Produce Your Own Music Show (part 1)

Aside from weddings, people who do not work in an entertainment business rarely think about booking live musicians. But arranging to have a small house or gallery concert can be easier and more affordable than you may think, as well as more enjoyable.

All you need for space is a living room or dining room whose furniture can be arranged to have room for 1-3 people and their instruments at one end/side, and for your audience to sit in folding chairs/ on pillows, etc. Alternatively, you may find an art gallery, store, or other space that will rent its use to you for a reasonable fee – for instance, Outpost 186 in Cambridge is available for $75 an evening.

Next choose your performer(s). A solo acoustic singer/songwriter/performance artist will be easiest to fit into a residential space, but I’ve performed with 4-5 piece bands at house parties. The questions to ask a band who will perform in your residence include:

  1. Can you play acoustically, or nearly so? (Bass guitarists will probably need to use a small amp)
  2. If there’s a drummer, can s/he play a minimal kit, or alternative percussion like a cajon (box drum) or other hand drum?
  3. If the singer(s) will need a microphone can they bring their own setup (mic/stand/amp)?

Note: if you are renting a performance space ask if they have a small PA system and mics – Outpost does.

How to find performers:

♦ Do you have a favorite singer/songwriter who tours through your area? Look at their upcoming schedule – if they are performing at a public venue in your area, and have a couple days on either side of that date before they appear at their next location (or if they are playing 2 locations between which you are on their route, e.g., they are in NYC on Sunday and VT on Wednesday, and you are in MA)  contact them to ask if they’d like to do a house concert on one of their off days. Most performers love the chance to make a bit of extra cash on the road. It may be even more appealing if you can put them up for the night and make breakfast before they travel on!

♦ Ask a local band you’ve enjoyed at a club/bar. If they are normally very loud you will have to ask whether they can do an acoustic version of their act – some may never have tried but may find it entertaining/enlightening to do so. E.g., there’s a history of Punk bands playing “folk” style at times. It doesn’t hurt to ask, and may result in a unique experience for everyone (what would acoustic Death Metal sound like?!)

♦ The website Concerts In Your Home provides a database of over 400 house-concert-friendly performers which you may search by location, genre, etc. Also check out their free guide to hosting a concert.

A few Boston-area musicians I can recommend personally:

  • Kate Chadbourne is a singer, storyteller, and poet whose performances combine traditional tales with music for voice, harp, flutes, and piano. Rating: G
  • Beth DeSombre, singer/songwriter/guitarist, sings new songs that spring from old traditions, telling the stories of people and places along life’s crooked highways. Rating: G-PG
  • jojo Lazar “the burlesque poetess” is a parlour room seance crasher, a petite one-woman vaudeville variety show. She brings asymmetric costumes, a surreal sense of humour and inapproetry/commissioned verse to suit any speak-easy occasion. She can be seen ukulele ladying in Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken TOys, The Tiny Instrument Revue, GIRLS SO LOUD and more. Rating: PG-R

 What is this going to cost?

That depends on how long you want the performers to perform, whether this is a private performance for just your friends (and if they are guests vs being asked to contribute), or you are going to open it to the public. Some things to keep in mind re the financial aspect:

♦ If you wish to share the cost of having the performer(s) play you cannot “sell tickets” to an event in a private residence in most locales – bars and clubs need to get entertainment licenses, and you can be busted for operating a club without a license… so if you are advertising a house concert you may “suggest” a donation amount but cannot turn away someone who won’t pay it.

♦ If you are collecting donations to pay the performers do confirm enough of your friends will come (and donate!) to make it worthwhile for them to include the stop/haul over their gear and play.

♦ If the performer has merchandise (CDs, buttons, tees, etc) do let them sell to your audience. Performers actually have much better merch sales at house concerts than at public venues – probably because people get to know them personally.

♦ If you’d rather avoid asking for donations and just host an event with live music, most performers will quote you a fixed price. If you’ve only priced wedding bands, don’t be afraid! Professional wedding bands do a lot of work – playing for hours, acting as MC of the reception, taking requests, etc – and get paid top dollar. But a solo performer playing for an hour will be considerably less than a wedding band.

♦ Having said that, please do not try to low-ball the performer! You are not just paying for an hour or 2 of their time, and their gas money… you are getting someone who has spent years practicing, taking lessons, buying & maintaining instruments, etc.

Recently I hosted a surprise house concert for my partner’s 65th birthday. I hired a local musician who I knew my partner had seen and enjoyed previously (etiquette tip: when selecting music for a guest of honor, choose to their taste, not your own!) and asked friends with a better house layout than ours to host. The 20 guests had a refreshingly different experience, and my partner said it was the best birthday present ever! And even counting the expense of a large cake and ancillary party items it cost me  less than a weekend for two in NYC or Provincetown.

[Part Two will go into some specific tips about running the event]

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