PITTSBURGH — At a former mayoral residence in Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood, the McNair House, a family dog wandered among chairs and sofas arranged to form a makeshift theater in the living room.
At the front of the room, the Canadian alt rock band Status/Non-Status from Guelph, Ontario, delivered a set to an audience of about 20 with Hurley the dog serving as the most vocal fan. The concert — the venue, the band, ticket prices and the split between host and performers — had been arranged entirely with an app called SideDoor, a bit of tech at once commonsensical and radical.
Attending a concert with 20-50 people in someone’s home is a different experience than a stadium show in, say, 20,000-seat PPG Paints Arena. As pandemic concerns start to fade and more listeners venture back out to attend their favorite headliners’ shows, the market also is growing for emerging performers trying to build fan bases.
In this case, an app that helps connects smaller bands and audiences with venues off the beaten path, some of them way off. The majority of concert venues listed on SideDoor are in peoples’ homes — a four-bedroom in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., or maybe a two-bedroom in Squirrel Hill, Pa., — but there are also quirkier spaces like warehouses and factories and even a parking pad south of Pittsburgh.
At the recent Highland Park concert, nobody in the audience — comprised mostly of the host’s friends — had been familiar with the band’s music before attending. The hosts on this particular evening, George Wittenberg and Alyson Bonavoglia, checked in with listeners before the show, directing visitors to a porch for refreshments and cookies. Tickets were $20 a pop.
Wittenberg heard about the app through Dan Mangan, Canadian co-founder of SideDoor. Mangan had asked the couple to host a show for a band on its way to the South by Southwest festival in Texas, as a way to promote the app and the band.
Mangan, who began performing about 20 years ago as an alternative/indie artist, believes that opening up the number of spaces available for small performances will be healthy for the scene as well as early career musicians and bands.
“What I found early on was if I played to 30 people in a club, I made $50 bucks, but if I played to 30 people in a living room, I made like $700,” Mangan said, pointing out that the more intimate atmosphere of home concerts allowed him to better connect with listeners and develop a more committed fan base.
“If there was sort of a philosophical backbone of SideDoor, it’s this idea that if your footprint cannot be wide, let it be deep. If you can’t sell 1,000 tickets, have the most memorable night with 70 people possible.”
House concerts have been around since classical times (think the 18th century), when music printing became more common and groups of amateurs or professionals would gather to perform for one another.
As with modern house concerts, those gatherings were primarily a way for composers and musicians to gain exposure rather than a steady gig. “I think it’s really cool when people want to play in such spaces,” said Stephen Schultz, a professor of music history at Carnegie Mellon University and an in-demand professional flutist.
He cautions musicians to take their work seriously, even if the venue seems casual.
“You have to draw a line in playing for free. That might be more for people who haven’t broken into the professional scene to get exposure.”
House shows are typically organized by word of mouth and social media with a do-it-yourself sort of mentality, but this means it’s largely the same hosts and audiences attending the show and the community remains somewhat stable.
The new angle here is that SideDoor provides a single platform to connect the dots between all the stakeholders, something of a first in the concert world.
On the app, artists and venues can negotiate a contract and market the show. Listeners buy tickets and leave reviews with the click of a button. Artists receive payment within a day or two at a mutually agreed upon split, and SideDoor takes a 10% cut of gross sales for in-person shows.
At the Status/Non-Status concert, band founder and leader Adam Sturgeon took advantage of the intimacy of the space, sharing personal anecdotes about his indigenous history and the band’s mission in between songs. Status/Non-Status has been around for 10 years playing clubs, but its top Spotify song has only about 17,000 hits.
By comparison, Eternal Boy — the band of Rishi Bahl, a punker who founded Pittsburgh’s Four Chord Music Festival — can claim its top song has more than 800,000 hits, and more mainstream pop artists have tracks that stream hundreds of millions of times.
Streaming doesn’t net much unless artists are able to reach those massive numbers of hits, as the site pays as little as $0.003 cents to about $0.008 cents per stream on average, according to Business Insider.
