Earlier this month, after reading our article, "An Artist Wants to Know How to Create Buzz for His New Album," Tony $antana, a 22-year-old artist from Santa Ana, CA, and longtime DJBooth reader, sent me an email, asking about the value of performing in the internet era before actually gaining a dedicated, loyal fanbase, and whether or not serving as an opening act before becoming a headliner is a worthwhile mission.
I have a question I'm hoping one of y'all can answer. Do artists who are unsigned/unknown need to do shows in this era where everything lives on the internet?
Personally speaking, I have opened up for acts such as Wale, Waka Flocka, Chief Keef, etc. but have never felt like it progressed my fanbase, my career nor my artistry. The reason for that is because I feel like people who show up to these shows are there for the headliner and do not necessarily care to pay the opening sets any mind.
Nowadays, artists live on the internet and do not start doing shows until they blow up. For example, Nav was blowing up and even signed to The Weeknd's XO imprint without ever doing a show in his life (so they say). So what's your perspective on whether an artist NEEDS, not wants, to do shows before really gaining a fanbase.
Rather than directly reply to Tony's email, I asked his permission to respond in the form of Answered, our long-running series that aims to educate artists on different facets of the music industry.
For the better part of the past fifteen years, I've worked in and around the music business, both in radio and online journalism, but I've never once pursued a career as an artist myself. While I could answer Tony's inquiry based on the knowledge I've gained from talking to artists, managers, labels, booking agents, and promoters, I thought it was in his best interest—and in the best interest of any independent artist reading this article—if the answer came from a fellow artist (or three).
So I reached out to Minnesota emcee PROF, a 10-year veteran of the independent music scene who is currently signed to Rhymesayers Entertainment, Seattle emcee Sadistik, a nine-year veteran of the independent music scene who is fresh off the release of his 2017 album, Altars, and Aaron "AbJo" Nash, a producer, DJ, remixer, and mixing/mastering engineer with Soulection, a Los Angeles-based record label and niche collective of creative music makers.
First off, let me start by saying if you are an aspiring rapper, you will most definitely not make it. To get to a point where you are a professional recording artist is even rarer than being a professional athlete. But hey, SOMEONE's gotta make it, so why not you? I was naive enough to think I could be a rapper, and here's my dumbass, eating off rap for over five years.
If you're not an elite performer, it might not be worth opening up for other artists. Unfortunately, I was good at performing, so I HAD to take that route. I would have much rather blown up off an online single, and been poppin' on the blogs than to work the underground touring circuit for five years away from home and my loved ones, working for peanuts and taxing my mind and body.
It all depends on what you think you are good at. Rapping on stage in front of people who don't give a fuck about you is tough. Especially when you're only passing time for them to see the headliner. But then you gotta also take into account what you think the odds are that you write and record a single that picks up and lights the internet on fire... when there are literally MILLIONS of new songs coming out every single day. Since everyone has a computer and a microphone, it's impossible to get heard over the noise out here.
Opening up for artists is what made my career, though. It was hellish, but it worked for me. If you want to convert fans by opening, you have to grab those motherfuckers by the face. You have to be exceptional, every single night. If you want to blow up online, you have to be something no one has ever seen. Your character, swag and talent need to be exceptional. Your music videos need to be groundbreaking.
If you really love what you do, it will help every step of the way.
I've done about fifteen tours at this point in my career, from being the opener to main support to headlining both domestically and in Europe. While they all feel unique in some way, the common goal I've always had is this: connect with people and they'll convert.
First off, I don't think anybody needs to play live shows in order to be successful in 2017, but I do think that it sets a ceiling on how successful you can become. In an era where people are constantly bombarded with new musicians, it's really all about making a true connection to your listeners in a way that makes them want to invest in you.
Why should they care about you or your music? I think a live setting is the most opportune way to answer that for them.
With that said, you're right when you say that people are there for the headliner. Aside from a rare case, almost nobody attends a show to see the opening act. So when I was the one opening a show, I made it a point to embrace it and destroy their expectations. If you want to convert people to your message, you have to do something that makes them remember you. I wouldn't sound like, look like, or perform like who I was opening for so it made it easier for me to stand out.
It's also important to consider how well you fit with the headliner. Are people who listen to his or her music going to be open-minded to your own? If you've got the talent and the fit is right, then the answer should be yes! Too often the local opener or support act comes off like a watered-down version of the headliner. Why would I go out of my way to check out your shit when I could keep listening to the artist I came to see?
I've played a show with Waka Flocka that did almost nothing for me, but when I play a show with Tech N9ne, it almost immediately equates to a lot of new listeners. It's really all about the fit. For me, the most successful tours as a supporting act are ones where my style fits in just enough to make sense with the headliner, but different enough to really stand out. That's been my strategy for a lot of tours and I've consistently gained long-term fans from it.
Finally, when you're starting out, I think there's a lot of hidden value in bad shows. Sometimes playing for an empty or skeptical room forced me out of my comfort zone, which made me experiment more with my performances and grow as an artist. It's easy to kill a crowd of thousands, it's not easy to impress a room of twenty-eight people who are self-conscious. My goal has always been to do be able to do both.
Aaron "AbJo" Nash
No one has really "blown up" EVER until they've met their fans face to face in a performance setting, meaning Lil Whoever, DJ Kushmaster, and FNKYASBTMKRNAME have to step out from behind their SoundCloud accounts and on a stage before there's any real value attached to their name.
In my experience, as a founding artist of Soulection—who most think blew up out of nowhere from the internet—there is no way we would have made it this far if we didn't try to get our name out there, physically in the crowds and in the dank corners of little bars and clubs playing unheard-of, but fire-ass jams nonetheless. And yes, we are actually still "blowing up," and still having to show up on stage and behind a DJ booth to show people we're here.
That said, having both headlined my own mini-tours both in and out of the states, as well as opened for the likes of Nas, Lauryn Hill, Kendrick Lamar, DJ Premier and more, it is essential you put in the time (pay your dues) on the stage, driving in Enterprise rent-a-vans across the country and doing endless sets, so that you can appreciate when you finally get your name up in big letters for all to see.
Openers are—and this is a trade secret—the most important part of the whole event, and have the hardest job, because no matter who the headliner is, a show is really only as good as the entire lineup. Seasoned opener DJs know they have to both get the crowd warmed up for the headliner and maintain enough hype for themselves and their brand. It's an art that, once learned, translates to a skill that all of the aforementioned artists have successfully employed.
Learn the protocols, set the example, murk your sets, put in the work, show up and show out, and connect. Your artistry and growing following on the internet (and then IRL) will thank you, while you sit and make whatever next banger you make in your bedroom/studio/bathroom/basement/trap house.
Oh, and if you're still questioning the whole getting on stage to perform in front of five people, just remember that you could gain five more fans than you had the day before, and statistically, it'll only get bigger if you keep showing up.