Homeward Sound: Why house shows can often trump playing clubs for some touring musicians
Road-weary and cash-poor, Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell just needed a comfortable place to play ― and stay ― in St. Louis in July of 2005. Or at least that's how Cary remembers it. "I'm pretty sure something either got canceled or we were really broke and didn't want to have a day off," says Cary, a velvet-voiced North Carolinian whose closest brush with widespread fame came when she formed one half of Whiskeytown alongside Ryan Adams. "It's a little hazy." Cockrell, who was touring with Cary and a trio of supporting players behind the duo's Begonias album, remembers things a bit differently. "Rick reached out and asked if we'd be willing to do a concert there."
Either way, "Rick" was Rick Wood, a longtime boardmember of KDHX in St Louis's annual country-and-Americana celebration, Twangfest. And "there" was the house in Clayton he shared with his wife and kids. Mid-week, he'd circulated an e-mail invitation to several of his most music-savvy acquaintances, who in turn forwarded it to theirs. Ultimately, some fifty people showed up at Wood's house on a sunny Sunday evening, half-racks of Pabst in hand along with a suggested $20 donation for the band.
It was the first time the Woods had ever hosted a show in their living room, which opened to the kitchen and backed up to a sliding glass door leading to the patio. "We didn't really know what we were doing," concedes Woods. Prior to the show, Cary relaxed out back, while Cockrell held court on the couch as a baseball game played on TV. It wasn't clear how many people realized who he was as he casually commented on the action, an armchair Tim McCarver of sorts, albeit of higher pitch and fleeter intellect.
The band assembled its gear on the living room's area rug, and the audience closed rank around them, sitting or standing where they could. Amplification wasn't necessary, as the crowd was right there. Cockrell, who recently played before 15,000 fans in Nashville with his breakout band Leagues, insists that "it's scarier playing a living room with fifty people. It's so much more intimate. There's an energy that takes over ― you and them. It's a roller-coaster ride."
"You feel a little like you're naked on the first day of school, because you're practically singing in somebody's face," adds Cary. "Then there's the whole sensation of singing without microphones. It takes some getting used to, but it's awesome. It's just so immediate and intimate in a way a club show really can't be."
After the performance, Cary and Cockrell spent the night (separately, as the pair were never an offstage item) in the bedrooms of the Wood children. The ones decked out in superhero pillowcases. "There were a lot of less comfortable accommodations than that," says Cary of the rest of the tour, laughing. "I remember the slightly off sensation of kicking the kids out of their rooms. I remember when I was a kid, I wouldn't want some strange musician sleeping in my room."
It was a lucrative concert as well. Without having to split the door with the venue ― the Woods declined to profit from the venture ― and with a donation amount that far outstripped what they would have charged at a club at the time, Cary and Cockrell left with a handsome profit. Add in the peculiarly robust merchandise sales and free room and board, and, as Cary puts it, "You can really make some money."
"I've never played a house concert where all the seats aren't full," says Cary, for whom such shows are now a regular part of any tour. "It's almost always a guaranteed $1,000 gig or more, and with club shows, guarantees are an elusive creature. Filling up clubs is harder and harder these days. I find the new music business model kind of daunting."
She's not alone. While house shows ― or living-room shows, in the current vernacular ― have doubtless been around since the first caveman learned to bang a pair of rocks together and wail cacophonously, they've crystallized into a highly sophisticated and more fiscally prudent alternative to playing clubs and more traditional performance spaces. And while such venues are hardly a dying breed, they've shrewdly taken to partnering with the Woods of the world, collaboratively luring artists who might otherwise be inclined to bypass cities where they might only secure a lone and unpredictable club gig.
Lake Street Dive in Rick Wood's living room.
After hosting Cockrell and Cary, Rick Wood became hooked on the at-home template and has hosted a show each month ever since. He has become such a trusted curator that his concerts, which now boast a capacity of eighty spectators, sell out even if the act is not well-known, making him a sort of Coachella writ small. Wood is now able to offer artists guarantees ranging from $500 to $2,500 (soliciting a suggested donation of $15 to $35 per attendee, depending upon the act), and he has even landed a beer sponsor. Local microbrew Schlafly donates four cases per show in exchange for the right to hang a banner behind the band.
"The environment at Rick's place is really artist-friendly," says Steve Pohlman, owner of Off Broadway, the stalwart roots-rock venue south of downtown St. Louis. "It's always a sell-out. He's curated a large audience who trusts his judgment musically. That allows him to do what, in a perfect world, we'd all do." Pohlman's world, by his own admission, is far from perfect. Such is the existence of the owner of even a club as well-respected as Off Broadway.
