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Living Room Concerts Bring Back Small Shows

Greg Ching met his wife, Deborah, listening to musicians play in a San Francisco living room. They bought their home near Nederland, Colo., with an eye toward hosting live musical performances.

Since then, Ching has become so committed to his 14-year-old series, Aspen Meadows House Concerts, that he welcomed one performer in September even as Colorado’s flooding knocked out his phone and sent 8 inches of water into his basement. Years before, he held another “living room show” while a wildfire burned nearby. And he spent about two years and $20,000 in legal fees defending his right to organize private concerts; in 2008, Boulder County commissioners regulated home gatherings, limiting attendance, frequency and hours in response to concerns about running a business or creating noise.

“These living room shows are a way of bringing people together,” Ching said, explaining why he didn’t give up in the face of fire, flooding or government regulation. “It’s something about the human spirit. It’s very healing.”

Enjoying live music at home is nothing new. For some, it harks back to the humble notion of friends singing and playing instruments together before the days of recorded music and radio. For others, it calls to mind Europe’s legendary salons, filled with writers, artists and musicians.

Today, the living room show lives on, and for many musicians, it’s become an important way to connect with fans and supplement income. Hosts don’t charge admission as a business would, but can suggest that guests made a donation of perhaps $10 or $15 to pay the musicians. Living room show hosts typically give all proceeds to the performers.

I got hooked on living room shows when my husband threw me a surprise 40th birthday party with a three-piece jazz band in our Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment. Since then, we’ve hosted or co-hosted a variety of performers, including Helen Gillet, a cellist and singer who describes house concerts as having an intimacy almost like family.

“There’s something very gratifying and beautiful about that,” she said. “The fans you make in a living room setting might go that extra mile for you, because you really connect.”

After he played one living room show and wanted to do more, singer-songwriter Fran Snyder created ConcertsInYourHome.com to help musicians and hosts connect. He charges artists a membership fee and offers a database of performers that’s searchable by state, genre or instruments.

“There’s a huge transformation going on in entertainment,” Snyder said. Some venues have closed, some acts that used to draw 200 or 300 people struggle to get 50, and more musicians are hustling to support themselves rather than looking for a paycheck from record labels.

“We’re literally building a new touring infrastructure,” Snyder said.

From Pat DiNizio, lead singer of The Smithereens, doing all-request living room shows, to actress Sarah Jessica Parker hosting a living room fundraiser for President Obama’s re-election, this old idea seems new again.

In New York City, Marjorie Eliot has offered free, Sunday “Parlor Jazz” concerts in her living room in Harlem for a decade. And the New York-based Undead Music Festival featured performances in homes in many cities as a companion to those in professional venues.

In Pittsburgh, five musicians created the Living Room Chamber Music Project to share classical music in a more relaxed environment.

“A house concert allows us to figuratively and literally close the distance with our audience,” said one of them, oboist Lenny Young. “As working musicians, it’s very important to us that if people aren’t coming to concerts, we need to come to them.”

Janet Hans co-hosts Urban Campfires: San Antonio House Concerts, a series that grew so big it began renting a recreation facility that holds 100 people. Organizers retain the living-room ethos by including a potluck dinner and giving all proceeds to the artist, whom they also put up for the night.

“We’re not in the living room anymore but we still strive to have that community feeling,” Hans said.

Pointers for Hosts:

1. Start with a small, weekday event. Before you know whether 15 or 50 of your friends will attend a live show, it’s better for you and the performer to start with lower expectations.

2. Embrace the space you have. Don’t strip your home of personal touches or feel you have to set up rows of folding chairs.

3. Keep it private. Putting up fliers and advertising your shows — acting like a business instead of a private party — could get you in trouble with local government or your home insurance.

4. Set a suggested donation from guests. Make it clear all proceeds are going to the musician.

5. Invite your neighbors. If you don’t want them annoyed by noise or traffic, make sure they are part of the fun.