The Thinking Man's Take On: Opening Bands

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epic TV on the Radio photo by chasingfun.

I have a pretty awesome week of music coming up this week.On Wednesday I’m off to see Here We Go Magic and Grizzly Bear play at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston, followed by a Dirty Projectors and TV On The Radio show at the House of Blues on Thursday.Doesn’t get much better than that, I’m psyched.

But this isn’t a column about my imminent back-to-back-night face melting.Well, not entirely at least.It’s mostly about opening bands.Because I think one of the most exciting things about these two upcoming shows is that I’m not just pumped to see two amazing bands in two nights - I’m pumped to see four amazing bands in two nights.I’m no mathematicist, but I’m pretty sure that almost double the rock.

Being an opening band has to be one of the hardest gigs in the world.It’s like singing the national anthem at a sporting event.Your job is simple yet impossible – be great, be engaging, and get it over quickly.Occasionally, opening bands are able to break that mold, to stretch their set out and win over the crowd. More frequently, however, they turn up the amps too loud, play too many songs, and generally overstay their welcome.Either way, it can’t be easy.Or can it?I feel like in other ways, being an opening act is one of the easiest gigs in the world.Let’s settle this. 

Reasons Why Being An Opener Is The Hardest Gig In The World

  1. No one knows your songs:It’s hard to sing along to songs that you know if you’re the only person in the audience who knows them.Singing along at shows is a lot like the electric slide in that way – fine if it’s a group thing, but weird and annoying if you’re the only one doing it.For an opening band, it’s rare to find an audience where everyone knows your songs.Openers have the cards stacked against them – the performance has to overcome a lack of familiarity before it can win over a crowd.Some headliners could come on stage, throw some stuff around, and leave to a standing ovation.Iggy Pop made a career out of it.Do that as a headliner and you're a rock god.  Do it as an opener, though, and you end up looking like Wavves.Too soon?No, not too soon – those guys are a steaming pile of Pitchfork.

  2. Everyone is here for the next band:Almost without exception, everyone listening to the opening set is more excited about the headliner.Twice in the past month, I’ve been more excited for an opener than for the main act – Brother Ali brought me out before an Atmosphere show, and an opening set from Max Tundra convinced me to check out Junior Boys live.That is a statistical anomaly (again with the mathematicism) – it’s only happened two other times in my life.Once was the puzzling Yeasayer/MGMT tour in which they alternated nights as headliners.Yeasayer opened the Boston show at Great Scot and blew MGMT out of the water.The only other time I was more excited for an opener was when TV On The Radio opened for The Faint back in 2004.TV On The Radio rocked out to the maximum, and the crowd didn’t care.They were there for The Faint.It was unreal, and it proves this point – no one cares about the opener.

  3. Your set is, I promise, already too long:And because no one cares about the opener, any set they play will be too long.The lead singer could walk out on stage, introduce the group, and then say “Thanks, here’s the headliner!” and the set would still be a little bit too long.Through no fault of their own (usually) opening bands always overstay their welcome.SPEAKING OF WHICH, this problem of long opening sets is magnified when headliners don’t take the stage until like 30 minutes after the opener finishes? STOP DOING THIS.The opening act is done?You have five minutes to get to the stage, tops.We’re here to see you play music, not to stand around and ruthlessly mock the other people standing around ruthlessly mocking strangers while waiting for you to finish your drinks in the Green Room.It’s a vicious cycle and we’d rather not be a part of it.  But yeah, openers should play like seven songs top.

  4. People filter in throughout the set:This, for me, would be the worst part about being an opening band.Throughout the set, people continuously file in, meet people, talk loudly, drink, talk loudly, mill around, filter in, talk loudly, and complain about how long the opening band has been in stage loudly.This isn’t an NBA game, people – important things happen before the very end.One of the coolest openers I’ve seen recently was Anni Rossi before a Noah and the Whale show, and basically no one was there to hear her.I would go crazy, I think.Ugh.Just thinking about playing to a crowd that is in the process of showing up fashionably late makes me think this is the worst gig in the world.

But then again…

Reasons Why Being An Opener Is The Easiest Gig In The World

  1. Low expectations:Ironically enough, the four reasons listed above for why opening bands have the worst gig in the world add up to make this reason for its ease.Everyone expects you to suck.No one goes into a show thinking “Wow, I’ve never heard of this opening band, The Fiery Muskrats, but if they’re opening the show then they must be good.”Instead they think, “This band must have won some high school battle of the bands and will probably sing stupid lyrics way too loud”.So when you all of a sudden – gasp – show some musical talent…voila!A star is born.I think the lowered expectations is one of the greatest techniques of all time.It’s like getting a temp job that turns full time – they weren’t expecting you to be able to think, so when you know the alphabet fairly well, BOOM, it’s a job.I lost my train of thought about midway through that last sentence, but I think it makes sense.

  2. Bigger audiences:Opening bands, by definition, don’t have a big following.If they did, they wouldn’t be opening.They would be headlining.But here they are, playing to 17 people at 7pm on a Wednesday night.But wait, what’s this filing through the door? It’s more people!Granted, they’re filing in (see #4 above) but hey – better than filing out!Being an opener, particularly on a well known band’s tour, is a great and easy way for up and coming bands to get some publicity, have their name published on the interwebs, and strut their stuff on the big stage.

  3. Insta-cred:In that regard, being an Opening Band is a bit like just-add-water credit, or as I like to call it, Insta-cred™.You’re opening for TV On The Radio?You must be hip!You’re opening for Kanye?You must be talented!You’re opening for Kid Rock? You must be strapped for cash!Seriously, though, openers always say something during their set like “Thanks to [insert band here] for taking us on tour with them…it’s such a pleasure to be able to play with great artists like them, and we feel privileged to be able to watch their shows every night”.I’m pretty sure that blurb is printed on the stage monitors or something – it’s pretty predictable.But it’s true.A big name band throwing some support behind you can’t hurt your chances at making it big.

  4. Free beer?And I think opening bands probably get free beer?That’s a perk!Almost as good as real American dollars!But you’re just an opening band, you’re not going to get any of those.

I think these 8 points can be boiled down to one, in the end.Being an opening band sucks, but it doesn’t suck as much as not being an opening band.So next time U2 offers to take you on tour, sacrifice those standards and get out there!

Chris Barth writes a weekly Thinking Man feature here at Pretty Much Amazing. You can read his more succinct daily posts at his music blog, The Stu Reid Experiment.  His 5 favorite openers are: Alela Diane, Brother Ali, can, bottle, eye.