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It’s a truism of being in a band that opening for an established act is a sound method to promote your music and get your name out there. When you’re starting out, the chance to open for your musical heroes is a reward in itself; playing on the same bill as a band whose albums you’ve pored over just years before can feel like a dream come true.
But along with the exhilaration that comes with getting the gig, we shouldn’t forget that playing a support slot requires a different approach than headlining the back room of a pub in front of your friends. Here are six ideas about how you can make the most of that short time onstage and maximize the experience of your support slot. Who knows – with a little hard work, the headlining band might ask you to play a few more dates the next time they’re on tour.
1. Get on and off the stage on time
First and foremost, understand this: It isn’t always writing a killer tune that gets you asked to go on tour with an established band. Just as often, it’s getting on and off the stage quickly and efficiently, being courteous and professional to the crew, being friendly and respectful to the headlining band, and sticking around to watch them. No matter how great your set is, if you’re making life stressful for the crew, devouring precious minutes of line-check time, or, heaven forbid, impeding the headliner’s chance to sell merchandise, you’re blowing your chance.
The scenario of the stage manager running around backstage to find the opening band two minutes after they’re due on is common enough, but it’s unacceptable. You won’t get a written warning for this impasse; you simply won’t be asked back. Unless otherwise clearly stated by the headline band’s TM or the promoter, the stage times are not a rough guideline of how they want the night to go. They are strict, absolute orders that denote where your slot is in the running of the night. Follow them.
2. Manage your expectations
No matter what stellar reaction you normally receive when headlining to a familiar crowd, opening for another band’s fans can bring you back down to earth fast. As far as your expectations towards a cold room full of fans of another band, it’s best to have none. Check your ego at the door, and approach the show as an opportunity to understand how your music gets over on its own terms.
Without expecting anything from the audience, you’ll quickly learn to pick up on the fact that just because they aren’t leaping around the mosh pit and cheering your name, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t enjoying your show. And if you do get the room dancing to your tunes and reacting to your every gesture, then you know that you’ve earned it. And if you know you’ve earned it, consider howyou earned it. Understand that, and you’re on your way to being able to make it happen every time.
3. It’s not a competition
If you aren’t a fan of the band you’re opening for, for the duration of that evening, keep it to yourself. Don’t make subtle allusions to it onstage, don’t begrudge a bandd that’s on the road for months at a time a backstage of their own, and don’t discuss them on the internet after the show. Going in with the mentality of “blowing them offstage” is counterproductive; if you manage to impress, it’s with your music, not your contrast to who is headlining.
If you dislike a band to the extent that you can’t bite your lip, then don’t do the gig. But there’s nothing more foolish than the musician who refuses a perfectly good gig because he or she isn’t a fan of the headlining band’s music. A much more efficient use of time would be to take the gig and watch the band from the side of the stage, contemplating what it is that has them over with this capacity crowd to the extent that they’re asking you to open for them and not the other way around.
4. Use your time wisely
For the vast majority of support slots, you’ll have just 30 minutes to seal the deal, so it’s worth planning the set accordingly. Song lengths vary between bands, but I err on the side of caution; it’s better to play seven songs comfortably, perhaps stretching out the last tune, than rush eight. A good rule of thumb is to build to your biggest and best track as song three (meaning people have time to get back from their cigarette or the bar) and end on your next boldest banger.
Time spent talking to the crowd between songs could be time spent playing the music you’re there to perform. Choose a couple of points in the set to speak – after songs three and six, plus during a breakdown in the final song, is ideal. Introduce your band, your latest release, and your merchandise, but keep it short and sweet. And I’ve said it once before, but it bears repeating: don’t keep thanking the headlining band!
5. Be smart about your merch
Before setting up your merchandise at a support slot, it’s worth considering if you require a change of prices and stock. Often, you’ll find that the main band’s team will ask you to price match your T-shirts and CDs to theirs, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be savvy about it. Consider manufacturing some cheaper items: wristbands, sticker sets, and posters. These make great pocket-money purchases for cash-strapped youngsters, advertise your band wonderfully, and make perfect giveaways.
The audience members are potential new converts to your music, so win them over tonight, and they may be fans for life. From the stage, announce that you’ll be at the merch table after your set, and potential fans will be only too happy to head over and chat. Giving away signed CDs and items might mean a little extra financial outlay, but include a flyer and website links with every giveaway, and you’ve got yourself a neat little investment.
6. Network – gently!
One of the most maligned, misunderstood, and frankly groan-inducing concepts surrounding the music industry is “networking.” Forget networking. It’s a pretentious word and a counterproductive term for something essential that should come naturally. Introducing yourself and expressing gratitude to the people you’re working with is not a radical marketing strategy; it’s basic manners.
Networking needn’t involve pushing your way into conversations and handing out embossed business cards or foisting your demo into the hands of the headlining band’s singer with a note quoting their lyrics from a rare B-side. Make the acquaintance of the tour manager, crew, and band, thank them for this opportunity, and explain that you’d like to open for the band again any time they’ll have you. If it feels like your presence is unwanted at that particular moment in time, leave it at that. Simply establishing a face to a name is a solid strategy to ensure that next time they’re considering local openers, you’ll be in the running.
P “Barney” Barnes is a campaign manager and blogger at direct-to-fan platform PledgeMusic.com, drawing on extensive gigging and DIY music business experience with rock/ska/electronic mashup merchants Sonic Boom Six. SB6 has released four studio albums, performed headline tours of Europe, America, and Japan, and have written and performed songs that have appeared on BBC Radio 1, Channel 4, BBC 2 (TV), Rock Band, and Sims 3 video games. Barney takes his coffee strong, black, and often, and would one day like to visit Australia.