This is an excerpt from the best-seller How To Make It in the New Music Business
- Third Edition by Ari Herstand.
House concerts are not a new thing. There is a long tradition in the folk world that dates back to the ’60s. However, they seem to have had a massive resurgence over the past decade of singer-songwriters trading in club touring for house shows. Personally, I’ve played about 30 house concerts and these shows have been some of my favorite (and most profitable) shows of my career. Nothing beats the connection of a room full of supporters sitting merely feet from you, soaking up every note, every word, and every beat. A living room concert is one of the most memorable concert experiences a fan (and artist) will ever have.
And house concerts aren’t just for tiny singer-songwriters. Artists like Vance Joy, David Bazan (of Pedro the Lion), Jeremy Messersmith, Julia Nunes, Califone, Mirah, Laura Gibson, Tim Kasher of Cursive, S. Carey, Richard Buckner, Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and John Vanderslice have set up house concert tours over the past few years.
With house shows you don’t have to deal with bad sound guys, drunk a**holes, empty clubs, or the headache of promotion. Shannon Curtis has a great book on how to book a house concert tour, called No Booker, No Bouncer, No Bartender: How I Made $25K on a 2-Month House Concert Tour (And How You Can Too), which I highly recommend if you’re thinking of getting into the house concert game. You can also check out ConcertsInYourHome, which is a community of house concert hosts around the world. If you are accepted as an artist into the network, you can set up full tours to cities you’ve never visited in great homes of acoustic fans. Or, Side Door, a newer startup that similarly connects hosts and touring artists. More on Side Door in a moment.
And when Covid shut down the entire live music industry, many DIYers got creative, putting on drive-in, driveway and backyard concerts. We at Ari’s Take put on a drive-in concert in the summer of 2020. This was one of the first concerts to take place since lockdown in Los Angeles County. The artist Annabel Lee headlined the event and celebrated the release of her song “Los Angeles.” We promoted it on Instagram and required fans to text her (SMS service) for more info (which auto- returned a link to buy tickets). We sold tickets (price per car—people packed their household into their cars) through Splash and hosted the concert at a friend of a friend of a friend’s big open lot (because the owner of the parking lot we had originally booked got Covid five days before the show!). Fortunately, we didn’t release the location, via text, until the day before the show.
We handed out an instruction sheet to every car (via a grabber stick), which had instructions on how to tune in (via the car radio), how to buy merch, social, stream and download links (via QR code, of course). We had a dedicated merch person managing the Venmo account, running around to cars with their merch items.
The show went off without a hitch. Live music had been officially shut down for four months at this point, and this concert was desperately needed by Annabel, her band, her fans and everyone else involved.
After having his summer 2020 tour canceled, Toronto-based singer-songwriter John Muirhead reached out to his local community offering driveway concerts and booked 10 driveway concerts in the Toronto area. And then in early 2021, once he had started to build up his TikTok presence, he compiled some footage from the previous summer into a little advertisement-style video. It spread on TikTok extremely quickly (racking up nearly 30,000 views) and returned more requests for driveway concerts in Ontario than he could handle (hashtags worked wonders). John filled up his entire calendar with these throughout 2021. He charged hosts a guaranteed minimum around $200–300 CAD, and averaged around $7 CAD per head in merch sales. Win!
The Nova Scotia–based company Side Door, co-founded by singer-songwriter Dan Mangan and music industry professional Laura Simpson, connects artists with hosts and helps them facilitate private concerts—both in person and online. All payments are taken digitally, and the money is kept in escrow until the show happens. The host and artist negotiate a payment split on the platform. They have name-your-price ticketing, global transactions, and geotargeting. Artists can even facilitate tours by automatically selecting the locations they are looking to tour to, and the registered hosts in those areas get notifications and can decide whether to host the artist.
Side Door currently has 3,000 venues and hosts registered in North America (mostly in Canada), and more popping up in Europe and around the world. They’ve facilitated shows with Vance Joy, Broken Social Scene, Feist, Barenaked Ladies, Tom Odell, Said the Whale and thousands of others.
The quirk-rock band More Fatter set out on a 43-date backyard concert tour in the summer of 2021. Half the shows were ticketed ($30 through Eventbrite), and the other half were $30 suggested donation. Some shows had 50+ people packed into the backyard. And other shows where they didn’t have much of a base and the host didn’t promote it super well had 5–10. They sold T- shirts for $40 and burned CDs of new demos for $20. They completely sold out of all their merch after multiple reorders. They toured in a 2005 Toyota Sienna and crashed on couches to keep expenses down. In two months, they made $25,000. That’s the thing with house concerts. It’s such a magical experience that you can get away with selling your merch much higher than you would at a club. It’s much more personal. People aren’t simply buying your merch for the item, they’re buying it as a souvenir from the night. And to have a special connection with you when they make the transaction.
The beauty of house concerts is that you only need one superpassionate fan per city to set up a house concert. Put out feelers to your email list and on social sites. Set a guarantee plus a percentage of tickets, or you can play for tips.
You’ll have to designate Fridays and Saturdays (or Sunday afternoons) for house concerts, since most hosts have 9-to-5 jobs and won’t want to organize it for a weekday. But some may.
Plan your house concerts about two to three months in advance. Give your hosts plenty of time to invite guests and get excited.
You’ll want to tour with an amp or PA (and all mics/stands/cords) to plug in your guitar, keyboard and vocal mic. The host will most likely know nothing about sound and have zero sound equipment. You should be able to set up anywhere and play. Don’t forget your extension cords and power strips.
The email I send out to potential hosts usually looks something like this:
(Feel free to copy whatever you want)
Living Room Concert!
What the . . .?
