How to be a good support act: Part 1 - Getting a gig and preparing for the show

Public Service Broadcasting

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J Willgoose, Esq. performs for Public Service Broadcasting as part of a BBC Introducing showcase

UPDATE: Read part 2; Dealing with the show day, here.

When I first spoke to BBC Introducing about writing an article about support bands, I thought – and still do now – that such a guide would need to start with a few caveats, so best to get those out of the way first. The most important one is that I am not pretending to know everything about being a support band, playing live, headlining and so on. The below advice is based solely on my own experience playing in bands for over ten years and experiencing countless support slots of our own, as well as having had many support acts playing with us as headliners.

The second is that this is almost entirely based on the practical aspects of being a support act and offers no advice on musical content or the quality of that content.

The third is that this applies mostly to what I would call ‘proper’ gigs – not the ones we’ve all done or been to in London or countless other cities where they cram four, five or even six bands onto one bill in a desperate attempt to fill the venue and slots are allotted at random. In those situations, there is no real headliner or support.

Anyway. Enough pre-amble, let’s get down to it…

This can be quite a simple process but there are still several factors to take into consideration that might help you. They can be relatively simple – checking bands’ upcoming shows in your area, working out which ones you might be available for and would like to offer yourselves for and seeing which ones have already announced support acts.

The first thing you can do is to focus your resources and be realistic. There’s no point emailing the Arctic Monkeys or Coldplay and asking to support them – it’s just not going to happen and is just going to waste your time. Once bands get to a certain level the support slots become almost impossible to obtain, unless the band themselves ask for you by name.

For smaller, more local shows it is often the promoter who puts bands forward for support slots, so having a good local reputation (both for performance and for attracting a crowd) can immediately place you several steps ahead. Try and play a few gigs in your local area with good promoters who put on decent bands as they are likely to be the ones that bigger bands use when they tour your area. And if you can’t get a slot or don’t have time to do this then make sure the promoters know about you – send them your details and music, tell them a bit about you, suggest some bands or styles you’d be suitable for as support, assure them that you have a local audience and let them know that you’re available. You never know when a support act is going to drop out at the last minute and you might get a call that ends up leading somewhere good.

Otherwise, it’s often worth finding out who the band’s booking agent is and emailing them directly. Some bands are notoriously publicity-shy, not putting email addresses on websites or social media, but I would bet a modest sum of money that one email address you can always find is that of the band’s booking agent. It is how they get their gigs, festivals and essentially how they earn their money. You ought to be able to find it with a minimum of effort.

It might sound obvious to encourage you to ask this question of yourselves before firing off an enthusiastic email, but I assure you that I receive many, many emails from bands who have clearly given this question approximately zero seconds’ thought.

What is going to make you stand out? How are you going to persuade them to take five minutes to actually listen to your stuff rather than just pressing delete and getting on with something else?

However cynical it may seem to label it as such, a support act relationship is a two-way transaction. Do they just want a ‘cool’ local act or a good name that reflects well on them? Do they have a good record of selling tickets for shows in your area, and if not, can you draw attention to your own local shows that have sold well and drawn crowds in? Are they a band with a big setup (like us) who would appreciate smaller scale support acts who can fit in and around their gear so they don’t have to pack down twice every day? Are they a band who might be seeking an act to get the crowd well and truly warmed up, or a more low-key, subdued affair to set the mood.

Having an answer to even one or two of these questions will allow you to adapt your approach in a way that will set you apart from a great deal of other bands who don’t bother to put this thought in.

You should also consider who from your party is the best choice to make contact. The best and most professional method, in most cases, will be to allow your manager or agent to establish contact with their counterparts, but perhaps if you met the singer personally somewhere and mentioned your band to him or her then it might be worth taking a more personal approach.

This might seem obvious, but I strongly recommend against having money extracted from you and / or your label to play support shows.

Obviously there are occasions when it might be reasonable to be asked to pay towards costs. If you are sharing a tour bus, for example, you may be asked to pay for your share of it in terms of bunks and so forth. What’s definitely not reasonable in my opinion is to be asked to pay for the whole bus, though, or money on top of that as well. We’ve never been asked to do this, and would never ask anyone else to do it either, but I know there are tours where this is quite a normal thing.

The people who suffer in the long run are the crowd – they get a support act who aren’t there because the main band like them, merely because they can afford to be, and who quite possibly resent having been forced to pay to play on the tour. It’s not a good situation all round. I wouldn’t do it, anyway.

If you’ve actually got yourself on a bill then well done – that’s the hardest part of the whole process, I’d say. From now on your goal should be to put on the best show you can, win a few new fans over, and to make sure you leave a positive impression with the headliners.

A big part of making a good impression is fulfilling any promotional commitments that you’ve made. They might be an important part of why you got the gig in the first place. If you’ve secured a support slot on the basis that you’ll do your best to create a bit of local buzz around the show and maybe even shift a few tickets to your fans and friends in the process then please don’t book another gig (even another support gig) for two weeks or so either side. It just doesn’t look good and doesn’t help anyone, least of all you. If you already have shows booked in the nearby area and are asked to support then come clean about it and let the headliners’ promoter or booking agent know; honesty is nearly always the best policy!

Liaise with the band’s management or the band themselves and find out exactly what’s expected of you. If there is a date they want you to announce on, announce on that date and definitely, definitely don’t do it beforehand. Normally they’ll want a few Facebook posts, a few tweets and a mention to your mailing list, for example. All of this is very simple and painless. If in doubt, I would say tend towards over-promoting rather than under-promoting – you’re unlikely to annoy a headliner by talking about a show too much, whereas you’re very likely to annoy them by not doing your bit.

It’s a very good idea to sort out all technical aspects of the gig well in advance. Do you have all your own equipment? Are the headliners happy for you to bring it all, or would they rather you shared some of theirs to save on changeover times and stage space? Are you allowed to sell merch on or near their merch stand? I’ve never met a band who’ve said no but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Do you have any unusual technical requirements that need addressing? Do you have visuals? Make sure you are allowed to use them.  Asking nicely is a very important part of all this, by the way. It’s a lot harder to say no to someone who is polite and considerate than it is to a pushy upstart.

Also make sure you find out what time you’re needed for load-in and soundcheck and that the rest of your band know about it well in advance. You may be at the stage where you have full-time day jobs – make sure you can sneak out early on those days or take the afternoon off.

Most importantly get a few phone numbers for the day – a point of contact for the band, for the venue and the promoter, too. You will need to speak to them if you are running late.

Hopefully the above points go some way towards providing some useful advice about getting and preparing for a support show. The second part of this guide will deal with advice for the show day itself.

And don't forget to share your advice and experiences in the comments section below.

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