House Concerts Can Pay The Mortgage
by Brian Vander Ark
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.