Just in case you missed the Damien Jurado performance at Exile on Main Street back in February — a show that was a part of his house show tour — you can read about it via Pitchfork's feature. Joel Oliphint spent some with with Jurado and "breaks down the emotional — an financial — rewards of this new generation of fireside concerts."
Toward the end of 2008, David Bazan—best known as the former frontman of Seattle indie rockers Pedro the Lion—learned that the release date for his first solo record, Curse Your Branches, was getting pushed back. That wouldn’t have been a huge deal, except that his label, Barsuk, didn’t want him to do a club tour until the record came out. “It was going to be about 11 months with no income,” Bazan says.
Aided by some beer, the singer and his manager, Bob Andrews of Undertow Music, started brainstorming in the basement of Andrews’ home in Champaign, Illinois. Andrews was in a tight spot, too. “At that point, [Bazan] was my primary source of income,” he says. “We were both like, ‘What do we do now?’”
Bazan told Andrews he was up for anything that involved playing his music for money—even house shows. Andrews was hesitant at first. He wondered if a house tour would look bad for an artist who was previously playing for hundreds of fans in rock clubs, but Bazan quickly sold him on the idea. Andrews first tried to tap into a network of people who host house shows regularly, but few were interested; they were more into rootsy, Americana songwriters. So Andrews and Bazan went directly to the fans.
“We put an email out to do 30 shows, and we had 300 offers back in two days,” Andrews says. “So we put those together, and they all sold out in two days. It was crazy.”
Even with the great response, there was some trepidation. Would the model work? Would it be awkward? Would a crazy fan kidnap Bazan? “For the first few shows, I was waiting for the phone call: ‘I’m in the basement, somebody send the cops,’” Andrews says. “But it worked out fine.” Bazan’s booking agent and former Pedro the Lion bandmate, Trey Many, suggested early on that Undertow brand the gigs “Living Room Shows” to communicate the difference between these low-key acoustic performances and a typical rock gig. “You don’t want people to think there’s a keg and you bring a cup,” Andrews says.
Bazan enjoyed the shows so much he became an ambassador for the concept, inspiring his friend Will Johnson of Centro-matic to try it. Undertow has since added more artists to its Living Room roster each year: Califone, Mirah, Laura Gibson, Tim Kasher of Cursive, S. Carey, Richard Buckner, Alec Ounsworth ofClap Your Hands Say Yeah, John Vanderslice, and others. The list includes a lot of musicians who’ve been touring with indie-rock acts since the ‘90s, and these Living Room gigs allow them to age gracefully while getting a break from neverending bar shows; they’ve grown up, but they don’t want to stop—or, even worse, devolve. Their fans are often of the same generation. They rocked out to Clem Snide in bars back in the day, but now that they’re married with children, it’s more appealing and convenient to see that band’s frontman, Eef Barzelay, at 8 p.m. in someone’s house—possibly with their kids—before hitting the sack a couple of hours later (see also: Netflix vs. movie theaters).
Andrews has tweaked the process over the years, but he still runs the tours in much the same way as those first Bazan shows: Undertow and the band request hosts near certain cities, vet the hosts over email, and look at photos of the spaces. Once the tickets go on sale, only attendees receive the address of a house. All the other relevant info for hosts and guests is on Undertow’s website (e.g. “Put on some background music at moderate to low volume so people can meet each other and chat before the show”).
It’s a replicable model. Jurado, also an Undertow alum, put together his most recent house tour with his booking agent, Seth Fein, who credits Andrews and Bazan for blazing the trail. Jurado rarely tours with a full band, but even when touring solo, he says rock clubs make things more complicated and costly than they need to be. The sound and lighting crews, promoter, venue owner, door guy—they all take a cut. These days, even a percentage of the band’s merchandise often goes to the club.
In the Undertow system, PayPal gets 4%, the booking agent gets 10%, and Undertow gets 15%, meaning an artist goes home with about 70% of the ticket sales, plus merch money. At the very beginning, some fans objected to the ticket prices, which range from $15-$25. “People were like, ‘20 bucks? It’s a house show! It’s supposed to be $5!’” Andrews says. “But once we called them ‘Living Room Shows,’ nobody complained about the price.” Bazan says he recently increased ticket prices from $20 to $25 without any gripes from fans.
Still, just as Andrews was initially skeptical of house tours, others in the industry remain resistant. For one, Undertow bands are playing primarily to their core fan bases, while labels and managers want to see a band growing its base. Plus, there’s the stigma: Doing a tour of only houses can be seen as a fall from grace. “There seems to be this weird misconception that if you play a private house show you’re downgrading yourself,” Jurado says. “But what’s the upgrade? Playing a giant venue where they’re taking your money?”
Much of the appeal of these shows is, of course, the intimacy—for both the fans and the artist. “It’s a special experience to these people, but it’s also a special experience for me,” says singer/songwriter Zeitlyn. “It’s not scene-y at all. All the people gathered here tonight, they like listening to my music, and that’s the thing they have in common. It’s not because they’re the same age, or go to the same school, or have the same fashion sense or political ideas.”
The ticketed, fan-hosted model works best for artists who have a fan base large enough to support a tour but not so rabid that things could get weird. “If Sufjan Stevens or Justin Vernon did a tour, word might get out,” Fein says. “They might be too famous.” Lesser-known artists would likely have trouble using Undertow’s model, too. But that isn’t the only way to do living room shows. In the last several years, entrepreneurs have tried to capitalize on the trend by launching house-show companies, each with overlapping goals but different emphases.
Our Publisher Seth Fein is even in there a bit. Read the whole thing, it's totally worthwhile and interesting.