Billsville House Concerts enlivens untraditional music venues

Billsville House Concerts redefines the performer-audience relationship by bringing concerts to more intimate settings. - Photo Courtesy of Billsville House Concerts
Billsville House Concerts redefines the performer-audience relationship by bringing concerts to more intimate settings. – Photo Courtesy of Billsville House Concerts

As current residents of one of the smallest of small towns, Ephs know all too well how hard it is to breach the “purple bubble.” We often feel confined by the limited options of Spring Street and with the busy schedules demanded by the College, have limited opportunity to venture off campus (no matter how often we declare that this is the semester when we will finally make that day-trip to Albany/Bennington/Lee).

Doug Hacker and Caroline Schneider faced a similar frustration when they moved to sleepy Williamstown from bustling Cambridge, Mass. “When we moved to Williamstown, we became frustrated by the lack of local music options,” Hacker said. “In order to see the bands we enjoyed, we generally had to travel to Northampton. We had two young kids, and by the time we paid for babysitters, gas and food . . . well, the sheer economics kept us from going out very often.” But how could they address these deficiencies in the music scene?

The couple, Hacker recalled, attended a “one off” concert in a friend’s home in North Adams shortly after their move, a concert that changed their perspective on the possibilities of the live-music experience. “The turnout was great,” Hacker said. “The vibe was great, and everyone there had a really great time.” The couple had also been frustrated by the audiences’ attitudes they encountered at other local concerts. “A big part of the music scene [had] seemingly turned to a social rather than a pure musical experience… We wanted something better,” Hacker said. The much more intimate setting that they found at the house concert, it seemed, was exactly what they were looking for. Hacker and Schneider had found the music scene they craved.

Hacker then read on a friend’s music blog that an artist he had been following, Joe Pug, was going to stage a house concert for her. When he called up his friend, Hacker found out that she had simply contacted Pug’s manager with a request. “She gave me Joe’s manager’s e-mail, I looked at his schedule and proposed a date in Williamstown,” Hacker said. “We got a response of, ‘Let’s do it’ less than four hours later.” In April of 2011, Hacker and Schneider hosted Pug in a venue completely estranged from the traditional concert scene: their home. That first event was a huge success, and thus Billsville House Concerts was born.

Inspired by the radical success of this first event, Billsville House Concerts did another show in early May with Dan Mangan –  a Canadian musician – which was “also incredible,” Hacker said, “and we were on our way.” The seed of this innovative concert experience was a desire to supplement Williamstown’s thin music scene, and it turns out that the relationship between audience and artist was radically redefined along the way. Hacker said that the unique dynamic between performer and audience of an in-house concert includes “the opportunity to really ‘listen’ to a performer, [which] is something that’s often missing in many performance spaces.” And it’s not just the audience that benefits: “It’s rewarding for musicians as well, to have an audience that wants to understand and absorb their craft,” Hacker said. Of course, the additional incentives of “a fine helping of our vegetarian cooking, a place to stay for the night and 100 percent of the proceeds” (according to their website), make this deal hard for artists to turn down. Such bands as Lucius, Lake Street Dive, Spirit Family Reunion, Kingsley Flood, Brown Bird and Hurray for the Riff Raff have played at venues ranging from homes, to barns, to lakesides. Good music in nontraditional venues defines Billsville House Concerts.

The Williamstown community has accepted the company’s vision with open arms as, in Hacker’s words, “Folks around here are hungry for the live music experience.” Strangely enough, the company’s events have been widely attended by faculty and staff, but have never had a huge turnout of students. They are, however, looking to integrate themselves more into the College community. “Earlier this year, we did two shows at the Log – Lucius and Spirit Family Reunion,” Hacker said. “Our goal was to bring in more of the college community by doing a few shows right on Spring Street.” There’s no reason for students not to attend these concerts – the amazing live music, cool vibe, reasonable ticket prices and great accessibility are right up every Eph’s alley.

The founders of Billsville House Concerts started by offering concerts in their own home, bringing musicians and music lovers together in this intimate setting. It was truly a family affair, with the couple’s youngest son Kai Hacker, now nine, taking money at the door and eldest son Ethan Hacker, now 14, running the sound for all the shows. Now, in their third year of operation, they have branched out to include barns and art galleries among their arsenal of non-traditional concert spaces. They are even considering investing in a permanent venue. Despite this growth, however, the company has stuck to its original mission. According to Hacker, no matter where the company ends up, “We’ll always … bring amazing music into cool venues at an affordable price. We want to give audiences a great experience and treat musicians well. If we continue to do that, we’ll be successful.”