How Do Rock Bands Decide Who Opens for Them in Concert?

Casey James

I remember the very first gig I ever attended. At fifteen, I rolled around to our local venue of choice to see my favorite metal band rip up the stage and generally have a merry old time of it. What I didn’t know then was that we were going to be subjected first to no less than three supporting acts before we actually got to the main event. There was some part of me that was disappointed at first—but surely I’d paid to see three solid hours of Dragonforce?—but it soon became clear that their on-stage predecessors were more than just placeholders to fill time. There are a number of elements that make up the perfect rock concert; venue, aesthetic, a great band at it’s heart. But something that can’t be overlooked is the importance of a fantastic opening act; you know, someone or someones who can take the stage before the main event arrives, play incredible music, and stand up to the headliners without committing the carnal sin of thunder-stealing. But how exactly do rock bands go about selecting the perfect support act?

1. Branding
It might sound like an awful, cynical, and disappointingly commercial consideration—but bands have to consider their brand when they book a support act. While this doesn’t necessarily mean finding acts who land precisely the same genre as them, it does mean finding an act who’ll complement their music and provide a nice counterpoint to their style without detracting attention from the headliner. Often, they’ll pick an artist who provides a nice contrast to their music—for example, a female singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar is unlikely to want a mirror image of herself taking to the stage before she does, so instead she might choose a small acoustic band or perhaps a male counterpart. A friend of mine who started out doing supporting slots for various bands when he was first organizing his musical career was once told that the perfect support act was “probably just as good, but not quite as famous” as the people they were supporting, so make of that what you will.

2. Seat-Filling
Now, as all aspiring musicians know, it’s pretty difficult to pack out an arena on your first tour. So opening acts are sometimes chosen on the basis that they’ll help fill out a venue and make the whole venture a bit more profitable for everyone involved. In these cases, local bands with a solid local following might be enlisted to fill out a more home-grown venue, which is why you’ll often see up-and-coming bands with a list of supporting acts that stretch off into infinity. It’s all about making sure the venue’s full and the money’s coming in. Also, this often boils down to merchandising—how many t-shirts and CDs can a band offload onto unsuspecting victims is also a factor. This is something you’ll often spot when American or British bands launch European tours; they might not be guaranteed a full venue so they’ll rustle up some excitement with a local act that carries with it significant clout.

3. Who They Like
Believe it or not, supporting acts can often come down to just who the headliner thinks would work well for them. Kool & The Gang have opened for Van Halen, while REM asked The National and Modest Mouse to support them on their last tour. When you’ve got enough critical and commercial clout as a musician, the choice of a supporting act becomes more of an artistic choice than a financial one. Bands will often join forces with musicians they admire, know, or enjoy, while occasionally providing a platform for a smaller band they’ve discovered or that has been signed to their label. And let’s not forget the age-old adage of a stroppy diva headlining act—when it comes down to it, they’re going to need to find somebody who’s easy to work with, won’t cause trouble or disrupt the show, and who’ll respect their place as the main draw. Worth remembering before you start smashing up drumkits in the whirlwind of a particularly thrilling guitar solo.

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