Listening Room Festival introduces house concerts to Tampa Bay area audiences

Singer-songwriter and house-concert vet Fran Snyder stages the debut event, with nightly showcases at Hideaway Cafe in St. Pete

click to enlarge BAREFOOT AND LOVED BY DOGS: Fran Snyder playing a house concert in Dallas, Texas. - Terri Bahun
Terri Bahun
BAREFOOT AND LOVED BY DOGS: Fran Snyder playing a house concert in Dallas, Texas.

Imagine having an intimate house party, and the guest of honor is a touring musician who performs for a suggested donation from your friends. In exchange, you provide him with a place to sleep, a meal or two, and a stage — your living room.

Welcome to the cozy world of house concerts. On the rise for the past several years, house concerts mostly cater to acoustic acts — singer-songwriters, folk duos, the occasional bluegrass trio — and are a great budget-conscious alternative to the typical grind of touring, particularly for those artists who'd normally play a small venue anyway. "When you've got somebody on stage just telling story songs, house concerts is where they thrive. We call them listening rooms," explains Fran Snyder, founder of The 40-something locally based singer-songwriter is behind this weekend's first-ever Listening Room Festival, a multi-day fest of private house concerts paired with public artist showcases and workshops at St. Petersburg's own listening room, Hideaway Café & Recording Studio.

Snyder has modeled his musical career around playing, hosting and promoting house concerts ever since his first one 10 years ago. Afterwards, he says, "I was absolutely hooked. You can see every face in the crowd, so when you do a funny song, you know it's working, or you do a powerful ballad and you can see someone tearing up in the back. It's rare to experience that sort of visceral reaction, to feel the connection you do at a house concert. You don't get that in a club." It's immediate affirmation that what you're doing has meaning to someone besides yourself.

The Listening Room Festival was conceived when Snyder returned to Tampa last October after a 13-year absence, bringing his love of house concerts with him. By December, he'd become well-acquainted with the area's hosts, and started planning the fest with the intention of not only introducing a new untapped audience to house concerts, but expanding upon the number of people hosting them.

Snyder used his own site as a resource. Launched in 2006, is currently the world's leading online community for acoustic living room concerts with hosts in Canada, Australia, the UK and Europe. "We're kind of like eHarmony for house concerts," Snyder laughs. "The hosts have a profile, the artists have a profile, and we give them a platform to find each other."

Potential hosts sign up for free, and in addition to connecting to other hosts on the network, they get access to a database of roughly 400 house concert artists who've been vetted by Snyder and his small CIYH crew. Quality control is a vitally important part of what they do, and Snyder says they turn away about 80 percent of artists who apply.

House concerts are, by definition, private events. You can view concerts that are taking place in your area at, but if you want to attend one, you have to email the host, introduce yourself, and start a dialogue that will ideally end in an invitation. "Everybody has to RSVP, there has to be some sort of communication with the host, and that's how you get the address, that's how you find out where the show is. That way, no one is showing up at your house unannounced."

There's no cover charge because it's a house, "and if you start acting like a venue, zoning officials can treat you like a venue." Instead, admission is a suggested donation to the performer, and all of it goes to the performer; hosts do it for the love of it, and don't profit in any way. The artists, in turn, enjoy a more enriching experience overall; they make more than they would at a bar or club, save on gas, lodging and food expenses, and get more time to kick around in whatever city they're playing. In the long term, house concerts provide artists with a sustainable, organic way to develop a fanbase, even if it's in small but loyal chunks of 15, 20, 30 and 40 people at a time. The idea is that eventually, if an artist wants to play a public venue in a market where they've built up fans, they can depend on said fans to come out and support.

The social aspect doesn't necessarily appeal to all artists, however. "When it comes to a house concert," says Snyder, "you have to be on more than just the time you're on stage, you've gotta be friendly from the moment you get there, you can't just hide in your room until showtime." Plus, playing acoustic, without a full band, "musically naked" as Snyder calls it, is intimidating for some and just not rock 'n' roll enough for others.

For those who can swing it, the intimate atmosphere encourages a stronger, deeper and more personal connection between the artists and their audiences, hosts included. "They get to know these artists as people, and a lot of times, the hosts and the artists become really good friends," Snyder says. "For an artist like me, who makes house concerts a significant part of our touring plan, it really is like visiting your friends for a living."

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