"It's difficult to curate a room in the way Rick does and do 250 shows per year," explains Pohlman. "I think that because he's done such a good job with it, the economics are less variable to him. The thing that comes into play with us is there's going to be money that changes hands at the end of the night. Sometimes there's going to be enough money coming in at the door, sometimes there's not. Some nights we have great shows that not very many people attend."
Judging from such a frank assessment, it might seem as though Pohlman is seething with jealousy in regard to Wood's setup. But that's not the case. In fact, Pohlman and Wood are frequent business partners, joining forces a few years back when both set their sights on bringing singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw to St. Louis.
"We had mutual friends who knew Marshall Crenshaw," recalls Wood, who says he teamed up with Pohlman "for Marshall to fly in from the East Coast and have two gigs instead of booking a full tour." Shortly thereafter, Wood and Pohlman lured punk-turned-roots-rocker Alejandro Escovedo to their respective spaces with the same gambit. They've been teaming up ever since. "It makes St. Louis more attractive as a potential stop for them to know they can get two shows in one location," Pohlman explains.
And, counter-intuitively, it's often the house show that seals the deal.
"I don't think it's possible to overestimate how great it is for artists to play at Rick's place, and how much they enjoy it," says Pohlman. "A lot of the shows we sort of do together, the deciding factor is probably driven by Rick. It allows us to piggyback on that and get an artist who might not have come to the market to just do a club show. It gives them some certainty to come to town and know they'll have a great house show."
That's not to say all artists are in lockstep in their affinity for living-room shows; some are wary of ticking off venue owners with whom they've forged mutually beneficial relationships over the years. "I asked Fred Eaglesmith why he didn't play house shows, and essentially what he said was he wanted to have a club to play next time he comes to town," says Pohlman. "Some artists feel a partnership with venues. Venues provide a place for bands to play consistently over time that I think house shows, by their nature, don't."
James McMurtry, perhaps America's greatest living male songwriter, puts a finer point on it. "I don't like private shows," he says prior to playing a recent concert near Seattle. "You're a kept man; they own you for the night. A club show, it's a joint venture. I sell seats, the club sells liquor. It's much more comfortable. You might get screwed on the deal, but it's an honest fucking."
Alabama Shakes plays a small backyard house show as part of 2012's South by Southwest.
While Wood's house shows are regarded by Midwestern practitioners as critical to the flowering of the regional scene, the late '90s saw the emergence of a notable southeastern forerunner, with Cary and Cockrell factoring in there, as well.
Steve Gardner left Northern California for North Carolina's Research Triangle in 1996, intent on earning a graduate degree at the University of North Carolina and basking in a killer roots-music scene. He soon achieved neither goal. A gig spinning records at Duke University's campus radio station, WXDU (88.7 FM), begat a job with the seminal alt-country label Sugar Hill, which permanently waylaid Gardner's plans for higher learning.
But as immersed in music as he became, Gardner was frustrated by the lack of live programming that catered to listeners like him. "I moved to North Carolina and was expecting to see a lot of rootsy music," says Gardner, now a real-estate agent. "But I wasn't seeing much of it, and got tired of waiting."
As fatigue set in, Gardner and a friend, Bill Tolbert, rented a big house on a sprawling plot of land in Durham. Out front they salvaged a random sign that said Pine Hill Farm, assigned the moniker to the property, and in 1998 started booking private shows, charging $10 a head and skimming only for folding-chair rentals.
Over the next five years, Gardner and his roommates "did fifty or sixty shows in that house," stopping only when the home's owners ― who were completely oblivious of their tenants' endeavor despite ample press ― decided they wanted to move back in. In addition to local standouts like Cary and Cockrell, Gardner and his cohorts booked acts like Escovedo, the Drive-By Truckers, Tift Merritt, Josh Rouse, Richard Buckner, Bobby Bare Jr. and the Backsliders.
"They had such a big impact on the industry," says Cockrell of the Pine Hill concerts, who goes on to note that artists "realized they could do better playing these house concerts, where the homeowner is "not going to take money off the top, and you're gonna sell a helluva lot of merch." Whereas most of the house shows Gardner attended before relocating were staid affairs, he and his co-conspirators fostered a raucous atmosphere that had much in common with punk rock's longstanding embrace of the "play wherever" mindset.