I’d like to set up shows in people’s living rooms/backyards/dorm lounges/etc. and have a very intimate experience—something that isn’t necessarily possible in many clubs I play. I’m going to play many new, unreleased songs for these performances—many songs that translate very well to the living room, but maybe not so well to the club.
If you’d like to host a living room concert, all you need to do is reply and fill in the information below and I’ll get back to you with possible dates for your area. I need you to bring at least 20 people to the concert—hey you have home turf advantage!
What I charge.
The concert costs $450 + 80% of admission after $450 is met. This means, if you charge $25 a head (what I recommend) and 30 people show up, that equals a total of $750. I end up with $690 (you end up with $60) at the end of the night. If 12 people show up, that equals a total of $300. I end up with $450 at the end of the night (you have to cover the remaining $150). If you’re confident you can bring 18 people at $25 a head, everyone who lives in the house basically gets a free concert because I don’t charge the hosts and hostesses. Just so you know, this is much lower than my normal “private concert” rate, but because I want people who really dig my music—dare I call them fans—to be able to afford this and not have to pay an exorbitant amount out of pocket, I’ve reduced my rate for these house concerts. I used to take 100% after $450, but I’ve added the 20% to the host idea to give you an incentive to provide simple snacks/drinks for your guests and so you don’t lose money.
What to provide.
All you need to provide is a big enough space to hold everyone. Also, make sure my performance space (corner) is well lit with upright bright lamps or something and then the rest of the room can be dim with candles or other lamps. People are most comfortable sitting on chairs, couches, benches, husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc., so it would be great if you had enough seating for everyone. Maybe encourage people to bring a pillow, blanket, or lawn chair to sit on if you don’t have enough chairs. Make sure you have a key person who will collect money from everyone at some point.
The concert will last about 2 hours. The first 45 minutes I’ll play an acoustic, mostly unplugged (chill) set. Then take a 15-minute intermission and the next hour will be a full looping show—plugged in. Make sure your neighbors are OK with this. Won’t get too loud, though. I’m looking to start at 7:30 for most places.
Notes for this experience:
Please let your guests know that this is an intimate, private concert by a touring musician.
This is not a party. Promote my music to all guests and get them excited about the music if they don’t already know my stuff. This is not a drinking party with your best bud providing the entertainment. While alcohol is absolutely okay (and encouraged if somehow a Guinness ends up in my hand), this is not a time to get wasted.
Also, please inform your guests, maybe at the start (because I don’t want to look like the bad guy), that talking is very uncool during the performance.
I’ll most likely need a place to crash that night, so if you have a couch, that would be fantastic. If you provide dinner for me, as well, I’ll love you forever.
Please fill in this info and I’ll get back to you with open dates:
Are you in high school or college (please list where):
If in high school list parent’s name:
How many live with you (are they okay with this):
Do you live in a house, dorm, apartment, etc. (elaborate):
Expected number of attendees:
Where will this be held (living room, backyard, dorm lounge, etc. please elaborate):
Contact Phone Number:
Hopefully I’ll see you soon! ~Ari
And once you confirm a date, make sure you send them a confirmation email.
Here’s what I use:
Saturday, March 17
Contact: Mickey Mouse
Phone Number: 612-555-5555
1234 Beautiful Lane
St. Paul, MN 55104
7:30–9:30 (you can change this if need be)
$25 a person (hosts excluded)
$450 guarantee + 80% of cover after $450
Make public (upon request) or keep private?
Load in: 6:00
Sound check: 6:30
Provided equipment: lamps to light my performance area (corner), mood lighting for the rest of the room
Sleeping accommodations? yes
Because I am routing a tour around this show, once this is confirmed, we cannot cancel it. Please do not confirm this unless you are certain you can afford the concert and/or can get enough people to attend. If you have to cancel the show less than 3 weeks before the date, I will still need to receive 70% of payment.
Please confirm these details and we’re set!
Customize this for you
People have organized pot lucks, birthday, graduation and anniversary parties around these. You will have a lot of fun with house concerts, and even if you’re a full band, as long as you tour with a full PA system, you can set up backyard and basement concerts.
You will build lifelong fans this way. Attendees get a very personal experience, get to hang out with you before and after the show, and typically buy tons of merch.
Make sure you pass around the mailing list clipboard or iPad and get every single person’s email who comes. If 30 people show up, the next time through you can book a club and you can estimate that each of them will bring at least 1 more person and now you have a solid 60 for your club show.
Shannon Curtis typically works solely on tips and merch sales for her living room concerts, and it has worked out very well for her. If you’re just starting out, you can go this route, as well. But make sure the host discusses the importance of the tip jar (she advises not to include a suggested donation because if you say the show is worth $10, no one will drop a twenty in). The tip jar (and merch) should be placed right near the front door so it absolutely cannot be missed.
Companies like Sofar Sounds, Side Door and ConcertsInYourHome organize (or help artists and fans organize) house concerts. Sofar Sounds has set up intimate, living shows with oftentimes famous artists like Hozier and Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
House concerts are a beautiful, unforgettable experience for everyone involved. •
Ari Herstand is the CEO and founder of the music business education company Ari’s Take and its online school Ari’s Take Academy as well as the host of the Webby Award winning New Music Business podcast. He is the author of the book How To Make It in the New Music Business which is a No. 1 best seller in 3 categories on Amazon and is being taught in over 300 universities in the U.S. and has been translated into multiple languages. As a musician he has played over 1,000 shows all over the world and has released 4 albums. As a speaker he has spoken at SXSW, Music Biz, BBC One Introducing, NAMM, SF MusicTech, Berklee College of Music and UCLA. He fronts the 1970s original funk/soul immersive concert theatrical experience, Brassroots District.