Canadian House Concerts Opening Doors For Australian Musicians

Stanstead House Concerts Image Credit: Stanstead House Concerts Network
Graham Strahle
| December 5, 2017

House concerts are steadily on the rise in Australia, as we have seen in previous stories on the subject: see here and here. This time we turn our attention to Canada to see what the house concert scene is like in that country, and look at the experiences of one enterprising house concert network that has grown in intriguing directions.

Canada has several well-developed house networks, and the experience there is that this form of concert-giving is steadily growing. The Canadian House Concert Network, based in Halifax, has been hosting concerts in rural and urban homes and community venues since 2001, and in Winnipeg Home Routes has been operating for a decade with consistent support from the Canada Council for the Arts. The House Concert Network that operates under the umbrella of  Storytellers of Canada – Conteurs du Canada is different in that its performances centre on oral storytelling but frequently incorporate music in the solo singer-songwriter tradition.

Different again is an initiative that sprang up in the living room of one resident in the village of Stanstead near Montreal, right on the Canada-US border, in 2014. Hal Newman, whose day job involves running the National Emergency Management Resource Center, invited emerging musicians into his family home, and Stanstead House Concerts Network (SHCN) was born. It caters for professional musicians in the early phase of their careers, and accepts all genres from classical to folk and blues.

In three short years it has grown substantially to encompass six venues in Quebec, three in Vermont, two each in West Virginia and North Carolina, and one each in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Tennessee, Louisiana and Vietnam. What makes the Stanstead network distinctive, though, are firstly that it has an educational outreach program, and secondly that it has linked up with a number of like-minded enterprises and business to form what might be described as a ‘cottage industry network’.

Newman explains the former: “We offer schools without music programs the opportunity to host ‘our’ artists for an hour-long songs or Q&A session on the day of, or morning after, a concert at one of our home venues.”

For a population as vastly spread out as Canada’s, Stanstead’s educational program makes a lot of sense in terms of allowing people outside the city centres the chance to hear live music and learn from the experience. This is something that house concert networks in Australia might also consider doing for precisely the same reason.

Then comes the interesting cottage network idea that Stanstead has pioneered. Newman has found that there are mutually beneficial ways of teaming up with B&Bs, bakeries, massage and yoga practitioners, and recording studios.

“When we set about starting SHCN we wanted to involve a community who could support or could be supported by this project,” he says. “We recognised our venues were likely to be off the well-travelled paths and we wanted to ensure artists felt ‘safe’ to try new material, to relax, to recharge, to reconnect with their musical roots while out on the road.”

“So we enlisted the help of our neighbours. We asked B&B owners if they would be willing to provide discounted rates to SHCN so our artists could stay in beautiful surroundings after their performances. SHCN covers the cost of accommodations. We went to our award-winning French bakery and asked if they’d like to become involved.”

From that grew their practice of offering locally baked bread before concerts. Next to come into the fold were recording studios. “We partnered with two recording studios and one videographer so that we could offer artists unique opportunities to lay down tracks while performing in intimate settings,” Newman says.

“We reached out to radio stations, in French and English and in the USA and in Canada, to make artists available for interviews and to introduce their music to a new audience. Each of our venue hosts uses the same model to create a real sense of community built around supporting emerging voices. And we did all of this without any grants from the government.”

The Stanstead House Concert Network runs on a non-profit basis but does sell advertising and sponsorships through its digital hub in order to meet costs. “We lose a few dollars every now and again,” notes Newman. “However it’s worth it just to be able to have musical artists creating magic right in the living room, out on the back porch, or in a small venue.”

Musicians in Stanstead concerts are chosen on a similar basis to other house concert series. They are selected through what Newman calls a ‘triage’ process, from suggestions made by venue hosts, other recommendations they receive, and proposals direct from artists. He says that engaging performers can also happen by “blindly writing to artists whose music we love and we feel would be a wonderful fit for our venues and model”.

Australian musicians who have so far appeared in Stanstead concerts include breakout blues guitarist Rhiannon Simpson from Ballarat, Olivia Hally and Pepita Emmerichs who make up the Melbourne folk-pop duo Oh Pep!, and also from Melbourne, roots-folk singer-songwriter Liz Stringer and drummer Cat Leahy who is one half of This Way North.

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