The text message came out of nowhere. I saw my phone light up (I keep it on silent), so I took a quick peek. The message was from Rob Fetters.
I had just visited Rob at his home in Cincinnati a couple of months ago. He told me then that he was getting ready for a house concert in Vancouver, and that he might make a few stops on the way back.
“Looks like a house concert is on in Columbia (Missouri) September 21,” the text read. “Any chance you can go?” It was less than a two-hour drive. Lord knows I’ve driven much further to catch a gig.
As it happened, I was able to do a little schedule finessing (weekends off are rare for me), which allowed me to take the trip. And just like that, I was in my car, headed to Columbia for my first-ever house concert.
The music and musicians I love are mostly “outside” the mainstream music industry. Put another way, if the mainstream is Earth, then my music is the moon, dutifully orbiting and occasionally visible.
While Beyoncé and Taylor Swift trap the benefits of A-list entertainment finances, the musicians I admire continue to work the clubs, playing to loyal fan bases happy to see their favorite artists in an intimate setting. It’s great for the fans, but can be a bit more of a financial burden for the artists.
In the last couple of years, I’ve been hearing more and more about musicians playing “house concerts.” For an agreed upon fee, the artist literally comes to your home to perform, making for the most intimate of concerts.
What possesses a fan to invite an artist to play in his home? For Fetters fan Chris Cady, the answer was clear. “My brother was keeping awn eye on Rob’s Facebook page and saw that he was planning a trip from Cincy to Vancouver for a house concert, and was looking for places (to play) in between,” Cady said. “Rob’s been around long enough that he has fans practically everywhere. Well, we’re right on the way, so I sent Rob an email. We don’t normally correspond, but he knew who I was and my phone rang the same day!”
The cynics among us will snort, “I guess this is what it’s come to” when they hear about these shows. But for the artists and fans, this type of show is really a godsend. These concerts are probably as close to musical Nirvana as it gets. Think about it:
- Everyone is there to see the artist, and nothing else. Even in the smallest club setting, there are people there to socialize more than to see the show. A house concert takes that off the table. Once the show starts, everything else stops.
- The artists reaps maximum benefit. Overhead is minimal. There are no hidden fees or other financial surprises. There is no road crew or sound guy to pay. Anything sold — be it tickets or merchandise — goes directly to the artist.
- Interactions are next level. Artists are known for a little banter between songs. Sometimes, a fan is fortunate enough to be singled out, and is actually able to speak to the artist. At a house show, this is a frequent occurrence. Rob had just finished playing a song called “Success,” which he recorded with The Bears. When he couldn’t remember which album the song came from, he pointed to me. Luckily, I was on the ball and able to tell him the song came from Car Caught Fire. Everyone got a chance to talk to Rob both in between sets and after the show. I don’t think I’ve ever been bro-hugged so many times by a musician.
- We’re all fans. There may only be a couple of dozen of us there, but we know the artist, and we know the songs. No doubt Rob saw repeated smiles of familiarity as he worked his way through his set. When a song ended, we all remained completely silent until the very last strain of the song’s very last note faded away. Only then did we allow ourselves to applaud, to Fetters’s great amusement. “Swany,” he exclaimed, talking to his wife, “this is a great audience!”
- You’ll never be more comfortable. My hyper vigilance (an unfortunate by-product of my law enforcement career) rarely takes a day off. I’m always looking around me to see what’s happening and closely guarding my possessions. Always. Only a couple of hours after the show did I realize that I never looked behind me in the three hours Rob was on stage. Not once! What a great feeling!
I casually mentioned the subject of house concerts to my friend Jimmy Griffin, who has played before audiences of all sizes throughout the course of his career. “Man, I LOVE house concerts,” he told me. “You don’t have to deal with all the stuff that normally gets in the way of a good show. Plus, you know EVERYONE in the audience is there to see YOU!” Jimmy also casually added that he walked away from one particular house gig with a couple thousand dollars in his pocket. Not a bad night’s work!
Cady actually used his wood shop, lovingly called The Garage Majal, as the concert venue. There were 20 or so chairs, mostly provided by the audience. I failed to bring a chair, but I was quickly “escorted” to a seat in the front, off to Rob’s right. My own little V.I.P. section. How nice! “That was the first lumberyard I ever played in, but I loved it!” Rob exclaimed. “The sound was really great! There are people who would pay a lot of money to have a studio designed with all that wood.”
Rob played and talked for the better part of three hours. Not a single minute was boring. Fans always like to believe a musician playing onstage in front of a thousand people is performing strictly for them. Well in this case, he was! We were both taken by the way the audience held its collective response to songs until the very last note completely faded away. “The only time that’s ever happened is in house concerts,” Rob said. “I feel like I’m bringing the studio into people’s homes. Nobody wants to blow the fadeout with a squeaky chair or anything like that.”
Rob was also happy to be able to dig deep into his musical repertoire, which includes solo songs as well as tunes from The Bears, The Raisins and The Psychodots. “I’m playing at least three album’s worth of material. I feel like I’m able to give a really good accounting fro myself,” he said. “When you’re in a band, the focus is a little tighter. And of course, I played with really great songwriters. If I’m lucky in a night, eight or nine songs will be songs that I wrote. (House concerts) are just really satisfying.”
Some people say they have no trouble with public speaking, but one on one conversations can be a big problem. I wondered if Rob experienced something similar at house shows. Was knowing everyone was hanging on every word tough to deal with? “It’s anything but a distraction,” he said with good cheer. “It’s attention and focus. We’re all in this together!”
Not that there aren’t things to worry about, he added. “There’s nothing to cover up my mistakes,” he said with a laugh. “It’s much more of a tightrope act. It’s demanding, but it’s a really good demand. By the end of those nights, I sleep really well!”
The financial aspect of house shows is definitely better than most people imagine. “I think if I did nothing but this I could probably sustain myself,” Rob said. “I think I’d like to play this on a big stage to a lot of people. I could do this in a club. But once you’re in a club, it’s chairs moving and people chattering in the back, things like that.”
Both Jimmy and Rob see more house concerts in their future. The benefits far outweigh the detriments. Given the state of the modern industry, the thought of playing intimate gigs to dedicated fans in small venues where the artist keeps most of the take should be very appealing. The cynics shouldn’t scoff. They don’t know what they’re missing.
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