I researched and wrote this piece to better understand the position of an opener. There’s a lot of history, politics, and thoughtful rhetoric behind the scenes that the normal person would never think about. Hope you enjoy. - KQ
In 1974, rock band Mott the Hoople left England to come tour the United States. Their success had been dwindling in recent years, but their hit single, “All the Young Dudes,” followed by their album Mott was the spark they needed to route the overseas tour (Mott). The record climbed into the top ten on the UK charts, and wound up being their best seller yet in the United States (Roberts). Joining them, they brought the up and coming band, Queen, as openers for the show. In comparison to Matt the Hoople, Queen had only released one album, and it didn’t do well in mainstream rock and roll. Its lead single sold poorly, and they were relatively unknown in the U.S. (Queen).
Fast-forward only a year later, Queen’s album A Night at the Opera is three times platinum in the U.S. and Rolling Stone now calls it one of the “100 Greatest Albums of All Time” (Queen). Their role as openers ended up returning major dividends for the group. Similar stories can be found across all genres, as smaller opening acts end up surpassing their headline acts in success. In the late 90’s Destiny’s Child opened for Dru Hill, and in 2009 Lady Gaga opened for the Pussycat Dolls (Rosa).
The opening act has been an imperative ingredient in music and other types of entertainment since the early 19th century. I have experienced first hand what it is like to be an opening act. However, as I reflect on my experiences an overlying theme surfaces. I found myself subconsciously tailoring my set, social interactions, and even my personality to the different demographics I was opening in front of. Where as in my headline performance, I was strictly being myself. As an opener, they were not coming to see me. It was my job to “warm them up” for the headlining act. I became fascinated with this idea about performing for an audience that is not there to see you, but when I started to research it there was really no studies or literature about it. My intention is to look fill that void about this kind of unique performance.
I intend to explore this role as an opener in the music business. It is an important, but challenging position to fill. First, I will lay out the timeline of how the position started, highlighting the different changes it’s taken, and also describing the economical industry process by which an artist becomes an opener. Finally, through the use of interviews, personal narrative and theoretical research, I will analyze the performance aspect using Burke’s Dramatisitc Pentad, and consider the rhetorical techniques that the acts use to entertain and win a crowd over primarily not there to see them. It is an art, and an act of communication that requires thoughtful decisions.
There are many different names given to opening acts that all basically mean the same thing, two of which are the support act and warm up act. But long before these labels, they were first called curtain raisers. In contrast to the other terms, this didn't initially refer to the performer themselves, but the performance as a whole. In the late Victorian and Edwardian eras (1827-1910), long pieces of theatre were presented in the evenings, and they were usually accompanied by these curtain raisers (Swash). They were not full length features, and often times there was more than one short accompanying piece. English theatre historian W. J. MacQueen-Pope describes curtain raisers as:
“A one-act play, seen only by the early comers. It would play to empty boxes, half-empty upper circle, to a gradually filling stalls and dress circle, but to an attentive, grateful and appreciative pit and gallery. Often these plays were little gems. They deserved much better treatment than they got, but those who saw them delighted in them ... they served to give young actors and actresses a chance to win their spurs ... the stalls and the boxes lost much by missing the curtain-raiser, but to them dinner was more important” (Macqueen)
This idea led to other types of opening acts outside of theatre. The warm up was a common element seen on television, and it even dates back to the golden age of radio (Warm-Up). The studio audience for television was an important part of the filming process, so they would employ opening acts to hype up the audience members. This idea bled over into music and comedy as well.
Opening acts have been around for the last several decades, and are an important part of the show experience as a whole, whatever that medium may be. Specifically with music, there are a number of different ways an act comes to be an opener and several economic influences behind it.
How Does an Act Become an Opener?
It is important to understand the way in which an artist becomes an opener because it demonstrates the intended purpose of them being there, and also highlights what’s at stake for the artist. There are difficult economic decisions that go along with the opportunity to support a performance. The business of live music can be daunting for an artist seeking to grab market share and build a fan base by being an opening act. In the same way that there is risk in performing before a neutral audience, there is a financial risk that is a necessary part. In my experiences, I have faced a number of economic challenges in getting to perform as an opener.
