Shannon Curtis was playing a gig at “one of those foothill towns” in northern California, when she looked around and realized she wouldn’t be turning a profit that night.
“The guests had missing teeth. It was a down and out audience,” she told HuffPost in a phone interview.
Not exactly the dream scenario for a musician who makes her living playing for donations in homes around the country, as Curtis does.
A sign pointing to one of the residences that hosted Curtis last summer, in Montana.
The LA artist, whose gauzy ditties have scored The Hills and ABC’s Pretty Little Liars, is a new evangelist for an age-old tradition: house concerts. Last month, Curtis' how-to e-book -- typical for the genre, the title’s a mouthful: “No Booker, No Bouncer, No Bartender: How I Made $25K On A 2-Month House Concert Tour (And How You Can Too)” -- debuted at number two on Amazon’s music business best seller list, behind a tough number one to beat: David Byrne’s “How Music Works.”
The practice may be “as old as the cavemen,” but the appeal of playing inside someone’s home is novel, Curtis says. “It’s totally antithetical to what we normally get fed in terms of music and entertainment. It’s all top down in pop culture.”
The stage for one of Curtis' house concerts in Lake Forest Park, WA, featured a backdrop -- the hummingbird image off Curtis' album Cinemacope -- hand sewn by the evening's host.
For the past two years, the 39-year-old singer songwriter has supported herself through house concert tours. They last only a handful of weeks in the summer (“people are just more social” in warm months, she says), and require nothing more on her end than her Volkswagen Jetta and a keyboard. She's played from New York to Houston to Seattle, and throughout the midwest. The venues are supplied by volunteers who sometimes host in their homes or yards, or even in theaters rented out for the pleasure of putting on a show oneself.
A full house at one of Curtis' house concerts, in Houston, Texas.
Unlike Radiohead and Beyonce -- the best known entertainers who’ve skipped the middleman, prompting eulogies for the recording industry -- Curtis is what she calls a “normal” act. She touts the house concert model for her peers, those without the backing of a major label, who still want to make a living off their art. Her 2013 tour drew from her album Cinemascope and she's planning to do the same this year for a new record, Metaforma. The tours themselves double as ad campaigns, as Curtis and fans post photos hashtagged with the album names.
Curtis plays at a fan-hosted beach concert on the Puget Sound.
Curtis says her profits have magnified since the days she played at clubs, where profits are split with the venue, booking agents and promoters. Last summer, her average take over the course of 50 house concerts was $500 per night, she says. One particularly flush night turned out $1220, a new high. She compares that to playing in a club in a new town, the type of gig where "if I walked away with a hundred bucks I’d be stoked." A donation-based model also means a single particularly moved guest might leave a whopping hundred dollar bill -- as someone did at one of her first shows.
Cowboy hats and a mountain view at one of Curtis' concerts in Trego, Mt.
But the advantages she says she's most struck by aren't monetary. She's found that fans whose interest blooms in an intimate space tend to "stick" more than those converted by traditional tours. And the absence of blinding lights and a raised stage can be a boon, artistically speaking. In a living room or yard, “there’s nothing to hide behind," she points out. What she calls "connectivity" thrives.
The overhead view at one of Curtis' tour stops in South Amboy, NJ.
From that modest northern California crowd, for instance, Curtis earned only $85, "just enough to cover our gas and food expenses for the day." But the show was worth it to her.
“By the time I was playing my second song, I could see people in the audience crying. If I’d said, ‘This show costs $10,’ they wouldn’t have come.”