The Rise of the Opening Act

Now it’s often the headlining artists—not the promoters or the labels—who choose the bands playing first. Show up early.

By JOHN JURGENSEN 05/31/12 Wall Street Journal

As you debate skipping the band with the 8 p.m. set time in favor of more tailgating, consider that it’s more likely than ever that the opener was handpicked by the act you paid to see. John Jurgensen has details on Lunch Break. Photo: Getty Images.

Last Friday night in St. Louis, Little Dragon prepared to perform for nearly 14,000 fans who weren’t theirs. It was the Swedish electro-pop band’s first night on tour with the veteran Red Hot Chili Peppers. With the audience still trickling into the sold-out arena, Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis rolled up on a scooter behind the stage to thank Little Dragon for joining the tour.

Sensing some nerves, he said, “Don’t be daunted,” then relayed advice that his own band got “when we were kids” from funk legend George Clinton. Pointing to the rear of the darkened arena, Mr. Kiedis said, “Play to the last row. Everyone else in between will get it.” Then he high-fived the band and scooted off stage left, where he nodded along to the beat as Little Dragon launched into its first song, “Looking Glass.”

It is one of music’s most enduring rites of passage: warming up an indifferent (and potentially hostile) audience for the headline act. The pay is generally modest and the promotional benefits are unpredictable. But in recent years “support acts,” as they’re called in the industry, are enjoying new status.
Supporting Acts, or the Next Big Thing?

Paired by headline | opener)

Red Hot Chili Peppers | Little Dragon

Bonnie Raitt | Mavis Staples

Dave Mathews Band | Gary Clark Jr

Coldplay | Robyn

Wilco | Lee Fields

Jack White | Alabama Shakes

Old Crow Medicine Show | The Lumineers

The Milk Carton Kids | Zac Brown Band

Sonia Leigh | Little Dragon

This summer, as you debate skipping the band with the 8 p.m. set time in favor of more tailgating, consider that it’s more likely than ever that the opener was handpicked by the act you paid to see. Against the backdrop of weak music sales and vanished tour funding from record labels, artists and their managers are taking control of every aspect of their concert business. Promoters, booking agents and labels are still involved in the search for strong support acts, but there are fewer arranged marriages. That’s especially true when the headliner is a strong draw that doesn’t need to pick a hot opener to goose ticket sales. Plus, it almost always makes for a better show.

“Artists are making decisions more on their own terms than ever before,” says booking agent Tom Windish, whose client Metronomy, a British electronic act, was recently tapped as an opener by Coldplay.

What will never change, however, is the awkward existence of an opening band, a role that can either squelch a group’s confidence or send it soaring—sometimes both in the same night.

Starting next month, Wilco will pepper its U.S. tour with a half-dozen openers, from the seasoned singer-songwriter Kelly Hogan to a soul belter who got his start in 1969, Lee Fields. They were all picked from a rotating list that band members submit to their manager. Frontman Jeff Tweedy says his band is just “returning the favor” of groups like R.E.M., which once took Wilco out and was known for telegraphing its own tastes through its support acts.

“I definitely feel a responsibility to put together a show that reflects some other part of who we are—what we listen to as opposed to what we play,” Mr. Tweedy said. Sometimes that means expecting fans to eat their spinach. For example, choices such as Deerhoof and White Denim, indie rockers with a sometimes abrasive sound, “pushed the boundaries of some of our audience’s musical world,” he said.

On the coming North American leg of its tour, Coldplay is taking out five openers, including Swedish cult favorite Robyn, who got a similar seal of approval from pop star Katy Perry and Madonna before that. Following a tour in South America with Eric Clapton, emerging blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr. was recruited for coming dates with Dave Matthews.

An Austin, Texas, guitarist preparing to release a debut album this fall, Mr. Clark follows some simple rules when playing second fiddle: “Show respect, and get off the stage on time.” Opening for Mr. Clapton, one of his influences, posed a unique challenge. “I had to be conscious not to play any of his licks, which I’m guilty of doing sometimes in my set. People didn’t come out to hear me play Eric Clapton,” he said.

Bonnie Raitt has soul singer Mavis Staples as a guest on some 30 coming concerts. The women have been friends for years, but have only sat in with each other on occasion. “I decided long ago not to open for—or have open for me—anyone I wouldn’t want to pay to see myself,” Ms. Raitt said. “I pick my openers as carefully as I pick my songs.”

Instead of opting for openers with proven track records, country singer Zac Brown is featuring artists on his own record label, Nic Cowan, Blackberry Smoke and Sonia Leigh. Other stars with a financial stake in their support acts include Justin Bieber, who recently announced a tour with Carly Rae Jepsen, a fellow Canadian singer eight years his senior whom he signed after her song “Call Me Maybe” went viral.

Being a support act is usually a break-even job at best. Warming up a 500-person club could pay less than $250, and a big arena tour might dangle a nightly fee of $5,000. Now, instead of locking themselves into a monthslong tour for subsistence wages, more bands are targeting music festivals, which have proliferated across the U.S. Festivals generally offer bigger fees and similar prospects for exposure.

At the same time, more young acts are jumping to headline tours early in their careers, in part by tapping into a far-flung audience online. After releasing its debut album in April, the young rock and soul band Alabama Shakes signed on to some prestige gigs: six shows last month with Jack White, and two concerts with Neil Young in August. But in recent months the band’s team has turned down about 20 offers to join other tours, says manager Kevin Morris.”It’s a calculated decision, because if you do it too much, you get pigeonholed as a support band. A band like the Shakes, they’re a headlining band.”

