No need to knock, just come on in

The concept of house concerts is not a new one. From the days of Mozart, to the folk artists of the 1950s, to the Ottawa punks now, musicians have been entertaining audiences in living rooms, basements, and backyards for ages.

John Higney, a musicologist at Carleton University, said the reasons house shows exist has changed over the years.

“Rock music has always had a DIY element but more recently house shows seem to be driven more by a scarcity of places to play than economic necessity,” Higney said. “This scarcity might be simply too few or unwilling venues or because fans under the age of majority cannot attend shows where alcohol is served.”

House concerts are often organized by individuals using this DIY element but there are organizations in the Ottawa area devoted to organizing house concerts. Arnie Francis, co-founded a non-profit initiative for jazz artists and lovers, jazzn.ca, to help organize in-house jazz concerts.

With the help of local businesses, volunteers, and a set number of houses that have been donated by individuals in the community, Francis and his partner work out the details for every show so the host has little to do.

“Hosts get to practice the art of hospitality with little of the hassle of invitations, RSVPs, clean-up, or organization,” Francis said.

House concerts also provide other things bands and concert-goers are sometimes missing from bars or concert halls. Higney said house shows serve a different crowd.

“House shows have a completely different social dynamic and tend to attract dedicated fans who behave according to the practice of the genre,” he said.

Scott Terry, a guitarist for the bands The Fucking Machines, Trees of North America, Camp Radio and MIG20, said the close proximity between bands and the audience at house concerts makes for a memorable experience.

“As an artist, I loved being on the same level as the crowd, sweating, dancing, and having them sing along. Worked the same way as a concert-goer for me too,” Terry said. “Screaming “fuck you” repeatedly into a mic while being entangled in its cable with the singer from Trail of Dead was a pretty memorable experience.”

As an audience member, every spot in the house is a great one because of one’s proximity to the band.

“An intimate acoustic guitar gathering or show will be completely different in a house show setting as opposed to a bigger venue,” Terry said.  “A raging punk show in a packed, sweaty basement is an ethereal experience—one that I don’t think could be matched in a club or bar. It may come close, but the camaraderie of house shows is pretty impressive.”

Jake Bornheimer, a member of the band Herons Wake, said he finds it more comfortable to play at a house show and with the recent loss of a few smaller venues in town, house concerts are a good alternative to try new things.

“[House concerts] are certainly a safer space to try out new sounds and songs that you might not want to do elsewhere,” Bornheimer said. “With the loss of three of Ottawa’s best small venues last year, there has really been a need for more safe spaces for smaller bands to play in.”

Mike Kelly, drummer of Clavius Control, echoed this sentiment.

“With so many sub genres emerging, house concerts are a more accessible option for bands which play styles of music that may not have as “marketable” of a sound,” Kelly said.

Although the amount varies, house concerts usually provide guaranteed revenue for the bands.

Through jazzn.ca, Francis said artists usually get “better-than-scale compensation.”

House concerts not organized in the same way still get compensated either through a set amount at the door or a pay-what-you-can (PWYC) system.

“Money-wise, house shows are better for [small] artists. PWYC models dominate and actually end up paying better than shows I do in established venues,” Bornheimer said. 

Musicians often also have the opportunity to sell merchandise at house concerts, where the money goes straight to the artist.

“Artists directly benefit from the sense of community this environment fosters,” Higney said. “A real sense of loyalty and personal connection exists here and many tell you that they sell significantly more merch at these shows than in bars or larger concert venues.”

Another option related to house concerts is live streaming of shows. Bands can play from their gig space and with the use of streaming technology, possibly reach hundreds of people without having moved any of their gear.

Shane Whitbread, guitarist for Loviatar and a solo artist, said he’s become more interested in this idea as technology becomes affordable and allows his music to be more easily accessed.

“I think this is coming from no space being ideal,” Whitbread said. “Bars and real venues are limited to what sells drinks and puts asses in the seats, house shows often have subpar gear, crappy power and can be incredibly clique-y. Art spaces are great but there are so few they are impossible to book. So the idea of streaming performances has become way more appealing to me.”

Streaming live performances does offer the possibility of reaching a bigger audience and lessens the burden on the band, but Higney said it misses the connection made with a live audience.

“The house show’s value, to both the audience and performer, in part lies in its scarcity. It will only happen once and only those in attendance will ever enjoy the experience,” Higney said. “Streaming live house shows undermines the scarcity . . . that imparts value to the live house how and, for this reason, I see the two as somewhat at odds.”

House concerts are definitely another option for bands wanting to play live in front of an audience. Not only do house concerts provide a safe and economically great place to play, they foster a sense of community.

With the number of bands currently from and outside of Ottawa wanting to play live and a lack of smaller venues in the city, alternative spaces for gigging are needed.