal tour data all in one place. You should be able to pull up agent info (if any) and a tour schedule giving you some idea of when they'll be in your area. If you're in Texas and it says they're touring Ohio and Pennsylvania that month, you'll probably need to wait until later. If they're not too far away (or if you don't see anything listed), contact the agent or the performer if there is no agent listed.

Agents, managers, performers and contracts

There is some confusion (and some disagreement among presenters who do understand the issues) about the roles of agents, managers, and performers, and the appropriateness of doing a performance contract when you book a show. We can lay out the basics.

The performer - you got that covered.

The manager handles the administrative details and usually the business decisions of the performer's career, leaving the performer free to write, sing and play.

The agent has just one job - to book a performer into live appearances. Agents submit proposed bookings to the manager (or performer) for approval. Sometimes one person is both manager and agent.

Agents (and especially larger agencies, like Fleming/Tamulevich or Drake & Associates) usually have standard contracts that bind the performer and the venue (that's you) to do business with each other, and lay out the financial and performance requirements. There may be a guarantee of a certain minimum dollar amount, which you're liable to pay whether enough people show up or not. There will often be a tech rider (a separate sheet stapled to the standard contract) spelling out stuff you must provide for the artist's performance or offstage comfort. Tech riders may include things like:

A stool or chair onstage - usually they just put their water on it!

Suitable accommodations at (or just directions to) the nearest decent motel

A plate of fresh fruits and vegetables before the show

Bottled spring water

A quiet and secure dressing room

A bowl of M&M's with all the red ones removed (this was a famous feature from a rock band's rider)

Prominent billing in all advertising, and/or approval over any openers (see below).

In some cases you can just cross out inapplicable items in the rider (like the usual "suitable sound system" clause if yours is an all-acoustic show) when you return the signed contract, but you should mention what you're crossing out to the agent first.

Riders aren't always deadly serious. One well-known folk performer's contract had the following clause: "At the conclusion of each performance, X will receive one (1) fresh Cuban cigar and one (1) glass of vintage single malt Scotch." It so happened that I had a friend at work who likes his Macanudos and owed me a favor, and there was a wee bottle of the Macallan 18 in our pantry... you should have seen X's face when I produced them after his show! It was the first time a presenter had ever come through! I might add the show was worth it.

Should you bother with a contract?

Opinions definitely vary here. Ideally a contract protects both parties, but some people don't want the hassle and I find it hard to blame them. At this point with Grassy Hill, we do it this way: if it's a relative stranger playing, and his or her agent normally does contracts, we do one. If it's a smaller act that doesn't do contracts as a matter of course, we sure don't go out of our way to add paperwork. If it's a friend, we play it by ear.

But we always consult the agent (if any) - contract or no contract. The surest recipe for disaster is approach a represented performer directly and "book" a gig on a handshake, without notifying the agent. The agent won't know not to double book that date! Sure, it'll be submitted for approval, but the performer may or may not remember that it conflicts with your house concert. At that point you'll have XYZ Coffeehouse with a signed contract - and you with your handshake. Guess who wins?

Openers and split bills

In order to build your audience (and enjoy as much music as possible), you may wish to have more than one performer at a show. There are two common models: opener/headliner, and split bill or co-bill. I love making interesting combinations this way. There are just a few rules to follow.

In the opener/headliner approach, you usually book your primary act ("headliner") first, and they get most (or all) of the gate receipts. Then you find a "suitable" opener, meaning they aren't embarrassingly inferior to the headliner, and hopefully musically compatible in some way, without being a clone. You invite the opener and if they're interested, you (ideally) ask the headliner if it's OK. If everyone involved trusts your musical judgment, often you'll just "notify" the headliner shortly before date of show. (But they should never show up and be surprised to find an opener - that's rude.)

The opener goes on first, usually for a 20-30 minute set. Then, with or without an intermission, the headliner follows, and usually plays either "2 x 45" or a single 70-75 minute set... unless they really want to play longer, which does happen. (But make sure your audience won't get restive if a band wants to do 100 minutes... whether it's long or short, always agree on a set time and stick to it - don't leave it open-ended, unless you're just putting on an afternoon lawn party where people can come and go.)

