Usually, when you go to a concert, one or two artists will perform before the main event. Having an opening act, or “opener” is a tradition that touring musicians have followed for decades.
But why do concerts have opening acts? Concerts have opening acts because they provide additional entertainment and create opportunities for the headliners, promoters, venues and the opening acts themselves to make money and gain exposure — having an opening act gives music-lovers another reason to buy tickets to a concert.
Sometimes, it can be easy to think, “Who is this band? Why do I have to listen to this? Can’t I just see the band I came to see?”
Well, whether you like it or not, that frustration with wanting your favorite band to walk on stage instantly is actually one of the reasons why openers exist.
Imagine if concerts didn’t have opening acts — you’d show up to a crowded venue and have to stand around, bored out of your mind (tempted to buy more merch or drinks) just waiting for egocentric rock-stars to decide they’re finally buzzed enough to take the stage.
Having an opener to start the show is something that most concerts still need in today’s music industry — especially when they’re the only thing standing between you and multiple impulse buys.
So in this article, we’re going to take a look at why concerts have opening acts and what that means for modern musicians and music lovers like you.
Where The Tradition Of Opening Acts Came From
As far as anyone really knows, the term “headliner” dates back as early as the 1890s — which implies that if there were headliners, there were also openers.
But even before the term was coined, live music has always been filled with partnerships between headliners and openers.
Soul artists in the early 1960s performed in large groups called package shows, like the Motown Revue (which still exists to this day). Package shows were essentially mini-music festivals, usually featuring a dozen or more artists on a single night’s lineup.
Package shows gathered artists with similar sounds, or that fit into a specific genre, onto one bill as a way to reach a wider audience and sell more tickets.
These package shows also helped discover and launch up-and-coming stars like Stevie Wonder.
In the 1950s, TV programs like American Bandstand and Alan Freed’s Big Beat Show began using the opener/headliner format — introducing artists like Buddy Holly and Frankie Lyman as openers, while icons like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis closed the show.
In attempts to appeal to wider audiences, concert pairings gradually became more diverse when guys like Bill Graham created combinations of old and new like in 1966 when Big Mama Thornton performed with the Grateful Dead.
Venue owners and music promoters continued increasing the number of performers and expanding into diverse genres hoping would drive ticket sales and create revenue, and it did.
But it also opened their eyes to another thing: the more time fans spend in the venue, the more money they spend on merch, food, and drinks.
Promoters recognized that they could increase the appeal of concerts, and simultaneously capitalize on the amount of time people spend watching and listening, by adding an opener, or two (or three) to a concert tour.
And although it seems like a giant corporate scam to just make more money, increasing the length and quality of concert tours actually helped progress the live music industry as a whole and created incredible opportunities for smaller bands to gain exposure.
Opening Acts Help Artists Gain Exposure
Because of how many bands, rappers, musicians, and performers there are in the industry today, most struggle to gain mainstream exposure.
Establishing yourself as noteworthy can be difficult, especially when dozens of other artists are doing essentially the exact same thing as you.
If you watched that laughably cliché Netflix movie about Mötley Crüe, the old days of playing a last-minute show at the local club, where a young, hungry, well-connected talent scout just happens to be looking for a new band to sign, are long gone.
Getting noticed is HARD! And it’s bluntly because no one is really looking for you.
Modern tools like social media have been an amazing platform for countless musicians to build an audience of listeners, but even online it can be hard to stand-out.
Landing a spot as an opening act for a larger, more reputable band is hands down one of the best ways to gain exposure for an up-and-coming performer.
This is because the larger band has already done all of the work.
They’ve built the following, booked the tour, promoted the music, sold the tickets and created the perfect opportunity for a younger, less-established band to benefit from those efforts.
When a smaller band is selected to fill the opening slot of a major tour, it can often be the “big break” that many artists talk about dreaming of.
Getting paid to play sold-out shows to thousands of new brand new fans every night, is every band’s dream come true.
And even though many opening acts would do it for free, getting paid is the only way you get to keep making music.
How much do opening acts get paid at concerts? Typically the amount an opener is paid depends on a couple of variables: the size of the venue, the size of the headliner, the number of tickets that are sold, and the openers relationship to the headliner.
