There are a few ways to make sure you get to open for a major artist in town:
Develop a consistent reputation with promoters in your area that you can pack out whatever venues you play. Part of getting this great buzz about your music is getting into local press or radio stations (usually with the help of a publicist), being proactive about promoting your shows, and demonstrating that you’d make a good fit for the show.
Buy your way in. Either you’ll be asked to sell a minimum number of tickets (and pay the difference if you are short) or pay the performer up front.
Enter a random contest that you have no control over (sometimes local promoters or radio stations have a contest for local artists to enter), but the results usually have to do deal with option #1 (how much of a buzz do you have).
The first option takes time, energy, and hard work. In the process, you’ll gain the respect of the local music industry. You’ll build true fans that will come to other shows, buy your merchandise, and support your career. It’s the equivalent of a business building solid, regular customers. If the act you’re opening for likes you, you’ll be invited to do future shows with them and they’ll probably encourage their fans to support you.
The second option requires money. You won’t gain respect in the industry (most managers, booking agents, and labels smell a “buy on” act a mile away). You might make new fans if people show up to the concert early (many people skip the opening acts), are paying attention, and you blow them away. These fans might or might not buy your merchandise and the probably won’t come to your future shows unless you really develop a rapport with them. The band you’re opening up for probably won’t watch you and doesn’t really care about you. This is akin to the business that just buys a bunch of ads and gives away free stuff, hoping people come back to shop.
It’s odd: people are so reluctant when they encounter “pay to play” models from promoters yet they’re so desperate that they’ll throw thousands of dollars down in order to open for a touring band they admire. The pay off usually isn’t there. I’d only recommend it if you weren’t losing money on the deal (you’ll have no problems selling all of the tickets). Same thing goes for people who “buy” friends on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, or Myspace (there are companies that sell a “like” service); one look at any of act’s pages and you can tell that there is no true engagement. Your time, money, and energy would be better spent elsewhere.
I forgot to mention a fourth option: be the promoter yourself. Rent a venue, book the band, put yourself on the bill. I’ve done it myself a few times, I know other promoters and bands who do this. If you know how to run a show, it’s a lot different than when you’re at someone’s mercy for the terms.
Simon Tam is owner of Last Stop Booking, a full service agency that offers tour booking and music consulting services. Simon has appeared on stage at over 1,200 live events and has traveled North America presenting ideas about the music industry. Simon’s writing on music and marketing can be found at www.laststopbooking.com