The opener usually gets paid either a flat fee (often $25 to $50, rarely much more at a small venue), or a small percentage of the gate. The headliner gets the rest.

The show is always advertised using the headliner's name first and more prominently (if there are different type sizes). "With special guest XYZ" is a frequent formula for mentioning the opener's name afterwards.

Co-bills (a/k/a split bills) work differently: the acts booked are presumed to be (nearly) equal in stature. Usually they both (all) agree to appear together. Usually they split the gate equally or nearly equally. (Sometimes they will decide on the split themselves.) They may present themselves to you as a package. They may assist each other during their sets. Or they may be booked independently by you, to assure a good draw, and as long as they agree, the rest is under your control. Co-bill advertising usually features the names equally as much as possible. You usually don't say "special guest," you just list the performers or separate with "and".

How much to charge?

Here again, opinions (or it would be fairer to say market conditions) vary greatly. Some folks charge very little, like $5, while others charge $15 or even $20 or more. There are varying schools of thought. One mantra is "Less than a movie!" (which sounds neat... but where I live, afternoon movies are $3.50 a ticket. I can't charge $3!) Another dictum says, "if you charge more they will value it more" and there seems to be some truth to that one. I would say that the median is somewhere around eight to ten dollars per person. At Grassy Hill we have experimented with our fairly affluent market, and ended up with "$12 or more." The "or more" gives particularly impressed (nay, blown away) listeners an excuse to just hand you $30 for a couple and say "keep it."

And we always refer to it as a donation to the performers, never as a "ticket price." This is a private party, really, and you don't want to be in the position of "selling" anything as a business, if you can avoid it. Maybe it's a fig leaf, but it also encourages extra generosity as I mentioned, so it's a good fig leaf.

When (and how) to collect? At a coffeehouse you would have a cash box, a ticket taker, tickets, and all that stuff. When I started out I got a roll of tickets and a cash box, but I never use them any more - maybe when I start a petting zoo they'll come in handy. Instead, I collect (into an envelope, helps to avoid fumble fingers) during the first intermission, just by walking around, or usually people make a beeline for me. What I find is that people are more generous after they've had a sampler of what this folk music stuff is all about. In theory someone could come, hear the opener, and skip out, but in practice it doesn't happen.

Getting an audience to hear the music

They say that folk is the people's music, and when you start presenting house concerts, you'll find this out for yourself firsthand. You live and work every day with people who will surprise you by totally digging what a Sloan Wainwright or Buddy Mondlock or Karen Pernick has to offer in an intimate house concert space. When you start your series, don't be shy - talk to your family, your co-workers, your neighbors, your acquaintances at church, tell them you're starting something new that you think will be fun, and ask them to give it a try so you can have a successful first show. Chances are many of them will be curious enough to say yes. And half of those folks will like what they hear well enough to give it another try - by which time you're doing your other promotion activities - and encouraging happy listeners to spread the word and bring friends next time - so your audience is on its way.

Reservations

You should always get guest reservations if possible. There are two reasons for this.

Knowing how many people are coming really helps when you budget supplies, volunteer help, and chairs.

Not being considered a "public accommodation" significantly reduces the potential hassle from zoning boards, fire marshals and insurance companies. The ability to state, truthfully, that everyone in your home is an invited guest is a great advantage.

In practice, you may notice that your "regulars" may just start showing up without calling. If you can do it without seeming like an ogre, it's worth asking them - as friends of the house - to call ahead of time. Of course you won't turn anyone away, unless they're driving a red truck with a star on the side!

When you promote the show on the Net or on flyers or postcards, you can just say "For an invitation and directions call 555-1234 or email." Never give out the exact address in a flyer or postcard or advertisement - that could tag you as a public accommodation, not to mention encouraging nuisance callers.