At a large club or small theater that seats 400 to 1,000 people, the opening act might get paid $500 to $1,500. At this level, the headliner is usually considered a national act, and it’s a pretty major opportunity for a local band to be apart of their show.
On a larger scale arena tour, a nightly fee could range between $3,000 to $5,000 and the opening act gets the opportunity to try and sell themselves in front of thousands of people every night.
Now, more than ever, opening and supporting acts are branching out to make competitive wages with the same amount of exposure.
Instead of locking themselves into a multiple month tour more bands are targeting music festivals.
Festivals generally offer better payment and similar opportunities for exposure.
So now you might be wondering, “Why would a headlining band share their success?”
Well, most times they’re not really putting anything on the line.
Often, it’s not the band but the record label that makes the final decision.
On larger tours there’s almost always a record label involved, and typically they’re the ones that have fronted the cash to pay for the tour (like a loan).
So, a lot of times you’ll see tours that feature multiple bands on the same label.
This is 100% a money move — the label selects one of the newer artists on their roster to fill the opening slot so they can have their hand in everyone’s pockets.
Again, it sounds kind of sketchy, but in reality, having two or three bands from the same label, on the same tour, is just a smart way to sell more tickets and simultaneously promote only the bands that the label is financially invested in.
It’s your classic two birds, one stone scenario (only its more like 15 birds, one stone).
Indie labels like Fueled By Ramen, Hopeless, and Fearless Records used to do this all the time. That’s why bands like Fall Out Boy, Cobra Starship, Gym Class Heroes and Paramore toured together so often in the mid-2000s, they were label mates.
The 1975 recently did this with No Rome and Pale Waves. All signed by Dirty Hit records, these bands weren’t sacrificing any of their success to cross-promote bands they personally knew and loved.
Bands like The Maine are established enough that they don’t need support from a major label but still subscribe to the same kind of format with their 8123 family — touring with bands that they like, personally connect with, and are rooting for, usually from their home state of Arizona.
But sometimes opening acts are actually the best connection a touring band has to a local audience.
The decision to have a local opener is a promotional strategy that gets the word out and helps to bring kids to the show.
In those cases, the local band gains exposure from the touring band’s national following and the touring band gains exposure from the local band’s regional following — everybody wins.
Opening Acts “Warm Up The Audience”
If you’re reading this post, you’ve probably heard someone say something along the lines of, “Oh, the opener is there to like, warm up the crowd before the headliner comes on.”
And although that might be something that happens when an opening act performs, I think it’s completely coincidental to why they’re there.
Think of it this way: people deliberately came to a concert but still need a few songs to loosen up and let go of everyday worries?
The same goes for when people say, “The opener just gives people time to get to the venue.” What?!
Openers might help warm the audience up, and give you a few minutes before the headliner gets on stage, but that’s not why they’re there. It’s just something that happens.
If you’ve gone through the trouble of buying tickets, getting off work, getting dressed up, driving to the venue, finding a place to park, waiting in line, and you’re telling me you still need a couple of songs to get you in the mood before you’re ready to let loose?
Venues sell alcohol for people that still need a little extra “warming up”.
Nobody acts like the trailers that they play before a movie at the theater are there to warm the audience up — that’s what the popcorn is for.
Trailers and ads aren’t there to accommodate notoriously late individuals, they’re there to make money — it’s coincidental if it helps you find a seat or mentally prepare for the film.
Opening bands are no different.
Many bands actually “buy on” to tours, because they know the value of exposure they’ll get from playing sold-out shows every night.
Like a trailer for another movie, an opening band gives you a taste of what they can do.
They’re hoping that after the show you’ll go home, look them up, and buy a ticket to their tour when they eventually come through town as the headliner.
Here’s an example: Post Malone is one of the biggest artists in the world right now. But his first tour was Justin Bieber’s Purpose tour.
He didn’t even have an album out yet — he’d go out on stage, sing “White Iverson” and then leave the rest of the show to Bieber.
It isn’t a coincidence that many of Bieber’s Purpose-era fans are Post Malone fans now.
Another mainstream example is actually Taylor Swift.
In 2006, before her massive career debut, Swift was signed to Sony/ATV and opened for Rascal Flatts on the last nine dates of their Me & My Gang tour.
