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Under the radar: Australia’s house concert scene

Cellist Rachel Johnston Image credit: Mark Brake
Graham Strahle
| February 16, 2016

Far from being under threat, classical music appears to be very much alive and well if one looks ‘under the radar’ at the often overlooked but unique phenomenon of house concerts. These are small, privately run events that operate at the local community level with performers, who are typically professional or semi-professional musicians, playing in someone’s living room before an invited audience. Because they are not publicised, they exist outside the established concert scene and are invisible to the general public.

But this does not lessen their significance. For a large number of musicians house concerts are an important income source. They can afford to be, because the overheads of advertising, venue hire and so on are eliminated. And for audiences there are unique positives too. They can hear and see musicians up close and partake in a more intimate experience of music making than public concert halls typically offer. A key element is the social atmosphere: house concerts are more informal occasions, and guests – along with the artists themselves – are usually treated to a dinner or lavish supper as part of the evening.

Here our purpose is to get some sort of gauge on the prevalence of house concerts across Australia, and to try to determine their place within the overall ecology of musical creation and consumption in this country. The obvious place to begin looking is House Concerts Australia. This is a publically viewable but closed, subscriber-based network that aims to build opportunities between musicians, venue hosts and interested listeners. Its founder, Lisa Aston, has a strong background in the contemporary music industry and was previously manager of the Contemporary Music Institute in Lismore, which is part of Southern Cross University.

Aston started her online network of house concerts in 2009. “I didn’t even know what they were when I first heard about it,” she says. “I thought it was duff-duff music. But then Rob Ellen of the European House Concert Hub, and Fran Snyde of Concerts in Your Home in the US, stepped up to help me. Their information was invaluable. Their best advice was to screen all the musicians so that you know exactly who they are. In seven years of doing this I have not met one musician who didn’t fit in, and only once have I ever turned an artist down, one who looked too brash and brazen.”

Aston’s network has grown into 294 musicians around Australia who span a range of genres that include folk, jazz, classical and acoustic pop. Some are well known, like the rapidly rising pianist composer Fiona Joy, who won a Grammy in 2015 for her album Winds of Samsara. Add to that renowned jazz pianist and composer Mark Isaacs, and multi instrumentalist-songwriter Brendan Gallagher, who played guitar for David Bowie’s ‘Survive’ in 1999.

“So we’ve got some really well-known artists on the site, and others who are not so well known,” says Aston. “They obviously have to be at a professional level, but even for most successful, life on the road can be lonely, especially on a Monday or Tuesday night. House concerts can be the answer: they are very welcoming occasions, bed and breakfast is provided, and some wonderful relationships are made.”

Private individuals who have put their names down to host concerts in their homes also form part of Aston’s House Concerts Australia network – there are 145 of these. “They’re spread across Australia in every state, and in New Zealand,” she says. “Some might do it once a year, others every three months.” Some hold their concerts outdoors with stages and lighting. Dinner is often included, and audiences may be a couple of dozen or up to 100 or more.

Just how many house concerts are held at any given time is difficult to know, as there are many other hosts who choose to go it alone in holding their own music events. But even discounting these, Aston says the scene is growing.

“It is like the stock market. There will be peaks and stops. I’m not sure why they happen. In overall terms there has been a slow but steady growth. I have kept PR people out deliberately, because I didn’t want this to be one of those flash-in-the-pan things. House concerts exist in that happy sweet spot between the commercial world and the underground. I actually don’t think it’s even really started – I haven’t touched remote regions of Australia, for example,” she says.

An example of a particularly successful house concert host who does it all off her own bat is Anne-Marie Grisogono of Adelaide. She has been running private concerts in her suburban home for eight years. Known as Wayville House Concerts, these are held in her own purpose-built music room that boasts a raked ceiling, resonating timber floor, glass picture windows on three sides, and seating for 75 people.

Grisogono, herself an amateur guitarist, says she found herself running these concerts quite by accident. This was when one of the organisers of the Sydney Guitar Summer Schools, which she had been regularly attending, suggested the idea. “I’d never even heard of house concerts,” she says, “but he said just invite all your friends and ask them to bring along cheese, bickies and bottle of wine. I never intended to make a thing of this but I’ve been blown away by it. You have all these wonderful musicians playing in your house, and these wonderful people coming along to listen.”

Grisogono has a private email list that she sends out ahead of each concert, and she selects her artists – half of whom are classical guitarists – on the basis of her own personal knowledge and recommendations she receives. “If I don’t know them, I do ask for reviews,” she explains. “I usually don’t hear back from them in that instance. Once or twice I’ve turned people down, if they are young and inexperienced.” And she leaves it entirely up to her artists to run the evening as they choose. “I don’t tell them to do anything. They decide themselves and nearly always talk to the audience.”

