Are Opening Acts Becoming a Thing of the Past?
No one ever said putting a band together was gonna be easy. Once you’ve learned the craft of playing your instrument, you have to find people you can work with, master the technique of working with them, develop songwriting skills and become wise in the ways of the rehearsal and recording studios.
After, or usually during, all that you have to earn your performance spurs.
It may yet prove to be that recorded music is a technological blip in human history. Performance has been with us since the beginning of expression and isn’t likely to go away soon. That’s why the next generation of world-class rock stars will need to learn to be world-class live acts –– but it doesn’t look like the industry is making it easy for them.
With local economic and political pressures forcing small venues to close in many parts of the world, the first rung appears poorly attached to the ladder of live success. Further up, a once well-welded rung is also looking shaky: the position in the touring circuit of the opening act.
Countless bands have earned those spurs by enduring the trial-by-fire that is starting shows for much bigger bands in front of audiences that don’t hate them so much as they don’t care about them. The magic happens when, over the course of a short set, a handful of taste-makers decides they like these new guys, spread the word and eventually there’s a big enough fan base for a band to go out on its own toilet tour – and if they’re good enough, and keep being lucky, climb to the higher rung of becoming a headline act, and a world tour is their oyster.
So what’s changing, and why? Let’s take the case of Metallica, who, instead of taking a band out with them on their recent North American tour, enlisted comedian Jim Breuer instead. “Hands down, it was the absolute greatest gig I’ve ever had in my lifetime,” the veteran performer tells UCR. “I’d trade that with television shows, film, whatever I’ve ever done, that was the greatest gig ever. If I could do that the rest of my life, I would do it.”
What he did was nothing like what a support act might do. And actually it wasn’t much like what a comedian might do either. “I had a radio show,” he recalls. “I’d have bands come on and I’d tell them, ‘We’re not gonna do an interview, let’s just make it fun.’ They’re tired of saying the same things. That led to Metallica asking me to host their 30-year anniversary for their fans in San Francisco. They basically said, ‘Hey, you know what you did for the radio? Can you do that for our fans, like a game show?’”
“Lars [Ulrich] said, ‘Look, we love having bands, but nobody comes to see the band," Breuer says. "It’s a bummer for the band, it’s a bummer for us. You know how to read an audience and you just adjust adapt to an atmosphere like I’ve never seen. So you know our audience -- tell stories, do stand-up, bring a DJ, come up with ideas, just do a fan-interactive thing, entertain the fans.'"
So he did, to what appears to have been a generally positive response.
“Lars said, ‘They key is you do not have to be funny,'” Breuer reflects. “I know that comment sounds silly now, but that was the most freeing thing he could have said to me. It took all the pressure off. I actually got bothered when people said, ‘So, you’re opening for Metallica ... .’ Because when you say that, you think I’m going up and doing a comedy set; and what I really was doing was hosting the opening ceremony before they came out. My attitude was, ‘Look, we’re all here to see Metallica, let’s not kid ourselves – while we’re stuck here, let’s entertain ourselves.’ And so I would have game shows, I would have heavy-metal singalongs, I’d have an all-request DJ, I would mess with people as I’d see them coming down the aisles, I’d tell stories of being with the band.”
Regardless of the audience response, the bill-payers were delighted with the outcome, according to Breuer: “James [Hetfield] came up to me halfway through the tour, and he goes, ‘Brother, the greatest feeling in the world: Me in my dressing room, and I just hear a huge audience cheering. Man, it’s so awesome to hear’.”
Metallica’s decision to move away from opening acts would seem to fit with their approach of delivering a very intense and deliberate brand experience – everything about the night is about Metallica, based on the attitude that everyone at the show is there for Metallica. It’s a management approach that, in recent years, enabled the band to triple its ticket prices without much negativity from the fans. They’re getting what they want, and they don’t want opening acts, it would appear.
The concept of the package tour, where a roadshow features several well-known artists appearing alongside each other, is nothing new; but in recent years many classic-rock groups have brought the idea back. Starting with experimental “mini festivals” in the early ‘00s, Def Leppard reached a position where it’s almost expected that every tour announcement will be made in association with another band with a similar fan demographic. Or a different one.