Then, with the release of her ’08 album Fearless, Swift turned into an overnight superstar.
Although Swift had a lot of help in catapulting her stardom, the fact still remains that she got her start opening for Rascal Flats.
Landing an opportunity to open for the right band, at the right time, is not an uncommon way to rise to success.
The opening act isn’t there to warm people up for the headliner, they’re there because they want to be the nest Post Malone or Taylor Swift.
They’re working to promote themselves, make some money, and win over some new fans.
If the audience gets “warmed up” — great! Hopefully, that means those warmed up kids will go home having discovered a new favorite band.
If someone is running late and they missed the opener but got inside just in time to catch the headliner, the opening act wasn’t there to accommodate that. It’s that person’s fault for being late, and they’re lucky they got to see anything.
Warming up and being late aren’t factors that really hold any weight when choosing an opening act — even if it does happen.
The opener actually helps the headlining band out quite a bit — just not in the form of “warming” anything up.
Frankly, it’s all about money — concert promoters and tour managers are just putting together opener/headliner partnerships that they think will sell the most tickets and create the most buzz.
Opening Acts Provide More Bang For Everyone’s Buck
Did you know that in the old days, buying a ticket to a movie was buying admission into the theater?
You could stay and watch that movie as many times as they showed it. Or you could go watch any of the other movies they were showing that day.
Most bands try to implement that same sort of mentality into their tours.
This is why festivals have become so popular in recent years — it’s more entertainment for a longer period of time, and that creates more opportunities to make money.
Some bands will tour with other bands of similar size and genre hoping that the combined fanbase of both bands will sell enough tickets to make it a profitable tour.
The headliner might not be sharing anything, because they know most kids will have already heard of both bands.
In my senior year of high school, I saw All Time Low and Yellowcard on a co-headlining tour with The Summer Set and Hey Monday! Four bands that I already knew and listened to.
Buying that ticket was one of the easiest decisions I ever made. I would have paid the $40 just to see Yellowcard, but I also got to see three other bands I liked for the price of one.
This is a huge reason why concerts still need openers — they’re creating a higher quality experience and trying to get more kids to buy tickets, merch, food and drinks.
The more tickets that are sold, the more money a concert will make. The more money it makes, the bigger the next tour can be, and so on.
So as convenient as it might be to show up to a show, see your favorite band and then leave, it’s just not how the industry works. And most bands still need an opener or two in order to book a successful tour.
As beneficial as it is for literally everyone involved, landing that chance to open for a major touring artist can take some time.
How To Become An Opening Act
The first step in becoming an opening act is knowing who to contact.
Make a list of realistic matches your band could open for and contact their booking management. Send them a press kit, and be patient.
Try narrowing down your list to just the acts that would make logical and compatible sense.
Even if you love a certain band, like Ban Suns, if your music sounds more like Metro Station, why would anyone be interested in working with you?
When you contact the artist’s management, think of it as a job application. Be professional but direct. Send them your updated “band resume” — attach a press kit, your latest album or singles, and make sure you ask to be considered as an opener.
Keep in mind that you’re probably not the only band asking to be considered, so don’t get your hopes up if getting told “No” is going to crush your dreams.
Just make sure to represent yourself well. Even if you don’t get that particular tour, if this person books for the band you want to tour with, they may be a good booking agent for your band as well.
If the band you’re thinking of doesn’t have management, just message them directly, they’re probably doing everything themselves anyways. Approach them in the same way you would the management.
Another resource you could attempt to contact is the venue.
If you don’t already know the local venues in your area, do some research. Go to a few shows locally and narrow down the ones that you think maybe a good fit for your act.
When you’ve got your list, contact the venues directly. Send them your promo materials and suggest a few concerts on their schedule that you may be a good fit for.
It may take some time for any of these outlets to get back to you, but once you’ve been booked you’ll have a much easier time getting scheduled on bigger and better shows down the road.
How To Leave A Good Impression When You’re The Opening Act
When you book a gig as an opener, it’s important to know how to act.
Landing an opportunity to open for a more established band can catapult your band to success. Alternatively, if you’re an idiot, it can destroy your chances to work with another band in the future.
That’s why it’s important to know the unwritten rules of opening band etiquette.
