How To Book House Concerts (And Make Great Money At Them)

by Brian Vander Ark


This is part two in the series.  If you’d like to read part one, Click Here.

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Assuming that you have at least 30 minutes of original material (and some cover songs to fill in the set), you’re ready to get started booking and playing house concerts for money, whether charging a fee or ‘passing the hat’.  And getting started is as easy as sending out an email.

Send an email blast out to your mailing list.  If you don’t have much of a list, send it out to your family and friends.  You want to offer this to the people who will support you the most.  Don’t try to book yourself at the numerous house concert venues that have sprouted up lately.  It will only frustrate you.   You are looking for support.  You are looking to hone your skills as a performer in a house concert setting (more about performing in the next article).  And most importantly, you are looking to make some money. And there is no place better to go for making some extra cash, then by offering shows to the people that know you personally. The ones that know you are a struggling musician.

I’ve sold about 3 million albums with my band, The Verve Pipe.  I had to humble myself dramatically  once the money dried up.  So, I came up with the idea to go into people’s homes and sit pretty much anywhere they wanted me to, and play an acoustic guitar.

Here’s a portion of my first email that I sent out to fans.  I sent this six years ago, when house concerts were more of a concept than a reality.

“Dear Friends,

In the past few years, many changes have occurred in the music industry. Slumping record sales and massive firings have major labels scrambling to come up with new ways to capitalize on and exploit new talent.

Fortunately for me, having shunned the major label route, I am somewhat unaffected. Relying on my friends, and the good will of my fans, I have been able to sustain a living recording the music I believe in, all the while touring as much as possible without going broke.

The good news is, it’s time to record a new album. The bad news is, having spent the majority of the profits for the last album on a self supported tour, I don’t have the money to record it. 

What I am offering are “Living Room Concerts”.  In an effort to raise money for the new album, I would like to play shows in the living rooms or backyards of the fans who have been so true to me over the years. I imagine that I can play 3 to 4 shows a week (or more!), anywhere in the country, at your request. Imagine a one hour (or more) show with me sitting on your couch or at your dining room table or in your backyard, playing at your birthday party, or your daughter’s “off to college” party (or whatever) performing your favorite songs from my solo career or songs from The Verve Pipe. That’s right, you would be able to choose the setlist, any song written and recorded during my career!

Costs.  I’ve always tried to be a friend to the working man. I’ve worked as a waiter, a car washer, a chicken cleaner (!), a sales rep, a bartender and more. You name it, and if I didn’t DO it, then I applied for it! That being said, I want to keep the costs at a minimum. I probably would not travel with a PA system, so when the parties are a little more intimate, I will sing with no amplification. Just me and the guitar. If the party is going to be larger (25 people or more invited) then you’ll need to rent one of those little portable mini PA systems.

I’ll consider ANY offer. (Please keep in mind that this is a fundraiser, so I’ll have to make SOMEthing!) I would ask that the weekend days and nights be a little more money. I would have to ask that travel expenses (flight, hotel and car rental, if applicable) be extra costs for you, included in your total price. I don’t fly first class, or stay in expensive hotels, etc., so I can travel cheaply. Those of you who have read my journals know that I am no diva, and I’ve been known to sleep in my car on occasion.

You can charge admission to the party, but I would ask that it be by “invitation only”, so we can make it for you and your friends only. If everyone chipped in, ultimately, your cost would be nil. 

That’s about it. If you are interested, please contact David at spoiledbratmanagement@hotmail.com as soon as possible. This will have to be a first come, first serve, booking situation.

Thanks so much for all of the support over the years, especially my insistence on trying to pull off “crazy” stunts like these!  Best, and hope to see you soon!”  

I had no idea what I was doing.  I was just being honest.  Author Tony Rubleski printed that very letter in his marketing book called “Mind Capture: How You Can Stand Out In The Age of Advertising Deficit Disorder.”  Apparently, I did everything right.  Who knew?  (Tony has booked me for 2 house concerts as well).

When I sent that email blast out, I had hoped to book a dozen or so shows.  I booked 50.

A note about that email I sent:   Notice how I used a different contact than myself to book the house concerts.  I highly recommend that you ask a trusted friend to help you with these bookings.  You should take yourself out of the negotiating process.  It will be much easier for someone that doesn’t have a personal relationship to the host to ask for a little bit more money.  Where you may be comfortable saying, “Uncle Jerry, thanks for booking me for a house concert.  How’s $100?”, a friend who doesn’t know Uncle Jerry can ask  “Thanks for making this possible for (your name).  You think you can put up $150 to have him?  It would be really helpful.”  You take yourself out of the equation, and when you see Uncle Jerry, there’s no ‘weirdness’.

Less than a week after sending the email, I played my first house concerts.  I booked a show at a very supportive fan’s house in Indianapolis, on a Friday night.  I got an email from another fan in Bowling Green, KY, who wanted me to come to his place after.  It was the only time they would be able to have me.  It would be close to midnight by the time I arrived, but it didn’t matter to them.  And for me?  Driving 3 hours, then going on at midnight had been the norm for most of my rock and roll years as a headliner.

I arrived in Indiana, and played the show in the host’s backyard, for about 40 people.  They had a small PA system set up for me, as required.  I set my guitar case out in front of me, with CD’s to sell.  I told the small crowd to help themselves.  “Just toss whatever cash you like in there, and take the CD’s.  Make your own change.”  I think people assume that most CD’s cost $15, so that was the average paid.  However, one thing that I hadn’t expected was that because this was a fundraising effort for my upcoming CD, folks were throwing $100 checks in there as well.  The host even handed me and extra $700, in support of the new album.   I left Indianapolis that night with well over $1500.  It was crazy!

