By Hannah Pierangelo
“It’s magical out here.”
Jeremy Spring speaks in passing, but he’s right. There’s something special in the air tonight. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s decently warm for the first weekend in April. Maybe it’s the fairy lights setting the mood. Maybe it’s the lawn chairs casually arranged in the backyard of a home in west Wichita. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m attending an intimate living room concert and it’s not actually in a living room.
Spring, vocalist and guitarist for Abandon Kansas, who played the 14th show on their national living room tour in the band’s hometown, Wichita, laughs off the comment. But there is a little magic out tonight.
Abandon Kansas embarked on their tour in the middle of March. They wrapped up a total of 46 shows in the cozy homes of their fans last weekend, playing almost every single day for the majority of the spring. It’s the band’s sixth living room tour and clearly a hit with their fans.
Playing music in living rooms is not a new concept by any means, but it is flourishing again. Google “house concert” and tons of entries show up. Most stories on the subject describe a growing trend of artists playing in homes, though none can cite any data to support the claim. However, with so many people taking note, it’s clear that house shows might be everything but trending.
Live performance in private space may be a tale as old as time, but this type of intimate event was most popular in 1920s New York. With the modern communication available in social media and event planning apps, it’s easier now more than ever to host concerts in unique spaces like homes and backyards.
Tonight the band plays in a backyard instead of a living room, which Spring says is unusual. But the house is familiar—Spring recalls helping friend and previous Abandon Kansas drummer Brian Scheideman renovate and flip the house. Scheidman still owns the house, and the hosts for the evening have rented the space from him for the last five years.
The band take their makeshift stage, a grassy place beneath a swing-less swing set adorned with fairy lights, just after 9 p.m. The sun now fully set and a crackling bonfire lit to keep the guests toasty on the still chilly spring night, Abandon Kansas croon out their new songs, carving their electric indie-rock in the dark.
“There are a lot more loose moments, a lot more mistakes,” Spring says. “We don’t play to metronome like we do onstage. There’s not a ton of lights and all this jazz. It’s just right there, raw. It’s very exposed. People are sitting on the floor right next to us. It’s the real deal.”
If you’re a concert fanatic like I am, then a private show limited to 40 people, including the band members, is a dream come true. I’d expect this level of up-close-and-personal time from a VIP all-access pass, complete with bodyguards and maybe even red velvet rope. It’d probably cost a fortune.
For this exclusive evening with the band and the first play of their brand new record Alligator, I paid $10. That’s a Chipotle burrito if you add tax and guacamole. That’s the cost of the Moleskine notebook I used to take notes at the show.
“House shows have always been around,” Spring says. He thinks they’ll always be there, too. “They just kinda come and go. But to do a full tour of house shows, I think that’s kind of unique. I haven’t seen a ton of bands doing that.”
The Golden Age of the House Concert
The living room concert dates back to the Harlem Renaissance, which spanned from the early 1920s to mid 1930s in New York and cultivated African-American art, literature and culture. Residents of Harlem experienced both rent and wage discrimination and faced exorbitant costs of living during the time. The 50-block district emerged as a slum by definition of its living conditions. During the early part of the decade, it’s estimated that nearly 200,000 blacks migrated to the neighborhood, with up to 7,000 people inhabiting a single block. The residents began to host Saturday night parties in their small apartments, enlivened with good music and “refreshments,” as alcohol was prohibited at the time, and invited friends to pay at the door for a good time. Friends were happy to oblige, well aware of the living conditions they shared, and the cost of the rent party typically amounted to less than entry to Harlem’s popular clubs.
Langston Hughes writes in his autobiography The Big Sea: “The Saturday night rent parties that I attended were often more amusing than any night club, in small apartments where God knows who lives . . . but where the piano would often be augmented by a guitar, or an odd cornet, or somebody with a pair of drums walking in off the street. And where awful bootleg whiskey and good fried fish or steaming chitterling were sold at very low prices. And the dancing and singing and impromptu entertaining went on until dawn came in at the windows.”
Professor Jacob Dorman of the History and American Studies departments at KU says that soul food and music were a large part of rent parties. Upright pianos were prominent fixtures in the small living spaces and players innovated the “Harlem stride piano” method of playing, which allowed the player to create a bigger sound and cut through the noise of the party.
“One reason why rent parties are so important is that they illustrate that the way most people lived in Harlem was not the way white visitors experienced Harlem,” Dorman says. Popular Harlem venues like The Cotton Club were white owned and only admitted white guests. Other clubs allowed blacks if they passed a paper bag test, meaning that their skin had to be lighter than the color of a brown paper bag.
“What this meant was that ordinary working class people had to find their own entertainment and make their own fun, and they did so in small cabarets and bars and in these occasional rent parties that might start late and go all night,” Dorman says. “So rent parties, with their music, soul food, and opportunity for sociability among black working class people, illustrate one powerful way that people were able to put their cultures and their bodies to work for their own pleasure, even if they worked low paying jobs or were not allowed into Harlem’s more famous commercialized leisure spaces.”
Though the repeal of Prohibition and The Great Depression effectively ended the rent party in the early 1930s, the Facebook invitation for the Abandon Kansas show tonight boasts a cheap ticket and a BYOB attitude, ringing in the house concert once again. The living room show isn’t a formal event—it’s just an opportunity for a good time and good music, same as in Roaring 20s Harlem.
“Most people aren’t brave enough to go out to a house show so it’s like, just the hardcore fans come out and the people that really want to know what’s going on,” Spring says. “That gives us a chance to get some real hang time with the people who really know who Abandon Kansas is ‘cause [these shows are] not highly publicized.”
