Hosting Concerts by Your Favorite Performers
by Cathy Britell
When producing a concert, you’ll want to think about the following things:
How many people can you expect? If it’s under 20-30, a house concert might be best. This is often the most appropriate venue for many of your favorite artists. If you expect 50-100 people, a coffee house or restaurant that sponsors music might be the best. If it’s over 100, then you often need a larger concert venue or an auditorium.. You might want to consider a library, school, or community center. These usually have some kind of rental fee for their facilities. Many churches will host these kinds of activities; often for a very low fee or for free. Check out the lighting, “stage” setup, and comfort of the chairs. Also check the sound system carefully, and consider renting a good system if it doesn’t meet your needs. Parking and access to public transit is another consideration. And wheelchair accessibility is a must.
If you’re planning a workshop, you need a comfortable quiet space for daytime hours, with chairs and any other necessary things. A photocopier is always handy for workshops, too. You’ll want to think about whether you want to have a workshop and concert in the same place and/or on the same day, how many meals you want to host, and people’s tolerance for sitting still, as well as the performer’s stamina.
HOUSE CONCERTS – A wonderful, special occasion for the neighborhood and community.
House concerts are a uniquely personal way to present music. I think they’re often the best way to get “our kind of music” to the people who enjoy it. There are a number of considerations unique to hosting a house concert that will maximize your success and enjoyment.
First, you must consider the neighbors and the community, as well as laws that might govern this activity. . Most municipalities have rules about commercial activities in residential neighborhoods. You should be aware of these locally. In some areas, if you have an activity at which you charge admission, you may need a business license. Most communities, however, will allow gatherings for the purpose of arts promotion or education with a “donation” requested. That is, you’re not actually charging admission, but encourage attendees to donate to the performer. In terms of selling product, there is usually a limit of how much you can sell legally in a residential neighborhood and without licensing. That limit is usually far above what you can expect the artist to make on product. Of course, if the artist is presenting copyrighted material, you may need to consider the issue of royalty fees as well.
Equally important to the legal issues is the goodwill of the neighbors. A week or so before the concert, it’s a good idea to go around the neighborhood with fliers, knocking on doors, telling people about the concert, and inviting them to come. Often, neighbors love the house concert, many will come and contribute to its success, and it’s important that they all know what’s going on and aren’t upset about all the cars parked there that night.
If you’re doing a house concert, you may want to consider a friendly potluck dinner beforehand or afterward, or a snack at the break. If you do so, you need to think about how you want to orchestrate the food, the seating, and the music. In general, since this isn’t really a “private party”, it’s most often a good idea to keep alcoholic beverages out of the mix, unless it’s an “invitation only” concert.
Always remember that the music is the primary reason the artist and the audience are there, and so your job is to provide an atmosphere that supports the music as well as possible. Chairs are very important for a house concerts. Don’t expect people above the age of 25 to sit on the floor for any length of time. Often renting good lightweight folding chairs (most places will rent them for under a dollar apiece) is a good way to insure that people will be comfortable. Another option is to have people bring their own. The problem with that is that they will often bring lawn chairs, which may take up more room than you have in your living room.
In a house concert, the performer is generally quite willing to mingle with the guests, and part of the fun for the performer and the guests is the personal nature of the interaction. On the other hand, the performer also needs some “private space” to rest, change, tune, just be alone if necessary, and if possible a private bathroom.
At house concerts babies and toddlers can often make the situation just too close and distracting. Sometimes it’s useful to tell parents that although children are most welcome, they really must sit still and be quiet during the performance, and if they just can’t do that, the parents need to take them to another room or outside.
Adequate signage is necessary. If you do this often, you might want to make a nice, waterproof sign for your house. A flag or sign with a treble clef sign or a musical note, or some other universal musical signal is useful. If you can make a lighted sign, that’s even better. You will need to give directions to your home. You don’t necessarily want to print the address/directions in the newspaper or on fliers when you advertise the concert. You will need to publish your phone number, though and be ready to give directions many times. It’s a good idea to write out directions to your home to post near the phone, so that when family members answer, they can simply read something out to people. The night of the concert, put something on the door that says, “The house concert is here at 7:30. Come right in.” That way, people aren’t ringing the doorbell and you don’t have to keep running to the door. It’s a good idea to have a table prominently next to the door with whatever “admission” you decide to charge. I use a “donation basket” with some change and signs making it clear that I’d like a voluntary donation of a specific amount of money to support the artist. It’s also good to have a guest list/mailing list signup at that place. And you can set up the performer’s product however he/she wants.
A house concert is unique in that it’s a public gathering that feels like a private party. Almost always, people will behave just like personal friends you’d invite over. Occasionally you will get someone who may want to do something you don’t want to happen in your home, or more commonly, someone with a particular agenda, a crush on the performer, a song to sell, or some other need that you or the performer don’t necessarily want to meet. It’s important to have a forceful, appropriate, comfortable way of saying, “It’s time for you to go home now.”
COFFEEHOUSES AND OTHER CONCERT VENUES
If you’re producing a concert in a coffeehouse or restaurant or hall, you need to be clear on overhead. Space rental, any additional costs that will come out of the performer’s earnings, and also what the proprietor’s expectations are. Do they expect other customers to be coming in and out during the concert? Will they want to have the espresso machine going during the music (I know of one performer who writes the espresso machine into his songs)? Is it strictly non-smoking (most performers now demand this). Is it an all-ages venue? (Something I consider important). Can you get the place for the time you want? As you look around the place, can you imagine your performer and his/her audience having a comfortable, good time there?