My first experience is when I owned the show or served as the promoter of the show. Generally, a promoter represents the venue where the artists will play, then works to promote the show in the local area in order to sell tickets (Miller, 173). In my scenario, I saw a booking agent advertise on social media that his artist was going to be touring in the Midwest and was looking for dates to fill along the tour route. I wanted to perform with him because it would be a great opportunity to get a bigger following. I cross-referenced his tour routing with venue availability in the Indianapolis area, found a match, and then contacted the booking agent to negotiate a contract. There are generally four ways in which a headlining artist is paid:
Flat Fee: Also sometimes called a guarantee, this is the simplest and most common way for payment. The artist receives a set amount, no matter how many people show up for the show.
Percentage: Some contracts detail that an artist will receive a percentage of the “door” or ticket sales or cover charges collected for the night.
Flat Fee versus Percentage: The artist receives either a flat fee or a percentage of the door, whichever is higher. For example, if the contract stipulates $500 verses 70 % of door, and the show sells $1,000 in tickets, the artist would receive $700 because the percentage was greater than the flat fee guarantee.
Flat Fee plus Percentage: In this scenario, the artist receives a flat fee plus a percentage of the door. (Miller, 179)
In this scenario, I negotiated a Flat Fee versus Percentage agreement with the artist, plus a percentage of the door with the venue for the rental of the space and equipment. In the end, it was the hardest that I ever worked to promote a show, and after all the expenses and a tip for the sound board engineer, I made $75.
Another different scenario is what is known as a “buy-on.” The buy-on scenarios are a troublesome reality for new artists trying to perform in front of bigger audiences. Simply stated, the supporting artist is buying the opportunity to perform from the headlining audience. It happens both at a regional level, and at a national level. The supporting artist buys the opportunity to participate in each show on tour. In my own experience, I bought onto shows very early on. It is a difficult experience to stomach, paying to play, but in reflection, the buy-ons were necessary to make relationships, develop a brand and start to build a dependable fan base. But my decision to buy-on, and the opportunities to buy-on arose out of unique circumstances.
My first show in my hometown drew 281 people, nearly selling out our local theater. 281 tickets is a relatively respectable number for promoters in the area, and that circulated in the Indianapolis area, leading to an opportunity to perform with Jake Miller who, at that time, was an independent artist. In this circumstance, I was an unpaid opener in the “first of three” slot. I was the first on stage, and I did not have much at stake rather than to come and put on a show. However, most buy-ons work differently.
For a buy-on, a promoter will typically expect the supporting artist to guarantee a number of ticket sales in exchange for the opportunity to perform an opening set. The buy-on varies from market to market, but generally a promoter would expect an opener to sell 20 to 30 tickets, at $15 dollars per ticket. If the supporting artist sells all of the guaranteed tickets, it is usually a good night because that artist has some fans in the audience that came to see the performance, and there are usually merchandise sales at the end of the night. However, if the supporting artist doesn’t hit the ticket guarantee, the artist must still buy the unpurchased tickets at a loss. In short, you buy tickets from the promoter at cheaper than face value in hope that you sell them to make money.
Another economic challenge for a rising artist is the national tour buy-on. Ticket sales are not the only form of revenue on a tour. An artist can charge openers for these opening tour slots. According to Moses Avalon, these national buy-ons are measured in thousands:
“Often tens-of-thousands. It’s not a mere gatekeeper fee. You’re paying to ensure that you’re getting a solid match of your music with an top act who’s audience will yield high potential for “conversion.” That means new people who have not heard you yet, but will become a fan after hearing you. Does all this sound a bit contrived? Grocery stores get fees from vendors whose products are displayed in their weekly ads or next to other products that are similar or complementary. Such as toothpaste next to soap. You think candy is always on the bottom shelf because there is no room at the top? No; it’s because children can reach it there. Candy companies pay markets to ensure that their product does not end up next to the toothpaste. You want music fans to sample your candy? You have to put it where it can be reached. Think of a national tour like prime shelf space and the buy-on the price for getting high-yield conversions” (Avalon).
