The new economic paradigm:

How house concerts and independent publishing are at the leading edge of a parallel universe of trade

vol. 1 issue 19


Recently, my husband and I attended a “house concert”. Our hosts established that their interest was in throwing a nice party for friends, and in our case, friends of friends, while supporting music they loved. Our only obligation as guests that night was to be respectful during the performance. Other than that, we were treated first to lovely food, wine, and convivial conversation in a bucolic setting, followed by an outdoor concert by a performer who was previously unknown to us.

On behalf of the performer, our hosts asked the audience to contribute to a collection as we each saw fit. They did this after the show was complete.

As we tucked our money into the collection, I considered that we were taking part in a novel economic model, one where consumers pay according to the value they assign to what they have already consumed, rather than paying first and hoping they get their money’s worth.

It is the refinement of a consumer-driven economy where caveat emptor is redefined as “buyer decide” rather than “buyer beware”.

The model has been profitable for Shannon Curtis, the performer that night. According to a popular book she wrote on how to succeed solely by performing in private homes, she grosses an average of $12,000 per month.

House concerts are exactly what the name implies: a concert held at someone’s home. Curtis is not the progenitor of this growing trend, although her book has established her as an authority in how to make it a career. Other itinerant performers have also created helpful literature, including this guide for potential hosts.

Curtis and husband-producer Jamie Hill embark from their home in Northern California each summer to travel an average of three months straight, traversing the continent and back again, performing up to 60 shows. Often, the venues are a back yard or other outdoor feature. Many concerts are held by the same hosts annually. There are variations on the model, but essential ingredients for success include unabashed self-promotion, skillful leverage of social media, meticulous scheduling, and a willingness to go pretty much wherever there is a demand for your sound and style.  

Curtis’s signature sound is more Laura Nyro meets Las Vegas than coffee house casual. After the host introduces her, she greets the group, shares a confessional story, performs a song to compliment it, repeating the cycle as she accompanies herself at an electronic keyboard with synthesizer, illuminated by atmospheric stage lighting. There is no back and forth with the audience during what amounts to an entire album’s worth of songs. It is not just a performance, but a show. She has memorized a script, there are cues for lighting and additional sound effects. The point is, she’s a professional.

Contrast this with another outdoor concert my husband and I attended recently at a nationally known venue. The tickets were not cheap, and they came with a hefty service fee. Parking was tedious, we were searched upon entry, and were searched again before being shown our seats which were about three feet from where we were told to guzzle down the rest of our bottle of picnic wine or dump it.

When the main act finally appeared on stage, we enjoyed hearing familiar songs played by two technically brilliant masters, yet both seemed disengaged, bored, and didn’t even bother to introduce the rest of the impressively talented band. Worse, the sound was not mixed properly and so much of the band’s output was distorted.

The more the former arrangement appeals to you, presumably, the more enthusiastic you will be about showing your appreciation when asked, and even to support the performers by purchasing merchandise from their pop-up store after the show.  In the latter arrangement, I was annoyed to have been taken for granted by the celebrity musicians – no matter how brilliant their talent – after having put considerable time, effort, and inconvenience into supporting them. I certainly had no interest in their merchandise.

Before the house concert, Curtis introduced herself to everyone present, thanked us all individually for being there, and developed a feel for the vibe she was playing to. She told me post-concert that 30 audience members is her ideal size, as it affords “the right intimacy”. At the celebrity tour gig, the band leaders didn’t bother to acknowledge that the weather was crap but there we all were anyway, all several thousand of us. Really, not even a hello. Because they disappointed me in this way, I doubt I will go see them live again, even if I continue to be a fan of their music.

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Curtis’s focus on creating intimacy helps ensure she makes a good living: if the 1,800 people who attend her shows (60 concerts x 30 audience members per show) each put $20 in the collection, that’s $36,000 after three months. Add to that the sales of merchandise, and it’s clear that unless Curtis has dreams of immense stardom, she needs no record label or distributor.