How much do you want to charge for the concert? You’ll want to have a ticket price appropriate to the resources of the target audience, and in line with other quality professional performances in the area. Advanced ticket sales are always good, but may be difficult logistically How do you want to collect money? Do you want reservations? How are you going to handle that? All this will, of course, depend on the size/scope of the concert. If you’re collecting money, you need to remember change. Generally it’s good to have at least $200 in 5’s and 1’s on hand for admissions and product sales.
How does the performer want to do this? Many like to do their own. If you do this for a performer, make sure to keep careful accounting of how much product you have, how much money you collect, etc. And make sure someone is overseeing this. It’s understandably upsetting to performers to have product “walk away”.
MASTER OF CEREMONIES
It’s really important to have a good, polished, short introduction to kick off the concert, somebody to announce the intermission and its end, call the performer up for encores, and say goodbye and thank-you, as well as encourage food and product sales. If you’re not good at it, get somebody who is. Sometimes, it’s possible to have a local musician who is well-known to the audience give a performer a really nice introduction.
This is very important. Even if you have a house concert, you may need to have sound reinforcement. You should talk to the performer about this/her sound reinforcement needs and preferences beforehand, check out the system where you’re having the concert, and if necessary rent good sound equipment. You may want to consider hiring an experienced sound technician, particularly in a large venue. A sound check will need to be done before people arrive (usually about one to one and a half hours before the concert). Check with the performer for his/her preferences on this.
Sometimes a popular local act can add significantly to the audience size for a touring performer. An opening act is also a very nice way to introduce lesser-known local performers. If you are considering an opening act, it is absolutely vital to ask the performer first whether they want this. Many performers like to have openers, while some are strongly opposed to them. If you do have an opener, make certain everybody — in particular your headliner — is aware of and agreeable with the length of the set and the financial arrangements.
As the joke goes, the most common question the folk musician asks is, “And would you like fries with that, sir?” Most people will not be in the position to pay for a hotel. What you need to provide, if possible, at somebody’s house, is a smoke-free and often cat-free environment (noting that a house where cats have lived or people have regularly smoked will be very toxic to sensitive individuals even if you have whisked away the cats or snuffed out the ciggies). A good bed in a private room will be appreciated, and if possible a separate bathroom. The other thing you should try to provide is privacy. As much as I might long to trap a musician who’s staying with me in the living room and make them play music with me all day and night, I need to respect their need to be away from “work”, and also away from me, and let them “call the shots” as it were, about anything they might want to do. It’s a good idea to talk to the performer about food preferences. It’s not bad to have some soup and fresh bread and friut and juices on hand…usually folks who are performing don’t want elaborate meals, and many will appreciate something at home rather than going out to a restaurant. Most people want to eat after rather than before they perform.
This is your key to a successful concert. You need to plan to get your concert listed in any fliers or magazines that come out announcing folk events. You will also need to send press releases to the papers and radio and TV stations. You need to make and distribute posters. You need to have a mailing list and send out personalized fliers. Internet mailing lists can be a great resource. It’s good to get your performer, if possible, on a radio or TV show the day before or of the concert. If you’re having a workshop, you will do best to get people to pay in advance, because otherwise, they will often find something else to do at the last minute. Again, for publicity, a folklore or traditional music group can be helpful.
You need to discuss money carefully and openly with the performer. Find out how much he/she expects to make from the concert, and be frank about what your expectations are as to proceeds, if you can. Some performers will require a guarantee of a certain amount of money to perform; but most will not. Be clear about what your expenses are, and whether you want to “donate” your expenses to the performer, or whether your overhead will come out of the proceeds before the performer is paid. The most common arrangement for house concerts is to give the performer everything that is collected, unless you have to rent equipment. For other venues, 15-25% of the “door” is often kept by the producer to cover expenses.
Many performers will have a contract for you that will outline specifics of remuneration, benefits and working conditions. If your performer does not have a contract, it is a good idea to write him/her a letter outlining your understand of what you’ve agreed upon. Often people whose concerts you’re producing are also good friends, and you may assume this formality is unnecessary; however, making the financial arrangements clear in writing is a good way to avoid straining those friendships.
If possible, pay the performer directly after the concert in cash in medium-sized bills. Oftentimes he/she will need that money to get to the next venue. It is courteous to give the performer an accounting of how many people came, how much was collected, and what how the money was divided.
BRINGING UP THE IDEA
Keep in mind that it’s up to you to initiate contact with the performer whose concert you’d like to produce. If you like a performer or their recording or their teaching, write them a letter saying so. And if you’d like them to perform where you
are, tell them about it, and ask them to put you on their “venue list”. You might want to think of these questions for them ahead of time:
What kind of concert do you want to have ?
How many people can you expect?
Do you want to host a workshop?
What would it be like?
Try to give the performer some sort of realistic ballpark idea of the remuneration they can expect, and whether you can provide a place to stay.
So…it’s time to pull out your pen and paper, write some letters, and have a concert! Below is a handy checklist that might be of use in your planning.
Name: (Spelling?) __________________________________________
Name of Venue ; _______________________________________________
Date and time:__________________________________________________
Contact person at Venue: ________________________________________
Sound check time: _____________________________________
Ticket Price: ___________________
Contract:________ Letter: ________
Host: ____________________Phone #:_____________E-mail:___________
Newsletter due dates:________________Press releases:_________________
Radio shows: (date, time, place)
Ticket sales and reservations
Cleanup and closing
Have a wonderful concert!