Over the last 15 months, Bon Jovi has implemented an unusual booking tactic for their This House Is Not For Sale tour. Rather than take an established or even rising support act on the road with them, they created a contest to pick mainly local artists to open each show throughout their North American legs.
The two-tiered voting process — artist videos reviewed by concert promoters Live Nation, who selected the Top 10, from which Bon Jovi’s management team made their final selections — allowed for fresh faces to be exposed to long-time fans of one of rock’s biggest bands.
Given that the 20-minute opening slots were unpaid, it would be easy to dismiss this as a shrewd marketing gimmick that saves the group money. But none of the artists interviewed by Billboard were complaining. Quite the opposite. “He does get a free opening slot,” allows guitarist Harrison Marcello, whose band Tempt opened one of the Madison Square Garden shows last week. “But it takes a lot for a band that big, that doesn’t even need an opening act, to extend that olive branch and pay that forward to the next generation. It is a big deal for those bands who go up there.”
An added bonus for the performers was meeting Jon for a few minutes before the show, as well as receiving professional video and audio recorded from the show. That easily saved contest winners thousand upon thousands of dollars in production costs. Bands such as The Revel, Hold on Hollywood, and Analog Heart have uploaded video clips onto their sites and YouTube to increase their exposure. Oak & Ash created a 25-minute vlog about their experience, combining the pro video with their own backstage footage. When Natalie Gelman asked fans to take photos at the start of her final song “Photograph,” that sea of lights was captured by a cameraman behind her.
But the question lingers: Did the participating openers actually get much of a career boost from their appearances? Billboard spoke with seven artists to find out.
Charlotte-based singer-songwriter Michael Tracy opened the first show in Greenville, North Carolina in February 2017, which garnered him a full feature on Billboard last year. While he had previously opened for larger acts including Styx, Foreigner and Don Felder, this was an even bigger achievement. “You could run with it media-wise in that specific couple of weeks,” says Tracy. “But more importantly, from there I ended up doing a couple of shows with Poison last year, and then another with Marshall Tucker. It worked out perfectly because I was going dark a little bit last year making the new album.”
Thanks to a good connection with Live Nation, and staying in touch with Bon Jovi’s management over the course of the subsequent year, Tracy opened for the band again in his hometown last month. “It’s an opportunity to learn from an experience,” says Tracy. “It’s the challenge of having 20 minutes to sing my songs that 99.9 percent of these people have never heard, and to try to win some people over. You always gain from it in all kinds of ways.”
The youngest performers to open for Bon Jovi were the five Interlochen Arts Academy Singer Songwriters, who come from America’s first fine arts boarding high school and music camp. According to Courtney Kaiser-Sandler, instructor of singer songwriter at Interlochen, the school’s singer songwriter program has for four years taken five to seven students on an annual, week-long performance tour. “A big part of our [recent] curriculum has been taking students off-campus as the best way to teach,” says Kaiser-Sandler. “We actually take them on the road, and that [Bon Jovi] experience definitely sealed the deal.”
The Michigan-based Interlochen students missed the deadline for Chicago, so they applied for Pittsburgh and landed the gig at the PPG Paints Arena. Thanks to the auspices of a major donor, the students — Grace Baer, Marley Harris-Deans, Ally Lubera, Taylor Meloche, and Jesse Munsat — flew in and out in a 24-hour period, rented music gear locally, and explored the backstage area to learn what goes on behind the scenes. “They were helped by people like Obie [O’Brien] and the sound crew,” recalls Kaiser-Sandler. “They got to meet Jon and talk with him, which was really exciting for them.”
Bon Jovi’s advice? “He told them basically that they should love all the songs they write,” says Kaiser-Sandler. “Because they might be playing them for 25 years.”
While the teacher was nervous for her students, who had never played to audiences nearly that large — 80 people was the most before — she says as soon as they hit the stage, they performed like seasoned pros. “I couldn’t be more proud of those five teenagers playing in front of that many people,” says Kaiser-Sandler. “By the time they were done [the venue] was definitely half full. They were gracious to everyone and they rocked it. None of them had ever been on a stage that size, so they did a lot of walking around and using that space, but still staying connected with each other. It was good just to see that our students could do that.”
British country performer Beth Thornton is based in the U.K., but her drummer Miggy is an American citizen, so he applied and landed them one of the Toronto gigs at the Air Canada Centre in April 2017. Her five-piece band flew over for this one show. “It was the most surreal day of our lives,” remarks Thornton. “Most of these big bands will have really established artists opening for them. Everyone was so nice, and we just walked around thinking, ‘Is this real? And we’re allowed to be here?’”
This was definitely the biggest gig she and her band had ever played; previously the largest was 300 people. “When we first went out they had all the house lights on, and you could see everyone which was terrifying,” recalls Thornton, who has been a huge Bon Jovi fan since she was a teenager. “When we actually got onto the stage, they turned them down and we could only see the first 20 rows, and it was fine.”
Thornton says that performing the show caught the attention of U.K. press who previously had overlooked her. Then she came home and co-wrote “Something You Don’t Know” with a songwriting team called Alkemi — which attracted an app company called First Touch Games, who picked the tune last November for inclusion in their Dream League Soccer game. That exposure has pushed the song to nearly 250,000 views on YouTube and 40,000 plays on Spotify.
“The coolest thing for me is [Jon’s brother] Matt Bongiovi is my manager now,” reports Thornton. They stayed in touch with him and officially announced him as her manager in February. Bongiovi has tweeted a number of times about Thornton, including one in March informing music fans to keep an eye out for her.
Bay Area rocker Thadeus Gonzalez has opened for heavy hitters like KISS, Motley Crue, and Slash, but he says Bon Jovi was even bigger for him. “We were the main support, so it was just us and then Bon Jovi, so we got a lot of the attention,” says Gonzalez. He estimates that the venue was three quarters full when his band performed. “It was a big deal. I think a lot of people have seen me perform over the years in the Bay Area and up and down the west coast. People want people to achieve things. When you see a person you know do that, it’s what they want.”
Gonzalez relates a funny story about the show. While the crew were using wireless gear, “I like to use a mic cord on stage to whip around like Morrissey,” he says. One crew member had a 100-foot cord that he could use on the large stage, but it lead to a snafu. “It was caught on everything, and it was such an impediment to getting my show off. That was the funny part. I’ll never do that again.”
While Gonzalez cannot specifically quantity the immediate effects of the show on his career, he had been shopping around for a label deal and booking agency, both of which he later secured. “It puts more notches on my belt,” says Gonzalez. “When you do something like that, more people are going to notice you and take you more seriously. There are so many bands now.”
L.A.-based folk artist Natalie Gelman — who has performed house concerts and opening 300 to 1,500 seat houses for artists including Jill Sobule, JD Souther, and Billy Bob Thornton and the Box Masters — relished the experience. Having sung the National Anthem for years at numerous arena sporting events on both coasts (including one in Philadelphia a decade ago where Jon was allegedly present), she felt ready to tackle the big show. Her set at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento took her to another level.
“It was amazing,” says Gelman. “I literally stepped off that stage thinking, ‘What do I have to do to get on this stage again? I’ll write whatever song I have to write. What hit song do I need to write to play an arena?’” The experience boosted her confidence, and fan reaction confirmed that her intimate songs play well in an arena setting.
Although Gelman had a little over two weeks notice for her late February 2017 show, she maximized the opportunity. She bought a bass drum logo to be sure people knew her name. She hired people to hand out fliers before the show and joined them afterward, which gave her a chance to connect directly with fans who then followed her on Instagram and Facebook. Local Sacramento television stations interviewed her the night of the show, she gained more newspaper mentions on tour, and more fans came to shows in her home SoCal turf in Ojai and Ventura. This past January, she also won a contest to open for and sing with Wyclef Jean. She hopes labels will take more notice of her forthcoming album having seen that she can hold her own in an arena setting.
New York pop-rock band Oak & Ash opened one of the MSG concerts last year. They had previously won Newsday’s Battle of the Bands contest in 2016. The Bon Jovi slot bolstered them. “We had a lot more exposure after that to people within the industry,” says frontman Rich Tuorto. “There were some gigs after that that came from people in the audience or from people that worked alongside him.” In fact, a promoter reached out to them this year to open for a Jon Bon Jovi solo charity gig in March for charity in Tarrytown, New York, so Oak & Ash played for him a second time.
“The most important thing that happened is that we were able to find our management company [Sink or Swim Management], which has been absolutely phenomenal in getting us gigs and more opportunities,” says Tuorto. “We just signed on with [booking agency] Paradigm within the last couple months, so that’s giving us a ton of traction.”
Eighties-influenced rock quartet Tempt opened one of the two Madison Square Garden gigs last week, and their anthemic style certainly fit with the era in which Bon Jovi became famous. When Harrison Marcello and his Tempt bandmates met Jon, “he told us a funny story about why he only gave us 20 minutes,” the guitarist recalls. “[He said] ‘When I played here my first time when I was your age, like 21, 22, I was opening for ZZ Top and they gave us 30 minutes. We played our whole set in 20 minutes. You’re so nervous [doing that], and that’s why you guys got 20 minutes.’”
Immediately after the show, Tempt had a meet-and-greet, which Marcello says had between 20 and 30 people in line at one point. The band received 400 new likes on their Facebook page and 100 new followers on Instagram and 50 on Twitter. “We have people commenting, and those that came to the meet-and-greet posted photos with us,” says Marcello, who is still interacting online with new fans. Tempt signed with booking agency TKO a few months ago, and they are planning a summer tour.
“It’s one thing to play an arena, but Madison Square Garden is a whole other level,” says Marcello. “To say you performed there is pretty insane.”
“It is what every band needs now and then in their career,” concurs Gonzalez. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to play a stadium anytime soon, so to get that opportunity is pretty cool.”