Posted Nov 16, 2010
Darius and I landed in Dublin at about six in the morning and took a bus into the center of town. People were bundled against the wet cold and the sky was low to the ground. A month earlier I’d met Glen Hansard at an open mic Cambridge, Massachusetts and he’d invited me to come over and open some shows for him. Taking him at his word, I booked a flight to Ireland for myself and Darius (at $93 a pop) and headed over in early January. For the rest of the day we trudged around town in the rain, getting to the venue about four hours early. It was my first opening gig and I didn’t want to be late.
If the open mic is where you first learn to play your songs in front of people, the opening set is where you’ll start to learn your place in the music business ecosystem. Here is where you’ll really be tested and where you’ll find out your capacity to make the best of demanding situations. The benefits of being on the bill are great, but the demands are also great, and your ability to conduct yourself professionally (and optimistically) is equal to the opportunity you’re being given.
The opening slot on a bill is a difficult one. You’re far down the venue’s list of concerns, probably won’t get much of a soundcheck, very likely will have little space to store your gear and you’ll be playing to a crowd of people who didn’t come to see you and may not be all that interested in making your acquaintance. There is also very little pay. The cards are stacked against you, and unless you have a good amount of fortitude, a healthy respect for the needs of the venue and the main act, and a willingness to spend your own money for the chance to play you may find that you don’t progress on from support slot to main billing. It can be done, however. Here’s how:
First, you have to be comfortable with your job as support act. You have to be willing to support. The evening is not about you, it’s about the main act, but if you’re comfortable and cognizant of the fact that it is about someone else, you’ll be able to do your job all the better.
Supporting means you have to make the night a better one for both the venue and the artist you’re playing before. Playing well is, of course, the first thing you need to be concerned about. Give the people that came to the show the very best you have. Have your setlist ready, know your songs well and have your gear in good working order. The art is important, and your music should really add to the audience’s enjoyment of the night.
Don’t make the assumption, however, that your art is necessarily the most important thing either to the main act or the venue. For the venue, the most important thing that you can do to make the night a success is to get people in the room. In a very basic, very crass way, to the venue you are worth only as much as the number of folks you can bring to a show. The more people in the door, the more money the venue makes, and the better the night is for them. In the end, the people you bring may be credited to the main act and not you, but who the hell cares? If you play well you’ve just gotten the opportunity to expose a much larger group of receptive people to your music and everybody’s happy. In the lead up to your opening slot, you should curtail some of your other playing in the area. Make sure that the people who want to come see you play will come to this show.
The watchword for the opening act is respect. It would be nice if you always got it in return, but you shouldn’t be surprised if you don’t. Regardless, however, you should treat your opportunity to support with the utmost professionalism. Always be on time to the soundcheck, early if possible. Once there, give the main act their space. If you’re sharing a dressing room, monopolize as little of it as possible. Be ready to soundcheck when it’s your turn and get it done as quickly as possible to your satisfaction. Always, always thank the main act, both off stage and on, for the opportunity to play. This is just common courtesy, and in this business, as in any other, a little common courtesy can go along way in making lasting friendships and relationships that you may have for years to come.
While you’re thanking people, make sure to thank whoever is running your sound for the night, as well as whoever booked you as support for the club. These people are vital to your performance and you will no doubt run into them again. Show your respect, even if it is not shown readily to you in return.
When you play your show make sure that you only play for the allotted amount of time. Twenty minutes, even thirty minutes, is enough time for people to decide if they like your music or not. Being the opening act is like being a guest at someone else’s party. If you over stay your welcome you won’t be invited back. Be happy with the time you’re given, and be scrupulous about not playing over. Not only that, but thirty minutes is a long time to fill, and when you’re the main act you’ll have two hours. I don’t know anyone that sprung fully formed from the womb with the natural talent to fill two entertaining hours of non-stop music. You have to learn to walk before you can run, as the old saw goes, and learning how to play a good show a half-hour at a time is (and getting paid for it) is an opportunity you shouldn’t look askance upon.
Finally, here’s a pet peeve of mine, so I’ll put it in with these general rules of thumb about opening sets. No matter how awesome you are, if you’re opening for someone you should always stay for the main act’s set. Again, that is just common courtesy. If a band plays and then takes off before I ever get to see them, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. For one thing it makes me feel like our musical relationship goes only one way. For another, it makes me question whether the support act really views me as a musical peer or as a stepping-stone. Nobody likes to feel like a stepping-stone. Do yourself a favor and stay for the main act. You might make some friends, might sell some albums, might get some names on your mailing list and you might even learn a little something from the main set that you can use in your own.
Whelan’s that night was a zoo. It would be hard for me to overstate what a different world it was from the open mics I had been honing my songs in. The venue was two levels, dark wood, smoke filled and almost misty with beer and laughter. Being the gentleman that he is, Glen had invited two other folks to share the bill with him that night, meaning that I’d flown a long ways for a twenty-minute set. I didn’t have a sound check, and when my turn came to stand up in front of the microphone I looked out at four hundred people staring back at me expectantly. Dreading that I would go over my time, I played four songs. It went alright. I chose three lighter songs and one more serious one and told the crowd how nervous I was and thanked Glen. When it was over I sold all ten of the albums I’d brought with me to Ireland, and I felt like the richest man on earth. I played again with him the next night and then came back the next month for a full month of shows with his band, the Frames.
That was the beginning of what was to become several years of opening for people all over the place. While I still occasionally went to open mics, I was mostly on the road, either by myself or with Zack and Darius, playing thirty minutes a night before whoever would have me on the bill. For the most part these people were wonderful and I learned a great deal from them, not only about music but about life and how to live it on the road. I’ve seen Italy with Joan Baez, Manchester with the Counting Crows, Canada with Sarah Harmer, Fresno and Charlottesville with John Prine and Indianapolis with John Wesley Harding. It’s a great way to see the world, the opening set, and if you treat it as a learning experience, a great way to meet the people that can teach you everything you’ll ever need to know about making a life in music.