A Singer/Songwriter In A Sports Bar World

Tips For Perpetuating A Life As A Musician

Month: May, 2012

Performing At A House Concert: Prepare Yourself.


This is part 3 of my house concert advice series.  To start with Part One, Click Here.

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So you’ve sent out the email to your fans, friends and family, and you’ve gotten a few bites.  Inevitably, one of the early questions that has been asked of you is how much do you charge.  Hopefully you didn’t answer, and left it up to your “agent”, who squeezed a tiny bit more out of Grandma Jenny’s purse, or Uncle Ben’s wallet.  Or perhaps it’s a Pass The Hat show.  Either way, prepare yourself for the performance.  

A house concert performance is not like any other performance you’ll do.  There are no opportunities to “take a break” like there are when performing at a coffee shop or local sports bar.  When it’s a public show you are playing, the expectations are not nearly as high, because chances are, there are patrons who are there to play pool, watch one of the numerous televisions hanging from the ceiling, or spending the night hitting on each other.  Of course, you still give it your all.  But most times, there might be a private room for you to tune up, warm your vocal cords, or have a few drinks to loosen yourself up.  Not the case in a house concert setting, especially one where you may only know the host, your biggest fan, and the room is filled with his family and friends, the people that he or she has been bragging you up to.  

I’ve done over 400 house concerts and I can tell you this:  You can never be late, and you have to be ON when you ring that doorbell.  (I usually park down the street for a half hour or so, and prepare myself in the car.  That way, I’m there on time, and psyched up for the performance.)  You also have to humble yourself.  You have to put on a smile and make your host feel comfortable.  Your host (whether it be a relative, friend or fan) is nervous.  After all, they are taking a chance on you.  They are counting on your ability to deliver, to prove to their guests that you are worthy of their undivided attention for those 45 minutes or so.  Hopefully, your host has set the scene for the house concert, by setting up chairs in a circle or in “listening room” fashion, giving you a center stage to perform your songs. (More on how to host a house concert in an upcoming article.)

Most of you will have material that is not familiar.  Playing 60 minutes of your original songs is a lot to ask of a listener.  Consider a 45 minute set.  I recommend 30 minutes (or under) of your own material, and 15 minutes (or over) of cover songs.  Before you dismiss this, consider that where local clubs have a pretty specific demographic (ages 18 to 30), a house concert will have a wide variety of listeners.  You want to keep everyone interested.  By playing 3 of your original songs, then playing YOUR rendition of a popular cover song, you’ll keep everyone happy and interested.  And interested, happy house concert attendees means $$ for you in merch sales.  There is absolutely no shame whatsoever in playing cover songs.  I perform Springsteen’s Thunder Road, Proco Harum’s Whiter Shade Of Pale, Paul McCartney’s Maybe I’m Amazed on a regular basis, but put my own spin on it.  Those three songs on acoustic guitar is enough of a variation for me. (Free download of these songs by clicking here.)

If you have released CD’s in the past, then by all means, promote that CD by performing the songs on it.  But make it a “Story Teller’s” performance.  Don’t just run one song into the next.  Tell the story behind the lyric or how it was recorded, or an anecdote that relates to it.  The point is…be entertaining!  You have the room’s attention, don’t lose it by staring at your shoe for the entire set.

If your host, or anyone in your audience is also a performer (even kids!), I highly recommend that you asks them to perform a song with you.  So what if they don’t play or sing well?  The house concert audience will LOVE to see them perform with you.  After all, this is a party.  It should seem somewhat spontaneous. The better the time people have, the more merchandise you will sell.

One more rule I have.  Unless the hosts are good friends of yours, don’t stay longer than 2 hours.  One hour (or 45 minutes) for performing, and the rest of the 2 hours should be selling merchandise, having your picture taken with fans and signing CD’s.  Besides, getting in and getting out means that you can get to that 2nd show and 3rd that you’ve booked that night.  

You have the tools.  What are you waiting for?

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.

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


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.

House Concerts Can Pay The Mortgage


A Brief History. The last rock album that my band The Verve Pipe recorded was called Underneath.  It had been our best offering yet, the one that we were most proud of.  Unfortunately, it was released on Sept 11, 2001.

Refusing to promote the album during that national crisis, it failed miserably.  My RCA rep called me to let me know that “It’s the end of an era.”  Translation?  “You made two albums that didn’t sell for shit.  We’re dropping you.”

I sold practically everything I had, except for my acoustic guitar.  I bought an RV from my recently deceased stepfather’s estate, and toured the country as a solo musician.  I took a lot of opening gigs, honing my skills as a solo artist.  And though I played our biggest hit “The Freshmen” just about every night for the next 6 years (to appease the patrons I like to call the “One Hit Wanderers”), I tried out new material as well.  I released a few solo albums in the process.

