How to Become the Opening Act for a Touring Band
Playing as the opening act for a well-known touring band can be a major stepping stone in your career as an artist. You’ll get exposed to a wider audience, create relationships with industry professionals, and possibly even turn the other musicians into your fans. Snagging an opening slot can result in anything from simply having a fun night out with fellow artists to landing a coveted gig as the touring band’s official opening act the next time they head out on the road. But with so many other acts vying for the touring act’s attention, how do you get them to give you a chance onstage?
The secret is to start locally.
Take advantage of the connections you’ve been making in your own hometown with Talent Buyers and Concert Promoters. If you’ve been neglecting this part of the business, it’s time to start meeting some people. Stay in touch. Every time you play a show, shoot them an email to thank them for an awesome experience. Say hi if you see them around town. It’s so much easier for your band to pop into a Talent Buyer’s head when they need an opening act if they see you around regularly and are connected to you via Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
Of course, they’ll want to book you even more if you can pull a crowd who will spend money at their event. For example, sometimes Promoters or Talent Buyers aren’t convinced they’ll turn a profit off of touring acts with low advance ticket sales. This is where your band comes in. If you can reliably draw 200 or so people whenever you play, they know putting you on the bill will guarantee a good night for the venue.
So, while you’re working towards opening for a band with national name recognition, build your fan base at home. Promoters and Talent Buyers want to work with artists who are professional, hardworking, and reliable.
Side note: the same holds true for other music industry heads you want on your team, whether you’re searching for a Personal Manager or looking for a label deal. These people will also want to see proof you can sell tickets (and merch) to a reliable audience, you have a professional online presence, and you’re taking the steps on your own to move your career along.
If you’ve got a reliable audience pull in your hometown, start thinking about bands you’d like to open for. These can be bands you love, or bands with a similar vibe whose audience would be likely to become your fans. Be realistic: you have a better shot at opening for a band who’s just starting to make a buzz on music blogs than a well-established, Grammy-winning arena rock band. Make a list of these bands and find contact info for their Manager and Booking Agents. You can even approach the band, too, although they don’t always have a say in whom their opening act will be. Have this list on hand for when the band announces tour dates on its website or social media accounts or you read about a tour on one of the music blogs you check daily. (If you’re not already doing these things, get started now.) You can also set Google Alerts to notify you when the band is touring. Once you discover one of the acts from your list has tour plans, approach anyone who can get you an opening slot. Email the Promoter or Talent Buyer, as well as the band’s Manager and Booking Agent asap. If they don’t already know you, send them a brief introductory email with links to where they can hear your music online (Soundcloud links are great for this), plus a note about the size of your regular audience, relationship to the venue where they’re playing (if you have one), and your press kit. Keep it simple, but give them the info they need to know.
Once you land a gig opening for a touring act and it’s the night of the show, be the band with whom everyone wishes they were friends. Be professional. Promote the show to your audience ahead of time not only so you’ll have fans in the audience supporting you, but also so you’ll prove to the Manager and the band that people want to come see you and spend money on tickets. If you’re playing early, this is especially important. Don’t set the tone for the night by playing to an empty room of bored people checking Facebook on their phone. Get some super fans in the room. Oftentimes you will be playing super early, no matter how established you are in your own hometown. Since bands sometimes already have an opening act on tour with them, you could be the first of three acts playing the show. If you’re used to headlining, this could be an adjustment. Depending on time and space issues at the venue, you might not get a long soundcheck or any soundcheck at all. You might not be able to sell merch. You might only have time for a short set and you might not get paid very much. But opening for a touring band isn’t about those things: it’s about making connections. It’s about showing Managers and Booking Agents your band is steadily expanding its audience, and it’s about showing the band you’d be a decent group of people with which to spend a month on the road, should they ever think of hitting the road with you. And maybe they will, if they like what you do and you stay in touch after the show. So get off on the right foot with everyone involved by being polite, helpful, fun and friendly.
Naturally, playing one show in your hometown with a touring act isn’t guaranteed to get you in the van with them next time they hit the road, but it is how a lot of relationships start. It’s much easier to get picked up as the opening act for a small to medium sized band. They operate in a more independent sphere of the music industry and can have more say in who will be touring with them. Frequently bigger name acts do not get much of a say in who opens for them—it’s a numbers game. Which band has enough of an allure to bring in more income to the show? Is there an older band with more cred who will improve the other band’s image in some way by touring with them, or is there a younger band who will make the established touring act appeal to a new audience? These are the questions Managers, Booking Agents and record label execs ask. They’re busy people, and if you can help them by being the band they need, present them with a solution (hiring your band). Be aware that much of the time, opening acts who go on tour with the band are selected from the Manager or Booking Agent’s existing client list. It makes sense: they’re helping establish a career for one of their other artists while making sure the money stays with their clients. However, it’s not impossible to get on their radar. It all cycles back to playing the first show with the touring act in your own hometown and proving your professionalism and responsibility. People in the music industry want to work with artists who are taking charge of their own careers and taking the steps they need to grow out of their own volition, without needing a Manager to do every single thing for them. If you’ve already shown you’re doing the work to take your band to the next level, they might even be interested in representing you. It’s a long shot, but it does happen. It’s the reason why you’ll find a few bands from the same city or with a similar sound on a rep’s client list. So network and stay in touch!
It’s not discussed often, but sometimes bands pay better-known touring acts for the opportunity to open up for them. Lots of people look down on the idea of pay-for-play, but if it seems worth it to you to go this route, it’s an option. Just be smart about it. Paying to open for an act which doesn’t have any potential crossover with your audience simply because they’re more famous than you doesn’t make any sense. And if you find yourself completely broke once you get home, not having made any money on tour, it can prevent you from taking advantage of other opportunities to move your career forward, such as recording an album or even paying for a rehearsal space. Again, paying to be the opening act isn’t the norm, but it is happening more and more frequently. Before deciding for or against this move, make sure to weigh the pros and cons for your band.
Obviously there’s no way to guarantee following these steps will secure your band an opening slot on your favorite artist’s summer tour, but it has worked for hundreds of bands. Remember, as in all aspects of the music industry, it’s about strengthening relationships, growing your audience and basically being a person other people would be happy to spend a lot of time with in a van. Thanks to social media, it’s easier than ever to stay in touch, so once you’ve made a meaningful connection with another artist, keep the interaction going while you continue to expand your audience and your opportunities at home. And be patient; you might open for dozens of touring bands before one of them invites you to play a festival in New York or join them for a brief West Coast tour. After all, building relationships and building a career take time, and you can’t do one without the other.
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