The Coveted Support Band Slot: It Basically Sucks

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?’

Addendum:

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.

Further Reading:

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.

Sometimes you need to just acknowledge that the situation sucks, like The Melvins: here’s Jacksonville and Dallas.

For Discussion:

Has anyone got any good / hilariously terrible stories about playing support slots? NAME NAMES! 

Advertisements

9 thoughts on “The Coveted Support Band Slot: It Basically Sucks

  1. Having played with Napalm Death, Suffocation, Insect Warfare, Behemoth, Skinless, Brutal Truth, Obituary and Acid King, I can say my experiences do not mirror yours. When we played with Napalm Death they were disinterested dicks, but other than that, the rest of international bands I’ve played with have been really cool and approachable. The shows themselves were a lot of fun.

    Like you mention in your article, it all comes down to whether you have fantastic delusions about hitting it big, or gaining 10,000 new fans. If you expect that, then you deserve all the disappointment you get.

    I can remember the Napalm Death drummer old mate spend about 45 minutes sound checking his terrible-sounding kit at the Manning bar — with his sunglasses on. I still chuckle at the fact that Captain Cleanoff stole all their sandwiches, the support bands pinched their beers, and an unnamed member of my band urinated all over their gear. Fair trade.

    • Blog delivers! I suspect that metal is a bit cheerier than indie when it comes to supporting bigger bands. I’ve certainly found metal/noise/rock easier to deal with than indie and pop. MORE IMPORTANTLY: I have to do a blog entry about urine. The history of urine is HUGE in rock music. It’s totally a thing. People get pee’d on. People throw cups of pee. People pee on things they’re not supposed to. And where would rock and roll be without the toilets?

  2. After reading this in more depth I basically agree with everything you’re saying anyway — though that Napalm show (despite their dick-ness) still measures up as one of the best shows I’ve ever played.

    Never had the pleasure of playing with an indie/pop band; it’s been all metal, grind and doom – not really the biggest breeding ground for big egos (though of course there are exceptions).

    • I’m polite, professional even, but I’m not grateful. No one is doing me a favour by booking my band. I’d hope that no one wants to see my band be grateful or behoven to anyone. That said, I kind of play in a noise band. So make of this what you will.

    • I only saw them twice but both times were completely amazing. The last time, at the Big Day Out, I just remember feeling really frustrated by their day-time side-tent slot. They were easily the best live band on the bill that day. Easily.

  3. Great blogging. I can relate to pretty much all of this. And as someone who has presented academic work at a large number of international conferences over the last two years, a number of similar issues arrive in that environment, too. The big names get flown in and put up in the nice hotels, while the “support acts” (ie, grad students, lecturers no one has heard of, etc) pay the exorbitant registrations fees to cover the star treatment for the keynotes. It’s basically like being in an indie band and being made to pay to play at a festival, based on the assumption that “the experience will look good on your CV” and the naive hope that you might meet one of the big stars, have a real connection, and then they’ll help jettison your career.

  4. for a while I thought about support slots as a way of getting in for free (and would therefore pump up my lineup to suit – a 7 piece backing band at Dan Deacon).

    My first experience of the support world (totally un-earnt, purely on the kind recommendation of Lawrence I’ve been told) with Low really made my night. Not that we sounded good, or even spoke to them, but I was on a real kick from having played before them, that listening to their show had an extra element.

    I’ve found most people nice, but never really talked to them, or gone out drinking with them after. I live too respectable a life and like being in bed.

    The biggest concern (and this goes with larger venues) is that you have to play it their way – they don’t like strange equipment on stage and excessive members (My band got sent home from Jens Lekman support and I had to replace five musicians with an iPod…).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s