“Late ‘80s, early ‘90s, a promoter got the idea to put Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson together and everyone was like, ‘Oh, my God, it's going to die, it’s going to be terrible,'” Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen says. “It went out and it was the most successful big-theater, small-amphitheater tour – all sold out and everyone loved it. You wouldn't really put them in the same kind of basket. But everyone stayed for both artists and just loved it; there was a union, a camaraderie about it that was really special. So that's why we started doing that.
“You had these tours, Lollapalooza, and massive festivals like Glastonbury in England, where you'd have someone like Tom Jones or David Bowie and Snoop Dogg or Beyonce, all of these artists would be on at the same time. People really dug it – there's a reason why they’re popular and successful: because they’re really good, they have something to offer."
Collen says the concept is "great from the point of view of someone who wants to be entertained, as opposed to someone who just wants to hero-worship a band. I like the diversity; I think it's a really healthy, positive attitude and it's something different, not just the same old same old. Back in the ‘70s, you had all sorts. You'd have the Grateful Dead, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin … . I know they’re all kind of classic rock, but they’re quite diverse.”
Collen argues that modern accounting systems make it easy to ensure there’s minimal financial risk in their multi-header tour approach. “It always seems to work out pretty well, pretty black and white," he says. "Promoters and bands now, they can look at how much someone’s earned or how much people get into a venue and they go, ‘This band is worth 1,800 tickets. This band would get 10 percent … .’ It's all right in front of us, it's right there, you know.”
Safe in the knowledge that every band on the bill is adding value, Def Leppard can get on with facing another issue Collen feels has become more prevalent: It’s become important to offer greater contrasts than ever before.
“People want more because we have a very limited focus range these days," he argues. "All of us do; I struggle with focusing on stuff. Metallica, they got a comedian out – how cool is that? That's great. You’re not bludgeoning the audience with another band, then Metallica come on and have to out-bludgeon the band that has just been on. I think that's a great move. It’s sophisticated, it's civilized and it's even more entertaining – especially in an era when we struggle to focus.”
Collen says of his own first opening experience was with the band Girl. "We opened up for UFO in Europe," he recalls. "That was our first tour, first travel and everything, and UFO were so great to us. We’d all share the same dressing rooms. Paul Chapman was the guitar player; he was always lending me guitars and amps, and we’d be jamming every night. My very first experience was like being at school with your big brother or your favorite guys – really cool guys letting me into their little club!”
John Lodge of the Moody Blues is adamant in how important it was for his band to start its climb to the big time as an opening act.
“When we first came to America, we were opening for people like Canned Heat and Jefferson Airplane,” he says. “To be honest, our only thought was, ‘We’ve got to just create our own music that’s going to get us top of the bill.’ I remember getting to a concert once and there we were, top of the bill, and everyone else was below us.”
It didn’t happen overnight, so the Moody Blues might have struggled to achieve their success if they hadn’t been able to hop onto another band’s financial power and infrastructure. Lodge remembers his time opening for Canned Heat: “As we were traveling towards the Midwest, we suddenly found the audience drifting a bit more to us – I suppose you could call it the prog-rock side of music at that time," he says. "In the ballrooms on the West Coast, people were dancing, but as we moved further east, people were happy sit down and listen to the music and be part of the music.”
Lodge was delighted to be able to repay the bands that helped them by assisting others in turn. “Over the years we’ve had such huge opening acts which have really grown,” he says. “We brought John Denver to England first, and John, of course, became a huge, huge star. Tom Paxton, we brought along, and we found Stevie Ray Vaughan. His manager we saw a few years ago, and he said we gave Stevie his chance. I think it’s important to find new artists and bring them on to open for you – but not fillers, not people who are just going to fill the concert -- you know, fill the time.”
Not all bands have given up on the idea of taking newcomers out on the road. British band the Struts have benefited from the experience of opening for the Rolling Stones and Guns N’ Roses. Last year, after touring with the Foo Fighters, they found their fan base boosted when Dave Grohl described them as the best group that ever supported him.
“We all say it was the best time of our lives,” Struts guitarist Adam Slack says. “Dave would come into our dressing room every day, or Taylor [Hawkins] would, or Pat [Smear] would. We learned so much from seeing them every night onstage – the musicianship inspires you. But making friends was the best bit.”
