The first thing I noticed was the carpet.
In a club, you're surrounded by ambient noise. Squeaking sneakers. Buzzing speakers. Coughs and giggles. In the wrong space, these sounds echo off the walls and muddy the music you paid to hear in concert.
But here in my colleague Paul's carpeted living room, North Carolina Americana duo Mandolin Orange were playing a show with barely any amplification, and the music sounded terrific — as crisp and clear as you'd find in a soundproofed studio, yet soft and intimate, as though you were eavesdropping on a songwriting session.
"You can really feel that connection between them listening and you playing, and all of a sudden, it becomes this give and take of energy," Mandolin Orange singer-guitarist Andrew Marlin said after the show.
"Not just from the artist's perspective," added singer-violinist Emily Frantz," but from the listening perspective. You're so much closer on both ends."
This was my first official living-room concert. Twenty bucks and a box of apple chips got me in the door for an hour and a half of music, conversation and Cigar City Jai Alai. I'm late to the game, as private house concerts have been gaining in popularity for several years now, a reflection of the changing music industry and new, more direct connections between artists and fans.
In the coming weeks, two nationally known artists will bring living-room tours our way. Alec Ounsworth of indie rockers Clap Your Hands Say Yeah has a house show in Tampa on Feb. 18, and Pedro the Lion singer David Bazan has one March 6. The locations are secret until you buy your ticket.
"You have tons of great acts who are used to drawing 500 people, 300 people in theaters, and they're waking up and realizing, 'Oh, crap, I'm playing these 200-seat halls, but I'm only drawing 50, 75 people,'" said St. Petersburg singer-songwriter Fran Snyder, who runs Concerts In Your Home, a repository of resources for artists and potential hosts. "I don't care how good your show is, if the room is half-empty, nothing sucks the energy out of a live show like empty seats. They're realizing that they can play somebody's good-sized house for 75 people and just have a much more pleasant experience."
Snyder started Concerts In Your Home in 2006 as a way to foster the notion that house concerts can be as affordable and enjoyable for the artists as they are for fans. An offshoot of that website, the Listening Room Network, led to a statewide Listening Room Festival, which for the past two years has taken places in dozens of homes around Florida. This year's fest is set for April 1-7; Snyder says it'll feature 50 house shows, and likely a few public ones, too.
Florida, and Tampa Bay in particular, are strong markets for house shows, Synder said, for several reasons: Florida is a notoriously difficult and costly place for most artists to tour; it's full of empty-nesters with the space and desire to host events; it's uniquely receptive to independent folk and Americana artists thanks to the prominence of independent radio station WMNF-88.5.
Today, Snyder said, the Listening Room Network has a hand in some 2,000 house shows a year around the country. The appeal to artists is clear: "House concerts are a terrific way for smaller concerts to make sense financially for developing artists — or any artist, for that matter. The host typically will put the artist up for the night, they'll feed them, they'll treat them well. If you're touring independently, to have all that stuff taken care of, you don't have to have a great turnout for it to be a great evening."
Mandolin Orange started doing house concerts about a year ago. They realized they could connect directly with fans, who would not only host the show, but handle nearly all promotion simply by spreading the word to their friends. "We'll just post on Facebook, 'Hey, anyone want to host a house show in this general area on these general dates?' " Frantz said. "And then people will reach out. It's a lot more personal that way."
Their two St. Pete shows came in between dates on a swing through the Southeast. Each was as undistilled a musical experience as you can imagine, with friends noshing homemade snacks in borrowed chairs while the duo told stories, took requests and played sweet, honeyed folk songs for an intimate, reverent audience.
"It's tough when you go somewhere and nobody wants to listen to you," Marlin said. "You're up there pouring your heart out. I think that's one of the goals of house concerts, is that people come to listen. That makes you really feel like they appreciate it."
Where do house concerts go from here? Snyder's thinking the workplace. On Feb. 14, he and guitarist Shaun Hopper will preview the office-concert concept for local businesses at the St. Petersburg Greenhouse, a small business incubator and resource center. Snyder aims to have about 50 office concerts during this year's Listening Room Festival, but looking forward, he believes this could be a way for touring artists to make a little extra money during the day and even sell more tickets to their shows that night.
"Most offices are not going to be the right space for that," he said. "But all we need is five to 10 in most major markets. What are there, 100,000 offices in the Tampa Bay area? You can get five to 10 of them to fall in love with this idea. ... It's an easy way to bring some excitement into the office, recharge everybody's batteries, put a little money in their pocket and make some new fans."