In Defense of Opening Acts

A few weeks ago, I went to see the XX perform in Baltimore, Maryland. It was a re-do from October, when the group was forced to cancel a couple shows because of the bad weather that was crippling the East Coast. When the night was initially planned, all accounts had the band Chairlift as the night’s opening act. I was somewhat excited to finally check them out, after reading up on their blend of synth pop. 

Naturally, then, it was some disappointment when I arrived to see … something called Austra take the stage about two hours before the XX were slated to perform. My expectations were squandered, yes, but I was willing to give the Canadian outfit a shot. I mean, hey — if the XX thought enough of them to take them out on tour, they couldn’t be that bad, now could they?

Such has been my attitude toward the majority of the opening acts I come across. The older I get — and the more the music industry’s business model keeps evolving — the more I have tried to find something good within whomever has the guts to trot out on a stage before the main attraction appears. Or, at the very least, I’ve learned to give the artists an honest chance at making a positive impact on my evening as a spectator. 

But opening acts aren’t just an annoying sideshow designed to give an unknown label-mate 15 minutes in front of an audience, anymore. Now more than ever, they have become a respected element of the concert experience, an outlet for the headliner to expose and enjoy artists he or she handpicks. And as John Jurgensen of the Wall Street Journal pointed out in May of last year, the collaboration of picking an opening act has given the act of going to see live music an element of communalism that the practice had previously lacked.

“Against the backdrop of weak music sales and vanished tour funding from record labels, artists and their managers are taking control of every aspect of their concert business,” Jurgensen wrote. “Promoters, booking agents and labels are still involved in the search for strong support acts, but there are fewer arranged marriages. That’s especially true when the headliner is a strong draw that doesn’t need to pick a hot opener to goose ticket sales. Plus, it almost always makes for a better show.

“Big artists are now expected to make their music tastes public,” he continues, “For example, Jay-Z, Metallica and the folk band Mumford & Sons are among acts ‘curating’ their own stand-alone music festivals this summer. The upshot for support acts: headliners can now do better than an obligatory shout-out from the stage. When Katy Perry had Robyn on her tour, she routinely promoted her presence with tweets such as ‘It’s gonna be hard getting ready for my show while dancing my a— off to yours!’ Such offstage praise may have resonated with Ms. Perry’s young fans. During the tour, Robyn says her YouTube viewership shifted to a core of females ages 10 to 20 from one of males ages 20 to 40.” (“The Rise of the Opening Act”, 31 May 2012)

If there is a single thing at which we can point when considering how positively transformative the way music consumption has become, it’s this: because of file-sharing, photo-taking and update-heavy virtual personalities (both famous and not-so-famous), fans of live music have the ability to expand their tastes exponentially now more than they did when records still routinely sold in the millions and a single group could realistically pull off a stadium tour on their own. From Soundcloud to Spotify to YouTube, it’s now possible to follow up on artists we hadn’t even known existed before walking into large rooms ready for a night filled with music. More so, we even have the ability to do a bit of research on said artists before having our tickets ripped (see: above interest in Chairlift).

Case in point: Jennie Abrahamson. Before 14 October 2012, I would have never even known of her existence as a working songwriter/singer. Hailing from Stockholm, she currently has a modest 709 followers on Twitter, owns her own record label and has been compared to Lykke Li, a hip, but not-so-well-known female singer in her own right. And that’s about it. Her latest effort, The Sound of Your Beating Heart, spawned the terrific “Hard To Come By”, an infectious if not inescapable pop tune that landed at No. 1 … on the Swedish Student Radio playlist. 

Again. On the Swedish Student Radio playlist.

But as it goes, on that fateful night in October, she was in charge of opening act duties on Peter Gabriel’s Back to Front tour. Four songs. That was it. Three of them her own. One, a cover. “In This Life to Live”. “Hard to Come By”. “Atoms for Peace”. And “Falling”. Utter perfection. She gave the crowd just enough of a taste to leave an impression while by no means overstaying her welcome. Give ’em the best 20 minutes you got, and get off the stage. I’ve been scouring the Internet at least once a week since then, hoping to find news on a possible American release of The Sound of Your Beating Heart. I didn’t just become an admirer that night. I became a fan.

That’s the beauty of today’s music world — access is virtually unlimited. Had I seen Abrahamson perform 20 years ago, there would have essentially been no feasible way to follow up on her career other than to scour the import section at used CD stores. These days, I can return home and in no less than two hours, memorize every word to every song I watched her perform earlier that evening. It makes the opening act exercise a much more hands-on experience. You could walk into an arena with intentions of singing along to “In Your Eyes” and walk out with hopes that Amazon has clips of a previously unknown Swedish singer who at one point had a college radio hit. 

“I view reviews as news stories,” John J. Moser, a writer for the Lehigh Valley Music Blog in Pennsylvania, wrote in 2011 after he received questions about why he didn’t profile an artist named Nikki Jean after she opened for the band Train. “Yes, they are critiques and opinion, but the reason music critics write about certain artists and not about others is because they’re newsworthy. I can’t write about every concert that comes to our area — although I try to do as many as possible… Just as I don’t think every concert is important, in far more cases I don’t think most opening acts are important. To me, concerts are almost always about headliners… I feel no obligation to see every opening act, either — sort of how I don’t expect sports writers to have to sit through every JV game before reporting on the varsity contest.” (“Concerts’ opening acts: If they’re not great, or news, you won’t read about them here”, Wall Street Journal, 17 August 2011)

That’s fair… for a writer. When working a concert, it’s impossible to relay every piece of information that comes from an evening of music, and readers shouldn’t necessarily expect to hear a play-by-play of all that occurred anymore than they should a narrative on how the main attraction presented themselves on a given evening. For a music fan, however, such couldn’t be further from the truth. Giving the opening act your full attention at a concert shouldn’t be just an extra curricular activity — it should be a privilege for us as an audience. 

These are working musicians who make less to nothing on each tour stop. It’s not unreasonable to think that these people view live performance as just another element of a profession that doesn’t offer, among many other things, health benefits, stability or longevity in the business. They are doing everything they can to support themselves (and in some cases, entire families) by heading onto a stage to entertain onlookers who typically have absolutely no interest in who they are or what they are doing. A lot of people believe that being a musician has to be the best job in the world, and while there is some truth to that, you can’t help but empathize with those who are simply trying to advance in their industry in the same way a fry-cooker hopes to one day be a manager at the local McDonald’s. 

And if the XX was owner of the restaurant on that night in Baltimore, Austra was merely hoping to craft an impressive Big Mac once every few sandwiches. Were they the most ideal way to begin a night filled with electronic beeps and gloomy pop bliss? No — despite giving them the benefit of the doubt, I didn’t walk away from their performance feeling particularly impressed one way or the other. But do I feel like I was able to pull the most out of being lucky enough to spend an evening enjoying live music by getting to the venue early enough to check the band out and form an opinion on them and their music that I can call my own? 

Well, for every Jennie Abrahamson, there will forever be an Austra out there, waiting to balance out the opening act equation. Both will always deserve our consideration, and both will always make the concert-going experience that much more fulfilling.