After the show, I made the 3 hour drive to Bowling Green, KY and played for a couple of old school fans, and their very pregnant wives.  In fact, that was much of the reason that they wanted me there.  I think both ladies were due and day now, and missed going out to shows. The four of us sat in their living room, and I played the songs that they had requested.  They had a piano, and so we moved into the living room, and I plucked away at another song.  It was a great night.  No merch was sold, and the offer for me to come down was a bit lower than normal since the show was so late, but I didn’t care.  It really was one of those defining moments, when as a musician you can say, “This is the reason I do what I do.”  And the icing on the cake was that the host gave me the perfect name for my tour:  Lawn Chairs and Living Rooms.  Thanks, Adam.

Recap:

1.  Send the email out to fans, friends and family.  Have a friend agree to help you with the booking, avoiding the awkwardness of negotiating with family and friends.

2.  Have a reason to go out.  Raising money for a new album?  Trying to buy a new trailer?  Just make sure it’s legit, and have something to show for it in the end.  Offer to put the hosts name in the ‘Special Thanks To’ section of the liner notes.  Post a picture of your new trailer on your Facebook page, and say “This trailer could not have been purchased if it weren’t for these very supportive music lovers” and list the names of the hosts.

3.  Be realistic in your expectations for money.   Don’t expect to make the kind of money that I made on that first trip.  Coming home from playing a show with as little as $100 can be considered a success.  When is the last time you played a show as a singer/songwriter to a group of people who were quiet for your entire set, listening to the songs you’ve crafted, where you walked away with 20 new names on your mailing list, a handful of CD’s sold, and $100 on top of it?  Book just 2 a week and you’ll end up with $10k for the year.  And that’s probably the minimum.  Hard to come by in the sports bars and rock clubs.

4.  What to charge.   Get what you can, but be fair.  Someone may offer you $1000, some may offer $100.  Just because you may know that someone is financially better off than others, doesn’t mean that you should take advantage of them.  The point is, try to average it out where you can make enough money to continue traveling.

Here’s an example of how to do it for those singer/songwriters who are a bit more ‘established':  Most people will want a Friday night, or Saturday.  If you have more than one offer in the same town for the same weekend, play as many as you can.  I do up to 4 a day.  (I used to play 4 or 5 sets a night, so I can handle it.  You can too.)   It keeps the costs low for everyone.  For instance, let’s say that someone wants you to fly to Dallas to do a house concert on a Friday night.  Maybe you have other fans there that have expressed interest there as well.  Have your ‘agent’ friend tell that potential host that you can be there for $1200 (always book your own travel – flights, hotels, rental cars, and include it in the price.) Then tell them that the price will drop significantly if you can book a few more shows, so stand by.  Then, your agent friend sends another email out to anyone within a 3 or 4 hour drive (a cousin in Houston or Austin?  A fan in San Antonio?) and ask if anyone else is interested.  You’ll be in the area, and can do it for a very reasonable fee.  Someone offers $300.  Another person offers $500.  You can now drop the $1200 price down to let’s say, $800.  (This first host will be delighted, and most likely have you back again.)  You spend the weekend in Texas having booked a cheap flight, hotel and rental car.  Depending on where you are flying from your cost will vary, but for me, flying out of Michigan, it’s typically $500 for a flight, hotel for 2 nights is $120 (usually 3 stars quality for that price at Priceline.com), and a car rental for 3 days, another $120.  Total cost?  $740, give or take.  Income? $1600, minus $740 = $860 net profit.  And that doesn’t include CD sales.

For those young performers who aren’t quite seasoned yet, realistically, you are not going to get those kinds of offers.  But ‘passing the hat’ is a pretty good way to earn the cash too.  ‘Pass The Hat’ house concerts are very popular.   It’s just like it sounds;  you play a show, and pass a hat around to take a collection.  if 20 people put in $10, there’s $200 per show.  Book 3 shows, and add some CD sales, and that’s the cost of travel to another state.  (Unless you’re driving, which would be mean even more savings.)  You can also stay in a guest room if you’re comfortable with that, saving even more money.  You can even have one of the hosts pick up the flight as payment for a show All told, you are now a traveling musician, getting your music out to potential fans.  You have a quiet audience, listening to your songs.  You sign people up on your mailing list.  Some other music lovers who are at the show want to book you in their home, because this experience was so unique.  And, because it’s a party and you are the guest, everyone will be nice to you, feed you, and do everything possible to make you feel comfortable.  No surly sound men in this situation.

I hope this has been helpful.  Like I’ve said before, I want you to succeed!  The future of acoustic music depends upon you.  Feel free to leave a comment, suggestion or concern.  I’ll answer all of your questions the best I can.

Next week:  Your Performance At A House Concert:  How To Make It A Great, Musical Experience.

Brian Vander Ark offers this free advice in hopes that you will check out his music and potentially purchase some of his music.  You can download songs at the usual digital outlets (iTunes, Amazon, etc.) or check out his website, brianvanderark.com SIgn up on the mailing list near the bottom of the home page, and receive a free song, instantly.  Brian’s house concerts were the subject of a very funny, enlightening documentary film called “Lawn Chairs And Living Rooms”.  You can order it by Clicking Here.

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