Words // Lettie Stratton
Photo // Christian Thorne
The term “house concert” conjures images of a few people sitting around a living room listening to an unknown local band trying to make it in the music industry. But that is not the case with Southern Vermont’s Billsville House Concerts (named after their roots in Williamstown, MA).
Go to a Billsville show at Doug Hacker’s Manchester home and you will see a nationally touring musician or band like Grace Potter, Lissie, Lucius or Lake Street Dive—just to name a few.
Hacker, a lifelong music fan, started hosting house concerts in 2011 when he and his wife had kids and moved to a rural area. “It became increasingly difficult and expensive to get out and see music,” Hacker says, joking that once the gas tank was filled and the babysitter hired, he was out $75 before even leaving the front door.
The first Billsville show was Maryland singer-songwriter Joe Pug, and it came together easier than you might think. Hacker simply emailed Pug’s manager and asked if Pug would like to play his living room as he traveled between Boston and Toronto on tour. Two hours later, Hacker checked his email and found that yes, one of his favorite musicians would soon be performing in his living room.
“This was at a time when the independent music scene was popping up,” Hacker says. “Musicians were willing to try different things to help their careers.”
Nearly 50 people showed up to hear Joe Pug on a rainy Tuesday night. “I was sitting on my couch surrounded by a large group of friends and one of my favorite musicians,” Hacker recalled, “and Joe [Pug] says, ‘Doug, what song do you want to hear?’ The show went really well and I thought, ‘This is the way to do this—look for musicians you like and just invite them.’”
So what makes a well-known musician want to play a show in some guy’s living room? “They want to be heard,” Hacker says. “They want to express their art.”
Often times in a bar or club setting, not everyone is there to hear the music, and a house concert gives musicians an opportunity to be in front of a crowd they can connect with. “Everyone watches and pays attention, and interacts with the artist afterward,” Hacker says. “They often play songs they can’t play in a club.”
Billsville is coming up on their 80th show, and Hacker and his family have fine-tuned the process of hosting a show. Not only do artists get nearly 100 percent of profits (with just $100 being withheld to pay the sound engineer), they also receive a home-cooked meal, a place to stay, and even an opportunity to do laundry.
And it truly is a family affair. Hacker’s 16-year-old son Ethan runs sound, engineering, and digital recording (and has been doing so for three years, operating up to four monitor mixes and 16 channels of sound), while his youngest son Kai, 13, operates an electronic ticketing system as the doorman and sells merchandise. Hacker and his wife Caroline Schneider take care of booking, promotion, hospitality, and production. “About 40 hours of labor goes into a show,” Hacker says. “Our quality level is incredible. We want to do the best job for musicians we can.”
Billsville hosts one show every three weeks, on average, and has expanded to hosting events at other venues when the capacity of a living room just isn’t enough to meet demand. “Ideally we’d do everything at our house, but some bands are popular enough to bring in more people,” Hacker says. “Sometimes we want to have something that feels more like a party than a listening show.”
Recently, Billsville partnered with Earth Sky Time Community Farm in Manchester to host Spirit Family Reunion. “We built a stage out of hay bales and plywood,” Hacker says. “We had 175 people there. It was fantastic.”
Other memorable shows include Brown Bird, which resonates with Hacker and the Billsville clan on an emotional level. “They’ve played the most for us—five times over the course of three years,” Hacker says. “They became an audience favorite. They would show up early to jam with Ethan and his friends.”
Fans may know that Dave Lamb (one half of the Brown Bird duo) passed away from Leukemia in 2014. “They’ll always remain the special band,” Hacker says.
On another special occasion, Grace Potter showed up to play her smallest gig in maybe eight years, celebrating Billsville’s 75th show. “It’s an interesting economic time for musicians to be out there in an industry that doesn’t appear to want to support them very much,” Hacker says. “It’s really great and rewarding and we are always appreciative of the community that helps us do this. If the community wasn’t there and coming out for shows, they wouldn’t happen.”
So next time you’re searching for a place to see high-quality, high-profile bands, look no further than your neighbor’s living room. To learn more or buy tickets, visit www.billsvillehouseconcerts.com.