God Help The Opening Act
By Richard Flohil.
All you need to know about choosing, hiring, feeding and taking care of the artist / band who’ll open the show
Right now, of course, there are no shows at all. Here in Ontario, the bars are closed, concert halls shuttered, and live music is sadly almost non-existent, but maybe this is a good time to say a prayer for the opening artist, his/her role, the way they are treated, and how they can break through to wider audiences.
Today, alas, opening acts are often presented to audiences who are not told about them, are treated badly, don’t get sound checks or decent lighting, aren’t billed or acknowledged, and don’t get the “break” they were hoping for. In fact, thrown to the wolves… Can this be fixed?
What’s the opening act good for?
• Making the show better and longer than it might be
• Introducing new talent to audiences
• Inspiring the headliner to do a better show
• Giving the paying customers better value for their money
Who chooses the opening artist?
• The headliner
• The headliner’s agent
• The event’s promoter
Why is the opening artist chosen? In no particular order
• They’re friends with the headliner
• There’ a buzz on social media
• An agent wants to check out a new artist
• A friend of a friend of a friend said it would work…
Loryn Taggart is a young singer-songwriter, now based in Montreal, and working on a full album. Before the pandemic, she opened two shows for Donovan Woods in a 300-seat hall in a small rural community two hours north of Toronto — both shows were sold out.
How did she get the gig? “I think a friend may have sent a link to a video I did to Julien Paquin, who’s the best agent I know for the sort of music I do. Or, maybe Julien had heard something about me and wanted to check me out — he just offered me the gig and I accepted it,” she says.
“It went pretty well; the audiences probably didn’t know who on earth I was, but they listened, seemed to like it and applauded and emptied my merch table. Afterwards, though he never asked for it, I sent Julien a 10 per cent commission. I think that surprised him."
“Then the virus hit. I’m going to do some live videos in a week or so. I’ll send them to him, just to remind him I’m still here.”
What can go wrong?
• The opening artist doesn’t get a sound check
• There are only minimal lights for the opener’s performance
• The opening artist screws up and arrives late, or not at all
• The audience doesn’t arrive until after the first part of the show
• The crowd doesn’t even know there is an opener
• Nobody introduces the first artist on the bill
• The headliner doesn’t know who the opening artist is
At Toronto’s Massey Hall, an elderly gentleman stands outside the opening band’s dressing room, carefully and slowly writing the name, from the sign on the door, on a slip of paper: “the… Downchild… Blues… Band…”
Richard Flohil with B.B. King, Massey Hall, Toronto.
As B.B. King comes toward the end of his show, he tells the audience: “Whenever we play, we ask the promoter to get a good band to open for us. They set the mood, they make us play better and I could tell, from our dressing room, that you really appreciated …” The elderly gentleman, obviously part of the headliner’s crew, shuffles on stage and hands the headliner a slip of paper. King glances at it, and adds “…and I want to thank the Downchild Blues Band for their great show.”
Afterwards, the gentleman asked the opening band whether they would like to meet the headliner. They file into King’s dressing room, there are handshakes, compliments, photographs, some signed autographs, and some lively conversation.
Outside the dressing room, in a lineup, stands the Mayor of Toronto, the president of King’s Canadian record company, the CEO of Massey Hall, and some local writers, columnists and radio people.
But they have to wait. The headliner is acknowledging the opening band.
Hints for opening artists
• Know your place, but insist beforehand that you’re listed in advertising
• Make sure you’re paid at least a minimum fee — union scale
• Show up on time
• Meet the headline artist and thank him/her for the opportunity
• You’ll get a sound check when the headliner’s finished their’s, not before. Be quick
• Look good, calm your nerves, be confident, know you deserve to be there
• Every show you open for is a chance to advance your career
• Introduce yourself, even if someone has already introduced you
• Acknowledge the headliner, the sound crew, and the audience
• Never play a second longer than the time allotted to you
• Never, ever, sing a song associated with the artist you’re opening for
• Your job is not to upstage the headliner, but compliment him or her
Rush, in the mid-70s, are on the road, doing three shows every week all over North America. In Tucson, Arizona the opening band (their name forgotten, alas, in the passage of time) runs into trouble; their bus breaks down in the middle of the desert 150 miles away, and can’t make the date.
Rush come out, to the surprise of the audience, apologizes for the missing band, extends condolences to them, hits the stage running, and proceeds to extend their set to two full hours.
At Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall, the opening artist is not listed, nor is she introduced. She doesn’t tell the audience who she is, and she doesn’t speak between songs. She is wearing a large floppy hat; the partial lighting, from overhead, means that the audience can’t see her face. To an indifferent response, she leaves the stage 10 minutes after her 30-minute spot should have ended.
Nobody knows who she is, or even what she looks like.
Hints for headliners
• Specify in your contract what sort of opening act you think would compliment your music
• Before the show, meet the opening artist and welcome them warmly
• Make sure your crew welcomes them too
• Ensure the opener gets a sound check and decent lighting
• Share whatever food, drink, and hospitality you have in your dressing room
• If the opener is nervous, reassure them
• Share your merch table
• Why not go on stage at the beginning of the show and introduce the opening act yourself?
• Watch and listen to at least part of the opener’s set
• During your set, remember to remind your audience who the opener was
• Find a couple of songs that the opening artist knows, and bring them out to sing with you
• If you think your opening artist did a good job, tell your agent, your manager, your social media, your fans, and your audience
• Above all remember that you, too, were an opening act once
Once upon a time, nearly 50 years ago, the biggest touring artist of them all was Harry Belafonte. He was handsome, charismatic, had platinum albums, and was a film star. In Toronto, he played 10 shows in the 3,200-seat O’Keefe Centre, and every single seat was sold, at what was then a high ticket price.
To begin every show, he would come out and sing six songs. Then he would pause, tell the audience about how he had discovered a marvellous artist that he was so happy to introduce them to, explain where his discovery had come from and why he valued their music so highly. The “opening” artist then did a 35-minute set before intermission.
Belafonte would then do his main set, including most of his hits — but the show always ended with him bringing the opening artist on stage for three songs, and the encore, sung together. And these songs included his most popular hit.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Miriam Makeba, Nana Mouskouri, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee (among others) were introduced to mainstream audiences.
Perhaps Harry Belafonte, of all people, is the patron saint of opening artists. Chosen carefully, treated with respect, made a significant part of the show.
He was a role model, and all these years later, his example deserves to be followed.
If god won’t save the opening artist, perhaps the headliner will…
Read more by Richard
About Richard Flohil: Richard was born in Yorkshire, England and came to Canada in 1957, he established himself as a music promoter, publicist, is a former Mariposa Folk Festival artistic director and journalist. Richard ran a highly successful public relations company, Richard Flohil and Associates based in Toronto. He is about to publish a book based on a lifetime of stories in a milestone-filled career.
Photograph by Michael Wrycraft