Building the audience

As we mentioned, an audience is something you build. Each house full of listeners represents more future listeners if you play your cards right. Here are the key techniques:

Mailing list - that clipboard with the chain pen attached - collecting both snail mail address and email if they have it. Email is much cheaper than postcards, and as your list grows the budget will become more important.

A Web page or at least an email address - a place on the Net that people can go to read or ask about your series. Put this address on everything you send out or display - including at the bottom of the Mailing List signup sheet, as well as postcards, flyers, newspaper notices, and press releases for radio. (See below)

Brochures, postcards, flyers - not only for posting on the bulletin board in the local library, music store, church foyer, etc, but for handing out to guests and asking them to post at their places of work or play. The more word of mouth your audience does for you, the faster you'll grow!

Straight promotion to radio, newspapers, the Net etc - discussed separately below.

Being a good host

As a house concert presenter you have two roles - party host and concert impresario. You want to give your guests the most entertaining and welcoming experience possible. That means meeting and greeting as many people as possible (unless you've grown to houses of 200, in which case you may want to work on horseback!). Enjoy the wonderful party you've made - but keep your eye on the money, the merchandise, the coffee pot, and the clock!

Refreshments

As mentioned in the Introduction, refreshments can be simple or elaborate, purchased from gate receipts, donated by guests as a pot luck, or whatever. If you do a pot luck, don't be afraid to ask for specific dishes for the sake of a balanced meal. Beats finding eight tubs of cole slaw on the counter. At Grassy Hill we normally just do a dessert/snack thing with soft drinks and coffee.

Be careful about alcohol - opinions vary, again, but there's a fairly broad consensus that
If you can get away without alcohol, you may as well
Nothing stronger than beer/wine in any case
BYOB is pretty much a bad idea.

P R O M O T I O N

Saved the best for last! Advertising your show is usually essential to maintaining an audience. You don't want to spend a lot of money, and you don't want to go too "public," but you do want to make sure that potential audience members who dig your kind of music know that it's going on in the area. Basic areas for publicity:

Radio - you may already know the folks at the public or community radio station in your town, but consult the area newspapers or look at other listings to find other stations in a 50-60 mile radius. (That may seem far, but at least 1/3 of that station's listeners are within striking distance of your venue.) Don't be shy - call the station, tell them you want to send them an announcement about a concert or series, and ask who to send it to.
Newspapers and magazines - Because you are a not for profit, your release usually qualifies as a PSA (public service announcement) and your newspaper will run it for free. Call or write (or email) and ask for the deadlines and word limitations. Magazines include local (or state) arts titles, but also national magazines like Dirty Linen - they will take your listing and a lot of people do read them. (You can also submit to Dirty Linen via the Internet.)
Local stores and clubs - if you make a brochure, postcard or poster, your local music-friendly stores will probably be happy to post it somewhere. Try guitar/instrument stores, record shops, bookstores, your local health clinic, community college, etc. You are shooting for a "demographic" that is likely to appreciate your shows.
Internet - You want to make sure that anyone who is surfing the Net to find local entertainment (or to find a performer's dates) is able to see your show. Places to submit series or show info include: Musi-Cal - always start here. Make sure you click the "house concert" keyword when entering your dates.
Tourdates.com - another service.
Pollstar - traditionally this was a "big show" type of service, but lately they claim to take any size of show, so what the heck.
Sidewalk.com - this service focuses on a dozen metropolitan areas. If you're anywhere near any of them, it's worth a shot contacting them with series or show info.
Dirty Linen - see Magazines above.
Folkmusic.org - you don't advertise individual shows here, but there is a database of house concert series and yours should be in it.
Folk_music mailing list - see subscription info at Folkmusic.org's web page above. This widely read email bulletin board doesn't normally take club or coffeehouse schedules, but as part of the House Concert Initiative they are encouraging house concert presenters to announce shows.
Rec.music.folk (and similar groups) - this Usenet group (an older type of Internet bulletin board) is also still widely read and has no restrictions on the kinds of announcements you can post. If your Internet service provider doesn't offer a "Newsreader," you can access rec.music.folk via DejaNews.
Word of mouth from show to show - your present happy listeners are your best future ambassadors! Always announce your future schedule at an intermission break, and print it on your flyers when you know what it is. (Obviously this means it's a good idea to be booked several shows in advance. If you have a gap, just say "TBA.") Make sure your guests know they are welcome to spread the word and bring friends when they return, and give them some brochures, postcards or posters to take with them, as we mentioned earlier. If they are on the Net, encourage them to post reviews of shows they liked. And last but not least, invite them to Steal This Booklet if they're interested in putting on their own house concerts!

