King Street in Sydney’s Newtown is busy. It’s early Sunday evening and punters are yet to descend on the strip for dinner or drinks or gigs. This is the spiritual home of Sydney’s independent live music scene, but I take a right off the main drag and head down a residential street, past a Japanese restaurant and a shuttered micro-cafe to a handsome terrace. The front verandah light is on. This is where the music is tonight.
Nick, in a black T-shirt, with grey hair and quick smile is on the door. He lives here. And in his living room, just next to the hallway leading to the kitchen, singer-songwriter Melody Pool is tuning her guitar and checking the sound. This is Pool’s latest private gig through Parlour – a touring platform that links artists to fans who crowdfund private gigs. Nick’s wife, Rachel, is a devoted Melody Pool fan and when she learnt Pool was making herself available for gigs in private homes, she says, “I couldn’t not do it.”
Guests wandering in from the winter cold clock Pool and her bassist setting up and head politely to the kitchen where a table is laid with nibbles, cheeses and wine. All 41 people in attendance are friends or colleagues of Nick and Rachel and few knew of Pool before being asked to the gig by the hosts. They either looked her up or trusted their friends’ taste and then paid $30 each to come to Nick and Rachel’s house.
Rachel is playing host out back, pouring red wine and apologising for “the chaos”. Chaos seems to only briefly appear when one of the two preschoolers present smashes a ceramic sculpture in the garden. Before the hosts can inspect the damage, a whistle from the house calls those outside in. The gig was due to start at 6pm. It’s now 6.01.
The assembly is in the front room. People are arranged on the couch, armchairs, dining chairs and cushions strewn on the floor. The overflow are standing, or lounging on the staircase opposite the musicians. Pool and her bassist are set up between an upright piano and a doorway. She is amped up, and a solitary coloured spotlight supplements the downlights softly lighting the high-ceilinged room.
Rachel stands and introduces Pool to her friends. She says she has become “deeply, troublingly obsessed” with the young musician, and that she is pleased to have a quorum of people to share her music with. “It’ll be a little bit chaotic,” she says. “But I fundamentally don’t care.”
As the largely middle-aged crowd quietly await the music, it feels decidedly calm. “Thanks Rachel and Nick for having us,” says Pool, before launching into her set.
Pool’s writerly music warrants close listening. Lyrics such as: “There’s a locket on a chain around my throat/ And I wish it was a rope” from her unreleased song, “Locket”, draw tears. This is deeply personal music in a deeply personal space, and no one is ducking to the bar for a round between songs.
Pool has done several Parlour shows, and enjoys them. “You could stand in the corner [of a venue] and do a set and people might listen. But if their friend has got up and said, ‘Pay attention to this, this is awesome’, they will pay attention,” she says.
The Parlour gig concept is relatively straightforward. Artists make themselves available for private gigs via the Parlour web platform, and use social streaming data to whittle down the areas where their fan base is concentrated. They reach out to their fan network. Fans with the space and appetite then apply to Parlour to host a gig. The artist sets out a minimum attendance figure and ticket price, securing a minimum income for the performance. If selected to host, the fan puts down a deposit then goes out to their own networks to sell tickets. Parlour takes a 17 per cent cut. The artist pockets the rest.
Parlour founder Matt Walters developed the idea as a gigging musician. “I kept having the same conversations with my artist friends. People would say: ‘I’ve got really great social media numbers. I seem to be getting streamed online. But whenever I play venue shows, I go out and lose money.’ ”
It rings true for Pool. “If you’re going on a tour, you’re not just paying for transport. You’re paying for artwork for your posters, and posters themselves, promotion, production, sound guys and everything on top of it. You don’t really start making money until you start getting bigger. It’s a really financially stressful industry. This kind of thing alleviates some of that stress,” she says. “All we did tonight was pay for petrol to get here.”
Launched in 2015, Parlour now facilitates about 50 gigs a week nationally during warmer months, when artists can play in backyards. The company plans to open up the platform to all musicians to manage their own private tours later in the year, and is expanding into the United States market from September.
However, Parlour isn’t the only such platform. Similar companies, such as Sofar Sounds, offer artists access to non-traditional venues around the world.
“People are seeking different experiences, which are a bit more unique, more personal and catered to them,” says Walters.
The Parlour demographic so far tends to reflect the artist’s fan base, says Walters. But it specifically appeals to music fans who perhaps used to go to gigs frequently, but who due to family or career commitments – or just an aversion to waiting until 10pm for the headliner – do not do it much anymore. Parlour hosts a significant proportion of its gigs outside capital cities, where independent artists do not often tour due to the financial risk.
Walters is at pains to stress that Parlour does not aim to supplant or disrupt the venue system. He sees it as a separate and complementary live music structure and says that private gigs help artists build and mobilise their fan base, which translates into higher ticket sales on the venue tours.
But at the Melody Pool gig, conversation quickly turns to Sydney venue closures. Someone mentions the Sandringham, a one-time soggy-carpeted Newtown institution down the road, which became the Newtown Social Club, and last year reopened as an indoor miniature golf course with karaoke facilities.
The live music scene nationally is a mixed one. Gig attendance in central Sydney is down 40 per cent, according to figures released this year. Meanwhile, the Melbourne Live Music Census 2017 found in the southern capital there was a 12 per cent increase in annual patron visits to live music over the previous five years. Australia-wide, PwC expects the live music market – from festivals to pub shows – to grow by 2.7 per cent by 2022. With digital music sales failing to make up for declining physical album sales, turning a profit from live music has rarely been more critical for musicians.
Melody Pool wraps up at 7pm. The room erupts in clapping, and the sound feels as large as it would in any small venue. The singer is quickly occupied selling CDs and wishes she had remembered to bring a float for the merch.
Rachel is buzzing after the one-hour show. But she has two comments about the format. One, she says, the host should always get to request a song. And two, hosts should be able to increase the ticket price – if their friends can afford it – so the artists earn more.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 18, 2018 as "Home crowd". Subscribe here.