"House shows are a little dull," observes Gardner. "Ours were younger; it was more of a party. People would be bringing their own drinks. A lot of bourbon was consumed. For the Drive-By Truckers, we told people to bring tents, and they camped out and played music until the sun came up. I could book almost anyone and it would sell out in a day or less. It's kind of every club owner's dream: to book good music and have lots of people show up."
As in St. Louis, however, those club owners didn't begrudge Gardner his dream. "The reason we started it is nobody was booking this kind of music, so nobody really cared," says Gardner. "Eventually it got to the point where we raised awareness of some of these artists, and they'd play one of the clubs in the future."
To this end, Cockrell credits that '05 gig at Wood's house for greasing the skids for prime club dates he might otherwise not have landed. "That St. Louis show was really special; it really helped substantiate us," says Cockrell. "When we came through the next time, there were 200-plus people at Blueberry Hill, and there's no way that would have happened had we not played that house concert."
Seattle indie rocker David Bazan is generally regarded as the reigning king of the house-show circuit, playing at least eighty living rooms per year. Bob Andrews is the man whose company books them. Over dinner recently, Bazan and Andrews sit next to each other at Seattle's Lost Lake Diner, a converted bathhouse that now serves as a 24-hour bar and eatery specializing in hearty American fare.
Bearded and balding, the bearlike Bazan orders a short glass of Fernet while Andrews summons a root beer. "People are more civilized and present at house shows," says Bazan, perhaps better known for his work as Pedro the Lion's frontman. "No one's got their phone out videoing the show, and there's no pee on the seat in the bathroom. You're performing in a place where someone really gives a shit about it, and people act accordingly."
Ironically, Bazan is about to play a club show on the night he's joined in the diner by Andrews. Bazan, who's prone to mellower compositions when playing alone, moonlights in a high-volume quartet called Overseas with fellow house-show aficionado Will Johnson (Centro-matic, Monsters of Folk). It's for acts like these that clubs still hold all the cards. "One thing about a club is you can bring a big, loud show, and that can be really beautiful and compelling," says Bazan. "You have volume limits to house shows."
Andrews is a family man who hastily agreed to act as road manager for Overseas after his predecessor abruptly bailed. In 1992, he moved to St. Louis and served as Uncle Tupelo's tour manager until the groundbreaking alt-country band broke up ("the explosion," Andrews calls it) two years later. Andrews went on to do the same job for Jeff Tweedy's spinoff group, Wilco, before quitting in 1996 to help form Undertow Music, a management company that got into the living-room biz by "total accident."
Bazan had just cut his debut LP as a solo artist in early 2009 and was waiting for his label, Barsuk, to put it out. Someone said Bazan should play living-room shows, apparently, "and we booked thirty shows through fans offering to host," says Andrews, who now lives in Champaign, Illinois. "They sold out in a week, and we said, 'Oh, this could be awesome.'"
It has been: Undertow now has a full-time staffer devoted to booking house shows for its stable of artists. The same staffer handles virtually all organizational details for those offering up their homes, save for unlocking the front door. Another advantage to house shows, says Bazan, is the ability to reach smaller markets.
"When you're playing club shows, there are eighty to 100 viable markets to play in the U.S.," he explains. "With house shows, that number jumps to 500 to 1,000. You can play as many towns as there are 50,000 people that live in the vicinity. That's the thing that really makes it work, especially for someone like me, who's trying to tour a lot. In 2012, I did eighteen weeks of house shows ― that's like 100 or so in every nook and cranny of the United States."
"It's incredible that I can play Medford, Oregon ― towns where it wouldn't justify rolling up and getting a hotel, where the overhead may not meet the income from a show," seconds John Vanderslice, a veteran San Francisco indie rocker who just completed his first Undertow-booked living-room tour.
"In general, you're going to make more money. The economics of me taking out my 2003 Corolla versus a fifteen-passenger van; getting multiple hotel rooms; playing a tour manager. Also, the unforeseen costs of keeping up gear ― the preparation for those tours ― it's just so much bulkier in every way. I'm a week away from leaving on a six-week club tour. It's so expensive to get out that I might as well stay out. With living-room tours, you can do fly-ins and piece them up however you want. It's so flexible."
"There are things that I love about playing clubs," he concludes. "There's something about standing in front of a killer drummer with a very loud guitar amplifier. But playing living rooms is pretty incredible, man. It can kind of renew your faith in music-making, and playing in clubs can kind of do the opposite."
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