An Open Letter to the Opening Act (Updated)

Congratulations! You’ve landed a great gig, opening for a band that’s bigger than you, whose fans already like more or less the kind of music you play. It’s your chance to build your audience!

You’ve created your set list, picking out a combination of songs available for sale and new material that’s your best yet. You’ve rehearsed your little hearts out. (You have rehearsed, haven’t you?) You’ve put serious thought into the esthetic you want to present on stage. You’re all ready to go and make a great impression!

Are you ready to be reviewed?

Do you even know how to tell?

I don’t do a lot of music reviews. They’re a labor of love for a hyper-local news outlet. The Twin Cities Daily Planet saves its money for reporting that supports its goals of inclusive local coverage, and I’m completely on board for that. I have a day job, and time I spend getting a review done in a timely manner is usually time I’m not sleeping.

Still, I write reviews. I write them because I enjoy the challenge of the work. I enjoy figuring out how to express a musical and stage experience in words. I really enjoy playing matchmaker, helping people find the music and performances they’ll enjoy and artists find the audience that will appreciate them.

I want to do that for you if you open for another artist I’ve chosen to review. I may not personally be your audience, but that’s fine. My tastes are not universal and objectively correct. Unless your lead guitarist is the child of someone with incriminating evidence against the main act, you made it to the stage by appealing to someone in the business. There are more people out there who will appreciate you. I want to hook you up.

Are you prepared for that to happen? Are you ready for people who are intrigued by what I have to say about you to find you and give you a test run? There’s a lot of advice out there about getting along with your venue and the other acts on the bill. Here’s some that gets covered less: how to get more out of being reviewed.

  1. Tell me your name. If you’re not introduced by someone else at the start of your set, tell me twice. Tell me after your first song(s). Tell me again at the end. This is very basic, but I’ve seen it missed. Giving your name is extra important if you’re a late addition to the bill or if you’re playing one stop on a longer tour, because venues don’t always update their information when bands are added. But if you tell me when you’re on the stage, you make my life easier, and I can spend more time describing you and your music instead of tracking you down.
  2. Have an updated website. That could be a Facebook page, if that’s what you have the time and energy for. It doesn’t have to be beautifully designed. It doesn’t have to have your band name as the URL. It does, however, have to make it easy to find the information you want people to know. When is your next gig? How do people contact you to set one up? Is your music available for purchase anywhere? Do you have a YouTube channel? Are you up to anything newsworthy? What are the names of your band members? No, really. Bands skip that one a lot. Just check that your information is current before people come looking for you.
  3. Consider publishing your set lists. I know that when you play a short set, you might not need a list for yourselves. Publish it anyway. Print it out and upload a camera-phone picture of it on stage in the funky lighting as soon as your set is done. If I can say something noteworthy about one of your songs, you want me to be able to tell the world which one. You want other people who attended to be able to talk about specific songs they liked. You want people to be able to find the EP a song is on if it’s recorded. And you want all that without having to introduce every song on stage.
  4. Be prepared to have your photo taken. Concert photography is tough, but it’s ubiquitous now that good equipment is affordable and processing all but instant. That doesn’t mean you have to throw away your all-black performance-wear. (Colored lights do amazing things.) It does mean you need to make eye contact with the audience–particularly any large lenses you see. If you can, get out from behind equipment stands and move around the stage. If you’re tied to an instrument, at least step back from it and look around when you can. If you mug with other band members, hold the pose for a couple of seconds.
  5. Ask about using the review photos. A lot of photographers are more than happy to have their concert photos promoted by the band. These photos are an informal artistic collaboration, and when everyone is happy with the results, it’s warm fuzzies all around. All photographers want to be asked before you use their work. On top of wanting to hear that you liked them, photographers are artists like any other, with all the rights to their own work that entails. Respect those, and you’re likely to get better deals if you want to use the photos commercially. You’ll certainly get better press.
  6. Update: As Ben pointed out, being the opening act gives you an opportunity to up your publicity game too. Do you want to be reviewed? First, make sure the venue will let you add people to the press list. Then, contact a local publication or reviewer who covers your kind of music and let them know they can send someone to the show if they want to. It won’t guarantee you a good review, but it will increase your chances of being reviewed at all.

Even if you’re not looking to make it big, even if all you want is to gig occasionally on weekends with your buddies, a good review can help you get there. Take advantage of the opportunity you’re given. Just a few simple steps can help me find you that audience that will love your work.

Thanks to my husband Ben for advice about getting the most out of concert photos and for taking the photos that always make my reviews look great.

An Open Letter to the Opening Act (Updated)