Bring down the house

The app and website Parlor Shows connects musicians with home venues

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Singer-songwriters Liam Kyle Cahill and John White played at a recent house concert called “Folk All-Stars.” On the surface it felt like many other house shows: small space, lots of people, very intimate and great sounding.

But unlike other house concerts, this one played out in front of a backdrop that read “Parlor Shows,” while the Emmy-winning Reno Sessions film crew recorded the concert for … posterity? Novelty? Probably for a short film. Either way, it felt like the beginning of something bigger and cooler than the name “Folk All-Stars” might suggest.

Step into my parlor

The idea behind Parlor Shows is simple: connect musicians with house venues directly. This is accomplished the way all things are accomplished these days: as a two-part app and website platform. Currently in the beta stages of development, the Parlor Shows app is due to launch later this month. This platform will make it possible for bands and hosts to contact one another and set up shows in private homes, effectively cutting out the middlemen—promoters—and saving time and cash.

“It’s the Airbnb of house shows,” said co-founder Ashley Jennings. In addition to creating Parlor Shows, Jennings is a musician in her own right, one-half of a dark and sleepy electronic duo called Agitprop.

“The reason we’re trying to solve this problem is because my husband and I have a band and although I’m pretty connected in Reno, I was still having a hard time booking shows and getting paid,” she said.

The idea of starting a booking app based loosely on the Airbnb model came from Jennings’ own experience using Airbnb to save money on lodging while she was on the road. Slowly, the idea of creating a physical community grounded in online interaction seeped into Jennings’ musical brain, and Parlor Shows was born.

The app itself is slick. It’s easy to look at, simple to use, and has lots of automated features. Users—whether they sign up as musicians or hosts—can make profiles that advertise their preferred music genre, set ticket prices, and match venues along Google Maps routes. There is also a gallery feature that allows bands to view the venue before booking, as well as a sliding scale for hosts to choose what percentage (if any) they would like to take from the show. According to Jennings, most hosts aren’t terribly interested in getting paid, but the app still gives them the option.

Vanessa Vancour is a host who will not take a cut. “I see the whole purpose of Parlor Shows being to support independent music,” she said. Vancour will host an outdoor Parlor concert later this summer in her backyard. “I would love to have my friends over and have a concert. … I just want to host it.”

Another feature of the app is its rating system. Like Airbnb, Yelp and other review sites, Parlor Shows gives its users a way to keep each other honest. If a band trashes a house, the host is going to write about it in a review. If the host posts photos of a sizable backyard for an outdoor concert and only delivers a city balcony, bands will be able to warn other musicians.

Even concert-goers can get in on the action. Tickets are purchased through the app, so in addition to getting a notification that discloses the “secret location” of the concert, consumers also receive reminders for other shows based on their preferences. After going to a concert, attendees can rate both the venue and the musicians, providing yet another layer of data for future Parlor users.

“We believe the market will decide itself,” said Jennings. “We’re tying to create a product where reputation and trust are first and foremost.”

Songs from a room

Parlor Shows has a new downtown office, a cool logo, and two people who know what they’re doing (Jennings’ co-founder is Seattle-based CTO Casey Mees). Each day, the network of hosts and musicians grows—right now, by word of mouth and soon through the app.

Even before performing at Parlor’s inaugural house concert, “Folk All Star” Liam Kyle Cahill had a pretty good idea about how the app could enhance his profession. “I spend 90 percent of my time either booking shows, sending emails, making phone calls, or promoting shows. … The hardest part for me is that it leaves a lot less time for actually writing songs, playing shows and performing. I plan to use it as a supplement. I’m always going to want to have other shows, anchor shows that you lock in first to know where you’re going to be. But the best part about a house show is that you can plan it a month in advance.”

The intimate house concert setting also appeals to musicians. John White, the other “Folk All-Star,” said that at the house show, “people listened to the lyrics … or at least they were quiet enough to make me imagine that they were.”

To get a better sense of what it takes to operate in the music booking industry, Parlor’s main competitor is Sofar Sounds—which stands for “Sounds From A Room … Sounds.” And while the name is a bit redundant, Sofar has the advantage of maintaining its hype after being around for more than six years.

Like Parlor, Sofar sets up house concerts. The website—there is no app—plays up the exclusive nature of its house shows for both bands and attendees, stating, “We put on 100+ secret concerts every month in 105+ cities, featuring talent carefully curated by our teams.”

This “careful curation” is a difference between Parlor and Sofar. While aspiring Sofar musicians and concertgoers must apply for the privilege of playing and attending a Sofar show (and even then only a small percentage get in), Parlor takes away the need for staff and volunteers by simply handing over control to its users. This eliminates a bit of the exclusivity factor, but it also cuts down on waiting time and opens up the playing field to everyone. In other words, it becomes scalable—the golden feature of any app worth its weight in silicon.