By John Seven
WILLIAMSTOWN – The news is filled with stories about the faltering music industry, but there is one area where the music business is booming – in private houses, where some musicians have begun performing intimate shows for small audiences, and getting paid well for their time.
It hearkens back as far as the days of Mozart, when music was performed in the parlors of the rich, and has recently made a big comeback, especially in the classical and folk worlds. Quite different from the prognosis of big record labels, this is one area of the music world that leaves everyone – artist and consumer – happy. “It’s one of the few things in the arts I have ever seen, where everyone feels like they got a good deal at the end of the night,” said Doug Hacker, who runs an on-going series of house concerts out of his own home in Williamstown.
Hacker’s Billsville House Concert is a great success and yet Hacker gets no money for it. The performer gets 100 percent of the money taken in – donations from the attendees, which usually number around 40 to 50 people – plus free room and board. The audience gets an intimate concert experience. Hacker and his family get time with some of their favorite musicians. Everyone bypasses a middle man.
“The idea of the house concert in some respects parallels the do-it-yourself ethic of a lot of musicians working today,” Hacker said. “Musicians have embraced this do-it-yourself ethic that pushes recording your own music, doing your own marketing,
doing your own social networking, and house concerts are in parallel with that. You can think of it as doing your own concert.”
The process is straight-forward – Hacker takes donations, 100 percent of which he hands over to the musicians. In return, they perform. Then they eat and sleep.
The desire to host concerts began to cross Hacker’s mind as he found it increasingly difficult to see live music. With two kids, it wasn’t easy – nor always affordable – to take off for Northampton to catch a band. He certainly wasn’t likely to do so casually.
It was after friends in North Adams hosted a house concert that Hacker began to consider the idea more seriously. He and the others in attendance had a blast and Hacker began to think about extending that experience.
“I was stewing on that when a music blogger that I’m friends with posted she was going to host a house concert for one of my favorite musicians of the last few years, a guy named Joe Pug,” said Hacker. “I immediately called her and said, ‘How is it that Joe Pug is playing your house?’ She had always been a big public supporter of his music and she said, ‘Well, they called me and said he had a date off between.’ She lives in Colorado and he was traveling across the country and thought it would be a good idea. So I said, “Well, I’m going to call Joe Pug.”
Hacker did just that, and within two hours of emailing Pug’s manager, he got a confirmation that Pug would play the house concert. At Hacker’s place, 40 people showed up – Hacker had gotten the word out largely through social media and email to his friends – and not only was a good time had by the crowd, but Hacker saw first-hand how he was actually being paid for arranging the show.
“The first night, I’m sitting on my couch watching a guy play, who I’ve been following for the last two years, and just loving and he’s asking me for a personal request,” he said. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
That has continued to be the payback for Hacker over the last year. He hosted 16 shows in 2011 with more to follow in 2012, and can boast as many meaningful experiences that never would have transpired in a typical performance spot.
“We get to hang out with the band,” Hacker said. “I have an 8-year old and a 12-year old, who both really dig music, and they get to hang out with the band and see the musicians and what they’re really like. My oldest one is quite the guitar player now, he sits around and jams with people when he can. It’s really just a great experience for us and you couldn’t measure that in dollars one way or the other.”
“In the real hard-core world, I’m paying to feed them, we’re spending our free time cleaning the house and preparing it for people to come in, but we’re not compensated in any way other than that.”
The economics of performing a house concert is great for a band and Hacker has found that the sound business sense has accounted for an over-80 percent rate of commitment from the performers – and most of the time, when the musician does say no, it’s just because a day off is a bigger desire than anything else.
“If you take a five-person band, which we’ve had a few of, they have to put themselves up, feed themselves, pay for gas money, versus coming to our house and playing. It’s sometimes as much as a $1,200 to $1,300 difference in one day,” Hacker said. “Since we charge between $10 and $15, and we can fit like 55 people in the house, it’s a pretty big thing to be able to pull something like that off. It’s hard to say no to, in a lot of respects.”
Hacker targets a certain kind of act. One criteria is that they are a band he is interested in – it is, after all, his house. Another is that the performer can work in an almost entirely unplugged arrangement – his living room offers minimal amplification.
This demand favors folk-oriented acts, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions. One band that recently played, Kingsley Flood, is known for their loud and raucous shows in Boston, but Hacker’s house offered them the chance to reveal their energy in a completely different way.
Hacker also pays attention to the venue level that the performer is used to – he doesn’t want to waste anybody’s time by making offers to someone who would never do a house concert.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been able to get some names that can be a huge draw. Canadian singer Dan Mangen played for 40 people in Hacker’s living room, and then left to sing for 12,000 in Albany – and that’s not counting the crowds he gets in his own country.
The David Wax Museum played for 50 people at Hacker’s place – two weeks later, they were on the main stage at the Newport Folk Festival.
“Some of the musicians are used to playing house concerts, some not so much, some embrace the idea when it’s the first time they’ve heard it,” Hacker said, “but generally speaking, what we refer to as the indie music world has not really embraced the idea of house concerts yet, like the folk music world did.”
“For a lot of these bands, it was a convenience thing, something between the 20 gigs you would do in dark bars in the Northeast, you might stay at a friend’s house and play for them. I think it’s just starting to click in for a lot of people in the indie band world that the economics of this makes a lot more sense and really follows the line with the do it yourself stuff than they might have realized.”
Hacker hasn’t yet had to deal with getting too big for his living room in any regular way – a couple shows last year were performed in a barn on the outskirts of Williamstown because Hacker knew there would be well over 100 people at them – but he doesn’t see the problem in having a limited number of seats available.
“It’s a good thing to sell out,” he said. It’s a good thing to turn people away. If I thought about it as a business, literally the goal is to give the bands as much money as you can while making sure everybody’s comfortable and entertained, so there’s no reason to overcrowd things because that’s not going to work well for somebody. ” Hacker admits that he has an entrepreneurial side, but it stops short of becoming a forprofit venture for the simple reason that he doesn’t buy into that model as a workable one, or one that offers the same rewards he – and the musicians and the attendees – currently reap. “As soon as you inject the idea of business in this, everything falls apart,” said Hacker. “The motivations of everyone are different. I don’t think my success rate at getting bands I want to see in my house would be anywhere near what it is if there was some sort of profit motive involved, nor would the atmosphere be the same or anything else. It’s on this beautiful balance right now.”
Hacker’s show schedule can be found online at billsvillehouseconcerts.com. The next show is on Friday, Jan. 13, at 8 p.m., featuring Spirit Family Reunion.