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House Concerts: Some Reasons for their Popularity in the Contemporary Music Industry – Gerard Moorey


In our latest guest post, Dr.Gerard Moorey of the University of Gloucestershire, looks at the history of concerts held in private homes, and some of the reasons for their resurgence in the current musical environment.

In today’s music industry, house concerts are increasingly seen as a viable and attractive option, both for musicians and audiences. In what follows, I’d like to outline some of the reasons why this is the case. Before I do so, however, I need to define what a house concert is. Basically, as one might expect from the name, a house concert is a concert in somebody’s home. (As we shall see, house concerts aren’t genre specific and shouldn’t therefore be confused with ‘house’ music.) For the purposes of my analysis here in regard to the live music industry, I’m more interested in house concerts in which money changes hands, either as an entrance fee or a donation, but concerts in homes can also function as part of ‘gift’ or barter economies too. Whether or not money is exchanged, house concerts set up relations of reciprocity between hosts, musicians and audiences in a manner that makes them particularly pertinent to an understanding of how today’s music industry operates.

Though I’m going to be making a case for house concerts as a distinctive feature of the ‘new’ music industry, house concerts are, of course, very ‘old’. Music historians disagree over the details, but it’s generally agreed that the first public concert, as opposed to a private concert in somebody’s home, was held in Whitefriars in London in 1672; therefore, up until that date, all concerts of secular music had been, in a certain sense, house concerts (Scott 1936: 446). (As we examine what exactly a house concert is, we’ll find that the terms ‘public’ and private’ become increasingly blurred, but for the purposes of definition, we can say that a ‘public concert’ is a musical performance to which anyone can obtain admission by payment.) One of the stories told about that first concert in Whitefriars is that the musicians were so embarrassed to be playing in front of a paying audience of members of the public that they positioned themselves behind a curtain (Bott 2008), the performance thus being an early example of what Pierre Schaeffer (1966/2006) terms ‘acousmatic’ music, in which the sound source is not visible to the listener, as is the case with recorded music (76). The point to stress here is that house concerts were once the norm, and concerts in public venues the aberration.

House concerts, therefore, have a long history and are not limited to specific genres of music. Although we now think of ‘chamber music’ as a style of classical music, the term referred specifically to that music’s domestic setting, however rarified and elitist it may have been. This was at a time long before the first purpose-built concert halls were constructed. In a different context, Bianca Garza (n.d.) has drawn attention to the importance of house concerts as a means of transmitting the culture of pioneer communities in the United States, particularly in the Appalachian Mountains. Moving forward to the twentieth century, one finds that a broad spectrum of styles and genres have continued to be represented by the house concert tradition, whether it be Fats Waller playing jazz during the Harlem Renaissance as celebrated in his song ‘This joint is jumpin’, or the hip-hop pioneer DJ Kool Herc playing in apartments in the South Bronx in the 1970s, or US punk bands playing gigs in basements. In spite of its considerable time span and the diverse range of genres it encompasses, the house concert tradition has, to a large extent, been a ‘silent’ history. This is undoubtedly changing in our present era; not only do we now have a name for a musical phenomenon that has existed since time immemorial but we can also appreciate its contemporary relevance, largely as a result of the tumultuous changes that the music industry has gone through in the digital era.

So what are the factors that make house concerts an attractive proposition in today’s music industry?

1) The first thing to note is that, in the era of digital downloads, file-sharing and streaming, there is an increased emphasis on touring as a way of making money. Gone are the days when tours were seen as loss leaders aimed at promoting record sales, or when the cost of a tour was offset by the release of a live album featuring a fifteen-minute drum solo. Instead, it is albums that are now viewed increasingly as a promotional extravagance, which, in many cases, can only be converted into physical sales by musicians meeting their audience face to face at concerts. In this new context, house concerts have become a way for musicians to supplement their touring income by playing in people’s homes that are located midway between venues in different cities. The house concert thus becomes a form of ‘rest-stop’, with musicians usually being put up for the night by the concert’s host. This is especially true in the States, where the distances between cities are obviously that much greater. A couple from Northeastern Tennessee, for example, have revealed how they went about hosting concerts in their home:

We initially started booking by looking at the tour schedules of musicians that we [would] like to see when they might be traveling near us, then suggesting a concert date that they were showing as open. We’d offer them a place to stay on their tour and a gig where everyone listened and paid a modest donation to hear them (quoted in Garza n.d.).

An additional factor to consider in the context of US tours is the marked increase in recent years in the price of gasoline, with the result that regional tours taking in a number of home venues are economically more viable than long-distance national tours of established public venues (Anderson 2013).

