There are lots of factors out there that determine who make that leap from garage band to international success such as having a great stage presence, great songs, and raw talent to spare. But it's also important to remember that you have no opportunity to make that leap if you can't get gigs. More bands than I can count have derailed their own careers by being terrible support acts. And by "terrible", I don't mean untalented, I simply mean they play the role of an opener poorly and burn bridges in the process. Then the gigs dry up, and everyone wonders what happened to them, or, more likely, forgets them entirely.
So today I want to talk about some of the things my own band learned from our own time as a support act, and things we've watched happen again and again on the road with other bands. Following these guidelines doesn't guarantee you success - nothing does - but they just might help tip the scales in your favor, and at the end of the day, that's all you can ask for.
1. Keep It Short, Keep It Sweet
Of course you're anxious to take the stage, kick ass, and let the audience hear all the great songs you've been writing over the years. That's the whole point. But it's important to remember than no one but the band's significant others are there to see the opening band. Play too long, and you're going to annoy the other bands, the audience, and probably the promoter as well. So, it's always a good idea to get a clear set-length from the promoter ahead of time and stick to it. If you don't get a specific number, anywhere between 35-45 minutes is a good opening set length. It doesn't matter if you have a kick ass show and the audience loves you. It's not your show. Leave them wanting more, and there will be more demand for you to come back.
2. Shut Up and Play
There's nothing wrong with a bit of stage banter (so long as you're good at it), but try to keep it to a minimum. At this stage, people don't yet care to hear the long, rambling story about how clever you are and why you wrote a particular song. We once played with a band who, no lie, talked between 5-8 minutes between each song. I actually timed it. Of course, this extended the length of their set to well over an hour, and by the end, the audience was getting visibly restless. This is sort of related to point #1 in that you need to keep in mind that some venues have hard curfews that cannot be broken. So if your set goes on too long, the headliner might not be able to play a complete set. Not the way to make friends.
3. Be Gracious
Even if it's not the headliner who got you on the bill (and it usually isn't), be sure to introduce yourselves and thank them for the opportunity. I can't tell you how many friendships and business relationships started for my band simply from the words "thank you". This can be rare in the music business, so people tend to remember it when they encounter it, because, let's be frank, no one wants to work with assholes. Which brings me to number 4...
4. Don't Be an Asshole
Unless you just completely unaware of social norms, this should be a no-brainer. Don't be a jerk to the promoter even if he's a jerk to you. Don't throw an epic, profanity-laden tirade at the sound guy just because he messed up your sound. Don't trash the backstage, don't slag the venue during your set, don't abuse the venue's sound equipment, don't hit on the other band's girlfriends, don't post nasty stuff about the gig online... do I really need to go on? You wouldn't think so, but I see all this stuff happen CONSTANTLY. Stop it. You know better.
5. Go Above and Beyond
This one really isn't hard, because honestly, people generally don't expect all that much out of bands. If a promoter decided to take a chance on your and put you on a bill, return the favor. Offer to distribute fliers and promote the show, help the sound guy wrap up cables at the end of the night, just do something a little extra to make you stand out as good people to work with. Doing the same with the headliner is a good idea too. We once played a support show where the venue was refusing to fill the band's liquor rider. My keyboard player suggested we run to a liquor store around the corner, grab them a bottle, and break the ice. Not only was the band extremely thankful, but we became friends and remain friends over a decade later.
6. Be Professional
If you want to realize your dream and make music your profession, you need to treat it like a profession. Show up on time, fulfill your obligations, and act like you are at a job you really don't want to get fired from. I know this doesn't sound very "rock n' roll", but you're not frigging Oasis, and you're not going to get the second, third, or fourth chances they've gotten despite bad behavior because you're not making someone millions of dollars. Nothing is a given, so make every decision with that in mind.
7. Slow Down There, Keith Richards...
Almost all bands have to learn this lesson first hand. I know we certainly did. Of course you're excited and want to party and have a wild time. That's part of the appeal of playing live. But keep it in check. No one is going to impressed by how drunk you are. And no matter what you THINK you look like onstage (witty, charming rock star), you probably look pretty stupid. There's nothing wrong with a drink or two ahead of time to calm your nerves, just know your limits. After your set is done, knock yourself out. Have a great time. Just remember no one goes to a gig to see a band get trashed. They want to hear some damn music.