Opening Acts!...Does Playing Before A Rock Star Make You One?
By Sheena Metal
It’s the dream of many a musician to open up for either: their favorite band or the favorite band of their childhood. For many, the ultimate in true rock star status is to share a stage with the musicians who made you want to play music in the first place…to see you name in lights (or printed on a flyer, as the case may be) with the guys (or gals) whose music you listen to almost as much as (if not more than) your own.
But is it really a good idea, as an unsigned artist, to open up for an act already known to the general public? Will you get anywhere near the recognition opening up for Pearl Jam in a large venue that you would at a local club playing with other unsigned bands? Will you fans dig your music as hard as ever or will they forget all about you in a mad frenzy to have Eddie Vedder sign their backs?
It’s a double-edged sword that many artists forget to think over carefully before rushing starry-eyed into the excitement of being the opening act for: (Insert Name Of Famous Rock Star Here). In many cases, venues and promoters still expect your crowd to turn out and drink it up at shows, even though the headliner will draw a big crowd of their own. Many of these shows are an hour plus away from your local area and tickets can be upwards of $100. Is that something you can expect your friends will be up for?
And then there’s the issue of press. Do you dare ask a reviewer to come out and cover your show and expect that a large portion of your article won’t be about how “Pearl Jam rocks!” You score local radio play only to have the DJ announce the show and play, “Alive.” Sometimes opening up for a signed act can make an unsigned artist feel even more invisible than usual.
The following are a few tips that may help you to weigh the pros and cons of grabbing a spot as the opening act for a famous band:
1.) Would You Take The Show If You Weren’t Playing With Pearl Jam?---Many artists think that playing with a famous act is so important that they don’t even bother to check out anything else about the gig. Many assume that rock stars always command rock star stages, but this is often not the case. Many acts, especially classic rock/retro acts on revival tours, are looking to get out and play anywhere that will put them up the right kind of front money. Often times this means that the venues are in more remote areas either looking to get on the musical map or using a well-known act to entice people to drive in from far away. Sometimes, the clubs are older rooms looking to get their groove back or new places that haven’t yet acquired a regular crowd. Before booking anything, drive out and check out the venue on a few different nights and make sure that you like the room, the stage, the regulars, the area, etc. and ask yourselves if this is a venue that would play if it wasn’t for the draw of the signed headliner. Since many of these shows can cost unsigned acts anywhere from $200-$2000 in ticket guarantees, you want to make sure that your getting your money’s worth musically.
2.) Would Pearl Jam’s Fans Listen To You If They Caught You In Your Local Bar?---For a lot of upcoming acts, the lure of playing in front of a crowd of adoring fans is a huge plus. But, you need to make sure to remember that just because people are coming to a club doesn’t mean they plan to listen to you. Sadly, often the followers of signed acts could care less about unknown openers and will arrive right before the headliners set. Sometimes, they sit in at the bar in another room praising their favorite band while the openers play to their friends and the wall. Worst case, many of them will rush the stage yelling, “Pearl Jam! We want Pearl Jam” while you do your best to win them over musically. This is why it’s important to only open for signed acts that fit in the style of your music. If you loved Pearl Jam in high school but your band sounds like John Mayer, you might want to think twice before deciding that their fans are automatically going to dig your tunes.
3.) Find Out All Of The Details Before Committing To A Signed Act Show---It’s fairly easy to book a local show: two to five unsigned acts, 20-45 minute sets, all ages to 21 and up, $0 to $10 cover, sound check or line check, maybe free parking, possibly some free drinks, sometimes backline gear, occasionally free food, and pray for a decent sound man. It’s all pretty much cut and dried and if your band has been around awhile, you can confirm gigs in your sleep. Signed headlining acts are a whole different animal and promising your crowd to a venue two hours away, with a $40 cover charge where your band is playing a 15 minute set with your gear scrunched up on the front of the stage so that the headliner’s gear can remain set up might not be as easy as you think. Your fans are used to seeing you rock the house, down the street from their homes, where you play long, get an encore and the house buys everyone a shot! Unless they’re dying to see Pearl Jam, they might not be up for all of extra energy it takes to see you open up for a famous act.
4.) You May Not Be Signed But You Can Act Like You Are---If you decide to take a gig opening up for a signed band and you want to impress them, their crew, their reps, and the club’s management, then make sure you’re act as professional as your headliner. Get there early, have your gear organized, make sure everything is working perfectly, load in at the speed of light, have your set list ready, be courteous to the sound guy (gal), keep your set on time, and load off at the speed of light. Most importantly, have your merchandise in order and professionally displayed at the club/arena: CDs, DVDs, t-shirts, bumper stickers, hats, condoms, thongs…you name it. You know you’re unsigned but the headliners’ fans don’t, so why advertise it? Put on a fantastic show and maybe you’ll sell some CDs, etc. and make some extra cash.
There’s one more thing to consider here: fulfilling a dream. If it’s your dream to open up for an act you love, then throw caution to the wind and do it just for the dream. If you lose money, hate the club, get booed by over-zealous fans…who cares? For that one set, you shared the stage with the band that put the dream in your heart to get up on a stage in the first place. Plus, it’s great bragging rights for your band. You can throw it up on your website and talk about it to your grandchildren. If you don’t mind the extra effort, commitment and sometimes hassle, then go for it! Who knows? Maybe they’ll pick you up as the opener on their tour? Maybe their label will see you and sign you? Maybe Rolling Stone will come out to review them and mention your name? If you’re doing it to fulfill the dream, then everything else is a bonus. Just remember to get all of the details, and stay smart when undertaking a huge gig. Now, get up on that stage and wow that big crowd, you rock stars!
Sheena Metal is a radio host, producer, promoter, music supervisor, consultant, columnist, journalist and musician. Her syndicated radio program, Music Highway Radio, airs on over 700 affiliates to more than 126 million listeners. Her musicians’ assistance program, Music Highway, boasts over 10,000 members. She currently promotes numerous live shows weekly in the Los Angeles Area, where she resides. For more info: