Spare a prayer for the opening act!

June 15, 2003

in REFLECTIONS AND RANTS

No introduction. A quarter of the lights. One third the sound. No place the park the van. Audiences that don’t give a hoot. No mention in the advertising. Don’t eat the headliner’s food. There are four beers and some KFC for you; say thank you. Oh, and don’t go any longer than 30 minutes.

Oh, I hear you say, that’s rock and roll. Doesn’t happen in the folk world.

Well, the law of supply and demand in the folk world says that opening acts play for nothing; if they want to sell CDs that’s okay, but count this as exposure, as a rite of passage on the way to the big-time. And just in case that depresses you, note that in the rock and roll world, the opening artist’s record company may even have to pay the headliner for the right to BE the opener…

Who the opening act is depends on the demands of the headliner. If you’re Guy Clark, say, you don’t want a nice young girl singing dear diary music to your audience before you go on, or if you’re Gillian Welch you don’t need another woman singing world-weary alt.country. A gender change is often necessary – er, let me re-phrase that: If the headliner’s a male, it’s often best to have a woman open, and vice-versa. The opening artist’s music has to be complementary, but not similar, to that of the headliner.

Okay, you’ve been hired: You’ll be opening for Guy Clark at Hugh’s Room in Toronto. What can you do to take advantage of this?

Ask the promoter to include you in the advertising.
When the promoter has announced the show, you then announce your participation to your mailing list. Do not announce your involvement before then.
Make sure that you “sell” as many tickets by word of mouth as you possibly can.
Ensure that your friends and relatives are there for support, even if you have to buy their tickets.
Be on time for the sound check, and be brave is there isn’t time for one.
Be friendly with the headliner, but don’t fawn over him or ask him to sign your guitar.
Be totally rehearsed (with your best songs, and some positive upbeat chat).
Do not go over your allotted time.
Say nice things about the sound, the wait staff, the bar tender, and the promoter.
Stay for the headliner’s set.

The prize for the classiest treatment of an opening act goes, without exception, to – of all people – Harry Belafonte. When he was the biggest star, and the most expensive ticket, on the concert circuit, he would always open the show himself. After half a dozen songs, he would bring out the “opening” artist with a fulsome, sincere introduction. The “opener” would finish the first half of the concert, and return for a finale with the headliner at the end of the second half.

In this way, back in the day, Belafonte introduced mainstream North American audiences to Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Nana Mouskouri, Lottle Mbulu, Miriam Makeba, Odetta and many others. He MADE their careers – and HE looked like the best guy, the least selfish guy, in the world for doing so.

The prize for the worst treatment of an opening artist? No contest: The Rolling Stones. Sure, they sometimes hired good people – among them, over the years, B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Ike & Tina Turner and Lee Dorsey. (I once saw Chaka Kahn open for them at Maple Leaf Gardens; her wig came off in mid-song, and lay on the stage for the rest of the set looking a bit like a dead hedgehog).

At a Stones show, nobody announced the opening artist, and the sound and lights were the least they could get away with providing. The opener usually played to small audiences, since they were often not included in the advertising, and the Stones audience were only there for one act β€” they didn’t even arrive in time to hear the opening artist. And after the openers finished their allotted time-span, the Stones themselves waited for another hour before hitting the stage.

So, here’s a question or two for headliners everywhere, what kind of music you play:

Why can’t you go out and introduce the opening artist?
Why can’t you arrange for them to be paid at least one-fifth of what you’re getting?
Why not offer them their share of your food and drink rider?

Mike Plume, a wonderful songwriter from Alberta who now lives in Toronto, once opened, with his band, for a well-known Canadian singer who had a hit at the time β€” oh, well, since you’re asking, it was Allanah Myles. Mike later wrote a song about the bitter experience, and told how – so angered by their treatment – the band would wait til Ms. Myles was on stage, and then go and eat her food and drink her wine and beer.

A few years later, the band was playing at the Horseshoe in Toronto when the Ms Myles wandered in. She loved the band, and went directly to their dressing to invite them to open for her on her next tour. Needless to say, Mike and the band, having been there and done that, were not impressed.

But here’s a story you can feel warm and fuzzy about. My friend Serena Ryder, on her first trip to Australia, got the opportunity to open for Steve Earle. Seriously jet-lagged, and suffering the cold she always gets when she goes anywhere in a plane, she stood in front of 5,000 rabid, screaming Steve Earle fans, already hollering for Copperhead Road.

Well, she survived, but Steve took her into his dressing room afterwards, and behaved like the classy man that he is. Henceforth of the tour, HE would go out and introduce her every night, and tell his audience to shut the f*** up and listen. Then he handed her three songs, and told her to learn them, and that she would be singing back-up with him during his show. Then he told her to return the rented van; she’d ride on the tour bus with him and his band. And finally, he said “Look, my contract says I have a two room suite in every hotel on this trip. If you want it, the second room is yours.”

Being the opening artist is a thankless job, nearly of the time. But do it right, make friends, and do well, and you won’t have the role in the future.

You’ll be the headliner instead.

And when you are, treat the opening artist with the respect you would have appreciated when you were starting out. (2003)