- Associated Press - Friday, January 1, 2016

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. (AP) - Fame and fortune might be the dream for most musicians starting out, but it is not the measurement of success for all artists.

There are thousands of world-class, professional musicians who are driven purely by their passion. They do not travel in tricked-out tour buses nor do they fill stadiums. These troubadours go town to town, festival to festival, financially struggling to accept a gig more than a few tanks of gas away, and wondering where they can do their next load of laundry.

House concerts make these independent tours possible.

“It’s magic,” said Sebastian resident Cathy Woolsey. She has been hosting house concerts since 2008. “This keeps a lot of artists out there on the road.”

Although they have been around since the Renaissance, house concerts are experiencing a resurgence across the country, especially among the singer/songwriter folk genres.

“We certainly see a steady increase in house concert presenters attending industry events,” said Aengus Finnan, executive director of The Folk Alliance International. FAI is the world’s largest folk music membership organization, and house concert workshops take center stage at its annual conferences.

“While they have been a staple part of most folk musicians’ touring reality, they are increasing to the point where there are organizations established to network house concert hosts and tours just like any other segment of the performing arts sector” Finnan said.

These intimate concerts are exactly what they sound like.

They feature independent, touring musicians and are performed in neighborhood backyards, living rooms or clubhouses.

House concert audiences range in size from a dozen to as many as 100 people. The concerts are invitation only and guests are asked for a donation, usually between $10 and $15, which goes directly to the artist. It’s common for guests to bring their own beverages and to start with a potluck dinner or dessert bar before the show.

Once the social hour is over, the audience is quiet.

These are not house parties with bands providing background entertainment. House concerts are listening events.

“I love them,” said singer/songwriter Victoria Leigh, a Jensen Beach-based artist who recently performed house concerts while touring in Maine. “You feel significantly more appreciated in those settings. You’re getting paid to be an artist and there’s a big difference between being an artist and being an entertainer.”

Space limitations keep these shows small, from soloists to quartets, and are presented acoustically or with basic sound systems The host traditionally offers room and board to the artists for the evening, enabling the artists to keep travel expenses down. They often are held midweek, as touring musicians travel to larger venues and bigger-paying events for the weekend. Hosts have to manage mailing lists, set up seating and cleanup. They make no money, only bragging rights.

“We love it,” Ed DeVries said. He and his wife, Wendy, have been hosting concerts in their Stuart backyard for four years. “There’s no money in it at all. In fact, it ends up costing us money but we enjoy it. It’s just a blessing, and we’ll do it for however long we can.”

Because these are private events, no royalty or promoter fees are due, so even if the artist only makes $100 at a small living room show, they keep it all and save on meal and hotel expenses.

The grass roots format gives artists access to new audiences. The setting fosters a comfort level for the musicians to open up and share their stories. They tell personal stories of family, muses, writing and life on the road. That intimacy creates a rapport, resulting in a strong, loyal fan base.

“As musicians, you want to connect with your audience and at these small, intimate concerts, you can do it,” said singer Debbie Tassone of the Jupiter-based duo, Acoustic Soul. “It’s so gratifying and rewarding.”

Fran Snyder, a singer/songwriter from St. Petersburg, said those connections add up to 50 percent more merchandise sales than your typical bar/restaurant gig and an 80 percent replay rate.

In 20 years, Snyder has logged more than a million miles of tour dates across the world and recorded seven albums. It took just one performance at a house concert to turn him off to playing at bars and restaurants forever.

“The value of what I do was measured by the amount of booze I sold and that stopped working for me,” Snyder said. “I don’t like talking to people when they’re drunk. I was playing for an audience I hated.”

Snyder opted instead for house concerts and festivals. To make it easier for independent artists like himself to find possible hosts, he founded one of those networking organizations Finnan referred to earlier. ConcertsInYourHome.com is an online site which matches artists with potential hosts.

“It’s like eHarmony for house concerts,” Snyder said.

Artists must pass an evaluation process to be accepted and pay a yearly membership fee. Hosts pay nothing to join. Since its 2006 inception, 600 hosts and 225 artists have joined the site, resulting in more than 2,000 house concerts to date.

“Florida is the second most active state for house concerts, trailing California and just ahead of Texas,” Snyder said about matches on his website. “But it would be conservative to estimate 20,000 house concerts per year in the United States alone.”

I went to my first house concert with a lousy attitude. I had just finished up a 50-hour workweek and I was dragging. I didn’t want to go. But I had to; it was for work.

Three hours later, I left energized, enchanted and unlikely to attend an arena concert ever again.

For music fans and admirers of the people who have the talent to create it, there is a magic at these private shows that’s difficult to describe, but I’ll try.

If you have had the pleasure of sitting up close at any concert, you have experienced the electric energy that seeps off the stage. It is palpable, and almost priceless, judging from current ticket prices.

Turns out that intoxicating energy is not one of a kind and does not have to break the bank. The magic can be felt everywhere at a house concert.

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