Performers

Check with performer/agent about allergies, food preferences, housing, other needs. Is a meal in the works? A bedroom? Where's Motel 6?
You can have an opener, or work out a split bill if you want. Openers should be quality, can be local or new act, it's up to you but headliner's agent may want approval. Split bill must be agreed to (some performers will suggest it themselves).
Ask performers to arrive one hour before audience for setup if possible.
Agree on set times beforehand and put a clock in the room so that you and the performer can see it. Signal "one more song" if they run over!

Checklist for your show

We'll do this in chronological order. (Section still being written)

Six weeks or more before show

Acts are booked! Preferably several shows ahead
State magazines notified (eight weeks is better for them)
Internet, Dirty Linen listings submitted

Four weeks before show

Contract (if any) received from and returned to agent
Postcards mailed
Email announcements sent to listeners (you can do it earlier but be prepared for a "reminder" at T minus 2-3 weeks if you do, because people forget)

Three weeks before show

Local newspapers notified
Posters made and posted in stores, churches, library, office

Two weeks before show

Last minute opener adds/changes (if any) approved by headliner
Local radio notified

One week before show

Directions (including travel times from previous town) sent to all acts (again, you can send them earlier, but they may be lost by day of show!) Supplies purchased if you are running low

2-3 days before show

Verify everything's OK with performers - good time to check on guestroom and food questions (allergies, etc)
Last minute reminders to local radio, Internet, friends and family if you still have seats available
Check all lights and other physical stuff in case you need to repair or replace anything

Day before show

Move unneeded furniture out of music room and/or snack room
Get paper cups/plates, chairs, lights, etc, out of storage for setup tomorrow
Set up guestroom, dining room if you're going to need them

Day of show!

Take a deep breath and relax - everything's going to be wonderful
Sweep out your music room (this gets me relaxed) and other areas guests will be in
Set up stage, stool, lights, a few chairs (but not all of them)
Set up your mailing list on clipboard
Get ice, milk, soda from the store if you need them
Select "house music" - best is instrumental, not by artist performing that day, compatible style. Not too loud, and remember to turn it off when show starts
Set up snacks - do ice stuff half hour before guests arrive
Move your cars out of the way if necessary for performers and guests to park

1 hour before show - if possible, ask performers to arrive at this time. They need to set up both on stage and in their warmup room, as well as mailing lists and merch. And they may need to relax after several hours on the road. This is your best time to say hi and make acquaintance, schedule permitting. At minimum make sure your opener gets here well beforehand!

half hour before show - Guests show begin arriving. Refreshments should be ready- if it's a pot luck, show them where to put their stuff. If possible delegate setting up the pot luck, it's very time consuming and you have a show to start. If you're doing a pot luck dinner before the show, adjust all these times accordingly, but be prepared for bathroom and dozing activity during the music... Also turn on your lights.

Make sure both opener and headliner (or whatever) understand the set times they'll be doing. This helps them write a set list - and avoid confusion later.

5 min before show - tell your opening act you're starting in 5. Most people start a few minutes late just because that's folk; try not to go more than 15 minutes late or people get restive. At Grassy Hill we usually start 5-10 minutes late.

It's Showtime! - make sure everyone has a seat (you may have to play "sheepdog" and sort of herd schmoozing guests towards the music room). Kill the house music (gently). Walk on stage (don't be shy, you worked for this!) and welcome people, tell them this is a house concert, thank them for coming, whatever else seems appropriate - keep it short. Say you've got a great show tonight (or words to that effect). Then intro your opener. Just keep it simple - you may have a funny story, but make sure it's not at the performer's expense unless you're all real good friends. End with "let's welcome XYZ" or words to that effect, and applaud as you leave the stage and they walk on. Sounds simple, but just try it, you'll feel like Ed Sullivan in one easy lesson!