She gives her artists all the money donated at the door, which equate or surpass typical professional fees, and she even manages to have most of her concerts professionally reviewed. Elizabeth Silsbury and Stephen Whittington are two critics from The Advertiser who often attend and write up her concerts.

“It’s a win-win all round. The musicians get all the takings, I bake food for everybody because I love cooking, and I just think of it as my contribution back to all these artists who give us such pleasure in our lives. It is so difficult for them to earn a living, yet they’re so talented and work so hard at their craft. Our society derives so much from the arts, but we don’t actually reward our artists, except for the top one per cent who get the lucky breaks. The next 10-20 per cent below them are just as good.”

Grisogono thinks the area of house concerts is set to rise. “I think we will see it grow. I can see it happening,” she says. “There is a huge unmet need both from the artists and the audience who are clearly wanting this.”

A regular artist at Wayville House Concerts is cellist Rachel Johnston. Formerly of the Australian String Quartet, she has a high regard for this form of concertising and does many tours that include playing in private homes, community halls and B&Bs. “I’ve always done house concerts here and there. They pop up, and often someone asks if I can do one. As a performer you have the potential to earn some good money. You can walk away with the same fee or more than a professionally run concert series, but you don’t have to deal with all the craziness.”

She says that house concerts are very much a community network thing, though it might not be a defined network as such. “Often it just consists of individuals, and people suggesting other people, as they get to know about you.

Just now Johnston is touring through Armidale, Tamworth and Murrurundi in northern NSW, and she is playing an eclectic mix of Bach, folk music, bluegrass, jazz and improvisations with a duettist on didjeridu. “If I had the choice of a well run house concert or a traditional concert, I’d choose the first every time,” she says. “You have more contact with the audience. Quite often they are not dedicated performance spaces. You’re not getting up into the spotlight but rather being amongst your listeners and talking about the music. Very often I’ll give the audience the choice of music.”

“The other thing is that it is quite often a younger audience who comes, for example to Anne-Marie’s concerts. They are more interested in doing a community thing rather than attending an arts event. If they live nearby they are prepared to pay $30 and stroll along.”

House concerts are run with varying degrees of efficiency, Johnston says. “Some are poorly organised. The hosts might think it’s a good idea but they might think nothing of the practicalities. As a performer you might end up driving hundreds of miles to get there and find eight people turning up. But there is often some teaching or workshops, and you make lots of contacts.”

She estimates that the number of house concerts going on in Australia annually is “at least in the hundreds, quite possibly in the thousands”. And they create a more viable audience base, she says, because there is a complete absence of the usual market pressures.

“This is truly decentralised music and more direct to the consumer,” Johnson says. “For classical, it represents a return to the original form of music making. It was practised in private places, not like pop music which was in a public domain. The idea is coming around again because people realise the arts need to be supported. It is not about a commercial phenomenon. It can’t survive as that. There’s a subtlety of difference here. People are not ‘paying for a service’; rather they are saying ‘I choose to go into a private space’, and in turn they value the social conventions, the community ties and the artform of music. They see that it is something that deserves to be repeated.”

“It does not involve a dumbing down of content, but at the same time this area is very supportive of the public concert scene. There are so many positives.”

Of course there are many practicalities to consider too. For musicians, it often comes down to making networks by keeping one’s nose close to the ground to make opportunities. For hosts, there are regulatory and insurance issues to consider. Being sure of one’s obligations to local council and licensing bodies such as APRA AMCOS is essential knowledge. But even with all their attendant peculiarities, house concerts form an important part of the larger concert scene. Music’s health clearly depends on them.

Other reading:

Classical music: coming to a house near you – profile on US house concerts organiser GroupMuse

Comments

  1. Rianne Wilschut

    Thanks Graham for this important and insightful article.
    I am currently undertaking Doctoral research through Griffith University in Brisbane, investigating the experience of being involved in chamber music in small community venues. A case study centred around Artico Ensemble (a Brisbane ensemble specialising in these types of concerts) interviewed artists, organisers and over two hundred audience members at their concerts, one of which was a house concert in Brisbane.
    Many of the comments made in your article were so recognisable and were echoed in my research study findings.
    Once my data is in a more publishable form I’d love to get in touch again and continue this valuable discussion.

    Kind regards,
    Rianne Wilschut

  2. Graham Strahle

    Thanks Rianne, and good to learn about your research into this area at Griffith. We would like to hear more about your findings, so please do get in touch once you feel ready to do so. It will be most interesting to hear!
    Graham

  3. Beth Hilton

    Just sending a little correction: Fiona Joy contributed her song “Grace” to a Grammy-winning album, Winds of Samsara. This year she is hopeful that her Singnature – Synchronicity will receive a nomination. She is, indeed, having a very successful couple of years touring and recording here, the US, and China. Thank you.

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