In truth, not all musicians or artists do have dreams of immense stardom. They just want to get paid to do what they love and are trained to do. All the better that they are able to interact with fans who appreciate their work and who pose no threat, physical or otherwise; the very nature of the private host model means guests are vetted before being allowed into the venue.

This intimate model does away with reliance on the entrenched corporate channels that limit an artist’s access to essential resources if they are to have a career: means of production, promotion, and distribution. In the direct-to-consumer scenario, the money that Curtis and others like her make is their own to invest in the resources that will continue to propel their careers.

It may seem like a lot to gross $12,000 per month, but their overhead certainly limits their margins. Curtis and musicians like her also must create financial cushions to pay the bills when they are using down time to write songs, produce new material, and just recuperate from the rigors of the road.

What they lose in the margins, however, they will make up for in autonomy. A powerful difference between house concerts and the traditional model of music sales is that self-employed performers like Curtis do not lug around an entire industry of middlemen who need justification for their salaries.

In the music industry, a lot of money and resources are spent keeping the structure in place, including on people whose job it is to convince you that you like and want to hear certain artists – even artists who have grown bored. The promotional team themselves them might not even care for the music they promote, but they do care about a paycheck. Meanwhile, Curtis’s truly consumer-driven model is nimble and authentic.

Another plus of the direct-to-consumer model is that audience members already have been qualified as potential buyers by the hosts. If this puts you off, consider the difference in psychology between this model and a multi-level marketing scheme where you recruit friends to be members of a salesforce, make them buy the products you sell, and hope they meet their sales targets because your own income depends upon it. To me, this sounds stressful, even tacky. With a house concert, friends need only be good guests. You’d likely expect that from them anyway.

This model is unlikely to replace corporate music, nor should it, at least not any time soon. Live music fans such as myself will continue to go to large venue concerts, even if we are choosy about them; not all big names are disrespectful to their audiences. Plus, much of the music industry is publicly traded, and is important to the economy in other ways. Yet, the direct-to-consumer model expands the marketplace for live music since the hosts, who do not typically take a cut of the earnings, make possible the low-cost delivery of the music. This leads to a greater supply of live music for an even greater number of fans who might not want to or can’t afford to spend money on tickets to live shows at established venues.

On the demand side, if a fan doesn’t get an invitation, then he or she is free to be host concerts themselves. Often, house concerts are co-hosted by groups of friends who pool their resources.

Naturally, as a journalist who chose to leave corporately owned media to publish independently, I am sympathetic to the house concert model. My product’s value is not determined by me but by members, nor are my costs determined by traditionally requisite overhead that an industry says I must carry if I am to succeed. But what I love best of all is that I am writing with service, not profit, top of mind. I cannot afford to be cynical and just assume that because I generate content, I should be rewarded with your time, attention, and financial support. And the revenues I generate are invested in expanding my ability to serve.

It occurred to me while driving home from the pleasant evening: House concert muscians and independent publishers are not rejecting our system of commerce, we’re not even modifying it. We’re existing along side of it, creating an entirely new system, one that is predicated on community. Fans of house concert musicians are not going to give up on bigger name musicians who might be supported by the old structures, but whose talent is what largely got them where they are. Neither would I ever expect my readers to abandon the New York Times for what I offer.

But, because the economic model house concert musicians and independent publishers such as myself are creating is not driven by policymakers, economists, or legislators, we are free to respond to our audiences organically, to nourish their needs while also meeting our own.

Isn’t that the real goal of a free market?

We arrived at the house concert as strangers that night. We came away members of an amicable group who’d been empowered to choose how we wanted to participate in the marketplace. No one was shortchanged, no one was harmed. In essence, the new economic vehicle is community.

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(photo credit: Blair Fishburn. Shannon Curtis and Jamie Hill at House Concert at Pleasant Hills Farm, Darnestown, Md.)