When you’re an opening act, you need to know what people expect of you.
Will you be doing a soundcheck? What time do you need to show up? Will you be running a merch table at the venue? Do they want you to co-promote the show? You need to ask all of these questions if you’re unclear or if no one explicitly told you.
Don’t show up the day-of with a merch table if you haven’t cleared it with anyone. Don’t walk in expecting a soundcheck if you never asked for one.
If you’re asked to co-promote, take it seriously.
It’s a tough job, but co-promoting tells the headliner and venue that you care enough about the show to put in the work to see it succeed.
Be careful not to get taken advantage of, but do your best regardless. Maybe no one asked you to help out, but if you’re playing the show you should always do what you can to get your fans there.
No matter what, always ask to be included in any media promotions that get put together and to have your name added to all flyers, posters, and social media posts.
Also, it might seem a little formal for some shows but ask for an introduction. An introduction will help the audience remember your name. The venue may have someone that will do it, but if not, always introduce yourselves during your set on stage.
If you have any connection to the headliner at all, ask them to give you a shout at the end of their set. Their enthusiasm for your act will boost respect for your band.
And another thing, don’t EVER be late. You might feel like a rockstar opening for your favorite band, but if you don’t take yourself seriously, no one else will.
I’ve been to several shows where the opening band didn’t show up on time or respect the length of the set they were asked to play, and it’s always an uncomfortable situation.
The worst experience I’ve ever seen, by far, was when this band broke the venue’s PA sound equipment halfway through their set. It was super unprofessional and embarrassing and I’m sure they were never invited back.
Unless you’re Mötley Crüe, being a Mötley Crüe level douche-bag won’t sit well with the other bands, promoters or venue. So, if anyone asks you to be somewhere at a certain time — be there. And seriously, don’t break anything.
Even if no one else is on time it will prove that you’re serious about the opportunity. If you’re going to be late for any reason, let someone know. A quick call or text to let them know you’re running late will go a long way to show your respect.
Another important aspect of being a good opening act is managing your set length.
When you’re late or preform longer than you should, you’re making everyone else wait for you. It’s disrespectful and creates the possibility you may not be invited back.
Even if you’re living out your dream on stage and the audience asks for an encore, just keep to the set length.
While on stage, in-between your songs, thank the headlining band for letting you play. Even a few mentions during your set will hopefully seal a nod to your band during the headliner’s performance. It’s one of those unwritten rules that you might forget about in the moment.
But the biggest thing you should NEVER do is wander off during the headliner’s set. Even if you’re opening for a band you don’t particularly like, always stick around and show your support.
Even after the show, stick around and say, “Thank you.” Say it to everyone: the promoters, the venue, the headlining band — everyone who made the show happen. It’s a small thing, but easily the most important.
You walk a fine line as an opening band. You need to respect the fans, headliner, venue, and promoter, but make sure they aren’t taking advantage of you.
Do everything you can to gain more fans but keep to your set length. You need to be professional but also have fun — the only way you’ll learn to walk that line is through experience.
And remember that depending on the main act’s budget and the venue budget, the opener’s pay may not be great. However, the potential exposure your act will receive from being an opener is far more important.
Take the opportunity for what it’s worth and learn with each show because you never know what might happen next.
How long do opening bands play? Opening bands typically play for 30-45 minutes, depending on what time the show starts and how many other bands are playing. The length of an opening act’s setlist ranges based on the size of the show. For a large stadium tour, the openers setlist is generally 30 minutes to an hour, while a small local show’s opener is usually only 15 to 30 minutes.
How are opening acts chosen? Opening acts are chosen for a number of reasons. Usually, it has something to do with the number of tickets a band can sell, but other times it’s just about promoting another band on the same label. In some cases, it might be about putting on the best possible show, with the best possible bands. But no matter what, it always has something to do with money.
How much do opening acts get paid at concerts? The amount an opening act gets paid depends on the size of the venue, the size of the headliner, the number of tickets that are sold, and the opening act’s relationship to the headliner. At a large club or small theater, the opening act might get paid $500 to $1,500. On larger scale arena tours, a nightly payout could range between $3,000 to $5,000.
Written by Jordan Henrie and Madison Weaver.