Berlin, community, community-building, Couchsurfing, Croxton Records, DIT, DIY, DO, earning a living, Europe, food, friends, GOOD, house concert, How Do?, intimacy, Konzert, live music, Mick Thomas, musician, new ideas, potluck, sharing, Sofa Salon, Suzanna Espie, touring, wine, Wohnzimmer
Around 2007, legendary Australian songwriter Mick Thomas told me a story about one of the artists on his Croxton Records label, the great soul-country singer Suzannah Espie. She had booked two gigs a week apart in Perth, some 3,400km away from her home in Melbourne. The cost of two return airfares was prohibitively high, some AUD$600. Suzannah rang the venues and anyone she knew in South-West Australia and asked if they could help her find some fill-in gigs to get her through the week. What she found was a handful of willing hosts who offered to put her up, feed her and invite their friends around and pass the hat if she’d play a concert.
After permanently relocating to Berlin in 2009, and remembering Suzannah’s story, I started my own monthly Berlin house concert series called Sofa Salon and started touring Europe as a solo musician under the name Wasp Summer. Over two years, my planning preferenced house concerts, filling in with some club gigs rather than using house shows as convenient, short-lead-time fill-ins for a club show tour.
Most of my touring is organised through the various Couchsurfing.org forums devoted to house concerts. Most of the Sofa Salon artists come from personal recommendations, email requests and acts that I see or hear of personally.
I love hosting, watching and playing house concerts for the same reasons that I like dinner parties more than nightclubs – intimacy, connection, attention. It’s one of the great pleasures of my life in Berlin to sit in front of great singer-songwriters and hear them in company but with few distractions. The audience necessarily offers a higher level of attention which encourages the performer to offer greater intimacy and honesty no matter their style. It can be confronting for first-time guests and performers alike but most participants come away beaming. A large part of the audience for Sofa Salon comes from repeat visitors and word-of-mouth guests.
As hostess, guest and performer, I’ve discovered there are as many different ways to host a house concert as people to host them. I’ve played house shows in France, Germany, Australia and Spain – all with different policies on inviting guests, raising money for the artist, food, drink.
There are some general underlying principles to hosting a house concert.
1. Your musician should be paid.
Some hosts will never charge an entry fee on principle, but will pass the hat for the musician. The risk is that your guests won’t be generous. One night, I made 20€ after travelling 6 hours and playing for 1 1/2 hours. O the next your, I made 240€ from the hat and CD sales. Some, like myself, set an entry fee to guarantee a base level of income. I aim for 100€ per artist but I can guarantee at least 30 people at every Sofa Salon. Some hosts set a ‘suggested donation’ of 5-20€. Some artists with a bigger profile ask for a set fee and ask the host to arrange to cover it. As you like.
2. Offer dinner, drinks, accommodation
I always offer a bottle of wine and dinner for my artists as part of the deal. On tour, I am nearly always offered accommodation as part of the deal. Frequently, I am picked up from the train station. This makes touring much more cost efficient for the musician and is greatly appreciated.
3. Bring an audience.
There are various ways to arrange this. Some hosts like to make their events open to the public. Some only invite personal friends. Some find guests through facebook or couchsurfing events. With Sofa Salon, I have created a Berlin-wide network of hosts and, to protect their security, I only accept reservations by email and only send the address a day prior to the show to people who have reserved. It also gives me new names for my Sofa Salon email list which runs to over 1000 people after 2 1/2 years of shows.
Other variations on the hospitality theme include running a cash bar with cheap drinks or allowing the guests to BYO, making food to share or asking guests to bring food for a potluck dinner and hosting outdoors in the Summertime.
Why should you DO a house concert? If you love music, you can have it as a living intimate part of you life, witnessing excellent performance up close. You can gather your friends and community together for a heart-opening experience of sharing. You can offer practical and material support to touring musicians. There’s no reason why this could not be extended to film, dance, activist talks, educational nights, slide nights with visual artists. It’s an open-source, open-ended, community-building activity and it’s the best thing I ever created.