How to Host a House Concert

For around ten years now, we have hosted a successful house concert series featuring Irish and Scottish traditional music.  When we started the series, we relied on advice we found on the web.  Over the years, we’ve talked with a lot of people about how we run our series.  There are lots of variations on how to run a house concert series, and while we have attempted to include some of those variations, the discussion below is focused on how we run our series. There are several websites with more detailed information, and helpful videos on youtube and ehow.

What is a House Concert?  If you are unfamiliar with house concerts, they have re-emerged over the past 15 years as a great way to enjoy independent singer-songwriters and small groups who perform acoustically.  In the era of mega-concerts, it is getting more difficult for these performers to find good venues and for those who enjoy this kind of music to find locations in which to enjoy live performances.  House concerts have proven to be an ideal solution. They are private parties organized as concerts. The result is that both the performer and the audience get the benefit of a more intimate venue and the audience gets to mingle with the performer at intermission and after the concert. Since they are private parties, there is no ticket price, but guests are generally asked to make a suggested donation.

Why host a concert?  There are lots of reasons to host a house concert.  We started hosting house concerts as a way to ensure that our favorite performers and our favorite music came to our town.  Once we got involved in the house concert scene, we discovered we enjoyed the small, acoustic nature of the concerts more than we ever imagined.   So we expanded to a series, although we try to limit the series to about 6 concerts a year.

Ultimately, you host a house concert (or a series) because you love the music and the people.  House concerts hosts are not in it for the money.  The money collected at the door and from CD sales goes to the artist.  We do have a separate donation jar to help with food and beverage expenses, and we usually break even on that.  But hosts do not get paid for their time in spreading the word, collecting reservations, and other assorted investments of time.  But honestly, there is no greater experience than getting to hear your favorite artists play your favorite music in your living room, and sharing the music with the other folks at the concert.  That is more than adequate compensation.

What are the host’s responsibilities?  There’s more detail below, but basically the host is responsible for booking the artist, providing the venue, getting the word out, managing reservations, and (if the artist is not local) providing the artist with meals and a place to stay.  The most important of these is getting the word out – the artist is relying on you to get the audience there (and to get an audience there who will enjoy that type of music), because that is how the artist earns a living.

Do I need to serve food or drinks?  There are lots of different formats for house concerts – ranging from potluck dinners followed by a concert to a very traditional concert going experience.  We choose to offer light snacks and beverages for the audience to munch on before the show and at intermission.  We put out a donation jar on the table to help recoup costs.

How do I know if my house is suitable?  To host a successful house concert, you need a space large enough to hold 20-50 people.  That can be a living room, two rooms that flow together (as long as there are good sight lines to the see the performer), or a nice patio/backyard. For an outdoor concert, you will need to make sure you have a backup plan if there is bad weather (like a tent or a place to move indoors), and you may very well need a small sound system.

To estimate how many people your house can accommodate, block off a space for the performer(s), and then set up a couple of row of folding chairs.  You will probably need to either shift furniture to the side or move it out of the room altogether.  Setting up a couple of test rows will enable you to better estimate your seating capability.  Make sure to sit in the rows you’ve set up to double check the amount of space between rows.

If you are just getting started in the house concert scene, you probably don’t have 20-50 chairs.  That’s okay – you can ask your guests to bring folding chairs or you might be able to borrow some from your church or office or neighbors.  When our one or two concerts morphed into 5-7 a year, we found a used office furniture place and bought stacking chairs, which we could stash in odd places around the house.  Four folding chairs don’t take up much room in a closet, but 40 of them sure do!

You will also want to make sure that you have adequate parking for the guests.  This isn’t much different than having 40 friends over for a party, but make sure your neighborhood has space for the extra cars.

Finding and booking the artist.  There are lots of ways to find artists to feature in a house concert.  There are some preliminary decisions to make, however, before you start approaching artists (or responding to artists who approach you).

First, what kind of music do you enjoy?  Is this the kind of music that lends itself to a house concert?  The most successful house concerts are one and two person acts that play acoustic or mostly acoustic music.    

Second, do you want to focus on a particular type of music or do you want more of a mix?  Focusing on a particular type of music does make it easier to build an audience who also enjoys that music.

Third, do you know enough people who also like this kind of music?  You may be a passionate supporter of traditional Irish music, but if everyone else you know is into jazz or chamber music, you may have a hard time getting the word out to people who would be interested in attending the concert.