During that time of getting back to my roots as a songwriter, there weren’t that many listening rooms to play.  The country was peppered with a few, but there wasn’t an honest to goodness scene or easy trail that led from one to the next.  And house concerts?  Conceptually, it hadn’t caught on yet.

In 2007 I had a mortgage that wasn’t getting paid and unless I started thinking outside the box, it wasn’t going to get paid.  Something had to happen.  It hit me on a jog one morning.

Lawn Chairs And Living Rooms Tour.   I offered this to my fans:  Book me into your home, I’ll play in your backyard, or living room.  I’ll let you choose the setlist.  You pay me, but then you charge your friends and family to make up for the cost. The show has to be private, by invitation only (That would weed out the one hit wanderers).

I booked 52 house concerts that first summer.  The next summer was 112.  I played a maximum of 4 a day, going from one to the next.  I played for an hour, and hung out for an hour, teaching kids a few chords on the guitar, or jamming with other musicians in the group.  Then I drove to the next one.

The point is, I got tired of playing solo public shows in sports bars and rock clubs.  Shows where “The Freshmen!” was yelled out from song one.  Shows where the smoke was so thick, it was nearly impossible for my throat to perform the next night.

So, I’ve been there.  And I’ve found a way around it.  House concerts are becoming more and more popular, and for good reason.  You have a listening audience of music fans that WANT you there.  They laugh at your jokes, they request songs of yours, they want to feed you.

Pitfalls?  Hmmm… I’m hard pressed to find one.  And I’ve done well over 400 house concerts.  One thing that some might consider a downside.  You don’t have the opportunity to not be ON.  You don’t have a back room for privacy where you can psych yourself up.  But these people will do anything to make you feel comfortable.  Remember:  You are a guest.  When’s the last time you had a club owner/bar manager/sound man treat you that way?

An important tip:  You have to put your complete trust in your fans.  You are showing up to someone’s home that you have never met before.  I admit, for the first few years, I had a fear that I would arrive at the hosts house, and it would be one lonely, middle aged woman answering the door.  Perhaps she would have lied to me and said that there were going to be more people there.  Perhaps she’s in a wedding dress.  Perhaps she wants to hear the same song over and over and over….

But that never happened.  Every house concert is different.  Every one of them special in their own way.  Like the time I played a show in the middle of absolutely nowhere, to a group I didn’t know in their little backyard, when a thunderstorm broke out, mid set.  We all ducked into their one stall garage, and I played, surrounded by 50 people in a very tight circle, my head above most of them, turning and turning through the set, so everyone could hear.  Or the time I played for a young couple who had just had a baby, and wanted to hear music in their living room to celebrate their 2nd anniversary.  Just the three of us.  Baby was off with grandma.

The point is, being a singer/songwriter is pretty easy.  Anyone can write a song and sing it, good or bad.  Finding places to perform where you have the attention of 100 percent of the people in a room is the hard part.

So here’s a tip for the singer/songwriters of the world:  Jump on the house concert craze.   I’ll give more specific details on how I made it work in the coming weeks.

I’m going to dedicate this blog to offer tips to those of you who have a desire to succeed as a singer/songwriter in today’s sports bar world.  I’ll give you advice on how to perform at a house concert, and everything else that comes with it.  But this blog won’t be just about house concerts.  I’ll offer songwriting tips, and let you in on cheap travel secrets as well.  Any information that I have to help me continue to be a full time musician will be available to you.

You see, I want you to succeed.  We are losing the battle to the talentless that are in absolute control.  Today’s hit songs are becoming so dumbed down that soon they are going to consist of only one long note, with a quarter note dance beat, and a lyric that repeats the line “This is a lead vocal”.  But we can write.  We can always write.  We are songwriters.  We get up early and write in quiet spaces, while our families are still asleep.  Or we stay up late, recording a harmony on our laptop in the basement.   We have endured the countless eye rolls from fathers of the daughters we’ve dated.  “Ooooh…A musician.’  Translation?  “Lazy, partier.  Will amount to nothing.”   But we’re much better than that.  We write music.

I’ve been fortunate in my career.  Mostly fortunate that I have a couple of hit songs under my belt.  The money that comes in is enough to keep me afloat in the very hard times.  But I understand what it’s like to work your ass off for no money, in hope that you sell a few CDs.  It still happens to me.  But making the right decisions along the way has also kept me afloat.

Along the way, feel free to comment, offer tips of your own, engage me with your own stories. I’m sure that some of you have ideas to share as well.  Either way, let’s find a method that will help us all perpetuate a life in music.

Now, go write something.

 

Jump to next article, How To Book House Concerts (and Make Money At Them), by Clicking Here.

Brian Vander Ark’s Lawn Chairs and Living Rooms tour was the subject of a documentary in 2009.  It follows Brian one weekend in July, where he played 6 shows, including a Verve Pipe concert. Plenty of music, raw language, and one dented Airstream.  You can find it by Clicking Here.

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