How to grow a business by shrinking the audience

A musician’s house concert strategy puts closer relationships with fans first

Shannon Curtis playing keyboard

For years, Los Angeles-based dream-pop musician Shannon Curtis worked like thousands of independent artists — booking herself into small venues around the country, hustling to get her shows listed in local publications, sometimes traveling thousands of miles to play for a handful of distracted people in a coffee shop.

She subsidized her tours with occasional higher-paying college gigs, which after the 2008 recession, became a lot harder to get.

“I was growing my mailing list little by little,” she says. “It was very slow.”

Then, in the summer of 2011, without changing her music or her act or getting a big mainstream break, she started attracting more fans and earning more money than ever.

The increase over the past five years has been, she says, “exponential”.

The way she did it goes against the idea that to be a rockstar, or indeed to succeed in many businesses, you need to attract as many fans or customers as possible. Almost by accident, Curtis discovered that if she applied a boutique experience to the conventionally mass-market commodity of pop music, she could abandon the competitive, impersonal model of the live music business for good.

 

backyard gathering

 

The a-ha moment

The new direction clicked when a supporter in San Diego thought it had been too long since Curtis had played there, and offered to host a concert in her living room. Curtis and her husband/producer Jamie Hill thought it would be a fun way to spend a weekend, and passing a hat might at least cover gas money.

“People were hanging on every word,” says Curtis. “I could see when people were tearing up or having an emotional reaction to a song. When there was a funny moment, we were all laughing together. It was just magical.”

“When you’re performing in a venue that is also like a coffee shop or a bar, you spend most of your time trying to woo whoever is there to pay attention to what you’re doing and not be distracted by the conversation or the latte maker,” she says. “You might get a precious minute of time to really connect with the audience there.” By contrast, the house concert was an entire hour of that.

“People were hanging on every word,” says Curtis. “I could see when people were tearing up or having an emotional reaction to a song. When there was a funny moment, we were all laughing together. It was just magical.”

 

Curtis playing music outside

 

Now Curtis’s business is built on maximizing those magical, personal moments. When she filled in open dates on her next tour with house concerts, booked just by reaching out to people on her mailing list, “the house concerts outperformed the club shows on every single metric that we look at in terms of success for a show,” she says. “The money we were making, the enjoyment we were having, CDs were selling, names on the email list.”

The next year, they decided to put all their eggs in the house concert basket, and have grown the tour every year since: this year, she’s playing 80 shows, about 50 of which she says are repeat customers. And because the shows are private, multiple shows in the same area don’t dilute each other’s audiences the way too many public performances in one place can.

“We spent 11 days in the Seattle area last month,” says Hill. “Two shows were on the same block, each with 40 people.”

 

Why it works

Because Curtis and Hill are usually working with people outside the live music business, they have to educate hosts on what makes for a successful concert. For example, it has to be a focused listening event — people can’t just throw a party and hire Curtis as the entertainment. They ask for a minimum of about 30 people, but there’s no minimum donation so that people can come and enjoy the show without that pressure. They also ask that there be no pets wandering around, or children under 10.

 

outdoor concert set up

 

“Our income is entirely predicated on being able to create this immersive, continuous experience for people,” says Hill. “If that gets punctured, if there’s a distraction, people are naturally pretty curious and have an inner parakeet and will see something shiny and wander off. When we can create this cohesive experience for people that they can lose themselves in they will respond really, really well to that. And we can see that reflected in the donations after the show.”

It’s also reflected in the enthusiasm with which people who come to the concert tell others about Curtis’s music, as well as volunteer to set up future shows. She says that most of her host offers come from people who’ve attended a friend’s event, and that because the concerts aren’t public, she doesn’t have to spend time and resources on promotion.

“It’s all about the host inviting their people and saying, ‘You guys, it’s an experience that I want to share with you,’” she says.

 

The long view

Like most artists, Curtis still aspires to reach as many people as she can with her music. She’s recorded six full-length albums in the past three years, opened several shows for Shawn Colvin last year, and had a video go viral.

But she and Hill have realized that the bigger opportunities are still more likely to come if she continues to make her living and build her audience one highly engaged person at a time, even if it’s a longer-term and sometimes unpredictable strategy.

For example, this year’s tour had several cancellations for reasons like a host’s illness, divorce, or other personal issues — things that would rarely affect a regular tour where venues are staffed to operate consistently.

“Because we’ve banked this whole idea on embedding in people’s lives, the challenge of that is that people’s lives sometimes are really messy and hard.”

 

Evie Nagy has old band photos that very few people on Earth have earned the right to see.

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