How to Stage a House Party/Concert
By Hal Cannon
The house party/concert is an old and venerable tradition that brings performers and their fans together in an intimate setting reminiscent of a old-time community gathering where everybody brings food and drink for an evening of fun without fuss. This guide will help you host an elegantly simple and memorable evening for you and your guests. Make choices that minimize the time, effort and expense you put into the party. One of the beauties of a house concert is that everyone has a good time, including the hosts.
The Western Folklife Center staff will work with you as you assess your capacity as far as how many folks will fit in your home or yard and match your home with the drawing power of an artist we suggest come to your home. Several artists have agreed to tag an extra night in their touring schedules to donate their performances, so unless you want to cover travel the artist you get is someone who is on tour in your area. You need to feel confident about what artist will work best to entertain your friends and acquaintances. It does not necessarily need to be a big star to create a magic performance. You should determine your fundraising goal based on what you think people will pay to come to your home for the concert and how many people you can accommodate. Once you've decided on the performer, it's time to contact your friends and ask them to spread the word. This is not a public performance advertised in local publications. It is more intimate and it's all based on your network and your passion for sharing cowboy poetry and/or music with your friends.
You are offering a concert but also a chance for people to come to your home and be part of your social network. You are giving people the opportunity to hear music and poetry that is essential to the values of the West. Like the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, you are sharing something of value that is also fun.
We suggest you ask people to bring an appetizer to share with the crowd and their beverage of choice. There are lots of ways to ask for this. We've used the line, "Potluck food and drink ecstatically welcome," but we always put out a big bowl of chips and salsa and buy a few extra bottles of wine and beer for those who didn't get the message. We also provide glasses, napkins and utensils. The other thing we like to do is offer to put the artists up in our home. It is great to get to know some of these people and sharing meals is a fine way to build a friendship.
We realize that not everyone lives in a house that can double as a concert hall but if you do own such a home it is wonderful to use it for a house concert. Luckily, we have a big old house that works nicely for both indoor and outdoor concerts. We have hosted three concerts over the past couple years. The two staged inside attracted between 75-85 people. One in our back yard utilized our porch as a stage and attracted about 70 people. Inside, I rent folding chairs from a wedding supplier for $1 each. For our outdoor concert we suggested people bring a low folding lawn chair or blanket. We had extras for those who forgot.
The easiest way to market the evening is by e-mail. We make an attractive invitation (click here to view sample) and send it to our list of a few hundred people at least three weeks before the event. We stress the fact that seats are limited and the importance of making an RSVP commitment so you know how many folks are coming. We've been fortunate in selling out for each concert but you may need to get on the phone after a week and start calling friends, even asking your best friends to enlist others. Hopefully you won't need to do this but you do have a fundraising goal that it a serious commitment. A couple days before the event I would suggest sending out a reminder to those who have RSVP'd. If you have 'no-shows,' you might want to call them afterwards to ask if they would still like to make a donation.
It's always best to schedule a weekend night, but this can't always happen when artists are booked for paying gigs. If you host a concert on a weeknight or Sunday, keep the starting time early so people can be done by 9:00 PM. We always invite people to come early, have a drink, save a seat. At the beginning of the show, make a thoughtful, brief introduction about the artist and the Western Folklife Center. It is important to not only get people excited for the performance but to give them a sense of your passion for the Western Folklife Center and its National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Folks need to know how important their contribution is. The Western Folklife Center can send some brochures and other information about us and the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering to help you communicate our mission and work.
Our concerts have ranged in price from a $15 suggested donation to $25. You may be able to charge more depending on several factors. For our "Pony Up House Party" in our home we planned on suggesting a minimum of $20. Remember, it's not a ticket price, it's a suggested donation. Also, to make a little extra money, the Western Folklife Center can send you a kit of CDs and DVDs to sell if you choose to do so. Artists will often bring their own CDs and product to sell at concerts. At a house concert artists generally take all the money for the product they bring to sell. Other than that, 100% of the donations go to the Folklife Center. If you take this on, it means that even though you get in free you will have to pick up some expenses. This could be extra food and drink, chair rental, or the rental of a sound system. Outdoors we like to use a sound system but if we can avoid one inside we do. Your artist has to be comfortable without extra sound. Usually, you will need a bit of sound reinforcement in a room of more than 50 unless the artist really knows how to project. Remember that when a room is full of people they absorb sound and you won't know exactly how it sounds until it is already too late to change it. Most artists know what they need and they often have their own sound system. If you need to rent a system often cheapest way is to get one from a local musician rather than a sound system company who sometimes charge an arm and leg. We have found over the years that if we treat artists well they perform well. At the Western Folklife Center, we always ply artists with good food and drink and try to give them some privacy before they perform.
Set up a small table at the entrance to your home to collect the donations as people come in. We also suggest that you use part of your introduction to encourage people to make an additional gift. 100% of their donation is tax deductible and a check to the Western Folklife Center is proof of donation. We will send along a form you can hand out so people have a record of their donation.
In our first combination house concert/benefits, we found a few small issues. We had a number of 'no shows' even though we had turned down several people on a waiting list. Many of those 'no shows' wrote a check thinking that the "benefit" part of the equation was the most important aspect of the event. Though we raised more money than our goal, it was a disappointment that the 'no shows' didn’t get to share in this wonderful art form. Also, a couple of our wealthy friends who are oversubscribed in their lives told us that at the end of the week, they are so tired they would rather write a check than bring a 'pot luck' dish. The fact is, a house concert is an egalitarian event and part of the charm is sharing food and drink together. It has heart that a fancy catered affair might not have. We are tapping into our roots here and in these times that is a pretty satisfying activity.
The most important thing is: have fun! You are sharing what you love with people you love. What can be better than that?