I have had a personal experience with this national buy-on issue. I was fortunate enough to land a paid opening spot for four shows on a tour. The first two nights, I was the “first of three”, and the artist in direct support (meaning he goes on right before the main act) was a young artist signed to Atlantic Records. Atlantic Records had a representative at the first show in Nashville, and although he is ultra-talented, he had a difficult performance night. In some ways as explored in this paper, he was not quite ready to perform before an audience that wasn’t his. The Atlantic Records representative was a little frustrated and let on. Atlantic Records had paid $150,000 for the direct support slot on this national tour. That price did not include a spot on the tour bus, so the record company was paying all the travel expenses for his four-piece band as well.
This requires an analysis of how to make the most of these opening slots. As illustrated, they are not the easiest things to come by, so when opportunities present themselves, openers have to be on their A game. In the remainder of this piece, I will lay out the number of different rhetorical techniques and strategies openers can use to engage and win over an audience full of strangers.
Before jumping right into the analysis, it’s important to have an understanding of Burke’s Dramatistic Pentad, as I will use it as a theoretical scope to look at all the techniques. Burke regarded communication as an attempt to persuade an audience to accept his/her views as being true (Griffin, 301). While openers may not divulge much into their personal beliefs or agendas, they are certainly trying to sway their audience in a similar sense. They are trying to sell themselves and their brand. The pentad serves as a useful tool to analyze how the performer attempts to do so. The pentad consists of five elements: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. In this case, the act is the concert as a whole, the scene is the place and background situation, the agent is the performing artist, and the agency is the means by which they entertain (Crusius). Purpose, in this case, is a bit more complicated than the other elements of the pentad. The word purpose can easily be muddled with the word motivation, but they are two separate things.
The purpose of an opening act is not necessarily the same as their motivation behind the delivery of their performance. Here, their purpose is in a more obligatory sense. They’re to warm up the crowd for the headlining act. They are there to excite the audience, and establish the mood for the night. Their personal motivation, in contrast, is usually deeper. In an interview, up and coming rapper Mike Styles told me his motivation as an opener is, “to try and walk away with as many new fans as I can.” Note, he failed to mention any aspect about hyping up a crowd. Rather, his objective was to sell his brand. For the purpose of my research, pun intended, it’s best think of Burke’s last pentad element as performers’ motivation, rather than their obligational duties. While they all undoubtedly focus on the quality of the task at hand, the ultimate goal is to entice enough fans in hopes they can perform in that venue by themselves next time. The real question I plan to answer is: How? How do they persuade an audience that they are worth coming back and seeing solo. In comparison to other types of persuasive communication, they are already at a disadvantage.
In my survey of fifteen people, only three admitted to researching the opener before hand, and only ten admitted to even actively listening to their performance. As Herbet Blumer argued, humans act toward people on the basis of the meanings they assign to them (Griffin, 55). He believed this type of symbolic naming is the basis for human society. If they see the artist strictly as the opener for the headliner, they’re less likely to want to engage. The openers intention is to change that stigma with the odds already stacked against them. Yet, getting the audience engaged starts with the performer themselves.
Burke uses the word substance as an umbrella term to describe a person’s physical appearance, talents, experiences, personality, beliefs, and attitudes (Griffin, 300). The more a performer can convey his/her substance to the audience, the greater the likelihood for identification and engagement. When audience members can forge a bond with a figure, they are more likely to embrace any kind of persuasive pitch. As the agent in the pentad, I attempt to establish this kind of bond long before the show starts.
I like to do what I call “meet the line.” I walk out before the show to shake hands, take pictures, hug and talk to whoever is waiting to get in the venue. Essentially, it's a rhetorical technique that looks to break down any existing social boundaries and develop a sense of friendly intimacy between me and my new audience. In my interviews, I asked concert-goers how they felt or how they would feel if an opener came out to greet them before. While some noted it would take away the surprise element, almost all of them agreed that they would be more intrigued to listen. Julia (21) from Indianapolis said, “I feel like if an artist comes and meets me before hand it puts them down on my level. It’s cool to see them in that situation, and then on stage.” Ultimately, meeting an audience before makes the performer seem “human,” and more vulnerable, especially depending on how deep the conversations run. The social penetration theory helps demonstrate why this “meet the line” technique works.
The theory considers the process of developing forms of intimacy and connection with another person via different types of disclosure. Specifically, it draws inspiration from the skin of an onion, kind of like Shrek. The more you peel off, the closer you get to the onion’s core. Same with human interaction; the more you reveal about yourself, the closer your listener comes to knowing who you are as a person. The outermost layer includes mostly biographical data, and at the core of it lies the concept of self (Griffin, 114/115). Engaging in conversation with your audience helps openers remove layers of themselves. The audience learns more about the artist as a person, not just a musician. This kind of path to transparency is not exclusive to verbal communication either. Things like eye contact and smiling also help peel back layers of intimacy. Ultimately, the more information you disclose about yourself in natural conversation, the more intimate connection that future audience member will feel. Hence, the more likely they are to engage during the performance. However, too much disclosure could do the opposite of their initial intent. In theory, disclosure should happen at a reciprocal rate (Griffin, 116). While the artist needs to initiate the communication, they should be careful about disclosing too much information. Typically, the first two layers (bio and interests) are enough to engage the audience member. Personally, building that intimate connection with people is my favorite part of it.
Furthermore, there are other things openers do as an agent of communication to create positive engagement. As with any form of public communication, it’s tough not to think about Aristotle’s three proofs. During the performance itself, pathos is typically the best to use. But before the performance, it’s important for an opener to establish their ethos, or credibility. Aristotle identified three qualities that build credibility: arête, euonia, and phronesis (Griffin, 293). Arete and euonia are both already employed during the “meet the line” technique, as they are “virtue” and “goodwill toward the audience” in that order. However, phronesis is used in a different sense. Phronesis is basically the practical skills and wisdom one has in the field that they’re performing in. Openers use it in a number of different and subtle ways. Personally, on my merchandise table I have big blurb about me that lists all of my accomplishments. Specifically, we highlight the fact that I have had commercial success on iTunes and have performed across the country. Others highlight the fact that they are signed to a record label, or that they have particular songs or new cds available. This looks to add to the opener’s credibility. An audience is more likely to trust and engage with someone that they feel is creditable as an artist. In combination with the “meet the line” technique, employing this approach can successfully position an opener in a positive light in the eyes of the audience before the performance even starts. These techniques allow the opener to take more risks during the act itself, which is certainly the most important part.
The act itself takes many different forms. Different genres, different types of bands, different personalities, etc. For example, as a Hip-Hop artist I have found myself opening for soulful R&B singers. These differences create diversity in the way I tailored my performances I put on. Hence, the opener needs to be fully aware of the scene they will be performing in before they start designing their set.
It is important to research the artist they will be opening for if they don’t already know them. Typically, it is best to try and identify what kind of crowd they will be expecting. It gives them an idea of the demographic and size of the audience they will be in front of. In addition, it is valuable for the performer to study the city they will be opening in as well. Once an artist knows all of this information, they can start to tailor their set to crowd they will be in front of. This is called a person-centered message. Originally defined within the scope of the Constructivism Theory, it is a tailor-made communication to fit a specific individual or context (Griffin, 101). When I learned I was opening for an R&B singer, I designed my set in a way that fit the specific intended crowd more so than my previous opening sets, and I chose to play songs that were more melody driven. This is a conscious, rhetorical decision that looks to create positive engagement between me and the audience. Ultimately, you need to choose the songs you will feel the most comfortable performing. Personally, all the music I chose to play was my own. Openers usually play two types of music: their own or covers.
