A few years back I found myself in a situation where I was fortunate enough to be able to buy a spacious house for a reasonable price. I felt guilty in a way, as my generation is being slowly squeezed out of the housing market, but also extremely lucky. We just happened to have access to the money for a down payment on the first place we looked at in a central neighbourhood, where you can still buy a house and not be mortgage broke.
One of the appealing things about the house was the basement and living room. Both were plenty big enough to live in, but something I visualized almost immediately was their potential as small venues. Having played hundreds of shows in dozens of countries, the best venue for a band (and an audience I would argue) is by far a basement. When live music is added to a house, a change in context occurs: people meet their neighbours in a warm environment, as participants, and actual community building can result.
A bar is problematic for two reasons. The first is that in most cases (and especially in North America), alcohol sales almost always come first. As a band, you can’t help but feel bad when you haven’t brought enough people in to send the staff home with pocketful of tips. Or perhaps you’re playing to an uninterested crowd who just wants you to turn off your amps so they can chug beers in peace and play the slots. I’ve even played bars that take a cut of a band’s merchandise, after the band barely gets paid because the promoter didn’t do the work required to get people through the door. Therein lies the second problem which is, the band (re: humans with feelings that are often far from home) are often treated as a commodity, something to make money off of, and the music they’ve laboured over is tertiary. Of course there is always an exception to the rule, and there are exceptional people who go above and beyond to make a commercial establishment a welcomed place for a band, but for the most part, bars are a drag and totally disheartening places to play.
A house, on the other hand, is a magnificent place for a musical gathering. Since I don’t have any overhead to deal with, I don’t feel like the show really has to make any extra money at all. Promoting is not something I choose to do for work, so I’m happy to be able to say that I’ve never made a penny from our shows. Our shows are essentially crowd-funded with every dollar funnelled to the band, and most times I reach into my own pocket to top them up. Attendees, more often than not, do the same. Beer is sold out of a fridge using an honour system and folks always pay more than what they need to, which goes directly to the band. Merch is also sold in an environment that is less driven by the standard business paradigm. There is a different kind of an engagement between audience and artist (or between artists) at our shows. Conversations are sincere, people pay more for shirts, records are sold and nobody feels like they’re being had. But also, there is no (or much less) pressure for artists to try to hawk their wares, and the audience to be sold on them.
Another heartening thing is that people really keep themselves in check at our shows. There have been no problems with harassment, broken toilets and we’ve really appreciated people keeping our place clean (with respect to cans and cigarette butts), as well as being respectful of noise levels that could affect either our neighbours or sleeping baby. Not once have the cops shuts us down or has the baby woken up.
I am thankful for gathering spaces all over the world that exist outside of the realm of capitalist economics and the surveillance state, in which we can freely exchange ideas and crank up the tunes.