Splitting the Bill

On the Green Sundress Tour, Penn and I traveled with Earl of Evenings who played as our opening act. And while it was great to tour with another musician, by the Indiana flat lands the monotony of shows took a toll on all of us. Though seemingly irrelevant, consistently having one opener and one headliner for multiple shows in a row can get frustratingly repetitive for everyone. As both a performer and audience member, I think split bills can be a way to create more engaging shows on the road. The split bill creates diversity for the musicians as acts can switch off who goes first and who goes second, third, etc. at every show. This little bit of variation helps keep every set fresh and when a group is on the road for a while every little thing is helpful.

As an audience member I consider the potential to see two indie acts of equal repute a more tempting ticket to buy or show to attend than one with a headliner and a band that I know isn’t going to be the same quality or, if they end up blowing the headliner away, have a full set. This could admittedly just be because I’m stingy and like trying to get the most out of what I spend, but unless I’m seeing a band with national or regional pull the differences in quality and preparation between the opening and main acts tend to be vast. Obviously, as with everything, there are exceptions to the rule, and I acknowledge that I’m speaking here in generalizations. Also, while  it’s traditional for someone to warm up a crowd and build up the anticipation for the main event, the access to music and music media now generates hype for shows and high expectations for fans before they even get in the door.

As a touring musician, split bills are easier to market and book for indie acts. When I’m traveling out of town people who have never heard of me are more attracted to a full night of music and performances, than a concert with one or two unknown performers. Venues understand this too and want to what will draw in the most business for them, so if I reach out to booking agents with a full bill, preferably including some local support, the likelihood of getting the gig goes up exponentially.

Split bills also breed a healthy competition that keep shows interesting for the audience. Music, like anything, can be competitive and when acts are swapping their slots it’s up to each act to play their best. There’s a story about Wu-Tang battling each other in practices to see who’d get to perform their feature songs, and I think something like this can be replicated by indie bands on their tours. Especially if bands are from different areas (this might be more specific to instate or localized tours like Mountain to Sea since getting bands from different states together to tour is out of most indie budgets) then the band without local draw has more incentive to put on a show that will hold the attention of people who have never heard their music.

There are obviously a lot of difficulties in creating split bills. Anyone who has ever tried to do anything involving multiple people, let alone booking, knows that the more people you add to the equation the more complicated it becomes. It’s much easier to coordinate things with one or two people. Another practical issue is that indie bands need money and creating a big bill means less of a payout per performer because there’s a larger split. For this, I admittedly can offer no suggestions or solutions. Money can be a point of contention, so my only advice is that when you negotiate the deal make sure everyone understands, there are a lot of people involved so assuming can quickly lead to conflict.

Then of course there’s always the perennial problem of split bills: keeping the crowd for the whole set. Audience retention is one of the most difficult aspects of this show arrangement since people will leave once they see the specific band they came to see. One solution to this problem, which really only functions smoothly with acoustic or lo-fi acts, is to have a round robin style performance where musicians switch off every two or three songs. Having done this a few times I think it has both advantages and disadvantages. While it’s nice to switch things up and keep the audience’s attention with fresh faces and fresh sounds, the determent is that no performer has the ability to create a set with a full arch. I know that whenever I make set lists I move through very specific themes and tones, but in round robins, I have to stitch together three pieces that fit as a package. While there’s still a small arch that can be made, and also a disjointed overall one, the grandiose is sacrificed.

But like anything in the indie scene, do it yourself. I want to advocate for a different way of doing things, especially if a band starts to feel they’re hitting a plateau in the performances. Don’t be afraid to switch up the way shows are organized, because sometimes little fixes like that can make the big picture so much more complete.


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