Big artists are now expected to make their music tastes public. For example, Jay-Z, Metallica and the folk band Mumford & Sons are among acts “curating” their own stand-alone music festivals this summer. The upshot for support acts: headliners can now do better than an obligatory shout-out from the stage. When Katy Perry had Robyn on her tour, she routinely promoted her presence with tweets such as “It’s gonna be hard getting ready for my show while dancing my a— off to yours!” Such offstage praise may have resonated with Ms. Perry’s young fans. During the tour, Robyn says her YouTube viewership shifted to a core of females ages 10 to 20 from one of males ages 20 to 40.

Coldplay’s booking agent, Marty Diamond, says that all of the band’s supporting acts are handpicked by the band members. Robyn briefly hesitated to accept their offer. She had intended to spend the time writing new music. But she couldn’t pass up an opportunity for broader exposure, especially in the U.S. where her profile is smaller than abroad. She said she doesn’t know exactly how she got on the group’s radar, but it probably didn’t hurt that she performed one of the band’s songs, “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall,” on a BBC radio show. It’s a rendition that she plans to do for Coldplay’s fans, a gambit that she acknowledges is “a little risky.”

The relationships linking headliner and opener might not be obvious to the audience. For years, New York singer-songwriter Regina Spektor has been best friends with Tom Petty’s daughter, Adria Petty, who has directed most of Ms. Spektor’s music videos. But the invitation to open for the Heartbreakers only came after she played rough cuts from her new album, “What We Saw From the Cheap Seats,” for the Petty family in the rocker’s L.A. home studio.

At five sold-out arena concerts where she played as Mr. Petty’s guest, Ms. Spektor got a warm reception from his fans, she says. It was the opposite of what she met a decade ago on her first tour, opening for her friends the Strokes. The New York rockers had broken big—and accumulated some fans who didn’t share their love of Ms. Spektor’s idiosyncratic, piano-driven songs. “There were these, like, frat boys in the front row chanting, ‘Go f— home.’ On the first night, I literally bolted to my dressing room, mascara running,” she recalls. The Strokes “gave me pep talks. I had to toughen up. It was an invaluable experience.”

Concert history is filled with such bedfellows, going back to the days of barnstorming package tours such as the Motown Review, which in the early 1960s helped launch stars such as Stevie Wonder. Alan Freed’s Big Beat Show of 1958 featured Buddy Holly and Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers, as well as Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, who battled over the honor of closing the show. Later, promoters such as Bill Graham helped legitimize rock ‘n’ roll with eclectic combinations of old and new, such as pairing Big Mama Thornton with the Grateful Dead.

Veteran promoter Harvey Goldsmith says it’s often the incongruous pairings that are most memorable. He fondly recalls an Eric Clapton tour that featured the juggler Chris Bliss. (He later toured with Michael Jackson.) “The audiences loved him!” Mr. Goldsmith said. As a rule, the promoter avoids pairing client Jeff Beck with other guitar heroes. “I’m constantly being offered shows with Derek Trucks. An audience can’t stomach three hours of great guitarists.” While the Rolling Stones and Bon Jovi are hands-on about choosing support acts, he said, other stars barely know who else is on the bill.

Every elder statesman has his own stories from the front lines. Neil Young recalls a gig in 1969, when his hard rock band Crazy Horse was the first of four acts on a bill at Madison Square Garden’s theater, then known as the Felt Forum. In those days, each band would play twice, first in a matinee concert, then an evening show. When the star attraction, Deep Purple, completed its matinee performance, Crazy Horse rushed out on stage to seize the audience’s attention before they departed the theater. “We got out there and kicked a— less than five minutes after Deep Purple left. So it was like we were closing the show. Those are the kind of things you do when you’re trying to make it,” Mr. Young said.

To be sure, some concert bills are still deliberately packaged, like mainstream country music: “Every headliner in our format needs a support act that’s going to help them sell tickets,” says Nashville booking agent Marc Dennis of Creative Artists Agency. Hunter Hayes, a 20-year-old multi-instrumentalist, was courted by several headliners before he signed on with Carrie Underwood this summer. (Both are CAA clients.) “That 15-to-25-year-old fan is a highly sought-after demographic, and Hunter’s absolutely got that,” Mr. Dennis said.

Other genres are more loose with their lineups. The string band Old Crow Medicine Show picks support acts based on whom they can play around with, both on stage and off. The groups going out with Old Crow this summer, the Lumineers and the Milk Carton Kids, are expected to trade licks and harmonize during the headliner’s encore, a tradition Old Crow adopted from the Americana duo Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Fiddle player Ketch Secor envisions “a crazy musical mash-up in the end. That’s what I want as a ticketholder,” he said, adding, “You’re not going to see a big hootenanny at the end of a Bob Dylan show.”

There were no singalongs for Little Dragon. Instead, the band was proclaimed “cool as s—” by Red Hot Chili Peppers bass player Flea, who’d spent a half-hour hanging out in Little Dragon’s dressing room before the show. It was the live equivalent of the endorsement he’d issued a couple of months before the band got invited to tour, tweeting, “im really digging the new little dragon record ‘ritual union.’ ”

Exposure wasn’t Little Dragon’s only motive for signing up for 11 concerts with the Chili Peppers. They wanted to observe how a band with two decades of sustained success operated. And playing for big, unfamiliar audiences would help them get in shape for approaching festival dates.

While most of the crowd remained fixed in their seats during Little Dragon’s 45-minute set, more than a dozen people in the front rows were dancing by the end. The flamboyant moves of a couple of dancers made lead singer Yukimi Nagano wary. “I didn’t know if they were making fun of us or if they were actually enjoying it,” she said after the show.

Then she shrugged: “If even a hundred people in there were loving it, then I’m really happy.”

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