The Highland Park performance had far more of a personal, stripped-down feel than a typical rock show. There was no lighting, little amplification. A suitcase served as a bass drum while the snare was dampened with a dish towel, giving an alt-rock, garage-band vibe throughout.
“SideDoor has been an opportunity to show a different side of ourselves and engage audiences in a new way,” Sturgeon said, noting at the concert that the group was more accustomed to playing loud rock venues.
“Storytelling becomes the focus here and the big amps and distortion pedals stay in the back of the van.”
Since the app’s founding in 2017, usage has grown to include about 5,000 artists and 2,000 hosts.
Like other arts organizations, the app company pivoted to virtual events during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s now moving toward a mix of live and virtual shows, including the promotional tour to South By Southwest.
The app has more users in Canada but it tripled its number of shows in the U.S. year over year from 2020 to 2021, with in-person ticket sales shooting up about 3,000%.
“At this point, the host base is about 60% Canadian, 30% American and 10% rest of the world,” Mangan estimated.
Bahl, who in addition to being a musician is an associate professor of marketing at La Roche University, said he could see value if the app attracts enough users.
Yet he has doubts about a tech solution to a problem he’s not sure exists.
“I have to ask — why do you need to presell tickets to a house show?” he said.
Meanwhile, SideDoor has grown to about a 20-person team, a mix of software developers, product managers, recruiters and artist liaisons led by Mangan, who cut his teeth as a musician playing thousands of shows over the course of his 15-year career in a variety of houses and clubs.
To Bahl’s point, Mangan said the point isn’t necessarily revolutionizing the house concert so much as daylighting the process and making it easier for such shows to happen.
The idea is to create something of a farm team system in different cities, where up-and-coming acts can gain experience, notoriety and reviews performing smaller house shows and then potentially transitioning into the club scene if they make it big enough.
It takes a while to get big enough to fill, say, Stage AE, which holds up to 5,500 people, or Heinz Field, which can fit about 68,400.
The app can adapt to different levels of musical groups, providing both experience and cash to artists in creative spaces off the beaten path. Mangan said he came to realize that playing in a club wasn’t always the most advantageous spot for an up-and-coming artist, and he and Bahl agree there’s value to opening up the number of spaces where up-and-coming artists can perform.
Still, it might take a while to win over those who think the existing do-it-yourself systems of getting people together to hear music already work just fine.
“I can name all the common house spots and DIY spaces on a hand and a half,” said Bahl.
“It’s cool that there’s an app for finding more, but do we need an app for that?”
In Pittsburgh, five spaces have already signed up on the app to host, and a number of singer/songwriter style acts are prepared to take show requests. A library on the east side of the state in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was perhaps one of the earliest U.S. adopters that has taken advantage of the software.
South of the city — in Dormont — Amy Constantine Kline, who operates the outdoor Parking Pad venue, became a convert after looking for different ways to book talent last summer. She landed on SideDoor through a Google search.
“We’re definitely planning to do this again this year, we loved it,” she said in an email exchange. “I was looking for a platform that could also help with paying bands and artist management.”
The Pad is essentially a house venue with an elevated parking pad that serves as a stage listeners can gather around.
Kline estimated that shows averaged about 60 people and that she and her boyfriend smoked more than 100 pounds of meat over the course of the summer in potluck-style events open to the public.
They host shows to feature local talent like the bluegrass act HellYinz and Ryan Salisbury, who provided a jazz funk set that proved an audience favorite.
Their first show of 2022 is set for April 30 and will feature funk collective Big Fat Mallard. Tickets are $10 a piece, meaning that at about 60 people shows tend to gross around $600 — split between SideDoor, the host and the artist.
While it’s been difficult to build momentum, SideDoor is still seeing new users sign up regularly. The goal actually isn’t to keep any musical groups too long before they build a large enough reputation to graduate to larger club shows:
“My hope is that we can help artists get to that point where they can sell 400, 500, 600 tickets and then they kind of don’t need us anymore,” Mangan said.
“From my perspective, this takes the grind of networking and sending demos and playing small house shows and consolidates or modernizes it,” Bahl said. “Maybe this could help, but only if we get more users involved.”