House concerts are providing DIY-inclined singer/songwriters, like Callaghan, a way to earn a living at their craft … and bringing music to fans in the purest, most intimate way
House concerts aren't always entirely coordinated between artist and host. Fran Snyder founded the website Concertsinyourhome.com in 2006 under the premise that living rooms are made for live music.
"I'm a singer/songwriter and I've played everything from colleges to clubs," Snyder says. "I'm more of a rock artist, but I'd heard about house concerts from my folky friends. I'd never played one, but I was on the road in D.C. and had a gap in my schedule. I called one of my friends, put one together and just had an incredible evening. So many people showed up that I had to do two shows, one at 9 and one at 11."
After playing a couple such shows, Snyder quickly understood the appeal of playing in people's homes. "I went online to find out more about house concerts and discovered that there wasn't a good resource. I decided I was the guy to step up and do it."
Seven years later, Concertsinyourhome.com is a network of approximately 300 artists, each of whom has to pass an audition, and 500-600 active hosts. Hosts pay no fee to join and can tap into the site's rich reservoir of tips. "We want hosts to understand that this is not background music," Snyder says. "It's not a band playing in the corner while people are munching in the kitchen. We're teaching people how to listen to music again. You go to a club and there's always a social aspect. There's a chatty table at the front. It dilutes the connection between the artist and the people that are there."
Artists, meanwhile, pay a one-time membership to Concertsinyourhome.com, which New England-based singer/songwriter and site member Sarah Blacker says she "typically make[s] back in one show."
"House concerts are not for the smoke-and-mirrors kind of musician," she says. "They're unpredictable and force you to interact. But, you can forge genuine connections with new fans. They're eager to hear the stories behind your songs and they really get to know you.
"And, for all of their openness and challenges, house concerts' up-close aspect means that nearly everyone buys one, if not all, of your CDs," Blacker adds, sharing that she's grossed more than $700 in donations (i.e., ticket sales) and $400 in CD sales at her most robust of shows; neither Concertsinyourhome.com nor, generally, hosts collect any of a night's take. ("I've also played at the home of a cocaine-snorting control freak who rearranged his living room about 10 times before show time," she recalls cringingly of one gig (which was, we should note, out of the site's network). "I nearly had a panic attack just being in his presence. I couldn't get out of there fast enough. I think I made about $27 that night at the door. He forgot to collect donations because he was clearly pre-engaged.")
But, "house concerts are like a good first kiss," Blacker says. "Raw, intimate and memorable."
While Concertsinyourhome.com is largely the realm of up-and-coming artists, or those seeking to gain steady income via their music after several years of performing, even heavily accomplished veterans enjoy scooting into the living room for shows. Site member Jack Tempchin, Glenn Frey's longtime writing partner, regularly plays house concerts in and around San Diego, where he lives. The pair penned the Eagles' '70s classics "Peaceful Easy Feeling" and "Already Gone," as well as Frey's 1985's No. 2 hit "You Belong to the City." Tempchin also wrote Johnny Rivers' 1977 top 10 "Swayin' to the Music (Slow Dancin')."
"I'm an artist and I keep writing, so I like to play," he says (adding that he and Frey continue to write together, with the latter currently planning a new album). "For an artist to play a house concert, where the audience is really beamed in, is so powerful. I play my hits, because people want to hear them, but then I get to play a few new songs, too. It gets me out there."
Likewise for the Smithereens' DiNizio, who in 2000 was the spokesperson and chairman of the advisory board for Jim Beam's B.E.A.M. (Benefitting Emerging Artists in Music), which awarded grants (more than $150,000 annually) to rising acts. He says he was "charmed" by the idea of house concerts, which he learned about from one of the B.E.A.M. recipients. "I put the word out on the Internet. Within a week, I was booked in the homes, backyards and living rooms of about 90 Smithereens supporters across the country. They're still among my very good friends."
"I rented an SUV and traversed the country five times," he remembers. "When I went to drop it off afterwards, the lady at the counter looked at the mileage and said, 'Why did you even bother to return this car?' "
With the exposure that house concerts can provide established acts, Tempchin says that he's "fascinated" by the potential of house concerts on a large scale. "A lot of people in their 50s don't want to go to a club anymore. There's the babysitter, the parking, the three-drink minimum … This model, in a way, bypasses the industry. It's so healthy.
"It's kind of like something that would've happened in the '60s. It's people taking the music back, for them and their friends."
By night's end, after two 45-minute sets, a smiling Callaghan mingles in, like at any good party, the kitchen, breaking down the barrier between artist and audience that, at a house concert, was barely there to begin with. "She has a voice like an angel," one new fan praises, while another bonds with her over their shared British heritage (and purchases $120 worth of CDs and T-shirts).
The show at Frank and Maribeth's was clearly a success. The crowd (of 38, it's confirmed) kept its eyes and ears on Callaghan as she sang such "Life in Full Colour" songs as "Best Year," "It Was Meant to Be" and "Close My Eyes"; offered encouragement as she tried out a composition that she'd recently written and had previously yet to play live; and sang, stomped and clapped along to covers of Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You" and Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." After intermission, all the many sports fans in attendance even ascended from the basement, where a big screen TV was showing a Celtics-Knicks NBA playoff game, so as not to miss any of the evening's headline entertainment. (Callaghan and Massey later fully comprehend what a compliment that is when explained that basketball (and all sports, really) is to Boston as to what soccer, or football, is to England.)
Her show ends not due to a club's curfew, but when it feels right. "But, you don't have to go anywhere!" one reclined audience member shouts, and laughter erupts at the realization that the star on stage will be spending the night in a room down the hall.
Still, Callaghan and Massey have a drive to Philadelphia the next day for the second stop of "Callaghan Across America" that night. (In the Midwest, one of their favorite gifts will become an oven mitt with a map of like-shaped Michigan on it, "to help us find our way around," Massey later muses via email from a Utah café. Callaghan adds that they're "already working on next year's route.")
The tour rolls on, Callaghan meets and performs for more of her fans and she and her husband wonder what the next stop will be like, knowing only that, for a night, it'll be their home, too.
"Just don't have cereal in the morning for breakfast before you leave," one Chez Saysull guest advises the pair.
"Frank would be so upset if he doesn't get to cook you something."