Finally, make the decision to be picky and to educate yourself about the artists. Although we have made a few exceptions, we have a general rule that we will not book artists who we have not seen perform live. We regularly attend festivals, so this isn’t a problem for us.  If you don’t attend festivals, or don’t have ready access to live music venues, you can often find concert videos on the web.  Youtube is a good source for these – you may even find the artist has created a youtube channel.  A canned music video can tell you a bit about the artist but footage from a concert can help you see how the artist interacts with the audience.  Be careful, though, as sound and video quality can vary dramatically.

A successful house concert requires not just a talented musician but one who has a rapport with the audience.  You want to make sure there is a good dynamic between the audience and the musician.  That ensures not only that this concert is a success, but makes it more likely future concerts will be successful.  If artists had a good time, they will spread the word to other artists.  If the audience had a great time, they will come back for future concerts and will also be more likely to trust that you are bringing in the kind of music they like and will sign up for concerts even if they don’t recognize the artist’s name.

Once you’ve made those decisions, how do you select an artist and then contact them?  We make most of our initial contacts at festivals.  At most Irish festivals, the artists sign CDs after concerts and if we think we’d like to host them at a house concert, we get in line (usually near the end of the line) and introduce ourselves briefly.  This is not the time to negotiate a deal – we just give them our contact information and ask how best to follow up with them later.  That way they can let us know whether they book themselves or work through an agent.

If you have a favorite artist or artists in mind, check their website – it will usually have information about how to book them for a concert.  There are also websites that will connect artists and concert hosts.  As part of the negotiations, you will want to be clear about the date, time, anticipated number of attendees, format of the performance, what time the artist should arrive, and whether you will provide meals and lodging.  Will you be able to accommodate the musician in your home? If so, they need to know if you have pets, don’t allow smoking, or any other possible things you like a guest to know.  If you are providing meals and lodging, be sure to inquire if the artist has any food allergies or requests (including whether they want to eat before or after the show.)

Setting a date.  There are several important considerations when setting a date for your house concert.  The first and most fundamental thing is to know what else is going on in your area.  Network with other local promoters (or at the very least keep track of concerts listed on their websites).  You don’t want to saturate your audience – and you certainly don’t want to book a house concert on the same night as a big venue concert that would draw from the same audience pool.

We had 8 days notice before we hosted our first house concert, but a minimum of 5-6 weeks is much more comfortable and workable.  We usually book 3-12 months in advance.
Because we book national and internationally known artists, we work with their touring schedule, which means we do not have a “regular” night or a predictable schedule for our series.  That hasn’t proven to be a problem for two reasons.  First, the vast majority of our acts are known names and are therefore a draw.  Second, booking 3-12 months in advance means we can usually send out an email two or three times a year with the next few months’ schedule.

Getting the word out.  Your most important job as a host is promotion. The artist is relying on you to fill the seats with a knowledgeable and appreciative audience.  In doing that, you need to make it clear to the audience that this is concert organized as a party and not a party with music in the background.  At the same time, you need to make it clear that it is a private party and not a commercial venture. Commercial ventures trigger a whole set of laws, ranging from zoning laws to fire marshal codes to tax regulations.

How do I get the word out?  The most effective way to spread the word is by email. An email can be forwarded to other interested folks. Start by making a list of all your friends, family and acquaintances that like this kind of music. Go through your email contacts. Are you a member or do you know of any community groups that might be interested?  If so, check their website for contact information.  Ask them to help you spread the word and/or post the information on their events calendar.  The goal is to build an email distribution list for your concert announcements.  When you send out the announcements, be sure to address the email to yourself and put the other addresses in the bcc box so as to keep them private.  And don’t insert more than 20 or so addresses into each email or they are likely to be caught in junk mail files.

What do I say?  Obviously, you will need to include the name of the performer and the date and time of the concert.  You will also want to include some biographical information about the artist and links to their website and perhaps to any representative videos on youtube. Check the artists website for a “house concert” or a “media/press” page.  The artist likely has pictures, bios, and PR quotes that you can use in promoting the concert.  Include your phone and your email for people to contact you and to make reservations, but DO NOT include your street address. Give that out only to folks who have made reservations.  You will also want to include the amount of the suggested donation in the email, something like “House concerts are private parties organized as concerts. There are no tickets, but we do ask for a suggested donation of $15 per person, 100% of which goes to the performer.”  In setting the amount of the suggested donation, think about average ticket prices for this type of concert in your area and how well known the artist is (what is demand likely to be for seats?).  Most house concerts suggest a donation of somewhere between $10 and $20 per person. About the time we thought about increasing from $15 to $20, the economy took a nose dive and we didn’t want people to feel like they couldn’t afford to attend and buy a CD, so we opted to hold the line at $15 as the suggested donation.  We are likely to go to $20 over the next year, at least for the internationally known artists we host.

