The strange dance of house concerts and booking agents etc
The strange dance of balancing house concerts with club shows, playing in other countries and having multiple booking agents.
Yesterday I kinda got into a bit of detail about my history with booking agents. Today I want to talk about trying to manage all the madness.
First of all- my insanity. I sorta touched on the idea that you have to be driven. Obsessed. A lifer. Now of course, you don’t have to be, but it helps and it hurts. This business is 24/7 for me. I know I’m out of balance. I constantly have people say to me “You need to slow down. Isn’t it a hard life? You’re never home. Didn’t you have a stroke on stage and go blind?”
Yes, I had a stroke on stage mid- show. I know I should slow down. Maybe I’ll ending up dying on stage with my boots on. That’s fine by me. As far as I’m concerned, County Dick Montana went out in style. So did Colonel Bruce Hampton. But here’s the thing- it’s NOT a hard life to me. A hard life to me would be being mired in some job that I hated.
A psychologist would probably say I have “issues”. I’d have to agree with them. But who doesn’t have issues?
If I’m going to be an amateur psychologist I’d have to say it all goes back to me not making the basketball team and also my my Dad’s dearly departed sister Aunt Liz.
When I didn’t make the basketball team in 9th grade at Nellie Coffman Junior High, it crushed me. I was the only only who didn’t make the team. I cried in front of the other guys and some of them laughed at me. It cut a hole of hurt in my heart. For the rest of my life in my mind I’ve been that little skinny kid who DIDN’T make the team. To this very day it still hurts. It hurts when something in my career doesn’t happen the way I want. Maybe a festival passes on me or I get rejected by a record label. But here’s the thing- no means yes. It just means I haven’t figured out how to get there. I need to go back to the drawing board and start over. Give myself a few moments to feel sorry for myself and have a pity party but then dust myself off and get back at it. There’s no pension or retirement plan in this business. No safety net. It’s capitalism and Darwinism at its core if you’re not good enough there’s not gonna be butts in seats. There will be no call to action and people won’t buy tickets. You need people to say this to you after a show: “When are you coming back? I’m gonna bring friends!” The people are your judge, jury and executioner. If they don’t like you, they just flat out won’t come back to see you.
Aunt Liz. Years ago my tough old Aunt Liz flew out to visit us in Palm Springs Ca. She was living in Ontario Canada at the time. We drove for a trip to San Diego and rented house right on the boardwalk on Mission Beach. I’ll never forget. I had my guitar and was looking out at the ocean and my Aunt said “What do you want to do with your life when you’re older and done with high school?” I said “I wanna live on the beach looking out at the ocean and play guitar and sing songs for a living.”
Well, my aunt looked at me like I just murdered Mother Teresa. She said “Oh Steven! Grow up! You can’t do that. You can’t make a living doing that. It’s not practical. You need to get a regular job. And you can’t live on the beach. You can’t make a living playing guitar and singing. Just stop it.”
Man that pissed me off. I’d already been rejected from the basketball team. I stored her advice away in the back of my brain and still revert to it to this very day. I ended up playing guitar for a living and lived right on the beach for 30 years.
Aunt Liz was a great old dame and I did love her and look up to her. She had a great business mind and was tough as nails. So maybe she had some innate sense and knew I had O.D.D. (Oppositional defiance disorder) and knew I’d do the opposite of what she said. So I guess I owe a bit of gratitude to Old Aunt Liz. Maybe she knew this would spur me on.
Years ago, my dad gave me two pieces of advice.
1. You don’t have to finish all the food on your plate. Just eat till you’re full.
2. Don’t end up settling for some job you don’t love. Life’s too long to NOT do what you want to do.
So what I’m doing may look easy but it’s taken years to get where I am right now and as far as I’m concerned I’m definitely not where I want to be. I have not reached satisfaction.
House Concerts aka Living Room Shows.
I always liked calling em living room shows. But, they really are concerts at people’s houses. These weren’t really in the public consciousness until the late 90s. I’m sure people had em but they weren’t really a thing.
I was signed to Mercury Records in the late 90s. Mercury was part of the Universal Records umbrella and they were huge. This was a crazy change for me. I started years before that making cassettes in Robert Driscoll’s garage. We started The Rugburns together in his garage.
