If there’s one trend that defines the music industry circa 2012, it’s that now, more than ever, artists are deliberately and triumphantly figuring out ways to cut out the middleman.
Pay-what-you-can downloads and Kickstarter accounts are the new record labels, beelining money spent on new music into the pockets of the artists who are creating it. And thanks to the cooperation and hospitality of avid fans, bands are figuring out ways to bring their music out of the clubs and into the places we most frequently consume it: our homes.
The concept of a house show is nothing new, of course; entire DIY scenes have thrived on the strength of a network of shows booked in basements and other nontraditional venues. But what is new is the concept of an organized, above-the-boards show that is booked in promoted in very traditional ways, with the only curveball being that it takes place in someone’s living room.
This fall, Jeremy Messersmith will embark on a three-month, cross-country Supper Club Tour that will take place entirely in fans’ living rooms and kitchens; Messersmith is even requesting that attendees bring food to help create a potluck vibe.
“Touring is such a drag,” Messersmith says. “Bad food, long drives, late nights, forever sound checks, dingy green rooms, dive motels… I simply tried to imagine what an indie tour without those things would be like and boom: living room shows.”
Messersmith credits David Bazan for the inspiration; the Pedro the Lion frontman booked a similar house show tour back in 2009 while keeping a low profile between album releases, using the opportunity to test out new material in front of captive audiences. Similarly, Communist Daughter frontman Johnny Solomon credits Bazan for the idea to add a handful of living room dates to his upcoming tour.
“I think the big switch in my head happened when I saw that Bazan was doing a whole tour of living room shows,” Solomon says. “Living room shows aren’t just shows for people who can’t play clubs; it’s a way to still have personal experiences as our fan base gets bigger. I think that’s something that I don’t want to ever give up. With my songwriting, even with the press I am getting, I want people to understand that this music is personal — it’s not for CD sales, and it’s not for selling beers.”
That personal connection between performer and fan is something Messersmith relishes as well. “Living room shows are so much more personal,” he says. “After a club show, I maybe get 10-20 minutes with fans who stick around. Most of that time is spent posing for pictures and trying to shout above the post-show music — not exactly what I’d call a ‘quality’ interaction. Why not have the entire show be more of a conversation? Let the audience pick the songs they’d like to hear? Ask questions during a set?”
“Sometimes songs can get lost in all the style of a live setting — the bar, the band, the night out,” Solomon agrees. “At a show in someone’s living room, the song becomes the biggest thing in the room.”
Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR
Solomon also says that booking living room shows makes sense financially. “I think it has become a more viable way to tour because it’s a direct connection with your fans. They are handing their money to you, they hear the songs for what they are, and they want to buy a shirt because you are standing in front of them as a person, not as a entertainer on a stage… People think it’s okay to stick it to a corporation because they don’t know if any money gets to the artist and it seems futile, but when you are in a living room, counting out change, I think people get it.”
And Messersmith offers up some hard numbers to explain why a living room tour makes sense for him. “You can fit less people into a living room than a club, but I think you can also charge a bit more for the scarcity. I’m charging $15 a ticket whereas my club dates outside the midwest are usually under $10. If you can fit 25-60 people into a home, then that’s $375-$900 a night. I’m VERY happy with those numbers!”
The Minneapolis date of Messersmith’s Supper Club Tour has already sold out, and it’s happening at a venue that has been fostering its own living room scene for a few years now. The Cake Shop, otherwise known as the home of Cakein15.com founders Carl Atiya Swanson and Stacy Schwartz (who, full disclosure, are friends of mine), opened its doors to the public for the first time back in 2009 and have been hosting shows on a monthly basis ever since.
“We had the space, we had friends who wanted to play and needed to make some money, and we decided to go for it,” Swanson says. “Plus, selfishly, we get to have amazing musicians play in our living room. It’s kind of a kid’s dream come true.”
Swanson and Schwartz advertise the shows on their blog and set up a paypal account to accept ticket sales; they keep their address private and provide it to attendees once the transaction is complete. Though it seemed risky to invite strangers into their home, Swanson says that attendees have been respectful and well-behaved, and Schwartz says the appeal of their new “venue” was immediately apparent.
“It’s pin-drop quiet, first of all, and there’s more of a conversation between guests and artists. Performers generally ask what people want to hear too, and the play the tune, if they can. It’s just a very different feeling,” she says. “Very down to earth. Artists feel like it’s ok to mess up, ok to start over, and often times they play things that are sort of a start of a song, or something incomplete. They can get a feel of how it may play to a crowd in the future.”
And Swanson echoes Messersmith and Solomon’s observation that a living room show ensures that more money is going straight into the pockets of the performers. “We work with the artists to set their own rates for tickets based on their crowd, and figure out how many shows they want to do, so there’s a range of how much they can make from a night at the Cake Shop,” he says. “We used to take a small cut from the door take, but when we realized that we really wanted to be able to provide musicians with as much financial support as possible, we stopped. That, and we’ll make cupcakes for people, which you probably wouldn’t get at a club.”
That financial support has directly impacted several area artists, including Messersmith. Those beautiful string parts that you hear on Messersmith’s 2010 The Reluctant Graveyard? They were funded by the money he earned playing a pair of shows at the Cake Shop in late 2009.
Jeremy Messersmith at the Cake Shop; photo by Ben Clark
“In a time where big institutions fail and there is a lot of uncertainty, people put a lot more value on things we make and share together, and on getting a quality experience more than a flashy thing,” says Swanson, adding that, “It’s a model that I think can be totally replicated.”
This year, another local music lover did just that. Photographer Sara Montour, inspired by her experiences at the long-running Mad Ripple Hootenanny and her years attending the Winnipeg Folk Festival, launched another like-minded series that aims to provide crowds with a less traditional, listening room-style concert experience. She recently launched the new concert series along with a new website, Live Letters.
“When I moved back to Minneapolis last year it seemed like perfect timing to start both Live Letters and the Evening With Friends series that I had been dreaming about forever. I was back in the city that made me fall in love with music and felt like I could take all of those components, throw them together, and create amazing nights for people that are looking for something a little bit different than your average concert.”
For her Evening With Friends shows, Montour books a handful of artists to perform round-robin style, much in the vein of the Mad Ripple Hootenanny, and partners with a friend to open up a private loft for the shows. Like the Cake Shop, they keep the location secret until after tickets are purchased, and the open layout of the space can accommodate a modest crowd while maintaining that much-desired sense of intimacy.
“At our Evening With Friends shows, and almost all the house shows I’ve been to, there are these moments of total silence, except for the songwriter on stage, and there’s a little bit of magic in that moment,” she says. “People aren’t yelling in the back, or running to the bathroom, or slamming drinks around, they’re just 100% invested in this music moment that’s happening in front of them.”
Montour says it’s that sense of “magic” that will keep people coming back for more, and she anticipates many more events in the future. “So far the feedback from both the musicians and the audience has been incredible,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of local musicians come to our shows and then approach me about hosting their own Evening With Friends. It’s exciting that people are connecting to it so well.”
James Diers, Caroline Smith, Gabe Douglas, and Savannah Smith at Evening With Friends; photo by Sara Montour. For more on Evening With Friends, follow Live Letters.
And for more on the Cake Shop, including an upcoming show on August 19 with Zoo Animal and a pair of shows on September 9 with Communist Daughter, follow Cake in 15.