Things to think about when opening a show

One of the many things a new, unknown artist does to get in front of audiences is open shows for already established acts. While opening’s effectiveness at building your draw is debatable, and often varies from city to city and venue to venue, it is invariably something you will do not just at the beginning of your career but throughout. So it’s worthwhile to think thru how you approach opening shows, and evaluate how you are doing at it.

Openers are sometimes called “support” or “guest” in terms of how you are billed at any given venue, and sometimes the terminology differs based on how advanced or well known you are – or frankly, arbitrarily. Whatever you call it, generally it translates to be a 25-30 minute or 4 or 5 song set at the beginning of someone else’s show. After the audience has seated (for the most part) and is quiet (hopefully).

You might come to open a show because the venue took a shine to you and asked for the headliner’s approval for you to support. Or maybe the headliner took a shine to you and asked for the venue’s approval. An agent booking a tour may have asked the artist and venue to approve. Heck, some opening spots are even won by participating in song competitions. Knowing how you got there is kinda important – as it informs WHO YOU SHOULD REMEMBER TO THANK. It also informs the likelihood of your ability to secure other dates on the same tour if you ask for them.

However you got there, once you get the gig, you’ve got to stop thinking about how cool you are for having gotten the gig and start thinking about how to do it well – and what you want to gain from the experience.

Many inexperienced artists think opening is all about seizing your 25 minutes of fame, and that’s it. These artists are absorbed in their own desires to move up the ladder, and to be able to say they opened for so-and-so, or played at such-and-such venue. They confine the extent of thinking about the gig to which songs to sing and where to celebrate after with their friends who come see them shine.

Here’s the thing – opening is an important part of your job. It’s as close to apprenticeship as you can come. And there aren’t many professions out there that still have apprenticeships. So take advantage! Watch that headliner, learn. Ask questions (without being annoying).

Here are some quick dos and donts when opening:

