Performance venues are desperately needed—what about your place?
IN NOVEMBER 2004, I was new in town, and needed a favour. I approached a couple I’d recently befriended at a James Bay Irish music jam and asked if they could provide overnight accommodation—and host a concert—for international Irish music stars John Doyle and Liz Carroll. Their lovely home had a spacious living/dining area, under-utilized in-law suite, and close proximity to acres of free parking. I knew it would be the ideal venue for a house concert, but I had to talk them into it. Fourteen years, dozens of concerts, and many a snack tray later, they’re still hosting shows and developing personal connections with some of the best folk and roots musicians in the world.
Because they now have far more requests from musicians than they can accommodate, I’ve changed their names for this piece; I’ll call them Stu and Claudette. It wasn’t just their house that made them ideal hosts: sociable, upbeat, generous community-builders, they were avid music fans who were eager to connect their own young, aspiring roots musicians with world-class players (it was fortuitous, Stu says, that my initial “ask” was to host Liz Carroll, who just happened to be one of their kid’s major idols; Carroll also provided some free lessons).
Claudette’s altruism, though, is the main reason she and Stu open their home for house concert parties—up to a dozen a year—while making zero money from the effort. “I think about the costs for musicians to do any kind of live touring. It’s nuts. We all take vacations; we know what that costs. Accommodation, food, travel, ferries, cars…if I can give a little back, that’s why we’re doing it.”
She enjoys having musicians stay overnight, and finds the whole experience, on balance, quite fulfilling. “Once the concerts are in process, it’s pretty magical, to have live music like that in our house. People do talk about how it’s imbued these walls with warmth.” She looks back on the years of connections and friendships made, the music they’ve enjoyed, and is glad I “spotted” them as a venue. “We are so fortunate to have a big house that we can do this in, with parking nearby. We had never even thought of it; we didn’t know these things happened.”
They happen, but they need to happen more. Acoustic musicians are suffering from a desperate lack of places to play. Victoria bassist, vocalist, and songwriter Oliver Swain, who performs throughout Canada, confirms this. Are there enough venues? “God no. It’s devastating. It’s so bad in Victoria. It’s crisis times. House concerts aren’t necessarily going to fill the void…but it could definitely be part of a solution,” he says, and tells me that house concerts now make up a full 30 percent of his live performing schedule. “I think there are a lot of people who would love to do this, but it’s just getting the word out.”
A 2016 Music Canada report warned, “No one can predict how long BC’s pipeline of young talent will persist when it is so hard for them to earn a living.” Just google “live music venues disappearing” and you’ll see that cities in BC, across Canada, and throughout other countries are all sounding the alarm. In their heyday, live music clubs were the hotspots here; even a small city like Victoria supported dozens of them. Now Hermann’s, the last club of its kind here, teeters on the brink of extinction. In this era of Netflix and youtube, high rents and restrictive licensing, the numbers just aren’t crunching in their favour.
Enter house concerts. “They’re some of my favourite environments,” enthuses Swain. “My music naturally lends itself to that intimacy. I bring my own small PA…I set it up, and I’ll have impeccable sound, beautiful sound, in a small place.” The fact that the musicians get 100 percent of the proceeds means the income generated by a 30-seat house concert at $20 a head is sometimes more than playing a larger venue where there are rental, sound, and promotion costs.
Victoria-based guitarist and songwriter Stephen Fearing relies on touring for the bulk of his income, now that streaming music sites have eradicated the predictable income CD sales once generated. House concerts, he says, account for maybe a fifth of his shows. “It’s a gig, CD sales, they feed you, and they put you to bed. Win, win, win, all around,” he says. Early-week fill-in house concerts are lucrative for him. “The net is greater than you would have made at a club, which is bizarre. It’s a very old tradition that’s coming back into vogue: performing for the gentry. It’s been there for generations.”
Like Swain, Fearing enjoys the intimacy of these shows, but acknowledges drawbacks for performers too, especially those accustomed to the professional distance created by a brightly lit stage. “You can make a really strong connection with the [hosts]…because you’re literally in their house—with all the good and bad that goes along with that,” he says. “The connection with the audience can be intimate, or it can be awkward. There’s no smoke and mirrors. It’s stark as stark can be…sometimes it’s negative, with annoying distractions to overcome. It can be a very positive or a very tiring experience.”
To mitigate the awkwardness, Winnipeg-based Home Routes offers house concert touring support services for both musicians and hosts across Canada. Tim Osmond is artistic director and a co-founder. “There’s so much talent in this country, and hardly any places to play,” he explains. “We started this non-profit to represent artists and try to get them more work. We line up 12 living rooms or community spaces over a two-week period; we offer artists a block of work, not just one show.” Hosts are vetted, and sign up for a season of six concerts over eight months. “You invite your friends, your crowd, your neighbours; it’s all people you know in your house,” Osmond explains.
Now that I have a larger place again, I could experiment with offering my living room as a venue for musicians—take a little overflow from Stu and Claudette, perhaps. I grew up as the daughter of a cellist, and our house thrummed with live, professional music; I realize I’ve been longing to have that conviviality, community, and culture in my own home again. And although they will always maintain a certain aura of privacy, house concerts are coming out of the closet, as evidenced by this item on a January 2018 Vancouver Sun “things to do this week” list: House Concert—VSO musicians performing a wonderful evening of violin and piano music in a cozy living room at UBC, location to be revealed after ticket purchase. Or in Focus last November, when Karel Roessingh was promoting his latest CD, Birdsong in the Parkade, via house concerts.
Writer and musician Mollie Kaye encourages others to consider hosting. To connect with musicians, contact Oliver Swain at oliverswain.com or visit homeroutes.ca.