Over the past five years, East Grand Rapids singer-songwriter Brian Vander Ark has played upwards of 500 solo house concerts in living rooms and backyards from one end of the country to the other.
The Verve Pipe frontman has serenaded attentive and engaged fans in crowded garages during rainstorms, on rooftops, in basements, on beaches, in the back of a speedboat on a Texas lake. He’s even performed for an audience of two – a young couple celebrating their anniversary at home.
And he’s loved pretty much every minute of it. In fact, these days, 80 percent of Vander Ark’s live performances every year are house concerts: the pay is better than most traditional venues, it’s a more personal experience for the artist and his audience, all he needs is his guitar (hosts often provide PA systems if they’re needed for larger crowds), he sells more CDs after every show, and he develops long-term relationships with his fan base.
Welcome to what I call “the house concert revolution.”
Read my full story about the trend – which included last weekend’s inaugural Lamp Light Music Festival – at GRNow.com here.
For musicians who increasingly favor house concerts over the hassles, hurdles and occasionally paltry pay of playing conventional venues and bars, there are distinct and satisfying artistic advantages. Says Vander Ark: “I’d much rather play for 20 or 30 people listening quietly to your stuff than 500 people where 10 people are interested.”
While many acoustically inclined artists are just now coming to the house party, so to speak, Vander Ark’s been doing this for more than five years, and he’s more passionate about it now than ever, even giving advice to other independent musicians through his blog. He calls it “guerilla marketing.”
His fans have come to love this, too: 60 percent of his house concert business comes from repeat customers who hire him to come back to their homes year after year for parties with friends and relatives.
John Hanson, of Grand Rapids indie-folk band Strawberry Heritage and an organizer of last weekend’s Lamp Light Music Festival held in four Eastown neighborhood homes with more than 30 acts, says it’s often more lucrative for struggling touring artists to have house concert attendees just “pitch in the hat” for donations than play gigs in bars where there’s a middle man involved, and often, less pay.
“It’s a better listening experience for them and a better financial experience,” he reasons, noting that networks of musicians are popping up all over the country to help touring acts arrange house concerts from city to city.
Not surprisingly, this trend is troubling for owners and managers of music venues and nightclubs, some of whom are struggling themselves due to the overhead, licensing and insurance costs of running these establishments. Some view house concerts as unfair competition.
Certainly, there are some unscrupulous bar managers out there who take advantage of musicians, don’t promote their shows as well as they could, and don’t pay a living wage for all the hard work that bands put in.
But I’d argue that many also are truly devoted to the live music scene and do what they can in a difficult economic environment to give bands a comfortable stage for enthusiastic crowds of patrons looking for an entertaining evening out.
While the experience of a house concert in an intimate setting can be unlike any other, especially for fans of acoustic music, there’s an important place for clubs, bars and “official” listening rooms which provide unique environments – not to mention food and beverages – in a city’s nightlife scene. And these sorts of venues certainly tend to be the best settings for rock bands and larger ensembles.
These venues also provide a public opportunity to see fine local talent, particularly if you aren’t lucky enough to get invited to a friend’s home for a private house concert.
It seems to me that there’s a place for both: House concerts offer up-and-coming singer-songwriters and acoustic acts a chance to get their foot in the door, build their audiences, earn some money and perform cozy shows that inspire themselves and their fans, not to mention giving established veteran artists an alternative to impersonal club concerts.
The bar and venue scene, meanwhile, has its own tried-and-true advantages, with bigger rooms and bigger crowds that can be energizing for bands.
Still, for Vander Ark, there’s no going back: He’s a true house concert believer. (Check out his blog here.)
“It’s really worked for me. I’m trying to take it to a new level now,” he tell me, noting he’s planning to link up with other artists on the house concert circuit. “We’re all going to get together and start a series … This is the way to go, this is amazing. All my friends are doing it now.”
A veteran journalist and former music writer for The Grand Rapids Press, John Sinkevics is editor and publisher of LocalSpins.com, profiling regional artists and commenting on West Michigan's music scene. He hosts "Local Spins Live" on News Talk 1340 AM in Grand Rapids at 11 a.m. Wednesdays, with a preview at 9:30 a.m. Wednesdays on WLAV-FM (96.9). He also hosts the hour-long "Local Spins on WYCE" at 11 a.m. Fridays on WYCE-FM (88.1).
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