Winning new fans will always be a slog for up-and-coming musicians. Yes, young performers have the Internet on their side—but with more than 12 hours of music uploaded every minute on SoundCloud alone, creators quickly discover the importance of steering people to their websites in person.
In other words, they need to get out on the road.
Organizing a tour is never easy. Questions over management, transportation, and which band to support lead to sleepless nights—and the wrong call can be both costly and time-consuming. Booking agents don’t come cheap, and many performers visiting venues are forced to pay to play as the opener for a bigger group.
There are, however, workarounds for those willing to get creative, as Vancouver singer-songwriter Sheldoncole discovered while living in Detroit. Stumbling across the burgeoning house-concert scene after a tip from a girl outside a coffee-shop washroom, the up-and-comer decided to build a 51-date tour around playing in people’s living rooms.
“It was a surprise to find homes that functioned as venues,” the musician, born Sheldon Kozushko, tells the Straight over tea. “There are established circuits that really talented poets, artists, and musicians can join. I was watching people just like me play their songs, and break even or profit off the tour. They had a place to stay, and the shows were so intimate. It seemed infinitely better than paying another artist to piggyback on their performances around tiny clubs.”
Returning to Vancouver, Kozushko pulled out his address book and sketched a tentative route across Canada and the States. Fascinated by the theory of six degrees of separation, he put out a call on social media to see who would be interested in hosting a performance for one night, aiming to find homes from coast-to-coast.
“When I started this process, I didn’t really know how to organize it,” he says. “There are networks of established house-tour stops, where musicians apply to play and homes offer to host, and once you’re in the fold they set you up with shows anywhere in the world. So to get myself recognized, I reached out through various online platforms and had some great successes. I found a woman on couchsurfing.com in Minneapolis, for example, who was really into throwing a show in her backyard where she could bring all her friends. I’m also playing a night in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend’s home that I found through Facebook. It’s great that a person is willing to open up their space to a total stranger.”
Not just excited about reaching new fans all over the continent, Kozushko also puts a lot of stock on the atmosphere that the gigs can create.
“The cool thing about the venues is that no two shows are the same,” he says. “Over the years I’ve played coffee shops, clubs, and bars, and at most of the performances people are noisy. They’re distracted with their own conversations, or they’re eating or drinking, or just hanging out. That’s the culture of live music in that setting—you’re expected to be just in the background. What I’ve seen at house shows is that people actually listen to your performance, and they really get into it. I think that when people give you that opportunity, it’s possible to win them over and share something beautiful. It feels so much better than any other setting, and that helps me make more of a connection with people, which allows me to build a bigger fan base.”
Tours—particularly international, cross-continental ventures—often come with a hefty price tag. Kozushko’s approach minimizes much of those costs. Often able to sleep at his venues and driving himself to each new location, his outlay is mostly limited to food and gas—which means much of the profit goes straight into his pocket.
“At all of the nights I’ve been to on the east coast, artists have a donation jar and sell their merch,” he says. “It’s pretty common to pass around a hat at the show, saying ‘Send this band to the next town’. For the groups that I know, it works out pretty well. I jumped on the back of one band’s tour that was on the road from New York. They’ve been doing it for a few summers, and the frontman told me that he’d never lost money. They always make enough to travel onwards and print more T-shirts. That was a revelation to me because it’s so different from what you normally hear from musicians, where every tour is an investment, and even though you lose money you just have to suck it up.
“My style of writing is quite stripped down,” he continues. “It’s pretty melancholy acoustic music, and a lot of the songs are about questions of life and death, sorrow, grief, and love. That really lends itself to the house-show format, but there’s a lot of flexibility in doing a tour like this for any musician.”
Sheldoncole plays next Thursday (June 29). See www.sheldoncole.com for details.
Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays