Opening up: Bands now have a say on lead-in acts

| Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, 8:58 p.m.

The concert industry has weathered recessions, file-sharing, YouTube and the decline of record companies.

One song remains the same, however: it's still tough to be the opening act.

Even guitar god Jimi Hendrix wasn't spared this rite of passage. In one of rock's more bizarre pairings, he was the supporting act for The Monkees on part of their 1967 tour. Fresh off his career-making performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, he had to endure chants of “We want The Monkees!” He reportedly lasted seven dates.

Ben Jaber, bassist for the Bastard Bearded Irishmen, says audience indifference is an occupational hazard. He recalls “playing to nobody” in a punk band before joining the Irishmen, a South Hills-based outfit that is gaining converts with its mix of traditional Irish songs juiced with rock testosterone. Still, they have to work for every ear.

“People are kind of hanging around the bar lingering in the back, waiting for the headliner to come on,” he says. “I think that the people who listen are kind of surprised that we can do what we do. I'd like to think that people are interested.”

While texting and tailgating might have made it tougher to catch the attention of fans, opening acts still help keep the wheels turning on the tour bus, say musicians and industry experts.

“For the most part ,there's still opening acts,” says Brian Drusky, owner of Ross-based Drusky Entertainment. “I haven't seen a real big change.”

The biggest change might be that the headliners themselves are choosing which artists open for them. The Red Hot Chili Peppers handpicked the Swedish outfit Little Dragon to open for them on their summer tour. Bonnie Raitt invited friend Mavis Staples as a supporting act. Justin Bieber chose Carly Rae Jepsen, the singer with the monster hit “Call Me Maybe,” although she missed the Pittsburgh show because of illness.

Rishon Blumberg, manager for the Clarks, says most record companies no longer have the financial leverage to push an opening act on an artist.

“Back in the heyday when labels were doling out large amounts of tour support and major labels ruled the land, there was a much stronger influence on support-act choices made by industry insiders,” he says. “ ‘We've rubbed your back ... now you rub our back and put on baby band X onto your tour.' ”

Blumberg says the Clarks choose their own opening acts, although they'll agree to a promoter's suggestion if they think the band will be a good fit.

“I'd say support acts continue to be the norm,” Blumberg says. “In some cases, venues demand them.”

An opening act can help club owners ring up more drink sales, since some audience members gravitate to the bar during the opening band's set. But Blumberg says the Clarks also want to give fans their money's worth by adding an opener to the bill.

“In some instances, we add support because we want to give patrons as much entertainment as we can for their hard-earned dollars and also to introduce them to an artist that the band likes and thinks their fans would like,” Blumberg says.

An opening act also takes some of the burden off the headliner. Veterans like Bruce Springsteen or Paul McCartney can carry a whole show on their own. But most artists don't have that classic repertoire to draw on, says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar, a trade publication that covers the concert industry.

“For an artist to not have a support act generally means that they will perform for two hours or more,” he says.

Randy Baumann, co-host of the Morning Show on WDVE-FM, is also a keyboard player and a well-traveled live music fan. He attends the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival each year.

Baummann says he made it a point to catch the soul and rock band Vintage Trouble at a club, because he knew he probably wouldn't see them when they opened for the Who at the Consol Energy Center.

“Outdoors, on a lawn or at (Stage) AE, I have no problem checking out the opening band if I can,” he says. “Same goes for a club show. I usually don't mind getting there early. But I almost never want to be in an arena that long.”

There are exceptions, of course. The band that opened for Neil Young at the Petersen Events Center in October was Los Lobos, the cross-cultural roots rockers who could easily have headlined the show, Baumann says.

A concert pairing can be mutually beneficial. When local world-beaters Rusted Root broke nationally in 1994 with their major-label debut “When I Woke,” they were courted as an opening act by bands whose fans were a generation older.

“When we were sort of exploding in the college and Top 40 area, bands like Santana and the Allman Brothers would have us on tour specifically to bring those people in,” vocalist and percussionist Liz Berlin says. “They were renewing their careers and trying to reach that age demographic.”

Berlin helps produce concerts as co-owner of Mr. Small's Theatre in Millvale. A promoter who books a show there might add a local band to open for the headliner, because they can help sell more tickets through their own fan base, she says.

“You never really know when you hire a band to play the night if you're going to sell a hundred tickets or 500 tickets,” she says. “It's nice to know that one of the local bands from Pittsburgh, if they open, will bring in an extra 50 or 100 people.”

For their current tour, in support of their new release “The Movement,” Rusted Root often chooses an opening band through a process that begins when a club in one of their tour cities suggests a band. Rusted Root's booking agent forwards the band's songs to them for a listen.

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