Queer singer-songwriters connect with fans by delivering to their homes.
Gregory Douglass has a captive audience. The 26-year-old musician has just finished belting out “Sail the Sea,” a beautiful ode to a lesbian with wanderlust, when he’s suddenly asked to keep the noise down. The admonition isn’t coming from a club owner or from the crowd; it’s coming from the next-door neighbor: Douglass is performing at a house concert. By lowering the volume, he pays a small price for an otherwise dream gig.
An independent singer-songwriter, Douglass is one of hundreds of LGBT musicians who earn a living by recording their own material and playing it live inside people’s homes. For Douglass, house concerts are much more lucrative than traditional listening rooms. “By the time the club takes their percentage and the sound guy gets paid, you’re lucky if you have enough money for gas,” he says.
The Vermont native has been performing since he was a teenager, when he was inspired by indie heroes like Ani DiFranco, Tori Amos and the Indigo Girls. He’s since written and recorded six full-length albums (all available at CD Baby.com) and has had success getting airplay on the Logo network. But he maintains that the best way to create long-term listeners is to do a show inside their homes. “I feel like I inherit even more dedicated fans this way,” he says. “People are a lot more engaged. There is so much more of a commitment involved.”
Martine Locke—Aussie church girl–turned–Bay Area singer-songwriter—agrees. Locke first picked up the guitar in theological college in Adelaide, South Australia, where she was studying to become a minister. “Then I moved to Sydney to become part of the music ministry of the biggest Pentecostal church in Australia,” she says. “And then I kissed a girl.”
Locke, 37, believes house concerts create a unique opportunity for people to connect with her music. “People are disarmed in a way they’re not when they come into a venue,” she says. “It’s a warm and accepting atmosphere for people to be in, so it kind of brings out those feelings in people. They can get incredibly intimate.”
As queer independent musicians, Douglass and Locke cherish not having to censor themselves (whereas their straight counterparts might not face the same bias from the record industry). But that means they have to spend two to three weeks of every month on the road. Both estimate that 50 to 70 percent of their income is generated by house concerts. Typically, they’ll book a tour around an annual gig and add to it an appearance at a local listening room like Uncommon Ground. Then, through friends and fans, they’ll seek out other house concerts to round out that leg of the tour.
To keep it worth their time, they need a host to provide a minimum number of listeners and/or guaranteed pay. Douglass, for example, charges $200 and then lets the host either pay that fee directly or ask the audience to do it via a $10 per-person donation. Either way, that amount is just a base since guests often donate more than the minimum.
Merchandise augments the coffers as well. Locke, who brings CDs and
T-shirts on every tour, says the intimacy of a home setting facilitates sales. “They’re connecting to your songs in a completely different way,” she says. “They know the stories and they’ve identified parts of themselves within the stories.” On a good night, she says she’ll walk away with $700 or more.
Yet despite all the pluses, both see the minuses, too. For starters, being your own boss requires an incredible amount of discipline; and they admit that walking into a stranger’s house can be a crapshoot (although both report few bad experiences). And while the singers say they could do house concerts for years to come, they’ll have to keep spreading the word.
“It’s still pretty underground,” Douglass says. “I really feel like people have no idea how many artists would be willing to come and play in their home.”
Locke plays Uncommon Ground Thursday 4. Douglass plays Uncommon Ground October 16.