In a study done by Stephen B. Groce, he interviewed local level bands who were in the “paying their dues” or “trying to make it” stage. He specifically interviewed bands that played both cover and original music, and looked to uncover their ideologies as to why they consciously choose between the two different techniques. In an interview, one cover band said their reason for playing covers was because the audience, “do not want to listen to you if they are not familiar with what you’re doing”(Groce, 394). Cover bands assume that they boost audience engagement by having a repertoire of popular songs to play in the time that they are granted to play. They cater their performance to satisfy audience members with songs they can sing along to, rather than play their original content. In contrast, upcoming bands who play their own music not only have a different ideology, but they view themselves in a higher regard than cover bands.
One band member said, “The odds are against originals. It’s probably not a sound business proposition, but . . . anybody can sit around and play covers” (Groce, 400). This bit captures the attitude many original performers have towards cover bands. As an opener I find myself envying those that play cover songs as well. I believe it is not expression of creativity, but an overly safe attempt to please an audience. In this sense, cover bands are not artists; they are entertainers. They are concerned with the creative aspect of performing. One band member said, “I am an entertainer when you get right down to it, but I’m an artist because I’ve got integrity. I’m entertaining these people, yeah, but they have to be entertained by what I created” (Groce, 402). I’d like to argue that the best rhetorical technique for performing for an audience not there for you is to do a blend of both.
In my interviews, I asked each person whether they preferred openers to play cover music or original music, and about 85% of them said both. Mason (21) from Ohio said, “Cover music draws me in and gets me engaged, and then they draw me to their own music.” In my personal experience, I find this combination to be successful as well. I find my ego being inflated by my ability to write and create songs, but also discouraged by constraints I face as an opener at the local, regional and national level. Hence, this blend finds the happy medium where I can engage an audience with cover music, and then continue the engagement with my own product (music) in a rhetorical sense.
While the cover bands relied on the music, they still acknowledged that their entertainment duties were not fulfilled. A member said in the interviews, “You have to put on a show, the band is just as important as the music.” Audiences develop a sense of interests through style just as much as they do content. The rhetorical techniques an audience can employ outside of the music they perform are just as important.
I’m not here to argue and reiterate techniques that have already been established as “must do’s” in music performance, but rather, I want to illustrate one last technique that is not previously laid out in other literature. Certainly, eye contact, energy, the development of pathos, and the careful, and sometimes promiscuous use of the body are all influential things an opener can use to engage the audience. But, there are things that I have discovered myself through trial and error that also induce positive reactions.
In the middle of my set, I used to have a part during an original song of mine where I split the audience into three sections so we can see which is the loudest. Being that it’s hard to keep audiences engaged, I use what I’d like to call a “material stimulus.” In my case, that’s just a fancy word for a t-shirt, but isn’t necessarily always something as big as a t-shirt. It can be anything ranging from a bracelet to a ball cap. In the extreme case, Hip-hop artist Action Bronson one time used a flat screen T.V., an iPod, and an Xbox in Santa Fe. Ultimately, I use the t-shirt to tease the crowd. As I point at each section, the crowd roars. This is a rhetorical technique that attempts to entice the audience to engage with me by teasing them with the promise of getting something free. Not only is it a good performance technique, but if the stimulus is something that has your name on it then it is effortlessly distributed to someone who may wear it. In my interviews, I asked audience members what they would do if they caught an item like this, and all of them unanimously said they would keep it, whether for memorabilia or everyday use. This helps the opener with their overall motivation of selling and spreading their brand, while also encouraging audience engagement. I’ve been an opener at lots and lots of shows, and this technique never failed. I recommend trying it. The audience is enthralled at the idea of free things, and they react accordingly.
Being an opener is an equally exciting and challenging task. However, the need for them has been around for as long 150 years, and I don’t foresee that tradition changing. While their purpose may be to hype up a crowd for the headliner, their motivation is to gain traction and attract new listeners to their music. Under the scope of Burke’s Dramatistic Pentad, breaking down the act allows us to see where different rhetorical techniques can be used, and used effectively. Techniques such as “Meeting the line,” developing your ethos, using a material stimulus, and carefully tailoring the set you perform help foster audience engagement and identification. Opening a show is a real and definitive art form, and requires practice and work just like other types of theatre. I hope this opens up (pun intended) dialogue about this lasting art form
Personal thank you to anyone that has sat through a performance of mine where I was the opener.