So now here I was on this big old record label. They flew me out to NYC and had a huge dinner for me at a beautiful restaurant and even had menus with my name printed on them. They had folks from Rolling Stone and Billboard there. All kinds of folks eating “free” food (charged back to my account) and drinking expensive wine. One product manager dude even ordered a 1000 dollar bottle of wine that we chugged. He said it was Julio Iglesias’ favorite wine. A thousand dollar bottle of wine. Do I need to repeat that? I remember being pretty drunk and slurring to someone from Rolling Stone that “I like playing people’s houses.” The journalist thought that was cool and asked me if really did that. “Of course I do” I replied. Rolling stone ended up writing a small piece about me and the fact that I was playing people’s houses.
Ya see, I used to play clubs and if I had an off night I’d say to the audience “hey fuggers, I’m off tomorrow and I’m a workaholic and I need to play a show. Who wants to have a living room show?”
As far as I’m concerned, I started house concerts and everyone who has one owes me a cut. I just want to wet my beak! 🙂 I’m the inventor of house shows! (Please don’t take me seriously here) but I was a very early adapter of this business model.
Hers the the thing about house concerts-
Most bigger booking agents don’t like them. It’s a weird dance. I love them. Most artists do. Some not so much because they don’t like to be so close to all the punters.
What is a house concert?
A person or persons decide they want their favorite artist or an artist they like to play a show in their house. It’s a leap of faith. I think it’s amazing. Here’s someone who’s willing to let strangers inside their home. They set up chairs or sofas and they may OR may not have a small PA for sound. Sometimes people bring food and it becomes a potluck. Other times there’s just chips and stuff. They’re usually BYOB and folks all hang out and listen to music in an intimate venue. People will charge maybe 20 bucks and give the proceeds to the artist. There are really no set rules. This is just the general way I’ve seen it done. It’s like revolution. A safe house for wayward musicians.
Reasons why artists like house concerts-
1.A lot of times they make more money. They’re not splitting it 60/40 or 70/30 with a club. They’re getting close to 100 percent of the proceeds.
2. The house concert host becomes an ad hoc promoter. An accidental promoter.
Clubs are putting on shows 7 days a week. It’s hard to promote everything and throw your heart into it. A house concert promoter may only do 6 shows a year. So they’re going to tell all their friends and make it an “event”. So house concerts have limited room and many times the shows sell out early.
3. The people are there to listen. They’re not there to yammer over the music. They’re super fans.
4. Merch sales are usually higher because the people are invested in the show. Merch is an important part of a touring artist’s business.
5. You get new fans. People bring friends. Some people will only go to house concerts. They don’t like the impersonal aspect of clubs. You can build a fan base and a community. Build a following. Nurture a career.
6. House concert etiquette is such that people introduce themselves to each other. That doesn’t really happen in clubs. When you enter someone’s house you shake their hand and greet them. So it’s grass roots community building. You leave with new friends. Friends you may now have for life. Bonds are forged. That’s my favorite thing about playing house shows. People need to socialize. It’s great for your health.
KC Turner has been a huge reason for my success in the Bay Area. He started out putting on shows in people’s houses and promoted the hell out of them. That dude is tireless. I love him.
Reasons why bigger agents DON’T like house concerts.
1. They don’t consider them to legitimate “on the radar” gigs.
2. House concert folks usually want a Friday or a Saturday night. There are only so many Fridays and Saturdays in a year. I could google how many but I don’t feel like like it. I’d guess 52. 🙂
3. House concert folks like to plan things far out in advance. I understand. It’s an event. Agents however, don’t want to book something 6 mo the out and commit. They’re usually waiting on a big festival to make an offer.
4. House concert folks need extra attention. The shows are usually for about 40 to 70 folks. To a
larger agent this is small. They think big. They don’t want to book something 6 months out that caps out at 50 people.
5. Many agents don’t have great bedside manner. They are quick and brash. Time is money. They have a different lingo. They’re dealing with talent buyers at clubs. Example- my agent may say to the buyer at The Belly Up. “Poltz will be west coast in June. What are your avails?”
This means - What are your available dates you have open.
The Belly Up then may say “I have a tentative hold second weekend in June but I can pencil you in to challenge that date.
