July-August 2011

The Opening Act

By Dennis Roger Reed

If you perform, it’s pretty likely that someday you will be the opening act. This could be at a local club or a concert. There are very specific duties entailed in being an opening act, not all of them necessarily positive for the performer. But there are also some specific rewards.

First of all, you are not the headliner. You are not who people are coming to see. You will not have the nicest dressing room, if you get one at all. You will not get the veggie plate with ranch dressing, or the refrigerator with lots of beer and sodas. You will have to be flexible, which may mean playing for less time that you expected, or perhaps more time than you expected. Your sound check will be significantly shorter than the headliners, if you get one at all. You will be paid a pittance (if at all) compared to the headliner. You may have to sell tickets to the show in order to perform.

So why in the world would you want to be an opening act? There are a few good reasons. Most headliners started out as opening acts. Opening for “major” acts helps the resume. Most of us opening acts pad our resumes with the “shared the stage” line, though it is a bit misleading. I’ve “shared the stage” with BB King twice. In both instances it was a festival where the band I was in opened the day and BB played 3 or 4 hours later, after a number of other acts. But we did share the stage… At any rate, a nice long list of well known artists you have opened for can be impressive. And some of the prestige of the headliner may rub off on you. Maybe.

So you book an opening act at your local concert venue. The headliner is someone you admire and would pay to see perform. If not, you’re already made one bad compromise. Also, make sure that the type of music you play is complimentary to what the headliner plays. You need not be the same genre, but if you’re in a heavy metal industrial trio, you don’t want to open for a sensitive singer songwriter soloist. And be careful that you are not too similar to the headliner, either. No one wants to see the same type of show twice. You find out that you will have limited time to play, and that your corner for CD sales is 2.3 miles from the front door and the headliner’s boutique. And you have to give the venue 10% of your CD sale income. Oh well, 90% is better than 0%. Or perhaps this is the type of venue that hands you 100 tickets and requires that you sell them. You have to give the venue $15 for every face value $20 ticket you sell. If you’re lucky, you can sell the $20 ticket for $17.50, and make $2.50 for your performance for each ticket sold. Most of us are better musicians than sales people, but one has to wear many hats. If you do play at a ticket sale venue, make sure you keep track of your tickets and sales. When you show up to settle, have the largest bills you can find. Don’t keep the manager waiting while you count out rolled up $1 bills and change. You’ll make a friend if you show up with the least number of bills and the least amount of counting time. And don’t lose tickets: many venues expect you to pay for lost tickets, and this can be a real gig killer.

So you’ve got the gig, you’ve sold some tickets and you’re done, right? Not so right. Even though you are opening for someone you like/respect/know, do some homework. Listen to some recordings. Don’t play songs that the headliner might play! I saw an excellent blues guitarist/singer open for John Hammond, and the opener played three or four songs that Hammond plays. What a mistake! You are not going to out gun John Hammond on a Robert Johnson song, and you’ll look pretty second rate as well. You don’t have to go as far as one band leader I know who emailed his set list to the Grammy winning headliner’s staff. But he did get back a polite response that the choices afforded no conflict.

You will probably feel that it is important to engage the headliner in conversation at some point. Maybe the headliner is leaving the stage at the end of their sound check as you prepare for yours. Keep in mind that the headliner is most likely a touring musician who has a schedule that may not include chatting with you about how much you love their music. Use discretion. If the headliner is heading for the exit at high speed, it’s probably not the best time to talk. I’ve had some wonderful experiences talking with some of my idols, but I’ve also experienced less than polite behavior. It can be disconcerting to find out that your hero is an asshole or at least an asshole at the moment of your contact. But hey, all of us are assholes at some time or another, so hopefully you won’t be crushed. And be realistic: don’t ask the headliner to sit in with you or for you to sit in with them, or to autograph the 46 LPs you brought along.

So the big night is finally here, you show up for your sound check and the headliner and his band are on stage. It’s pretty cool to see the sound check… unless it drags on. And on. I recently sat while the headliner did an over an hour sound check that ran almost up to the time the doors opened for customers. So no sound check for us, which translated into some sound system issues that impacted the first three songs of our performance. When you only have eight songs, three is a big number. But you grit your teeth, smile and sing your heart out. The audience, remember, is not there to see you. You still get a pretty good response, and after your last song, there’s enough applause to consider it an encore. But watch out: many venues don’t allow an encore for the opening act. Make sure you know if that’s a rule at your spot.

Be prepared for about anything to happen. I was in a band that opened for a popular quirky pop band that was doing an acoustic tour. We did our sound check as the openers, and noted that most of the headlining band was in attendance, which is unusual. Following our check, I met with the young lady doing hospitality (here’s your dressing room, one comp per band member and do you want Miller’s or Bud for your six pack?) and she waited until the end of her spiel to tell me that since the headliner was on an acoustic tour, we couldn’t use drums. I pointed out that the headlining band was using drums. No reply. Needless to say, our drummer was angry, and half the band voted to walk out with him. I grabbed the stage manager and explained how this last minute dictum had arrived. He told me to wait for two minutes, and went upstairs to talk to the headliners. In two minutes we were informed we could use the drummer. Did the headliner decide we presented too much competition? Do they just not like drummers? Who knows?

But these experiences pale when compared to the positive. I had a major rock and roll producer bound into my dressing room post performance to gush accolades. I had a well known artist quote something I’d said during my opening act… and get the same laugh! My all time favorite thing is when an artist of stature takes the time to say that they liked our set, or maybe just stops by to talk music like peers.

So if the pros outweigh the cons, take the gig. And if you take the gig, enjoy it. Meanwhile, go out and support live music. Try new clubs, visit old venues you haven’t frequented in awhile. And enjoy yourself.

Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He’s released two solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced onstage as part of both Little Richard’s and Paul Simon’s revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.


All Columns by Dennis Roger Reed