AKA LIVE PERFORMANCE AS LEISURE FOR SOME, WORK FOR OTHERS
There’s one prize that seems to cut right through all the social and hobbyist niceties of music-making: supporting touring bands that come through. Everyone who has ever performed live wants to play alongside the artists they love. And if you’re doing it right, you soon realise that these aspirations are closer to hand than you might have first thought. If your favourite band or artist still tours and your current project is popular in any way, musically similar in any way and business savvy in any way, shape or form, it could happen.
NB: If you don’t think it could happen and this makes you angry, guess what? You don’t know what you’re doing. You need to learn how to book a show. Or the promoter hates you personally. And that’s a whole other post. In fact, that’s two other posts.
But let me tell you what won’t happen at these shows you’ve been so looking forward to:
You won’t have a meaningful interaction with that artist or band you’ve loved since you were a teenager.
You might sneak in a conversation here and there, share a beer, lend them a smoke, score weed for them. That’s about it. So, not much different from running into them outside the venue. One of my favourite stories about this involves a support band trying to give Josh Homme one of their band shirts. As told, he took the shirt, threw it on the floor and said, ‘I don’t give a fuck about this, I just want to get drunk with you.’ Yep. You can’t fault that sort of (drunken) honesty.
You won’t make much of an impression.
If they’re that big a deal, they probably won’t care about your band. They virtually made your band. They might be impressed or flattered by what you do but probably not. More likely they’ll be bored and completely oblivious. This might be your big moment but it’s often just work to them. This is another day in their working life, literally. In this scenario: you’re the office temp. You have to work together but tomorrow you’ll be gone. So your affable personality or lack thereof probably makes more of an impression than your music.
You won’t dramatically improve your draw.
A few people in the audience will be impressed by what you do. The rest will just stand there and wait. A lot of the people in the audience who are impressed by your band will be the sort of people who only go to big ticketed shows. You’ll probably never see them again. Unless big ticketed shows are in your future.
You won’t have an amazing time.
The venue and/or the touring road crew will probably treat you like a bunch of assholes. You’re the interns, the work experience kids. There’s a bit of a disconnect here, obviously. You don’t really deserve to be treated like a bunch of assholes – to receive two bottom-shelf beers per band member, to be kicked out of the backstage area, to be given a line check only, to be hustled around and badgered and talked down to and then avoided by whoever is supposed to pay you or assist you – but if you’d seen how some bands like yours behave when they find themselves in this situation, you’d understand. Touring bands and big venue staff tend to work with their guard up for a reason.
And, on top of which, it’s a business transaction, start to end and you have no power.
So here’s the kicker:
Why is this experience so dear to you?
What do you hope to gain from it?
Why are you even vying for this stuff?
Isn’t your time and energy better spent elsewhere?
I have stories about my own small-time adventures in music and the good ones almost never hinge on the time my band played second fiddle to some touring artist. That’s mainly of interest to other people. It’s understandable but I can’t see myself telling my children about the time I played to Sleater-Kinney while they were asleep backstage or the time Dead Meadow wouldn’t let us move the back line a few inches. And sure, the fact that Beth Ditto is one of the politest people I’ve ever met is kinda interesting but I didn’t need to toil in a band for five years to learn that. I probably could have emailed her.
(Another example: I once hugged David Yow of the Jesus Lizard, something nearly all right-thinking people in their twenties want to do. All I had to do was pay to get in and stand at the front.)
No, the best parts of my musical adventures were the shows where I had some say in what happened. Where I was an actual working part of something that turned out well. These were shows where my friends blew my mind or where we blew theirs. They were shows that got rowdy or where something unexpected happened. Shows, mind you, that would have all been a real hustle, a lot of hands-on work; hours of designing, booking, promoting, organising, lugging. But these were also the times when I managed to find some sort of relief from the routines of live music, where the experience was so out of the ordinary that it changed me or pushed me forward, when it was just plain better than it had ever been before.
These shows were:
The slaved over album launches with everyone I know.
A lot of the community hall type shows.
The time we played for seven nights straight in a friend’s unlicensed venue.
The first time I sold out a small bar in my home town.
And the well attended support slots in big professional venues? No, not really. They all blend together now. None of them felt overly legitimate or comfortable. Unless the promoter was a friend, I was usually a guest in those spaces. After a decade of playing out, I am still a guest in those spaces. The last support I did wasn’t much different from the first one.
Added to which, the fee wasn’t much better either.
These days I try and put things into perspective. Maybe this is worth thinking about?
Think about it when next you’re standing up there, with your gear crammed half up your ass, playing at 9:15pm, to a blank crowd, with the tour manager tapping his/her watch side of stage, trying (with your friends) to be as good as you were in the practice room or the small club show or at the house party just the other week. I do this. And eventually it all boils down to the same question:
‘Is this really that much better than buying a ticket?’
In the past, I’ve well and truly done my share of international supports. (Probably more than my share actually. I probably did your share as well. Sorry. I have great email manner) And yet these days I rarely bother to hustle for this stuff. I think one of my bands (No Anchor) has applied for two slot in the last 2-3 years. These days we just do some of what we’re offered. That’s usually something that comes in from Rob McManus of Heathen Skulls. Good guy. The sort of guy who who can run a 300 capacity club like it’s a DIY show. The other supports? We played with Japan’s MONO and the tour manager / promoter was Paul Curtis, someone we’ve known for going on a decade. That’s a big part of why we do stuff like that. Sure, like other bands, we want to do bigger shows every now and then but we do these particular things because we suspect it’s not going to be weird or terrible. What I’m trying to say is that over time we’ve grown protective of what the band does and this caution has served us well. I wish I’d always been so unwilling to subject my band to all the melodrama and politics of the international support.
‘It Was Unfair and Humiliating‘: M83 kicks Australian band Teenage Mothers off a tour for doing bulbs on-stage. The only band I’ve seen do bulbs on-stage is Brisbane band Roshambo. Their bass player got kicked out as well. Note to bands: Best not to get on the nangs on-stage. Put it in the manual.
Has anyone got any good / hilariously terrible stories about playing support slots? NAME NAMES!