I have been to over 1,500 rock concerts and have seen more than my share of unfamiliar opening acts. I’m not talking about the first to play on a double bill where both acts are established performers. I am referencing that fresh, young singer-songwriter alone with an acoustic guitar or that fledgling rock band. I’ve grown quite impatient with listening to these unfamiliar artists live. My compassion goes out to them, however, because they are playing to an audience who are there to see the headliner, not them.
Desiring to improve the quality of all of our lives, here are some tips for hopeful, up-and-coming artists– to get us through those sometimes painful 30 minutes before the main act takes the stage and to improve their success rate:
1. Tell us who you are—we probably don’t know. Sometimes you will be introduced, and sometimes you won’t. Regardless, the first words out of your mouth should be something along the lines of “I’m/we’re [so-and-so], and we are happy to be here.” Given that people will be arriving throughout your set, you should do it at least one other time plus once again before your final number. You are doing a poor job of promoting yourself if you don’t let us know who you are. Even if you have a few records out, be humble and identify yourself!
2. Learn how to talk into a microphone—we would like to understand what you are saying. You’d be surprised at how many artists can’t effectively do this. In addition to learning how to sing with amplification, learn how to effectively communicate and be understood when you talk between songs. Talk slowly and clearly. The importance of all this is explained in the next step.
3. Engage us and be interesting—it will make us like you. Sometimes the best way to get us to pay attention to your music is to get us interested in you. Smile, look like you are happy to be there, and without going overboard invite us into your little world for a half-hour.
4. Never call down a noisy crowd—earn our respect instead. Chastise us for not listening and you might as well just quit and go home. It’s your challenge to win us over, and you are not going to force us to listen to you out of guilt. If you’ve lost control, it may be time to alter your set with one of your best numbers.
5. Stop complaining—we know how tough it is out there. Unfortunately we have all heard it before: travelling in the crummy van, staying in cheap hotels, making no money, etc. You won’t get any sympathy since as bad as it sounds, most of us hate our jobs and would die for the chance to trade places with you. The consensus from us would be that if you don’t like what you are doing, do something else.
6. Sell your merch—but do it gently. Absolutely let us know that you have your record with you for sale, and by all means be at the merch table after your set to meet and greet. But, make us want to buy your wares because we like your music—not out of compassion so you can put gas in the van. Don’t oversell—once during the set and again at the end is enough.
7. Don’t patronize the headliner for cheap applause. Of course we’re excited to see [so-and so]; that’s why we paid our money to be here. It’s good etiquette to thank them for letting you play, sure. But, don’t try to whip us in frenzy by exploiting their good name. Win us over instead with your licks and lyrics.
8. Do a cool cover song early in your set. This may surprise you, but I have seen it work. People can be real inpatient with unfamiliar music, and a good cover song can stop us in our tracks. Pick something cool and akin to your style. Not only will the hipness help you connect with the crowd, it may just get us to listen to your singing and playing. Those few moments of focus may help open our ears to the rest of your set.
9. Don’t play too long and always pace your set. Respect the rules and finish on time—that’s a given. Don’t over engage between songs, so you can get in as many tunes as your time slot allows. Open with something that will get our attention, and close with something strong—those are your two best chances of ensuring a crowd at the merch table!
10. Get on the right show in the first place. This may be out of your control, and in most cases, any gig is a good gig. But, don’t be afraid to ask the promoter if you think both of you might be better served because your folk songs would sound better opening for someone other than a death metal band!
I hope you find these pointers helpful, and I’d like to hear what other music fans think as well.
As for you music fans, pay attention: For just as many horrible openers that I have seen, I have discovered some amazing talent from simple unknowns. Get your money’s worth, and be there early to see the openers. Someday, you may be able to say, “I saw them before they were big.”