I’ve got a controversial opinion for you: playing a show at a “real” music venue isn’t always everything it’s cracked up to be. When you picked up an instrument and started performing, you probably had big dreams of playing massive stages in front of sold-out crowds of adoring fans. But the reality is that it’s pretty damn hard––if not near impossible–– for most bands to sell out even smaller venues, and that not all music venues are created equally. In fact, depending on your unique situation, skipping the venues to play more house shows might be a much better bet.
It takes quite a big staff to operate even tiny venues, and that staff needs to get paid. When you sign up to perform at a venue, you’re agreeing to becoming an integral part in getting the staff paid for the night you play. If you bring out a lot of folks, the venue will be happy and you’ll probably be invited back to play again. But if you don’t promote your show and no one comes––this situation is inevitable for most bands––, the venue will literally lose money on you and it could be months or even years before you get another chance to play there again. House shows are a great way to showcase your music without the massive pressure of bringing everyone out to see you every time you play.
But let’s pretend for a second that you play an incredible show in front of a massive crowd of fans you’ve worked really hard to bring out. Depending on what kind of venue you play, a massive amount of the money you bring through the door will go straight to the venue before you see a dime. Many venues won’t pay their bands anything until they’ve brought 25 people or more out to their shows. At an average ticket price of ten bucks, that’s $250 dollars you’re basically paying the venue to play their stage. That’s a shit-ton of revenue for a smaller, struggling band.
The beauty of house shows is that performing to 35 people in a tiny living room can feel like playing an important show. At $5 a head, that’s $175 bucks––not a game-changing amount of money when split with two or three other bands, but it’s more than you might make by playing at some venues. But the appeal of house shows lies in the connections you’ll make with fans, not the money you’ll make. Playing your set in a basement or living room is worlds more intimate for fans than playing at a big venue with a massive stage and sound system. The audience is literally feet away from you, and that sort of intimacy doesn’t translate to venues.
Small house shows are great for quieter folk and singer songwriter acts, but also for louder bands to try stripped down sets that won’t deafen the neighborhood. If your fans have never seen you in a quieter setting, playing more house shows might be a great way to show off your softer side. House shows are also worth playing because they’re just plain fun. It’s easier to connect with fans and other musicians in a kitchen, living room and basement then it is at venues, and there’s a community in these sort of shows that doesn’t exist in venues.
Don’t believe me? Just ask melancholic songwriter David Bazan. He’s been booking special house show tours called “Living Room Shows” for years now, and they’ve been hugely successful. Of course bands can’t cut out playing at venues completely, but taking a bit of the power they hold back and redistributing it into smaller spaces like basement and house shows is well worth your consideration.