Singer-songwriter Jon Troast – whom critics have described as “a shaggy acoustic troubadour with a keen wit & soulful voice” and “the long-lost love child of Lyle Lovett and Jack Johnson” – has built an enthusiastic, supportive fan base for his music literally one home at a time.
Years of touring the country through “house concerts” has allowed this prolific artist to hone his craft, catching the attention of “Prairie Home Companion,” PBS’ “Roadtrip Nation” and Sirius XM’s “The Coffeehouse” along the way.
I met Jon at the 2012 Folk Alliance Conference in February. We talked about his touring schedule and his unique approach of making house concerts the MAIN event, as opposed to just supplemental gigs on a larger touring schedule of clubs and coffee houses. Kindly, Jon agreed to share with us his experience and advice.
An interview with Jon Troast on how to book a profitable tour of house concerts
1. How big a role does the house concert circuit play in your music career? How many shows a year? What percentage of your live gigs?
House concerts have played a huge role in my music career. In fact, for the past 4 years, I’ve basically made my living from playing in people’s homes. I’ve played close to 600 of them from coast to coast (in 2009 I did a run of 100 concerts in 100 days!). Probably 95 percent of my shows are house concerts.
2. How did you first get into performing at house concerts?
I was falling asleep one night, and evaluating my life/career. At that point I had been playing music full time for 3 years. I was making a living playing coffee shops, bars, etc., but when I stopped to think about why I was playing music in the first place, I realized I was off track. I was paying the bills, but not necessarily connecting with the audience. So many times I’d be in the corner just hoping someone was listening. I decided I’d rather play for a small group in someone’s living room, than a room full of people who never caught a word. So, the next morning I sent out an email to my email list introducing the idea. I had no idea what kind of response I’d get.
3. How did you grow your house concert network from there to where you’re at now?
I booked the first tour within a week of sending that email. I tried to work anyone who signed up into my route. I went from Wisconsin to Maine, to North Carolina, to California, and back to Wisconsin in a little less than a month. The stops on the first tour led to other people signing up. I played at a guy’s house in New Jersey, then at his brother’s house in California and his sister’s house in Pennsylvania, then a friend of hers in Pennsylvania, etc. It’s become a widespread interconnected network. I now have almost 1000 people signed up to host, mostly from word of mouth. Sometimes I’ll stay in the same city for almost a week, so I’ve really cut down on my travel time between shows.
4. Can you describe a typical house concert experience, from booking it through the performance– up until you head out to the next gig?
One of the things I love about house concerts is each one is unique. I don’t know if there’s a “typical” experience, but here’s the general process.
About a month and a half before the tour starts, I sit down at my computer and map out all the potential hosts for the region I’ll be touring. Then, I start sending out emails, usually offering a couple potential dates at a time. Since each concert in the route is dependent on the one’s before it, I try not to get too far ahead. After emailing back and forth a couple times, the host confirms a date. I send them the official host email which gives them some helpful info about hosting- arranging the seating so that guests can sit and listen, etc. Once it’s booked, it’s just a matter of doing it. I usually try to show up an hour or two before the show to give myself time to set up. Sometimes I’ll get to sit down for dinner with the family. I play a one hour concert. Beyond that, it’s up to the host if they want to make it an all night event or have everyone leave when the concert is done. Some people will have appetizers or desserts before or after, or a buffet or a potluck. If I have friends or family in the area, I’ll stay with them, but many times I sleep at the host’s house. Sometimes I’m on a couch, sometimes I’m in a guest house. If there’s time, they might take me to see some of the local sights, or we’ll play a board game or hang out for a bit.
5. What would be the difference between a typical house concert and an ideal house concert?
The goal is to connect with people, so an ideal house concert would have more connection- people actively listening, asking questions, buying cds. I love to hear people’s stories. An ideal house concert would include time to hear them. Good food is always a plus. A comfortable bed with some privacy. Each one provides a unique experience though. Sometimes, the concerts where I end up sleeping on the couch and getting woken up early because the kids are getting ready for school are some of the coolest experiences. It’s amazing to have people just welcome you into their day to day family lives.
6. Do you look at house concerts as supplemental to a tour schedule of club gigs?
Right now, definitely not. They’re my main gig, and it’s a great way to build a loyal following. I’m planning to start playing some club gigs in cities where I’ve done a lot of house shows, but I don’t want to forget the purpose of the house shows- connecting with people.
7. What are the drawbacks of this approach? What are the pluses?
The main drawback is that house shows are not open to promotion. It’s limited to whoever the host wants to invite. So, you play for a smaller audience. The pluses? A whole bunch of them- the people you play for are listening and interested, you eat well, get a good night’s rest, meet interesting people, learn a lot, etc.
8. How do you perform differently for a house concert audience and a club audience?
The house concert is a little more casual. People are free to ask questions. I probably tell a few more stories than at a club show. There’s no stage diving at a house show. Maybe couch diving?
9. What’s next for you?
I’m in the process of releasing 4 EPs within a year. The third one, “C”, will be on iTunes on May 1st. This fall I’ll be releasing a compilation with songs from all four EPs (A, B, C and D) called “All the Brave little Critters kept Dancing”. I’ll be playing some club gigs this fall around the record release, still doing house concerts too of course! I’ll also continue connecting with people in Nashville (my current home town), working on publishing, licensing, management, etc. It’s going to be a pretty busy year, but I love it!
Thanks again to John for chatting about all this stuff. Check out his music HERE.
What has been your experience with house concerts? Let us know in the comments section below.
-Chris R. at CD Baby