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5 January, 2008

Joint headline bad idea

Every few months, in pretty much any discussion group dedicated to a currently-active band, one can expected to encounter a variant of the same old thread: "wouldn't it be great if our band toured with [insert name here]?".  My invariable answer is "absolutely not."  The ensuing argument is one I've made a few times in forums, but don't seem to have explained here.

Before proceeding, I'd better stress that I'm talking about established bands appearing alongside others, not unknown ones trying to 'break through'. The latter have little to lose, or at least the flexibility to adapt to any opportunities, whereas the former already have a niche and a reputation to protect.

One apparent benefit of touring together is that a lesser-known (but not unknown) band can surf the brand recognition of a better-known band: "X must be good if they're opening for Y". Yet that relies on the relationship being accurate and complementary. Too similar and the support band may be accused of being a clone or even a tribute, and dismissed. Too dissimilar and the association is false, which can even become damaging if the bands become linked in the public's limited awareness.

An example would be Porcupine Tree, who supported Yes in 2002. There was a time when one could ask anyone dimly aware of that, and hear "Porcupine Tree? Oh, they're like Yes, aren't they? No thanks!" No, they are not ****ing similar, and I think that support slot was an extremely stupid idea. Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree has quietly admitted as much, saying that it was neither an enjoyable nor a productive experience.
Rightly or wrongly, the typical public and critical perception of Yes is very negative (and yes, shallow NME-style reviews do matter in marketing to the mainstream): they're considered to be regressive prog dinosaurs. Musically they are very dissimilar to Porcupine Tree and it's a unfair to tar the latter with the former's reputation. Porcupine Tree is a progressive contemporary rock (not 'prog' rock) band, a categorisation which needs to be communicated to the general public in promoting the band – an objective best served by actively avoiding false associations.
Thankfully, Porcupine Tree's career has developed since then, so the damage seems to have been minimal.

A second motivation for a 'name' band to tour with another would be to be heard by the other (presumably somewhat similar) band's fans. That may work to some extent, but there are two negative aspects.

The overwhelming majority of the audience will attend for one band, whether the headliner at a Yes concert or one of the headliners at a Porcupine Tree/Opeth show (they toured together with equal billing in 2003) . The other is merely an irritation, delaying the appearence of the preferred band. That's not conducive to giving unfamiliar music a fair hearing and may – may – instill a negative impression. I don't exclude myself from that: I've said before* that I dislike support bands, and usually time my arrival at a venue to miss the opening set.
The practical result is that audiences can be very unresponsive, talking over (or even heckling) the first band's set (that's very apparent in recordings of the Opeth/Porcupine Tree tour) or leaving after the first set (great for fans of the second band, but demoralising for the band). Either way, it's a unpleasant experience, far less enjoyable than two distinct concerts.

Secondly, concerts are generally of a fixed length, with doors opening (in UK venues) around 19:30 and a curfew at 23:00. That's fine when a support band's set only lasts ~45 minutes, but when two headline bands have to share equally, it means each has less time than usual. A typical Porcupine Tree headline set lasts almost two hours; on the joint tour with Opeth, they played for ~80 minutes and again, the tour recordings exhibit Opeth fans' noisy frustration that their band's set had been curtailed too. Less than satisfying.

It could even be argued that this whole exercise is pointless nowadays, when online samples and discussion groups are so readily available for such cross-promotion of bands. I know I prefer to encounter new music that way, then attend two concerts each devoted to one band, in the company of one band's audience.

*: Actually, that's another topic I've exhausted in discussion groups yet have neglected to mention here. I'm sure I will eventually. In short, I attend concerts for specific bands, not to hear music in general; I have no interest in hearing unrelated support bands.


I can think of quite a few gigs which weren't necessarily 'must sees', where the right choice of support band made the difference. Classic example was Styx supporting Deep Purple; in the event Styx blew Purple off stage. First time I've seen that happen since Marillion as special guests to Black Sabbath at the 1983 Reading Festival.

While I agree with you that an inappropriate combination of headliner and support just doesn't work, I've seen plenty of bad or inappropriate ones. But I've been to a few where the support compliments the headliner perfectly, Anathema/Porcupine Tree, Paradise Lost/Opeth and Anne Marie Helder/Odin Dragonfly are classic examples from the past two years. I expect the same to apply to Breathing Space/The Reasoning in 2 weeks time.

And not everyone plays sets lasting two-and-a-half to three hours. There are some headliners that only play sets of an hour or just over (and for some bands that's about the right length); you pretty much need a decent support act for that kind of gig.

Posted by Tim Hall at January 6, 2008 06:08 PM

Remember I'm primarily referring to 'headline act+headline act', each with an established fanbase, sharing the billing and with no support band, not 'unknown support act+well-known headliner' as I said in the footnote, that's a different topic.

Posted by NRT at January 6, 2008 11:45 PM
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