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Is Opening for a National Act the Answer? 

Be careful what you wish for...

 

by David Himes - ‘The Gig Kahuna’

 

 

Whether it’s an answer or not depends more on the question than anything else. What do you want to gain from it? Is there even anything to gain at all? If you get such a gig, what are the conditions?

 

It might seem like the obvious question is “how can I get more exposure?” and the answer is “opening for a national act (or band).” On the surface, regardless of whether you’re at the entry, mid, or upper-level of your local music scene, the thought of opening for a national touring band seems like a dream come true—you’ve been bestowed the honor of sharing the stage with the gods of the limelight, and you’re about to go for a ride on the gravy train while the heavens above shine down upon you.

 

But maybe the more appropriate question is “am I delusional and naïve about the realities of opening for national bands?” Sorry to play Debbie Downer, but the truth is you’re more likely to be exploited than blessed. Usually, the only real benefit of such a gig is a boost in band morale, which certainly doesn’t hurt. But consider some of the realities of opening for nationals.

 

You’ll be expected to help get the word out about the show—pre-selling a certain amount of tickets, buying the tickets in advance, or maybe even buying onto the show. But to be fair, the venue or promoter has to ensure recouping the expenses. Working as a promoter is risky business that involves paying the touring band or package whatever amount was agreed upon by contract, expenses from the bands’ rider (food, lodging, drinks, or anything else that might be on the rider, depending on the band), and other expenses. If the sales come up short, any difference has to be paid out of pocket.

 

Many tours make the more entry-level bands pay for the privilege of opening for them, which they justify by the exposure you’ll supposedly get. This is the norm, even on the smaller club tours. So if you are buying on, don’t cry “pay-to-play.” Otherwise, while the touring bands get paid, you can expect to be paid very little or nothing, or it can easily cost you to play.

 

Since most nationals come as a package deal with one or more supporting bands also on the tour, you’re not likely to get a direct support slot. You are playing for the fans of the nationals, so unless you bring your own fans out, the crowd will probably either go to the bar to order drinks or hang out outside and wait for the anchor bands to go on during your set. So chances are you’ll play for no more people than a typical local band show. So much for exposure.

 

As agreed by contract, the headlining band usually backlines the stage. This means the supporting bands (including and especially you) will have to set up in front of the other bands, drum kit and all. Not a very comfortable situation. The headliner will usually also get a lockout on most of the channels on the soundboard, leaving the opening bands with only the remaining few. In larger venues that have a big enough stage, PA and lighting to accommodate such events, these factors might not be too big of a deal. But if we’re talking a club tour, it’s definitely not an ideal situation for you.

 

You can also expect little or no lights, monitors, or sound check, so you’ll more than likely sound and look like ass. If you’re lucky (very lucky), the headliner might be impressed by you and want to hook you up, but don’t hold your breath. Chances are you might not even meet the headlining band, as the members usually hang out in their tour vehicle or green room (if the venue has one) before and after their set.

 

If offered an opening slot for a national, it’s a good idea to look into just who the national is. There has been a scam over the years where some manager, label rep, or agent books a national tour for his band, maybe a newly-signed act or otherwise. He contacts local bands in each town and offers them some “golden opportunity” to open for his “national band.” More often than not, the locals are also offered the promise of playing in front of the national band’s “label reps.” Of course, to get in on this “opportunity,” you’re expected to sell advance tickets at some ridiculous price, or buy on. To the uninitiated, this might appear to be a good opportunity. But what you’re really accomplishing is 1) ensuring a good turnout for the touring band, and 2) covering the “national band’s” touring expenses.

 

Many local bands like the idea of being able to say they opened for Band X. While that might not hurt, many powers-that-be aren’t particularly impressed. In their mind, you busted your ass or paid to play for a crowd that isn’t yours (if there even was a crowd). If you bought on, spare the line about being “chosen.” Bands are “chosen” because they had the money to buy on. Bottom line is that industry powers-that-be are looking for bands to have their own fan base.

 

This brings me to another topic: Even if you opened for a national in a packed venue and the crowd loved you, what did you do to stay in touch with your new fans? I’d be willing to bet little or nothing. So if you failed to capture any new fans, the gig didn’t do you much good.

 

As crazy as this might sound, if you are an entry to mid-level band, you might be almost better off opening for an upper-level local band than a national. I have several reasons for such a whack idea:

 

  • While the anchor band(s) might want to backline the stage, at least they’ll usually share the drum riser (assuming there is one)
  • They won’t be near as likely to demand a lockout on the soundboard channels
  • You’ll probably get at least a brief sound check.
  • You might even get paid, at least some gas money.

 

You will probably get treated closer to an equal as far as sound, lighting, monitors, etc. This is one reason I always strongly recommend making friends with, and supporting other local bands. You never know when another local might invite you to play a nice show with them.

 

In summary, it can be cool to open for a national, and I’m not saying there’s anything particularly wrong with it. But if it doesn’t happen, if the deal falls through, if the show gets cancelled, or if you get turned away, it’s nothing to cry about…and it’s no reason to get discouraged. Remember, more often than not, someone else is reaping the fruits of your labors. You’re more than likely better off putting your efforts into your own next local show. If you seriously feel you need to open for a national, there are ways to make it happen on your own. And if you do get an offer to open for a national, look before you leap.  -HC-

 

_______________________________________________


David Himes is the author of the book Realities for Local Bands: Talent is not Enough. You can find it at Amazon. For a FREE sneak preview, click here. The book is also available in PDF format. Also, David published a local music scene paper for over 16 years and has held over 400 live shows, giving him a unique insight on the scene. Your feedback and comments are welcome.

 

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