Are you usually relegated to the status of opening act? Do you find yourself longing to be the closer? On the other side of the equation, are you a headlining act wishing you could go backwards in time and stature and be the opener again?
That second question might surprise you. You may be thinking, “nobody wants to be the opening act again.” Not necessarily true. There are certain advantages to opening the show, depending on the circumstances.
For one thing, and this is an obvious one: you get to go home earlier, especially if you’re not a fan of the headliner. For another thing—and this is big—you get to sound check last. This was especially important in the days before the digital board that would remember specific settings. The headline act, after taking waaaay too long shouting “TWO! TWO!” into microphones, and saying things like, “I think the 2K is just a little tubby,” would find all their work undone by the opening act, Unmowed Grass, who didn’t care about the 2K and mainly wanted the monitor levels at 11.
Then there are the backstage snacks, with a few pretty delectable items specifically asked for by the headliner in their contract rider (almond-flavored coffee, coffee-flavored almonds, locally sourced jelly beans, and the like). If you’re not a fan of the closing act, but want to hang around anyway, you have a chance to tear into their green room Horn of Plenty while they’re on stage trying to fix the 2K again in the middle of their show.
The festival situation carries its own opening act advantages, too, as long as you’re not the band with the dreaded post-supper break time slot. At bluegrass festivals, the last act never sells merchandise, no matter how popular or famous they are, and no matter how entertaining their show was. They could perform a medley of Wagon Wheel and The Ballad of Jed Clampett in English and Italian, complete with clogging and yodeling, and people would still head home or to their camp sites while the final chord was still ringing.
There’s a twist now, though: headline acts caught on to this years ago and and started specifying in their contracts that they wouldn’t close the show, thus forcing the festival promoter to talk a lesser act into going on last. Sometimes it works well, especially for a popular regional act with dedicated followers who will hang in until the end. Other times, it’s just a time slot that’s worse than the post supper-break one, because instead of people trickling in during your show, they’re trickling out, hoping to beat the rush to the parking lot. Unless your band has that devoted late night following, or has that aforementioned medley worked up, try to avoid being in this position.
Even with these few advantages to opening act-hood, there are still some important opening act dos and don’ts:
Be cordial to the headliner, even if they’re snobby or rude to you. Remember that you can get your revenge with the backstage snacks mentioned above, so just stay cool.
Don’t engage the headliner in deep conversation while he or she is clearly writing a set list before the show. The way to tell when people are doing this is that they’re writing song titles down on a piece of paper. True, they can always finish it while you’re on stage, but it’s still intrusive.
Be mindful of their space in the same way that they should be mindful of yours (your van). If there are only four dressing rooms for all entertainers, don’t split up and occupy all of them. Unless the headliners were snobby or rude.
Don’t do any of the headline act’s material, unless they stole their material from you originally. In that case, do extra-long versions of those songs.
Finally, don’t go overtime. Headline acts have the belief that all opening acts go over their allotted time, sometimes by a lot, and the statistics do bear this out, I’m afraid.
In one extreme case I recently heard about, the opening act went way overtime, then on their final song, urged all members of the audience to video the song and post it to social media. Then—and this is the gutsy part—they went on to use social media as a weapon (as so many do these days) and posted one of the videos to the headliner’s Facebook page, with praise and an apology for going overtime!
It’s impressive, in a way. Still, don’t do this. Unless of course the headline act was snobby or rude. I still think eating their snacks is a classier way to go.