So something I’ve had a hard time figuring out in recent months has been the sheer struggle of opening bands on small name tours. I’ve seen multiple tours now where there was a headlining band good for say, 50 people in a given market take along an opener who they hoped might be good for 20, and yet they almost never see those 20 people come out. It’s one of the very tricky parts of the music industry. On the one hand having an opener is great because people get warmed up, you have someone playing before you if it’s a shitty promoter and there are no locals, That’s not the question I’m trying to tackle here, what I’m looking at more is the bitter and oftentimes bleak frustration of bands simply not drawing even half as well as they should. I know this can seem like out of touch rambling but it really isn’t, this sort of thing happens far more often than you could ever expect and I’ve gotten to the point where it really bothers me.
I think that simply put it’s important to realize that headlining tours function very differently from opening slots. If you’re headlining the bills are built with you in mind and people are more likely to come out for their favorite local bands in whatever genre. You are simply the icing on the cake. For many bands who go out to tour across the country too they aren’t even headlining the dates, they are content to get sandwiched in between locals because it means that more people are going to be around to watch their set and consequently buy their merchandise. This isn’t always the case to be sure, but it can frequently be a factor that leads to a false inflation of how big a band is. Headlining tours are by default going to have inflated numbers because people will go to a show just because it is a show and it is well organized and it’s a thing to do. This is going to make a band think their draw is far higher than it actually is.
Furthermore for many groups there is a lower incentive to promote their opening slots. This isn’t because they are trying to screw over the headliners in most cases but rather because they just assume that the headliner is going to take care of all of it. Now this is frequently the case for the big name tours. If there is a massive headliner then it doesn’t really matter what your band does to promote the tour because there are inevitably going to be people who schlep out early to support all of the bands and if you’re good at you job you will sell a ton of merch. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be promoting the fuck out of those tours after all that creates great brand awareness and makes you look far more influential. However, I think that this attitude bleeds over to bands that are trying to open for groups that draw only 30-50 people. It means that you end up going out and finding out that your opening band who you thought was good for 20 people in your average market is now only drawing someone every other day. I know that sounds ridiculous but that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
I wasn’t exaggerating about that previous example by the way – I have seen tours like that. It’s because many people often subconsciously discredit the opening bands and don’t even bother to check them out when they hear about a new tour coming through town. If you’re an opening band it’s going to be hard to convince people to be googling your band to check things out. This is exactly why you need to be promoting tours like this one just as hard as you would promote a headlining tour. There’s also to some extent the curse of being the perpetual opening band. Some bands definitely impact their own draws simply by virtue of coming around every few months. So if they are touring through as the opener yet again most of the time you know exactly what you are going to get and the incentive to go out to the show is vastly reduced. I know that sounds awfully bitter but it’s an unfortunate truth that we all are going to need to grow around.
Now there is a theoretical and highly effective solution to this traditional and longstanding problem. That of course is the double headliner. If you can find a band who punch around your weight class then you are going to find yourself suddenly in a much better position to be playing the big shows you want to be doing. Now this can be very difficult to tell, largely because of the previously discussed artificial inflation of perceived draw, and that’s why you need to dig into something deeply personal and frankly a little bit uncomfortable – you need to man up and ask people how much merch they sell. That’s the only good barometer as far as I can tell of how much a band is actually worth, unless they are regularly seeing crowds over 75 people. At that point it becomes clear that there is an actual buzz about the band, but even then I wouldn’t hesitate to ask about merch sales. If you’re unsure you have an obligation to collect as much information as possible and sometimes you just need to be direct.
At the end of the day – you’re probably going to have a lot of shitty tours no matter what you do. It’s very rare that you can find a band who are worth roughly as many tickets as you or really any tickets at all. There are a lot of factors making headlining runs a serious difficulty for younger bands and oftentimes it’s sometimes best to just be willing to be in the mix with a bunch of locals and pray that you get a ton of attention just by the power of your own live performance. That might not always be the best for branding or whatever but at least it means that you are grinding forward with the willingness and tenacity that it takes to produce something truly worthwhile. Sure it means sticking your nose to the grindstone but it can be a lifesaver in the end.