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4 Rules to Follow So You are the Opening Act they Remember

In 1991, Pearl Jam opened for the Smashing Pumpkins and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In Kim Neely’s Pearl Jam book Five Against One, drummer Dave Abbruzzese said, “We’d play for 30 minutes, and it was like the Smashing Pumpkins had to earn their 30 minutes, and the Peppers had to earn theirs. By the end of that tour, it was almost like they were our audience in a lot of respects.”

In 1986, Billboard reviewed a concert of headliner 38 Special, saying they gave a “quite good” performance. However, they were “upstaged by their opening act” Bon Jovi, who gave an “explosive performance.”

In 1969, an obscure band named Led Zeppelin opened for well-known Iron Butterfly at the Filmore East in NYC. Apparently, the crowd had them playing so long with so many encores, Iron Butterfly knew they couldn’t top it and refused to play!…

… OK, so that’s not what you want to do. There is such a thing as opening act etiquette. But you do want to be the opening act everyone remembers, right?

In order to have the audience leave your concert talking positively about you (or maybe even saying you were better than the headliner), there are 4 rules to follow.Stacy Stone showcase

1. Don’t Cram In as Many Songs as Possible

You’ll be given 15, 20, 30 minutes… whatever the length of time the production staff says you can have. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking, “OK, how many songs can we cram into that amount of time?” You see, that tells me you’re assuming the audience is coming to see you, and you have so many awesome songs, so you’d better play as many as possible… that’s just wrong!

Remember, you’re there for your audience. They don’t know who you are. They don’t know your songs. You are dating your audience. And you need to introduce yourself with that in mind. An up-tempo, easy to move to, no extended solo, first song Introduction Moment, sung to your audience. No angst-driven lyrics, no blow-their-heads-off mania, no surprise ending. Actually, it should have a trash can ending so you can read their response to you.

2. Make Sure Your Last Song Helps them Respond to You

Let’s skip to the last song in your set for a “moment.” And I mean that literally. You need a Closing Moment. It might start slow and “down,” building to high energy by the end. Or it may be high energy all the way. You need to put a trash can ending on this one, too, with an emotional high for your audience to respond to.

This song might very well be the kind of thing that encourages your listeners to “go out and change the world.” Something that leaves them inspired, excited, encouraged, motivated, happy, and glad they heard what you had to say.

3. Then Put In the Moments that Fit the Best

“Oh, sure, Tom! How do I know what those are?” Well, I can’t answer for every artist in every situation. But I can tell you it’s much like what baseball managers do with their teams in the final innings of a close game. They look up and down the bench, checking to see what players they have to put in so they win the game.

It will depend on who you are, where and when you’re playing, and who your audience is. As always, don’t think “songs” — think “moments”! What moments have you created that are the best for this show and this audience? Do you have a great song with some stellar players? Maybe you should use your Great Song/Musical Moment. Are you playing for a young crowd that want to jump and dance to your music? Maybe this is a time to use that Big Fun Moment with audience participation. Follow your instincts!

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks

When you’re choosing those “in between” moments (between the Introduction Moment and the Closing Moment), have the courage to take some risks.

If you know for sure that a couple of your Moments would be perfect for this situation, but you’re thinking there may not be enough time for both of them, rearrange the songs to make them fit. There have been times I’ve worked with a band to do this, and I’ve shortened some of the parts of a song (maybe cut a verse or chorus out) to keep the moment and still make it all fit within the time frame of the set.

Or maybe you should take the opposite approach. Perhaps you have one song that would be absolutely epic with moments that would have your audience talking about you for years to come. Then just do that song! Who cares if nobody else does it that way?

You want to be remembered. Whatever your situation, whether it’s “lights up” before a big act, “half lights,” or with full production, you can be the opening act they remember — for the right reasons!

Tom Jackson

Tom is uniquely talented and skilled at transforming an artist's live show into a magical experience for the audience; helping artists at every level create a live show that is engaging and memorable, teaching them to exceed their audiences' expectations and to create fans for life. Tom has taught indie and major artists of every genre. He has worked with Taylor Swift, Le Crae, Home Free, The Tenors, Shawn Mendes, The Band Perry, Francesca Battistelli, Jars of Clay, & many more. Tom also teaches at colleges, conferences and events worldwide.

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Greenroom Comments

  1. I’m in an a cappella group and we have the opportunity to open for a big multi-artist concert this weekend – one of the songs that we do is a cover of one of the artists (all our songs are covers btw). Would it be wise to NOT do that song? Or should we ask permission to do that song or do we just do it anyway? It’s also a mashup of their song and another song from a different band.

    • Hi Steve, Thank you for reading and responding to one of our blogs. I wish I had an answer for you, but that is something you’ll need to ask an attorney, or at least the artist who owns the song. (If I understand your question, you’re hoping to cover a song that belongs to one of the artists performing in the same concert.) I’m sorry I couldn’t give you a definitive answer. (Sincerely, Susan on behalf of Tom Jackson Productions)

  2. An idea we occasionally use is to do a little research on the town we’re in, or something special about the event, or people at the event. Either we use a tid bit of info to talk to the audience or change the words in a song to a person’s name or place (think fun moment). We always get a smile out of the audience. If we take an interest in them, we get a little more attention.

    • Always great to find those things out if you can, Randall. I had a strategy session once with an artist from NYC that was going to be playing a club in Harlem, One of the things we talked about him doing was to find out what was going on in the neighborhood and brush up on current affairs in order to connect with the audience. Worked great, and turned a “background music gig” into a well-paying regular gig!

  3. Theresa Cooper says:

    What is a “trash can ending”?

  4. Last year we opened for Baze and His Silly Friends’ CD release party. This was before becoming familiar with Tom Jackson’s live music method, but with instincts that were on the right track. The balance and sequencing of our songs in the set list were ripe for the development of visual moments as described in Tom’s book. The book also caused me to wrestle with what would make the best fun moments for kids and parents in the audience and the kinds of musical moments that could inspire a kid to pick up an instrument. The compatibility between opener and headliner worked out so well that Baze is currently producing my new album and we’ve been guests on radio together. Double bills in children’s music are rare, but I’m looking forward to Tom’s take on how to apply the Live Music Method to kids’ music.

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