It’s all very short and succinct. They’ll make an offer and there will usually be a counter offer. They may even offer up another artist they have as bait. It’s capitalism and it’s rude and rough and tumble. But as they say in The Godfather “this is the business we’ve chosen”.
House concert folks are usually offended by the impersonal manner of agents. I understand. It’s a weird dance. Many agents are downright annoyed by house concerts.
But I love em! I enjoy the personal nature of the shows. I love the lifelong friends I’ve made. I played someone’s driveway last year. In Northern California. It was amazing. Everyone brought beach chairs. The wonderful Joanne Narad is super cool. I consider her a friend. I just met her a couple years ago. She’s awesome
So I’m constantly doing the dance of trying to fit in house concerts and also do more “on the radar gigs.” I’m still figuring it out. Adam doesn’t deal well with house concerts. Hailey Phelps has been pretty awesome. Hailey Phelps also works at Madison House. She super organized and funny and sweet. She really cares. The key is to find someone to handle house concerts and have them nurture that part and also interface with the main agent who is plotting out other things. I still haven’t perfected this. Hailey is now becoming a successful agent. I may never get there but I promise you I am trying. As you grow you become less available. You have to make decisions. How do you handle the growth and stay healthy and balanced? Don’t look at me. I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
At this point you may say “Steve, why not just do house concerts?”
Because I want it all. I want festivals I want bigger clubs AND I want intimate little shows.i want to play 365 days a year. My agent won’t allow this. He thinks I’m insane. I am insane. I. Want. It. All. I love this line of work that I’ve chosen. I love how everyday it’s something new.
Festivals are the golden egg to me. You get to play in front of bigger crowds and gain new fans.
Canada🇨🇦! Oh. Canada.
Years ago I had a manager named Charles. I told him “Charles, I was born in Canada. I have a Canadian passport and a USA passport. But I never play Canada. This bums me out. I want to play Halifax. I deserve to play Halifax. I know a dude named Mike Campbell. He can get me a gig. Will you call him?” Charles also got me to got to Folk Alliance. FA changed my life. But that’s another story. Back to Mike Campbell.
The rest is history. I owe a lot to Mike. He had a house concert in his little Tiki Bar. He invited taste makers and had it filmed. It’s probably on YouTube. This was the seed that started Canada for me. I could probably attract 15 people to a show back then. As they say in the business “I couldn’t get arrested.”
Now I’m selling out multiple nights in Halifax. The city where I was born. It’s only taken about 40 shows at the Carleton to do that. Nothing comes easy. I owe so much to Mike Campbell. He’s been a tireless promoter.
Something else really cool happened to me in Canada. I had a Canadian agent at the time name Bob Wilson. I loved Bob. We had some great times. He fought for me. I’ll never forget that. Anyways, one day he called and said “there’s a really neat house concert series in a little town called Meaford Ontario run by a woman named Liz Scott. She wants to host you. You might make 750 Canadian dollars but you gotta fly up and rent a car etc. I try to build some other shows around it.”
Of course I said “yes”. Always say yes. Until you have to say no. But just start accepting offers. Your path will start to appear.
So I met Liz and played her house concert series. She was one of those professional house concert people that had their shit together. It was a concert series. People knew she was a tastemaker. If she booked it then it was probably gonna be good.
Well, it turns out that Liz also was booking a little festival called Eaglewood. She saw my show at her house and she mentioned that she could help me get other shows. A lot of times people say that and numbers are exchanged but nothing is ever followed up. That’s not the case with Liz. I love her. She is the definition of persistent. I owe so much my of my success in Canada to Liz. I can’t stress this enough. You meet angels along the way and the help you out. She’s been an angel. She still books heaps of shows for me AND promotes them. I can never thank her enough.
Canada has turned out to be an amazing market for me. Canadians get what I do. They love stories and songs and laughter.
I’ve played probably 40 festivals across Canada. This summer I’ll playing the venerable Calgary Folk Festival and I’ll be returning to Mariposa Folk Festival. Full disclosure- Liz is now the Artistic Director at Mariposa. She is kicking ass.
It’s hard balancing Canada and The USA and Australia and The UK. It’s a wild dance. I haven’t even touched on Australia yet.
That’s another story.
I woke up at 3:30 this morn and wanted to get this all down. I’ve had a great visit with my dad.
I’m off to Nashville today.
Have a good Saturday. Peace to you.