The band promoted this tour the way they promote all of their tours—through social media. But for first time, Abandon Kansas tried organizing the national tour by offering the option to host as a perk for donating to their crowdfunding campaign last year.
Spring says it’s been hard to put out a new record. It’s been four years since their last full-length, Ad Astra Per Aspera. The title comes from the Kansas state motto “To the stars through difficulty.” Spring says there was plenty of difficulty to get the new music released. The band left their record deal at Gotee Records and instead opted for an independent approach. Teaming up with post-hardcore band Emery and their new label Bad Christian, Abandon Kansas were able to set up an IndieGoGo and raise $15,000 to fund their third full length, Alligator.
A Siren Song of Social Media
Social media and online event planners have been crucial to the renaissance of the living room show. The concert-tracking smartphone app Bandsintown, used by 250,000 artists and more than 16 million concert goers, just announced a new analytics feature in February that allows artists to view their best markets at a glance.
“We are living in an age where data is becoming increasingly accessible and in music, analytics are critical to decision making,” says Leah Taylor, the director of communications at Bandsintown.
“Bandsintown Analytics shows where the highest concentrations of concert-goers are worldwide,” Taylor says. “The purpose of the tool is to help artists understand where it would be wise to book shows—from a house party to a stadium.”
Crowdfunding is another method, and one of the newer ways for musicians to raise money and connect with fans. Backers donate money to the cause, usually a new record or tour, and gain rewards in return. Abandon Kansas, like many artists of late, endeavored to crowdfund for a new album and a living room tour to get back to playing for their fans. Spring emphasizes that it’s not charity, but more like paying in advance. Backers got a copy of the album, tickets to the living room tour, and for $300 upfront, the option to host the band in home.
Tonight’s hosts, Allison and Molly, have hosted a house show before with a handful of local Wichita acts at their last home, a duplex shared with their best friends on the other side of the dividing wall. They pitched the few hundred bucks to have Abandon Kansas play in their new place in west Wichita.
“We like doing it,” host Allison McElroy says. “We both love music and I’ve listened to Abandon Kansas since high school.
Once the band met their crowdfunding goal and the living room tour became a reality, the band and the hosts began promoting primarily through social media.
Spring finds that Facebook is the most successful for the band, though they also try to post frequently on Twitter and Instagram, and keep up with podcasts. He says the word of mouth is still the best way to get people interested in the show.
KU grad Ryan McGee recalls hosting a living room concert here in Lawrence in 1995, pre-dating the ease of instant online communication.
McGee hosted the small folk act Catfish Keith in his house on Mississippi Street, which has since been torn down for the parking garage. He remembers putting posters around campus and trying to entice as many friends as possible with the promise of a keg. Without even e-mail, McGee says he called the phone number on the back of the band’s CD to figure out how to book him.
“At the time, that’s all you could do—hang up posters and talk to people,” McGee says. “I would have had a much bigger reach on Facebook, or even gone beyond my social circle with something like Twitter.”
McGee remembers the living room packed with people of all social circles—friends, strangers, even a few professors.
Though it’s been 20 years, McGee has thought about hosting another living room show.
“It lives on in memory the way a traditional concert might not,” McGee says. “The best part is the feeling of being responsible for the event around you, bringing all the people to enjoy music.”
David Bazan, solo artist and the man behind indie-rock band Pedro the Lion, is another musician finding success in living room tours. He began touring in homes in 2009 before the official release of his debut full-length solo record, Curse Your Branches.
In an interview with Consequence of Sound, Bazan explained his start by asking himself, “What do I need to do to play songs and have people pay me money?”
“That’s what it comes down to,” Bazan says. “I genuinely love playing my music. I’m going to do it for the rest of my life. How can I do it to make the money to provide for my family and have it make sense? I said: house shows. If I can’t play anywhere else, I’ll play living room shows. That’s really how it all started.”
Bazan says he couldn’t do his living room tours without social media. Initially, the tour was just an email list of potential hosts that eventually grew to be his successful national tours today.
In the beginning, Bazan says he got “a lot of whisperings about making a bad career move.” Most musicians follows a traditional tour and release cycle that expects new material release about every two years, filled with touring in between.
“The thing is, though, people undersell how these shows connect with the fans,” Bazan says. “There’s no hype, no promotion, no gimmick. If I wanted to tour 100 to 150 days a year and put out a record every two years, I could do that.”
Beyond the cycle, Bazan says he loves to play house shows and get the chance to connect with his fans. “These 50-person living shows feel way more meaningful, even more meaningful than 300-person club shows,” he says.
Cash for Chorus
Just as Harlem rent parties emerged to cover the rising cost of living in New York, Spring says he began doing living room tours out of necessity.
“The touring scene is tough,” Spring says. “It got to the point where we’d play a bar and you know maybe a couple hundred people come out, but then we’d leave with a few hundred bucks either way.”
Spring breaks it down for me. In traditional touring, there are a lot of middle men. Typically bands give up around a third of the ticket price to the booking agent, manager and venue. With the living room tour, fans get a cheaper ticket at only $10, and the band gets the whole pie.
“Really, we’re not like buying new cars,” Spring says. “We’re just putting gas in the tank and making sure everybody gets fed and ordering more CDs and just keeping the business going.”
Another perk with playing in the living rooms of dedicated fans—the band gets a free meal and a place to spend the night. Spring says the living room tours are definitely the most financially successful tours for Abandon Kansas. Though he prefers to plug in and play loud, Spring likes to take on the living room tour once a year.
Spring sums up the living room tour best: “I think it just became survival. The music business changed. The way we download music’s changed. So the way we tour has to change.”
Alligator is available now on iTunes. Stream it here.
Photos courtesy of Abandon Kansas.