Listening Rooms and House Concerts by Mike Turner

Two emerging trends here in the United States, offer options for writers seeking venues for the performance of original songs: the “listening room,” and “house concerts.”

It’s a sad fact that live venues most often available to local writer/performers – restaurants and bars/pubs – are not optimal for the performance of original music. Why? Because such venues are not primarily dedicated to music performance, and not all patrons are primarily there for the musical experience. Restaurants, bars/pubs and the like exist primarily for eating, drinking and socializing. Live music, when offered, is principally there as an adjunct to those activities – “background noise,” as it were. Yes, live acts are used as a draw for patrons – but the primary business of these establishments is eat/drink, and truth be told, that’s the major reason most patrons are there, too.

So the audience is automatically focused on things other than music: their food, their drinks, their family and friends. They’re not primarily focused on the music; they’re certainly not focused on lyrics and music they’re unfamiliar with, or have never heard before. Cover tunes they know and can groove along with may, perhaps, temporarily distract them from the primary reasons they’re present. But songs they’ve never heard before? It’s possible they’ll listen – but it’s just as likely that they’ll push the music to the background and focus on other things.

So, if restaurants, bars and pubs aren’t the best venues for those of us performing original tunes, what are our options? What venues can we find where the focus is on the music and performance?

Here in the States, two options have developed: the listening room, and the house concert. A listening room is a business venue – perhaps the basement or back room of a restaurant or bar/pub, perhaps a room dedicated to the purpose – that is set aside to present artists in an environment where the focus is on a respectful, attentive audience experience. Generally, no food, or the most basic of snack-type foods (chips/crisps, etc.) and only a minimal bar (beer/wine/soft drinks) is offered. Patrons are actively discouraged from talking, texting, etc. while the performance is underway. The setting is designed to be intimate – seating typically might accommodate 40-50 patrons, although some are larger – and to facilitate a closer connection and interaction between performers and audience.

Because the listening room is a business, there’s usually a set admission price, often termed an “artist donation.” Some listening rooms pay the full gate to the artist; others have an agreed-upon split to help the venue cover costs. Generally (though not always) the venue keeps the full amount of bar receipts. The artist typically will be given a small table to display “brand” items (CDs, DVDs, posters, etc) for sale, with the artist keeping the receipts. A key concept here is that the venue will expect to make money to cover costs and expenses.

A house concert, by contrast, is a private function hosted in a private residence (or, more rarely, in a venue such as a reception hall, rented expressly for the purpose). The host is typically a fan of the performer, and networks with other fans to provide a core audience. The key concept here is, “private function.” Attendance is by invitation only. The “house” typically does not provide food or drink; audience members may be encouraged to bring a dish to pass, pot-luck style, and to bring their own beverages. Like the listening room, the “house” will suggest an “artist donation” from attendees, but it is not mandatory – a key point in the US, which helps to avoid potential tax and business implications for charging admission. Unlike the listening room, the “house” makes no money from the event – proceeds from the “artist donations” go to the artist.

Publicity may be split between the venue and the performer – but it’s important to note that operators of listening rooms and house concerts, will expect the performer to work her/his fan base in the area to bring in attendees. House concert hosts in particularly, since they typically are fans of the performer, will network with other local fans to build a core audience for the show. But the room/house operators will be keeping their expenses to a minimum, so artists are expected to bring a good part of their audience to a given venue for their show.

You can sense that these are more guidelines than hard-and-fast “rules” for either type of venue. The important points of distinction are the “business” character of the listening room, versus the “private function” character of the house concert. Audience size is limited to, in the case of listening rooms, what the fire marshal allows for occupancy of a given room; and for house concerts, what the house will reasonably hold (and what the neighbors will reasonably put up with!).

Both of these types of concerts are trending “up” here in the US. Both overcome the typical issues of a restaurant/bar/pub. The concert is specifically dedicated to the music. Distractions such as food/drink service are kept to a minimum or eliminated altogether. Patrons are encouraged to focus on the performance and discouraged from talking or engaging in other activities that distract from the performers. Interaction between artists and audience is facilitated and encouraged.

Listening rooms and house concerts are not just for local performers. They are increasingly being used as platforms for regional, and even national, touring artists. An artist doing a tour of major cities in a region, can look for listening rooms in intermediate cities to set up gigs between tour dates. And artists are using social media platforms to find fans in smaller locales to host house concerts. In some cases, the host may also provide meals and a couch to crash on, to hold down the artist’s expenses.