Late arrivals usually come during the opener's first few songs. Be stationed (or have a helper stationed) where they can be quietly welcomed and shown to a seat. Have a few empty chairs open in back so it doesn't make a fuss. If the music is very quiet, it may be better to wait standing at the back until after the song.

Count the house when everyone's there. Just good practice.

Note the time each set starts, mentally calculate when it should end, and keep your eye on the clock as you enjoy the music. Wear a watch if you need to be moving around. Most performers are very good about set times, but a few will give you headaches if you let them. Estimate 5 minutes per song on average. If a performer is running long, or seems about to (all the set time is used up and they're strumming a chatty intro with no indication of finishing up), stand at the back (where the audience can't see you), catch their eye and hold up one finger (not the middle one please) to mean "one more song." If they just won't look (it's happened to me - must be the waiter training) as a last resort you can say very conversationally, "Time for one more, right X?" (If you made a mistake and this person is terminally weird, as a last last last resort you can just walk onstage clapping after the Nth song, smile wide and say "Thanks!" If that ever happens, you have a good anecdote for your fellow presenters.)

Usually (but not always) the opener will not do an encore. If they went over exceptionally fantastically, you can ask them to do one more, but be aware of your clock - the headliner is waiting.

Begin intermissions by saying "We're going to take a 10 [or 15] minute break and start again at" and give the time. That moves people along. Make sure they know where the bathrooms are. If it's the intermission before your headliner, mention their name. If you're collecting donations at this intermission, say so, and have your envelope ready. Remind people of the suggested amount "and it all goes to the performers." Mention the mailing lists and CDs for sale in at the table in back (or wherever).

After intermission is a good time to announce your upcoming schedule and encourage guests to spread the word. Intro your next act - say how you discovered their music, how you feel about having them, whatever comes naturally - and then leave applauding as before. Note your start times, sit back, and enjoy the show.

At some point during the show you should walk to a private place in the house and count the gate. Set aside the opener's money and the rest (usually) is for the headliners. I put it in two envelopes just for neatness, although the performers invariably take out the cash and ditch the envelope!

After the headliner set, expect one (or sometimes two) encores. If the audience is small, make sure you clap real loud to encourage others, and speak out saying "I want to hear one more, how about your" or words to that effect. When encores are done, get up right away as the performer leaves and take the stage. Thank everyone for coming, it's been a great afternoon etc; remind them once more about the mailing lists and CDs and the next show; ask them to pick up around their chairs so cleanup is easier; invite them to take food unless you really want all that stuff; and tell them house concerts are fun to give and you're available if they want to know more about doing it. Thank your helpers, including spouse and family. Don't be surprised if the audience applauds you!

After the show, there will be schmooze time among guests and performers while various things are cleaned up and taken down. Bring up your house music (at low volume) after a few minutes. Don't turn it on the minute the show is over, that's a bit rude. Try to get guests moving out the door within 20 minutes after the show. Performers need to chill out and you need to clean up. Pay the performers during this period! Always give the money to the main performer, not to a band member or friend. If the manager came along and you know that's what they are, you can pay the manager, but frankly, I prefer to keep it simple and put the money in the musician's hand. They earned it.

When you've killed the lights, put the chairs away, got the dishwasher running, put the towels on the bed, and got the dinner in the oven, it's time to kick back and relax with a beverage of your choosing! And start thinking about the next show...

Acknowledgements

My thanks to Sonny Ochs, who got me started; to Bob Franke and all the other wonderful musicians who have made Grassy Hill a blessing in our lives; to Alan Rowoth and Skip Montanaro and all the others who work so hard to build our folk community on and off the Net; and to my lovely wife whose patience (and culinary wizardry) have made all the difference.



go back to Kristi Martel's homepage: www.kmetal.net