Originally published in Seattle Weekly
“Who is the headliner?” is a question that lurks at the heart of the music business, one that booking agents and managers are hired to answer, or at least to fight over until no one is happy. Every artist, even the ones you might assume have graduated beyond ever having to think about such a consideration, will face the issue the same way again and again.
Most audience members never consider this question. Small bands open for big bands, duh. But bands seldom fall neatly into categories of success. More often than not, at least one of the opening bands on a typical bill could be headlining the show themselves. Or maybe none of the bands is big enough, but together they can sell tickets. A tour or concert lineup can be a self-reinforcing projection: The band that headlines is presumed to be of headlining status. More than a few careers have been made this way. It’s a never-endingly fascinating game to look at concert lineups and try to discern their underlying logic. Some bills are made in heaven, and some are disasters from the start.
When a band is just starting out, the surest indication that they don’t understand the game is that they make a big stink about the lineup or the money where neither really matters. If you and two other bands are playing for a cut of the door on a Tuesday night at Mars Bar, throwing a tantrum about a hundred bucks is the ultimate amateur move. Bands who haven’t established a draw beyond their girlfriends and roommates are all essentially equivalent, and just make enemies when they try to pull rank. This often includes jockeying for the right to play first–plenty of beginning bands want to get the show over with so they can work in the morning, which is missing the point. Here’s the inside scoop: No one is making any money at those shows and no one cares what time you play, but everyone is watching to see who acts like a horse’s ass. If you’re worried about a hundred dollars, or if you leave right after you play, you are alienating the other bands who might one day be your friends and/or tour mates. I’ve seen plenty of talented people get blackballed because they’re jerk-offs.
Once you’ve established a little draw, you join the gentle competition for the prestige of headlining a show. At most midsized club shows it’s the middle slot that’s the most fun to play. That’s when the crowd is at its peak, both in size and attentiveness. I built my career playing the middle slot, and made a point of always finishing my set and getting my stuff offstage as fast as possible. Still, it’s the headlining slot that most bands crave. Plenty of musicians will smirk and say it doesn’t matter. That kind of pretentiousness is the soul of fashion: the false assumption that “not caring” is honest. But everyone cares. The headliner can make people wait; the position itself conveys respect. The headliner can really stretch out. The headliner answers to no one.
Often you know where you belong on a bill; you’re just lucky to be there. There’s nothing to fight over, nothing to contend. These are the salad days–you sit in your dressing room and think all is right with the world. Then someone pokes their head in the door and says there’s a problem with the set times, or the backstage refreshment, or the stage plot, or the payouts. Suddenly something’s being taken away and replaced with something worse. You’re being moved to a different dressing room, next to the toilets. They need to use your dressing room to hold all the extra fruit baskets from the headliner’s backstage rider, and you’re also being asked to start the show just as they’re opening doors, assuring you’ll have an audience of 15 people. Also, please don’t touch the fruit–that’s headliner fruit. You start to realize that even though the headlining spot is not in dispute and you are just happy to be there, there are still plenty of ways for someone to take that happiness away.
You think “When I’m the headliner, I won’t make the opening bands stand on a box with electrodes taped to their genitals; I’ll be cool to them.” But then one day you’re the headliner, and suddenly you’re saying to your tour manager, “This dressing room has too many fruit baskets. Can you move these somewhere?” Maybe you’re saying, “Well, once I’m as big as Bob Dylan it won’t be a problem, because there will be plenty of money and room for everyone.” First of all, you’re never going to be as big as Bob Dylan. Secondly, once you get really big you’re playing shows in sports arenas, and sports teams make more money in one afternoon selling little plastic helmets filled with frozen daiquiris than you will in your entire career. You’ll be lucky if they hosed the sweat off of the couches. And thirdly, even if you’re Bob Dylan, you end up being asked to play the Democratic National Convention or some other overblown event where suddenly you’re opening for the President of the United States. And then Bono shows up. It just keeps getting worse.
Musicians pull rank on each other constantly. It’s a winked-at culture of hierarchy and class, akin to ancient Hinduism or Czarist Russia. Even musicians who make sure that the bands they play with are treated with deference and grace hire road managers and lawyers to throw their weight around. It’s all part of the fun.