The result is rewarding for both artist and audience. I’ve performed my original songs in both bars/pubs and listening rooms, and attended small house concerts. The experience is like night and day. As a performer, in the listening room/house concert environment, you can more directly engage the audience with comments about your songs, banter, and more emotional input in your performance. And you can far more readily gage audience reaction – which songs connect, which songs perhaps need more work. As an audience member, you can actually listen to the songs, hear and understand the lyrics, catch the nuances of performance, feel a direct connection with the artist. The musical experience is enriched for everyone involved.

There is ample information available on the Internet about how to set up a listening room or house concert experience. Both are viable options for writers looking to showcase their works to audiences who are there to listen. Consider the listening room/house concert options when planning your future gigs.

10 Responses to Listening Rooms and House Concerts by Mike Turner

  1. Sean Hunt 20th October 2017 at 9:17 am #

    Agreed. Cafes are also a possibility. Think of Greenwich Village days, though I wasn’t there, I suspect the audiences were much more respectful and less intent on competing fpr air time and sabotage. The band I was playing in believed the goal was to entertain this audience with ‘covers’, to demand their attention, fight for it. Ergo I have gone solo recently 🙂 But I am discouraged by the typical pub open mic scene here in the UK and will have to create what has been suggested here. I will be interested in hearing the thoughts of others.

    • nick cody 20th October 2017 at 9:37 am #

      I’m not a fan of UK pub scene where IMO there’s no listening audience, BUT I think there’s a gap in the market for great live music that’s smart and well delivered. Mike’s article gives me some hope…

    • Mike Turner 20th October 2017 at 4:12 pm #

      The Greenwich Village coffee house scene in the 50s/60s is a great comparison – take a look at the movie, “Inside Llewyn Davis” and note the coffee house scene – also any 50s-era music that depicts a jazz club – the sllent, respectful and attentive audiences you see there are very similar to today’s listening room/house concert environment.

  2. Harry Parker 21st October 2017 at 11:37 am #

    This is a fascinating idea. I was at an event in Howarth in Yorkshire where Ukulele groups from around the region all had their own spot all playing covers. Then one group had the audacity [sic] to play an original and announced in advance they were playing an original and asked the audience to be less boisterous and listen carefully. This did NOT go down well with the predominately ‘join in sing-a-long’ audience so the announcement was greeted with some sarcastic murmuring and trips to the bar. Kind of validates Nick’s observation that there needs to be a new way of presenting original music. I like these listening room/house concert ideas.

    • nick cody 21st October 2017 at 11:50 am #

      This does not surprise me at all and reinforces my view that often 9not always) uke events and festivals are leaning more towards karaoke that with a focus on listening to the artists. I accept that there’s a market for that, but its not one I want to be a part of. I also think such mediums have a very limited life span and we can see this in the decline in numbers at many events and some calling it a day. Its all personal choice of course but I remain hopeful that there are appreciative listening audiences out there who come to listen to the artists play.

      • Harry Parker 21st October 2017 at 12:58 pm #

        I wouldn’t go as far as to say they’re not for me – there’s a great synergy in singing along with a group of mixed ability that I really like. I’m just saying that covers and originals don’t mix unless you’re an artist with a devoted following who hang on your every note.

        • nick cody 21st October 2017 at 1:48 pm #

          Yes sing alongs can be fun. When Jessica runs her end of term uke classes I usually provide PA and run sound. Its a fun evening of students playing cover versions. As you say its a different dynamic and I think this is one of the problems some uke event promoters have. The “uke specific audience” often (not always) wants familiar cover versions and to join in with the artist. I hear some horror stories about this. One of the ideas of OUS was to demonstrate that the instrument can engage a much bigger audience with original material. Its definitely NOT the safe option, but if the songs are well crafted an audience will respond if its open minded. Of course an audience that groans at the very idea of something new is not going to be a good fit!

  3. Steve Williams 19th April 2018 at 8:36 am #

    Interesting. What is the experience of others in the UK playing in folk clubs? They are listening rooms of a sort.

    • nick cody 19th April 2018 at 8:45 am #

      I think these clubs are similar in that they are a place for a listening audience. The challenge with uke festivals/events is that a high proportion of the audience want to play (and god forbid join in) rather than listen to the seasoned performers. Neither is ‘right” but this is one of the reasons why I won’t have my bands play uke festivals!

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