The artist will also want to post information about the concert on their tour page and may also have an email distribution list.  Be sure to provide the artist with the information to include in the artists’ PR.  Something like “House concert, 7:30 pm, Tucson. Suggested donation $15. Reservations required. For more information or to make a reservation contact Melissa at [phone] or [email].”

Taking reservations.  It is imperative to require RSVPs and to keep a running list of who is attending.  This lets you know how many seats you have or haven’t booked and whether you need to step up your efforts  or start a wait list.  I include email addresses with the list to make it easier to send out reminders and logistical information.  This also ensures that people commit to attend before you give out your address.  Keep in mind you are likely to have some no shows or last minute cancellations (we average 10%), so it is wise to slightly over book.

About 2 weeks before the concert.  Touch base with the artist to confirm they have your address, phone number, and directions to your house.  Ask if they know approximately when they will be arriving (this may be a window of 2-3 hours).  This is also a good time to inquire about what and when they would like to eat, as well as whether they would like you to arrange someone to help with CD sales.

I also usually double check the information on the artists’ website to be sure the information posted about your event is correct.

This is also a good time to assess how your reservations are going, and if you are not getting the expected reservations, be sure to let the artist know and the two of you can brainstorm ways to spread the word.  Do not just cancel – this is likely to be part of a tour schedule and it is too late for the artist to make alternative arrangements.  Plus, free meals and a place to sleep, as well as some money at the door, is better than nothing.  But you do want to make sure the artist knows what to expect, and this is a good time to reassess your PR strategy.

7-10 days before the concert.  Send out a reminder email to all those who have RVSP’d.  The email should include the date and time of the concert, as well as logistical information such as how to find your house, when they can start arriving and where to park. Be clear about house rules (such as no smoking) and let people know if you have pets so that those with allergies are alerted.  If all the seats are spoken for, ask people to let you know if they can’t make it.  If you have open seats, let people know so they can help spread the word.

You are about to have a bunch of people arrive at your house – often after dark.  It’s a good idea to check and make sure your outside lights are all working, your sidewalks and railings are in good repair, and your steps are clearly marked.  Put away fragile items that might accidentally get bumped and broken. Make any necessary signs such as where the bathrooms are located, where to put coats, etc 

Do any necessary grocery shopping.  Go to the bank and get cash so you can make change for people the night of the concert.

The day of the concert.  Rearrange furniture and set up the room for the concert.  Make sure you have adequate space for the performer(s) and that all seats have clear sight lines.  Make sure there is adequate, but not intrusive, lighting.  Remember to have space for the performer’s CDs, email list, and other merchandise.  We usually keep a couple of pens and sharpies handy for autographing. It’s also a good idea to see if the artist wants help with CD sales and to arrange a trustworthy friend to assist.

When the artist arrives, have them check the set up and make any changes they request.  Be sure to leave a bottle of water somewhere easily accessible during the concert for the artist.  You will also want to have the artist’s room prepared so they have time and space to prep for the concert. If the artist isn’t staying with you, be sure to have a quiet space for the artist to prep. You will also want to inquire in advance whether the artist wants a meal or a snack before the concert and when they would like to eat.

Set up any food and drinks you plan to serve so they are easily available for people to serve themselves.   Don’t forget to have a trash can easily accessible.  Just before people start arriving, be sure to turn off telephone ringers, ice machines, and other household noise making things.

At the Concert.  While some people put out donation jars, we prefer to greet guests at the door, check their name off the RSVP list and collect their donations personally. 

About five minutes before the concert, let the artist know you are about five minutes away from starting and begin to gently urge the audience to take their seats.

You will want to begin the concert with a short introduction that 1) reminds people to turn off their phones and to keep chatter to a minimum, 2) lets people know about other upcoming concerts, and 3) introduces the artist.

After the concert, be sure to thank the artist and hand over all donations received at the door.  I usually write “Tucson” and a short accounting on the envelope “40 seats x $15 = $600″

Above all, remember to enjoy yourself!  Hosting a house concert is a lot of work, but the end result is your favorite artists play your favorite music in your living room.