7 Lessons From An Opening Act

I was never an independent artist before signing a record deal, never toured at all before heading out on that bus with Bebo Norman in 2001. Then I opened for Jars of Clay, Avalon, Michael W. Smith, and Shane and Shane. I carry the lessons I learned as an opener out on the road (and into life) with me today.

1. Attention isn’t deserved. It’s earned.

The opening act is what happens while everyone’s buying the headliner’s merch and finding their seats. If an opener wants attention in a buzzing bustling arena he has to go after it. Once he has it, he has to work to keep it (See #5).

2. It’s easier to please when there are no expectations.

The opener is the luckiest person on stage each night. No one expects anything – good or bad – from him. An opening act merely needs to make no mistakes and not be boring in order to be a pleasant surprise…to those who are listening (See #1)

3. Headliners are easy to outdo.

The establishment tends to get lazy, clings to the way things have always been done, and often hides on a tour bus after the show. Openers can’t afford to be. Be different (See #5), thank the promoter, thank the volunteers, help the crew (See #7), be just a little risky on stage and shake a few hands afterward and you win. Easy shmeasy.

4. Leave them wanting more.

Scarcity is a powerful thing. If the headliner gives you fifteen minutes, get off the stage in thirteen. Never go over. Do what you do best in those thirteen minutes and the crowd will want more and buy a CD to get it. They’re not likely to feel the same way about the headliner’s 90 minute set are they?

5. Embrace the difference.

If the headliners used bands, I went solo: just me and my instrument. If they were serious, I lightened things up. If they were fluffy, I interjected a little depth. I was still me, but I emphasized the parts of me that made me different from the headliner. Different gets noticed (See #1) and remembered.

6. Be grateful.

The biggest egos in the music business aren’t the headliners; they’re the openers who think they deserve to be headliners right now. They wear their ingratitude on their sleeves and squander the opportunity to learn from those more established and be part of something larger and more meaningful than themselves (See #7). You’re not a roofer in Houston in July – be grateful.

7. Serve the whole.

A tour is ideally a team of artists working together to create something better than they could alone. Do what’s best for the tour, the crew, the headliner, the sponsors, the promoter, not yourself – no matter what sacrifices you have to make, and the audience will be better for it…and you’ll be on another tour when this one’s over. Never demand your way. Never throw a tantrum. About anything. Ever. You’re the opener (See #6).