    DO express your appreciation for being offered the opportunity to open – and if you are a fan of the artist you are opening for, don’t be too proud to say so. The people you are singing to in the audience are coming there as fans, too, so they will understand the feeling and it may endear you to them. But if you don’t know the headliner’s music, don’t lie. Thank the person who got you the gig, whether or not they are in the room. Chances are your appreciation will get back to them.
    DO bring some sort of time measuring implement – either affix a watch to the mic stand or your tuner or know where there’s a clock in the room that you can see, preferably without the audience being able to detect that you are peeking. I have seen some musicians wear watches backwards on their wrist, so they can see the time when they look down at their guitar frets. Know precisely how long it usually takes you to play your songs, and whenever possible actually take LESS time than you are offered. If the headliner is gracious enough to give you 45 minutes take 35; if they give you 30 minutes take 25; if they give you 25 you probably do need that full time. But if you get to ~17 minutes and are picking between one or two more songs, just play one. In fact, whenever in doubt about time, just play one more song not two. Headliners will never fault you for going short. They will think you’re a pro if you get on and off the stage quickly, and if you They will be more likely to ask you to open for them again if you don’t eat into their set or make their show go late. It’s very important that you get good at this.
    (unless your whole schtick is multiple instruments)
    I’ve known many songwriters who use non-standard tunings in many songs – and when they headline they often do need to use multiple instruments to cut down the amount of time they spend tuning on stage. Unless you are opening on a major tour in which there are stage hands to help, and it is clearly acceptable for you to travel with more than one instrument, don’t. You should have 5 songs in similar enough tuning that you can avoid instrument changes and excessive tuning that takes up your already short time with the audience. Keep as much of your focus on the audience as you can, and they will stay focused on you. If you start tuning up and tuning down, they’ll start tuning out. Think thru tunings when you are figuring out your set list with this in mind. And in general, stay out of the way of the headliner’s setup – don’t move your things after soundcheck.
    For god’s sake. Make a set list and stick to it. When you make your set list, think about how long the songs are, what tuning they are in, and especially choose songs that you think represent any kinship you might have to the headliner that would entice their fans to also like you.
    This actually goes for your own full length shows, too. Your first song, whenever possible, should be one that has a hook and “sounds like you” – but also consider your vocal range, and how much you need to warm up before singing it. Some musicians like to start with a song that crosses their vocal range because they warm up best that way. Some like to start with a song that they could nail in their sleep, without any warm up (tho you SHOULD warm up). As it gives them a chance to get a sense of the room and relax into the set.
    People want to hear your songs. Mostly. Definitely let your personality come across, but make sure you do not lose a precious song by talking too long. You don’t have to tell them everything about yourself on the first date. If you leave them wanting more, they will have plenty of time to get to know you.
    Some headliners like privacy during soundcheck. So you don’t have to ask permission (unless it seems natural to do so – as in you’re talking with the headliner before they go check), but if they ask you to leave don’t feel rejected or offended. It’s just one of those things. Some people like everyone to be out of the hall when they soundcheck. But definitely try to slink off in a corner and watch not only how the artist describes what they want in terms of sound, but also the tricks the sound engineers implement to handle different things, and train your ears to hear what happens when the engineer responds to the requests of the artist and/or their road manager. You’ll learn quickly what frequencies are, what low end, high end, mids and reverb is. You’ll learn that some people like a lot of themselves in the monitor, a lot of instrument or vocal – and hearing these preferences will help you understand what you like. You’ll also learn what rooms have engineers that are amazing pros, and what venues have engineers who are still learning themselves. You’ll see what type of direction engineers like and don’t like. And you may even build rapport with engineers by asking questions about how things they did work, after the soundcheck is over. (Don’t get in the way! That’s a sure way to get asked to leave.)
    Drinking with your buddies or hanging out in the green room or having a long drive ahead of you are not good excuses to leave the show before it is over. Not only does it make the headliner think you are not serious, but it also makes the club manager settle up specially for you (which means you’re high maintenance) and it just makes it obvious that you don’t know what it means or why a person opens shows. Watching various headliner’s shows is the way you learn to create your own show. You can watch what the audience reacts to, what they don’t react to – and most importantly the difference between a quiet audience that is enthralled and a quiet audience that is bored. You can see what tricks of the trade headliners have picked up over the years, and decide which of these might be helpful to you – and which don’t feel authentic to you. Like in grammar and most things, it’s always best to know the rules in order to break them.
    Sometimes the advice you get when you are opening will feel wrong. You’ll know it in your gut. It’s offered with your best interest in mind. But it just doesn’t feel like something right for you. No matter. Right when that defensive voice rises in you, just remember it’s a small world and it’s ok to beg to differ but best to just say thank you you’ll consider that and move on. Could be that advice will never come in handy. Or could be that advice just isn’t right for you right in that moment. Sometimes advice that doesn’t apply to you now will become useful to you 5, 10, 20 or even 30 years later.
    Okay, here’s the deal. You have to be very perceptive, and be confident but courteous. At some venues, you will have your own green room or dressing room area. But most venues has only one green room, so you will be sharing with the headliner. Do not mouse around like you don’t belong there, or feel like you have to kiss ass. You are performing that night, so it is totally reasonable for you to expect that you can be in the green room and that the provisions of the green room will be made available to you. However, the way you carry yourself and level of professionalism you profess will go a long way. Oftentimes it can be the thing that a headliner remembers about you. And what you remember about the headliner. SO, don’t be afraid to eat the fruit, but if there’s opportunity, definitely ask permission or make sure there’s no reason you shouldn’t. If the artist and/or their band are drinking alcohol, then that is an indicator that it is ok to do the same. But if you really want to be a professional, you will do so very subtly. You should by NO means use recreational drugs or other substances that produce scents or evidence in the green room unless the headliner literally hands you the joint. And I really don’t think they will. If they DO offer you a smoke, and you don’t smoke, you should feel totally comfortable saying NO. Really. Just be yourself. In general, it’s always best to have your beer after your set. Focus on your performance. If the headliner is running through songs with their band, and everyone stops when you come in, just casually ask “ok to be in here, or do y’all need alone time?” Most headliners generally hang from soundcheck to showtime – might take a nap – and if they’ve been doing this a long time and they want you out, they will not hesitate to tell you so. In general, follow the way of the indigenous people to that green room. 🙂

Things to consider when trying to book/secure opening slots…

Important terminology for you to know, when trolling calendars looking for gigs you might open on venue calendars, is if you see “Evening with” before the headliner’s name, it generally means that the show was intentionally booked with no opener. So it’s probably not worth inquiring about those ones. Just annoys the venue if you ask about gigs that are clearly marked to not have support.

Headliners like to support artists they know. So it’s important that you not take it personally if a headliner doesn’t approve you right away, especially if they haven’t heard of you or your music before. Give them time to let them get to know you and your music (and hear about you through the rumor mill about who rocks). You have to remember – the headliner is giving you 30 minutes with their hard earned audience. For your purposes, imagine they are giving you 30 minutes with their mother. Don’t be offended if they say no – but be honored if they say yes. And be especially honored if they talk about you during their set – that’s the type of endorsement you really want. Sometimes that can go just as far as you up there playing when it comes to folks visiting the merch table at intermission or after the show.

Most importantly, HAVE FUN and BE INSPIRED!!