So far, we've given you a fair idea of how to book a regional tour the conventional way — make friends, make press kits, find venues, etc. But there's another radical way to book tours that you don't hear about very often, one that can allow you to play just as many shows as you normally would, but without your ever having to deal with pushy promoters, divey stages or drunken hecklers. Play your cards right, and you just might get free dinners out of it, too.
We're speaking, of course, about house concerts. Now, house shows are not an alien concept. What band hasn't put on shows in their own living room, in their parents' garage, in a friend's backyard? The house show is a mainstay for bajillions of bands, especially those that get their starts in high school or college. But while a lot of bands are used to playing for a handful of friends around town, few consider the house concert paradigm when putting together a tour. Yet booking an entire tour full of house shows is not only do-able, it can be a welcome relief from the rigors of regular touring.
Consider the case of Dan Smith, a rap and spoken-word artist from Arkansas, who uses the stage name "The Listener." He drew quite a crowd in Spokane in early March — but not at Fat Tuesday's or the Blvd. Smith played a private home on the north side -- all part of his "Listener Tour of Homes," which took him through about 100 U.S. cities in about as many days, all without ever playing a single club, bar or café.
Smith says it started about four years ago, when a fan from Muncie, Ind., wrote to him and said he wanted to throw a Listener show at his house. Smith showed up in Muncie with his sound system. "It was a really, really good show," he says. "A lot of people came. Good money. Everyone was kind of captive, paying attention to everything." It went so well that he returned to the house on two or three subsequent tours. Eventually, he started to wonder, "If I can have a modicum of success ... why not friggin' go and play all house shows?"
Smith sent out a mass e-mail to all the fans on his mailing list, wondering if there was anybody else who wanted to have him play at their house. When the positive responses started rolling in, he wrote to each prospective host and went over the details. He told each host that he'd need about $200 to cover gas and other expenses (these days, he asks for closer to $400); he also asked whether the host wanted to charge or just take donations. He told hosts that he could send along flyers and promotional materials but that it was the host's responsibility to do the promotion in their area — to invite friends, to put up the flyers, to get the word out in the local media. He also went over lodging — would he be able to crash at the house after the show?
His last demand? The potluck. Smith asked his host to have all guests bring something to eat. And this, he says, has been key to the success of the tours. Not only does eating with his host and other fans before the show breed a real community atmosphere, but it makes people more invested in coming to the show. "It brought more people out," he says. "They had to bring a casserole, so they had to come."
After dinner, a couple of local openers — poets, folk singers, magicians, an opera singer in Austin — would set the stage, then Smith would go on. Afterwards, he'd sell some merch, hang out with the fans and then fall asleep on the couch or in a spare bedroom. In the morning, he'd often take a shower, eat some breakfast with his host and get back on the road.
To anyone who's ever dealt with pushy promoters and obnoxious venues, who's found sleep on the road and showers few and far between, this sounds like heaven. It's worked wonders for Smith. After his trip through Spokane in March, he finished his American tour, did a somewhat less successful version in Europe (American abodes tend to be far more spacious) and is now preparing for another home tour in the States.
He says the thing he misses least about booking his tours the conventional way is promotion. "All the shows [on the most recent house tour] were good because I didn't have to rely on promoters who were just trying to fill up a bar, who didn't care whether or not I got gas money. [The hosts are] already really into the music. They're doing all the promotion, getting all their friends, telling them, 'Hey, you gotta listen to this guy.'"
That kind of promotion, he says, brings out people who care. And, says Smith, when people who care get to see the artist they care about in the intimate environs of somebody's house, the shows can be electrifying.
Of course, there's a catch. The Listener has been able to book successful home tours because he had a pre-existing network of fans across the country to call on. For the Spokane band that's never toured, this is going to be harder to pull off. "If you don't want to have crazy drives, you kind of need a network intact," Smith says. "Clubs might be the easiest to do."
But it's not impossible to establish — or find — such a network. Though it's generally geared toward quieter, acoustic acts, there's a pre-existing, nationwide network of artists who love playing house shows and hosts who love to put them on. (See sidebar.)
You can blaze your own trail. MySpace allows listeners from around the world to hear your music. Use that to your advantage. Develop a cult following in Portland, in Topeka, in Helsinki. Think about where in the Northwest — or the rest of the country — you have friends who might be willing to throw a fete in your band's honor. Start dropping hints.
The most important thing here, Smith suggests, is finding people who care about your music. "People will open up their door and invite 60 people for a band that they love ... It doesn't really matter about the venue," he says. "You could do a tour of docks. [It just] depends on who is telling people to come out and listen to you."
Of course, that means doing everything we and others have already mentioned in this issue first — playing good, original music; putting on a hell of a live show; networking with other bands; growing a fan base here in the Inland Northwest; raising interest around the region.
Once you've figured out that much, though, the world could be your living room.