I recently attended an “intimate” Saturday night show with 100 other people in a secret location at a dance studio on the north side of Seattle. From the outside, it looked sketchy upon arrival. The entrance was in an alley behind a restaurant. There was no sign to indicate you were in the right place. But here’s the thing: the performances were real and the audience appreciative. They listened with respect. Mostly quietly. Often raptly. They chatted with each other and with the musicians during breaks. And then they applauded vigorously. Repeatedly.
There was no proper stage, just about 50 folding chairs in front of a makeshift stage area in a corner, the rest was standing room only. If you hadn’t arrived an hour early and put your coat on a chair to claim it, you were out of luck to get a seat. White curtains were strung up over the wall mirrors behind the artists, and Christmas lights combined with two intense soft box lights to illuminate the performers. This experience was not for the nervous artist who prefers to be at a remove from the audience.
The lineup consisted of a solo musician (Jason Dodson of The Maldives), a duo (Shelby Earl - see above thumbnail), and a small group (Ghosts I’ve Met - this was actually their CD release party as well), performing amplified acoustic music with hand drums at the loudest. OK, well maybe a small kit. This was, indeed, an intimate experience, despite the fact that the space held more people than I’ve seen in many local commercial music clubs or bars. Half of the 100 people packed in this relatively small space stood through the entire three hour show holding their plastic wine cups, beer bottles and paper plates of veggies and nacho dip.
Where is this nirvana of performance spaces, you might ask? Well, it’s in a different location every time, and there have been 100 of these types of gatherings – really more like cocktail parties - over the past five years. It seems that the audience and exposure for Seattle Secret Shows, an offshoot of Seattle Living Room Shows, run by two sisters, Kristen and Carrie Watt, is growing every month. For a full profile, you can read about SLRS by the Seattle Music Insider, or you can listen to an informative podcast interview by long-time Seattle radio personality Shawn Stewart.
“Kristen and Carrie Watt have real love and pure passion for well-crafted music and artists that touch the heart and soul. It is out of that passion that they decided to host live concerts in a living room. Thus was born Seattle Living Room Shows. The homegrown and organic concert series is a unique way to see a live concert in the Seattle area.” – Seattle Music Insider
I spoke with Kristen briefly before the performance, and it seems clear this formula is working. Almost too well – she looked busy! She gets over 100 artist submissions a week, and most shows sell out. It’s clearly appealing to both the audience and artists. Here’s why I think this format is working so well for Kristen and Carrie, and why I think, in many ways, it’s one of the best live performance models for indie musicians. If you don’t have this kind of option in your hometown, I would consider starting one up, whether you are an avid live music listener or an indie artist. Keep in mind, this is primarily for singer-songwriters or stripped down, acoustic versions of a band.
- The whole “Are You On The List?” exclusivity vibe, “shows sell out quickly” messaging, and small spaces creates excitement. The idea of not announcing the performance location except in an email just before the event create a sense of club-ishness, like you’re in on something other people aren’t.
- Kristen and Carrie curate and choose good artists. Unlike an open mic, or songwriter showcase, where it’s usually first-come, first-served, and the artist quality is uneven (to say the least), these are not amateurs. This means the audience is ensured quality entertainment every time.
- It costs the audience money to attend. As with point 2 above, this is not an open mic or coffeehouse, where the audience pays nothing. At $15 a pop, it’s a great value for the audience, but it also allows the SLRS folks to pay their performers something, even if minimal. The reality is that to be paid anything these days to perform is hard work – most musicians I know get no more than $50-$100 per band member per night for a decent gig. I think musicians deserve to be paid, and audiences also value a performance more when they pay for it.
- SLRS Partners with non-profit Melodic Caring Project for some shows, which live streams select performances to sick kids in the hospital. Cause marketing is a great way to promote anything these days. It lends authority to a project, enhances the PR possibilities, and makes people feel good about participating beyond just the entertainment factor.
- A great sound system, (mostly) comfortable seats, and a pleasantly funky and intimate space. This is not a bar. It retains some of the feel of a living room house concert (I’ve been to a few of those as well), but it manages to still feel accessible for many, many times the number of people who can attend a typical house concert in someone’s home. This is good for the artist in terms of revenue and exposure, while not sacrificing a quality listening environment.
- A managed email list and regular performance schedule ensures that there is a predictability for both performers and audience. The SLRS shows happen 1-2 times a month, and it seems they have a loyal following. It helps that Kristen and Carrie are great at promoting, and their emails are just the right length, well-timed, with the right information (addresses, artist overview and links, phone numbers). They include contact information for folks who get lost trying to find the location, which alleviates the uncertainty of attending something at a place where you’ve never been.
I was impressed not only by the well-organized nature of the event, but also by the congeniality and attention the audience gave the artists. The artists clearly enjoyed the experience, because the sound was good, they were appreciated, and they could play a whole set of original music without the din of sports televisions above them or cats cavorting happily on the couch arms.
Have you experienced Seattle Secret Shows or Seattle Living Room Concerts or something like it? Do you enjoy attending and/or performing at house concerts better than open mics, clubs or bars? What are some of the best venues you’ve heard live music in?