A Facebook group for hardcore Struts fans tripled its membership as a result of their Foo Fighters interaction. Among many other memories, Slack found himself invited to a Stella McCartney party, where he hung out with Smear, members of U2 and Muse. Grohl’s colleagues told the other big names, “This band is opening for us – the Struts. You should check them out.” “So many opportunities came out," Slack says. "And you give it 110 percent onstage because you want to win over fans, but you also want to do well for your friends.”
Of course, it’s not always like that. The rising stars didn’t get the opportunity to meet Guns N’ Roses during their tour together, and only briefly interacted with the Stones. “They were really lovely,” Slack recalls. “Mick [Jagger] came over and said, ‘Hi, Struts!’ We were like, ‘Wow, he remembered our name!’ But I bet you £20 he didn’t watch our set!”
Nevertheless, the band did all right in terms of finances. That’s not always true – since an opening slot on a high-level tour has financial value attached to it, in terms of exposure to a larger audience who may then buy the support act’s products, there’s often a “buy-on” price to be paid for every show. That can sometimes force a band into the heartbreaking decision that it can’t afford the potential life-changing opportunity it's been offered.
Another approach taken by artists who want to keep the spotlight entirely on themselves is the “evening with” format, which rules out the appearance of any support act. In some circumstances, a headline band will take someone else on tour but give them a night off for “evening with” shows. That can present its own problems in that a night off means no opportunity to make money, despite having to pay the costs of transport, accommodation, living expenses and sometimes crew wages.
Slack says that, while he’s not sure of the financial details applying to his group, they managed to “break even at least." “Anyway, if you’re playing to 80,000 people or whatever, who gives a shit about breaking even?” he says.
His band does its best to pay it forward in its own way -- like on their recent tour with opening act the Glorious Sons. “We do what the Foo Fighters did to us,” Slack notes. “Get to know the band, watch their sets, get behind them. I was writing a song with the Glorious Sons’ singer the other night. It’s good to have friends on the road with you. It’s the way it always should be.”
Lodge believes the experience of being an opening act is essential. “It’s really, really important to try and hold yourself up with other artists, because the other artists have got their audience,” he says. “Most of the audience are going to be coming to see the top of the bill. Your position as the opening act is to try and persuade people that they’ll like your music as well. And that, for me, is the importance. I think a lot of younger acts need to get into that situation where they get on a tour and perform to people who are not their fans, but then become fans.”
Collen wonders if the ever-evolving industry has a new method of climbing the ladder. “I always use the Ed Sheeran thing,” he explains. “When he came out, I remember he used to play like down the subway, then do an open mic later on. I remember seeing interviews with this redhead kid – he's a songwriter and he didn't look like an obvious star. But he persisted; he had such a drive, and ultimately his talent came through. I do think it is hard, it's different, it's just different. I know in L.A., a lot of the clubs you have to pay the club to go and play, which was the case a lot of the time even back when. Support bands would go, ‘We have to pay the label,’ or the label was paying the tour to get their band on. That's always been the case.”
Slack vows the Struts will keep taking opening acts out, no matter how big they become. Asked if he sees another way to become the kind of band that can climb to global victory, he says, “I’m a bit stumped, to be honest.” But he believes it's an issue that needs addressed urgently. “Where we came from all the venues have closed, which sucks," he says. "There’s nothing left. Musically it’s a wasteland.”
Perhaps it’s a parting of the ways – perhaps global giants like Metallica have a different role to play in the music industry, and it’s therefore someone else’s problem to help develop the next generation of global giants. Perhaps all bands must do whatever it takes to make sure their audience remains happy and well-served. Or perhaps some kind of tax on successful bands could be introduced, with the proceeds to be spent on ensuring the industry has a future? (Like that’ll happen …)
Breuer, for one, believes there are certain bands that would be wasting their time by trying to force-feed a junior act to their fans. “There’s nothing worse than sitting through a live band," he says. "You don’t know their songs. You’re basically waiting for the one song that you know that’s from the radio and you’re more excited, because you know it’s the last song and they’re getting outta here!
“With the exception of me seeing Metallica open for Ozzy in ‘86, I can honestly say I don’t remember an opening band that I personally saw and went, ‘That was the greatest experience ever. So glad I showed up to see them.’ Today, unless all the bands are equal, I’d rather just wait for the main band. Why do you need an opening band?”