Cleaning Toilets: Why Does my Band Always Play First?

Jordan Michael Iannucci

Jordan Michael Iannucci is a founding member of the new incarnation of The Silent Barn. He also books shows and publishes under the name JMC Aggregate in Brooklyn. “Cleaning Toilets” is a recurring advice feature in which he answers your questions about independent gigs. Contact Jordan at: jm@jmcaggregate.com.

My band has been playing lots of shows in Brooklyn. We love to play shows, but we’re also concerned that the frequency at which we play is hurting our draw for each individual show. Should we keep playing a lot until we get “noticed” or somewhat “popular,” or should we play fewer shows in the hopes of making each one more of an event? Also, when do we stop opening up shows? Would we be more likely to get placed second or third on bills if we played fewer shows? Is being a “reliable opener” okay, or should we aspire to more?

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Signed,
College Student

Okay, so, in the order you asked: Yes. Maybe never. The two are actually unrelated. Both.

Let me explain.

Should we keep playing a lot until we get noticed?

Absolutely. There is a window of time, loosely the two years after graduating college, when your friends are old enough to have access to the bars you’ll be playing but their social momentum has not been hindered by careers, relationships, and bills. Until there are a few hundred people coming to see you play, the audience is still friends and friends of friends. Is this you getting “noticed” or “popular”? Sure, but don’t let the attention distract you; you could be playing shows for 200 people who are all proud to bring their coworkers to their cool friend from college’s band, but if none of those people remember your songs two years out, what does it matter? This window of time is limited and it is when you need to turn friends of friends into fans. This is when you build the foundation of something more meaningful and permanent that you can launch a career off of, hopefully. Play a lot of shows.

When do we stop opening up shows?

There isn’t an answer to this. Larger shows often have a clear headliner, a clear support, and a clear opener. Where it gets muddy is three-to-four band bills where everyone is local and on comparable levels; for those there are many ways an opener can be determined. Even between bookers there isn’t a consistent method to decide who plays first or why.

For me personally, there are a lot of different factors. Who is coming from out of town? Who has been playing shows for the shortest amount of time? Is there anyone playing who has opened a lot of shows of mine in the past? Who has played a lot of shows recently? Whose friends are most likely to come early to see them play? All of this come into play. Locality. Seniority. History. Frequency. Practicality.

Would we be more likely to get placed second or third on bills if we played fewer shows?

That depends. These aren’t two answers, but two ends of a spectrum that the answer falls within.

If you could have a decent following that you are unwittingly dividing into fractions. In that case, you would get better shows if you played fewer shows, since your individual impact on each show would be larger. However, you could also be playing first because someone has to and you are consistently in low demand, so tacking you on first can be a method the booker is applying to avoid bands with more sway on the show complaining that they have to open.

Is being a “reliable opener” okay, or should we aspire to more?

As I see it, the band that plays first should be the band that gets people there earliest, and the band that plays last should be the band people will stick around for the bands in the middle to see. However, the concept of a “headliner” and “opener” are often representational of worth, and I believe this is a fallacy although it is hard to argue that in many cases the headliner is walking away with the lion’s share of the money. Being a reliable opener is important, because you get people there on time and primed to be in the right mood for the rest of the bands. Should you aspire to be more? Well, what do you aspire to?

At no point will anyone be able to tell you what you are worth, however there will be many people telling you what they think you’re worth, and to that you can agree, disagree or be unsure, but you cannot know. So, if we are discussing what your aspirations for this band are, the first thing to address is what you think your current worth is, and then look at the distance between that and where you want to be. If you want to be headlining shows in your city, there will come a time where you need to stop opening four shows a month.

At no point will anyone be able to tell you what you are worth, however there will be many people telling you what they think you’re worth, and to that you can agree, disagree or be unsure, but you cannot know.

The first step is playing a ton of shows, building the strong foundation of friends slowly becoming fans that I talked about earlier. The second step is holding back and focusing your draw on a few select shows to make an impact. Finally, you will be building off this fanbase, now largely independent from your social life, and begin playing larger and larger rooms either supporting or headlining. That is having a career. It requires a support group much larger than your personal support group.

That is an incredibly linear and hierarchical model of having a career. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and a band whose only ambition is to play with other bands that they like and respect is absolutely okay. But if you want to make a career out of art you need to be strategic, otherwise the strategic bands will pass you by.

Everything you asked about touches on an internal conflict that all artists struggle with: Current Worth versus Aspirations. But what we are talking about, set order at shows, is an externalization of this topic.

There are a lot of moving parts to this. Where is my art currently at? What is my art worth in relation to the people making similar art around me? What is it that I am trying to do in the long term? How do I know if my worth is progressing, and if it is progressing how do I change how I interact with it accordingly? Again, people will try to answer this for you, and you can agree or disagree, but you will never know. This is why being an artist is frustrating.

What you can do in the meantime, while you try to figure out if you should be playing more or less shows, is focus on not being the jerk who refuses to play first. What you are insecure about is something we are all insecure about, and having coded conversations about the worth of your art with other people is hard and comes natural to nobody, but do not let your place on a bill become the externalization of the Current Worth vs. Aspirations dilemma. This is also not to say agree to open every show you are asked to play. Focus on getting comfortable doing what is hard: talking to others about what you believe you are worth.

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