Headliners vs. Openers: Who Wins the Battle?

Brother Ali By Sean Sullivan
Brother Ali by Sean Sullivan

You don’t come to the show expecting it.  Some artists fear it–while others live for it.

But when you’re caught in the middle, as a fan, you feel weird because it’s not what you necessarily paid for or expected to experience. And depending on which artist you came to see, you might feel pissed, guilty or even sorry for them. But you also might unexpectedly walk away with a new favorite artist.

What I’m talking about is the upstage “battle” between headliners and openers.  Who wins. Who loses.  And why.

And how does this “battle” impact fans, writers and the artist themselves?

Well, it’s not necessarily a direct battle that gets physical between performers, but as a music scribe who’s reviewed many concerts, I can tell you that the battle between the headliner and opener can be a way to put an artist’s career in perspective.  It’s also a helpful allie for adding natural tension to the flow of the concert “story” you’re telling in the review. 

And the battle isn’t anything new. 

Looking back on rock history, I’ve read about many great performers who have refused to go on tour or play after a more talented opener has just upstaged them. Even when I hear who opened for who back in the day, I’m amazed to think what it would’ve been like to see Stevie Wonder open for the Rolling Stones.

Let’s look at the Battle this way

I’ve seen the “battle” first-hand many times before as a fan and a music writer, so now I’d like to ask you a few questions before I share a very insightful interview with a fan who addressed the battle topic:

  • Does the headliner get lazy and take the performance or artists for granted?
  • Do openers have more going for them because they have something to prove?
  • All headliners were once openers, so what happens when an artist goes from being an opener to finally headlining shows?
  • So are on the same record label or different ones, so what are the live concert dynamics of the relationship between the headliner and opener?  

How I got answers via Twitter

I haven’t found answers to all those questions but nonetheless, they flooded my mind during Minnesota-based rapper Brother Ali’s show at the Metro.  And during the show I got another fan’s perspective on it, while doing another Live Fix Twitter Experiment.

Sure, Twitter does have its flaws, but one of the best uses I’ve seen for Twitter so far is search, specifically search during the show on my BlackBerry Storm Ubertwitter search option. I’ve done this during most concerts this year because it’s been a great way to interact with fellow fans and study fan behavior in real-time and then follow up with them afterwards.

While waiting for the show to start I saw Dan’s, a Brother Ali fan from Chicago, tweet pop up on my Twitter search stream.  He had made an interesting comment about the impression of seeing Brother Ali before the show in the Metro lobby.  But it wasn’t until after the show, via email, that Dan graciously took the time to explain more of the details about his  experience during the Ali show.

Having seen Brother Ali a few times before–and with all due respect to Ali–Dan put the Metro show in prespective and spoke right to the heart of the battle between headliners and openers. 

Drilling down deeper, Dan explained why he felt Toki Wright (opener) might’ve out performed Ali (headliner) and what (and who) “touched” him the most during the show.   


LF: What was your favorite part about Brother Ali’s show? Did you come with any expectations?

Dan: Honestly, I came for Ali because I’d seen him three times a few years ago. Most acts that I have high expectations for, even from remembering a kick ass show from before, tend to be somewhat of a disappointment. There are only a couple exceptions for this, and Brother Ali was one of them; he always puts on a killer show.

However this time, somehow it wasn’t quite as great as I remembered him. Though it was still great, don’t get me wrong. Perhaps because back when he was opening for Atmosphere, he was still the underdog. The big awkward looking albino dude who came out, who everybody was cheering for for some reason, who out of nowhere took command of the stage when the show started and let you know why they were cheering.

He seemed to more than compensate for his appearance by proving that he was the best. And listening to his lyrics, that seems to be his attitude. This time around, he’s the headliner, he doesn’t have the same axe to grind, his message is more positive.

He didn’t come out with that same energy I remembered (though maybe he was just tired; it did pick up later throughout the show). Don’t get me wrong, I’m really glad he’s gotten where he has, I hope he gets mainstream exposure and tops the charts some day, he deserves it. I’ll still come to see his shows. But it won’t quite be the same experience.

So, all that said, I enjoyed Toki Wright’s performance a tiny bit more than Ali’s, or at least equally, for similar reasons to why I liked Ali back in the day. Toki doesn’t have an unusual appearance, but I came in there having heard one song by Toki and wasn’t particularly impressed, but his set kicked ass, and now I’ll have to check out more of his stuff.

So I guess it does have a lot to do with expectations.

You tweeted about Brother Ali’s appearance before the show. How did seeing him before the show influence your overall concert experience?

I can’t really say it did. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen him before the show. All I can say is that he seemed like he lost weight up-close, but on stage he looked more like I remembered him before, so I was wondering about that. Not really relevant to the performance, so it didn’t affect my experience.

What did you think about the videos playing on the large screen behind the DJ during the show?

I enjoyed the montage of people holding up the signs. Other than that I feel neutral about it.

Which sense (sight, sound, taste, touch, etc.) created the strongest or most vivid memory of the show?

Touch, but only because I brought a date [smiles]. Otherwise it was the sound.


Final Thoughts: comparitive concert creatures caught in the Battle 

So are we any closer to understanding the battle between headliners and openers?  Do our brains put artists in an impossible position to meet our unrealistic expectations? 

Should we, as fans, try our best to forget past concerts so that we don’t put pressure on artists and set ourselves up for disappointment?

The “battle” is one of the crucial parts of the live concert experience. Like Dan, you can discover a new artist or have something to measure the headliner against.  And to expect anything less than an artist’s best during a show is to cheapen our experiences as fans and weaken the artist’s performance skills.  

We’re comparative creatures. So it makes perfect sense that we constantly weigh past experiences against current ones and wonder about the future.

It’s in our nature to size up and rate everything we do–especially our concert experiences. It’s what makes them special.

So the next time you see a show, and you’re caught in the middle of a “battle” between the headliner and the opener, take a moment to ask yourself:

Who has more to lose (or prove), and will you give the winner the right to write their story in the sacred and cerebral history books of your favorite concert memories?

 Thanks to Dan  for taking the time to share his Brother Ali concert experience.  Follow Dan on Twitter @orblivion.

Thanks to Sean Sullivan  for providing the Brother Ali illustration.  See Sean’s other sci-fi illustration on the post about real live concert mashups.

 Got a concert story to tell? Find out how you can share it on Live Fix here.

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