2)  A second factor to consider when thinking about the potential of house concerts in the ‘new’ music industry is a widespread sense of disillusionment with what is commonly perceived as the narrowness and blandness of much of the music that is currently promoted by major labels. In his recent book, How Music Works, David Byrne (2012) identifies ‘a sense of alienation from the prevailing music scene’ as an essential factor in the formation of a new musical scene (256). He also states that if a scene is to thrive then ‘social transparency must be encouraged’ (260). By this he means that the barriers between musicians and audiences must be broken down – something that house concerts do very well. A Californian musician, Joey Ryan, who has played in people’s homes in the UK, says of house concerts that ‘rather than having…an indirect connection with 700 people [as you would in a larger venue], you have [a] direct connection with 40 or 50 people’ (quoted by BBC Radio 4). He also talks of there being ‘a collective emotion in the room’. Incidentally, Ryan describes house concerts as being ‘more lucrative than a typical club date’, adding that merchandise sales are reliably bigger in spite of the venues being much smaller.

3) A further feature of the contemporary music industry that might favour house concerts, though it can’t be said to be a good thing in itself, is the slow demise of small venues in urban neighbourhoods, the so-called ‘toilet venue’. A combination of factors, among them rising property prices and gentrification but also the fickleness of audiences who use their mobile handsets to check out the other bands in a line-up before deciding whether or not to stay, has meant that many of these small clubs and pubs are fighting to stay open (Harris 2013: 41). So while the news at the top end of the industry is that live music is thriving, at the lower end there is potentially a shortage of venues, with new artists being forced to consider other options, among them house concerts.

4) A final factor I’d like to highlight is the role of technology. In the United States, where house concerts are a much more established part of the contemporary music industry, technology, specifically recorded music and radio, was once perceived as the reason for the historic decline of the house concert tradition. But as Bianca Garza (n.d.) notes, ‘the latest technological trends are now being used to [the] tradition’s advantage’ (2). With artists’ online networks now being such an important part of the economies of the music industry, house concerts are fed by and feed into relations of mutuality and reciprocity that are often facilitated, in the first instance, digitally. A good example of this is the organisation, House Concerts York. The hosts, Tony Fothergill and Nicki Lewis, put the concerts on in their own home, meaning that House Concerts York is now recognised as a distinctive venue, being voted as one of the top ten venues for up-and-coming acts in a BBC 6 Music poll. They’ve got round licensing issues by sending out personal invitations via email to those who’ve already donated before the show via their website. These crucial semantic differences – ‘donation’ rather than ‘entrance fee’, ‘invitation’ instead of ‘advertisement’ – allow the events to be classed as private parties rather than as public concerts. Embedded audio and visual clips allow visitors to their website to hear music by musicians that are scheduled to play, which then link to a button for online donation of a ‘suggested’ sum of money. This is attractive for musicians as essentially the hosts are taking care of the ‘draw’ while more or less guaranteeing a minimum payment on the night. (All of these donations go to the artists; the hosts’ involvement is entirely voluntary.) If the agreed-on sum isn’t reached from these online donations, the hosts contact the artist to see if they’d be willing to play for a reduced fee. As with other house concert hosts, Tony and Nicki usually offer their featured musicians a bed for the night so that the gigs can easily and profitably be slotted into a larger tour.

One can see, then, that house concerts offer some interesting synergies in relation to other parts of the music industry, particularly with the level of mediation now provided by the internet. One possibility is the live streaming of house concerts via an artist’s website or other online platform, so that a small-scale and geographically-specific musical event is broadcast internationally without losing its local flavour. This intertwining of the global and the local, with globalisation producing local differences rather than evening them out, is one of the many exciting facets of house concerts in today’s musical landscape.

I’d like to acknowledge and give thanks to Paul Chi, founder of Healthy Concerts and a pioneer of house concerts in the UK from a time before the majority of audience members had access to the internet. In introducing me to house concerts and encouraging me to perform at and host them, Paul has played a crucial role in my musical education.

Gerard Moorey



Anderson, T. (2013) Personal communication. 25 March.

BBC Radio 4 (2008) ‘Feature on house concerts’. 21 November. Available at:

Bott, C. (2008) Celebrating Cecilia! [radio programme] 18 November. London: BBC Radio 4.

Byrne, D. (2012) How Music Works. Edinburgh: Canongate.

Garza, B. (n.d.) ‘The role of house concerts in modern American culture’. Available at: [accessed 27 February 2013]

Harris, J. (2013) ‘Pretty vacant’. The Guardian, 23 February, pp. 40-41.

House Concerts York. Available at: [accessed 22 March 2013]

Schaeffer, P. (1966/2006) ‘Acousmatics’. In: C. Cox and D. Warner, eds. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. New York and London: Continuum, pp. 76-81.

Scott, H. A. (1936) ‘London’s earliest public concerts’. The Musical Quarterly. 22 (4), Oct.: 446-457.

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