Serving as the warm up band at a concert—what a thankless job that’s gotta be. No one’s there to see you. Few people there have probably even heard of you, let alone care that you’re sweating buckets up there on stage. But hey, you have to start your career somewhere.
I’ve seen my share of opening acts over the past 10 years. During the first few years I lived in New York (back when I apparently had an endless amount of energy to expend) I attended, on average, a show a week, many of which I attended as “press,” as I would later write up a review of the show, complete with photos I’d taken. Nothing thrilled me more as a 22 year old than being able to tell the bouncer “My name’s on the list” (even though, to be honest, some of these lists contained as many names as a Russian novel). Regardless, I didn’t have to pay the 20+ bucks cover and got to see some quality music at well-known venues across Manhattan and Brooklyn.
In order for me to take quality photos, I’d have to be there when the venue doors opened, rush to stage, and plant myself there for the next 4 hours or so. For the first hour, it would be me, a couple of other photographers, and some Super Fans of the main act. Super Fans are easy to pick out just by looks alone, as they often resemble the band members; Hold Steady fans look like a gaggle of IT guys, Dum Dum Girls fans have dark, blunt bobs, and fans of the New York Dolls look like they’ve ingested more than a few illicit substances in their lives. The fellow press photographers were easy to distinguish as well, though more so because of their social skills than because of their physical appearance.
Me to some dude from Brooklyn Vegan: “Hey, I remember you! We met a few weeks ago at that Andrew Bird show!”
Dude: “Oh, right. Hi.”
After an hour or so of such scintillating conversation, the warm up act would finally come on stage. (Well, that’s when they would make their “official” entrance; we’d all seen them act as their own roadies, adjusting instruments and amps for the previous half hour.) Though I’ve certainly experienced a wide range of opening bands over the years, I’d say that the quality of most of them range from “Meh” to “Dear God, Make It Stop.” There just seem to be some silly choices made by the bands themselves and the venues perhaps too, that really don’t help anyone. Many of these decisions quite simply baffle me.
Here are five things that truly confuse me when it comes to opening bands:
1. Why an opening band doesn’t always state their band name clearly and repeatedly during their set.
No one here knows who you are, so be sure to tell us. And don’t just mumble your name into the microphone a single time as you’re rushing off stage, enunciate it clearly after every song if you feel like it. Prop up a neon sign on stage with flashing lights that spell out your band’s name if you have to. Or even hire a hype man to yell it into a mic at 30-second intervals. Whatever it takes!
2. Why an opening band’s sound quality is usually terrible.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this one in particular. Is the quality of the music terrible because they didn’t get a proper sound check? Or because the band just doesn’t know what they’re doing? Possibly it’s a combination of both. But when the opener sounds horrible, yet the main act comes out onto the same stage in the same venue an hour later and sounds amazing, it’s gotta be someone’s fault.
3. Why an opening band of a completely different musical genre from the headliner would get booked.
Though opening bands actually are often paired pretty nicely with their headliner, this certainly isn’t always the case. The time I saw Jack White at Barclays Center, he had hip hop duo Run the Jewels open for him. Talk about a head scratcher. As good as Run the Jewels may have been that night, no one in the venue could have cared less because they were there to hear blues-inspired rock music, not hip hop. Pick a genre, and stick with it!
4. Why an opening band would get a full minute into a song and then choose to start over because someone messed up a guitar lick.
This happened just last week at a show I attended at Brooklyn Steel. The British rock duo opening the evening (they were ok—not bad, not amazing) were about 3 or 4 songs into their set and the audience was surprisingly attentive. The vocalist/guitarist I guess was somehow displeased by her performance, so she yelled to her drummer to stop so that they could start over. They were a full minute into a song that no one there knew. Opening bands—if ya mess up, just keep going! No one’s going to know.
5. Why they don’t try giving away promotional merch to audience members.
I get that up-and-coming bands don’t have a lot of (or any) cash to throw around, but it seems to me that it might be a good idea in the long run to get a couple hundred stickers printed with your band’s name on them and hand them out for free at the end of some concerts, maybe in even just a handful of cities, because a) people like free things like stickers b) people put stickers in places (on laptops, notebooks, car windows, random street posts) that other people who didn’t see your show will then see, c) people occasionally Google things they see on random stickers out of curiosity and might just come across your music. I’m not an expert, but this does not seem like a bad idea.
But hey, I’m just one person in the audience. It’s easy for me to sit here and criticize or offer unsolicited advice on the subject. I don’t know firsthand what it’s actually like to be in one of these young bands. So do whatever you need to do to keep rocking! You’ll headline one day. Or maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll disappear into oblivion–the world’s a twisted place.