FROM THE OUTSIDE, it’s hard to tell anything of note is happening at the Ballard home of Kristen and Carrie Watt. The weather exhibits all the soggy signs of another gloomy Seattle night in March, but inside there’s a warmth and palpable excitement. The Watt sisters have been living room concert promoters for four years, and tonight David Bazan is playing their abode. Armed with his biting lyricism, the singer-songwriter has pulled big crowds at Neumos and the Showbox. Here, 70 people (mainly twenty- to fortysomethings) are sardined into the living room space, crammed onto stools, couches, and pillows on the floor to see him play. The night marks the convergence of two realities—the Watts’ world of living room concerts and Bazan’s life of performing in strangers’ homes.
Bazan began touring living rooms in 2009 when his record label didn’t want him to risk overexposure in clubs before the release of his album Curse Your Branches. Still needing to make a living, he decided to take his solo show to fans’ houses. Not only does it provide an intimate interaction, he also gets to keep all the money instead of sharing it with the clubs. Since then he’s racked up close to 350 living room shows.
The Watt sisters started hosting concerts four years ago in their charming Craftsman house and other bungalows that could comfortably fit 40 to 60 concertgoers. Their Seattle Living Room Shows has built a loyal fan base and snagged both touring acts and top-end local talent, including soul-revivalist Allen Stone and up-and-coming troubadour Bryan John Appleby. “It’s just a way to bring music into the community without having our own actual space,” says Carrie Watt. Even if a musician doesn’t have a draw in Seattle, the Watts can fill the room with a receptive audience.
While the Watts organize shows as an impassioned hobby, Michael Connolly has turned the practice into a business. Connolly, himself a member of Americana trio Coyote Grace, saw the potential in Seattle, “especially for acoustic music. There hadn’t been a lot of good places to play,” he says. “When I would contemplate putting together some kind of musical project, a lot of times the thing that would stop me was, ‘Where would I play?’”
His three-year-old Empty Sea Studios specializes in acoustic music (bluegrass, folk, etc.) in a Phinney Ridge home with a performance space and studio upstairs and Connolly’s apartment downstairs. Empty Sea blurs the lines of the living room genre; the shows are held in a converted house and provide a similar communal feeling, but boast a stage, concert lighting, full staff, and professional PA system.
The artist responses to such endeavors have been overwhelmingly positive since they offer a fresh (and oftentimes better-paying) alternative to venue shows. “Afterwards, most musicians say it was their favorite show,” says Carrie Watt.
Musicians particularly enjoy the politeness of the audience. Distractions are minimal and, unlike at bars or coffee shops, music is the focus. “The business model of those places isn’t music,” Connolly says. “It’s coffee or alcohol, so they’re going to be serving the whole show. You’re going to be trying to sing your heartfelt ballad over the espresso machine.”
“At a rock club, a lot of times it’s a place that people have [played] over and over again and it’s their turf,” says Bazan. “At someone’s house I think that people are kind of just on their best behavior in a way that’s pretty cool.”
While these stripped-down shows may almost seem old timey, they increasingly rely on the web. Seattle Living Room Shows requires patrons to join an email list—the only way to learn about and RSVP for the upcoming concerts. Bazan crowdsources via email, Twitter, and Facebook to find hosts in each city, and tickets are only available online. The social media cogs work so well that Bazan’s last two Seattle-area living room shows sold out in under five minutes.
Meanwhile, Empty Sea has started live streaming most of its concerts. Connolly has poured more than $100,000 into equipment and amassed a pro video staff to broadcast HD videos online (via subscription) and mitigate Empty Seas’ inherent capacity problem.
Connolly thinks these shows fit the city’s nonconformist edge. “Seattle is pretty rabidly anticorporate. We like to support small businesses and independent musicians,” he says. “People crave authentic and direct experiences.”