After more than a decade of making experimental R&B as Blood Orange, Devonté Hynes made the leap from beloved Indie singer-songwriter to mainstream Pop figure within the span of just a month. This fall, the New York City-based artist enjoyed a 15-show run opening for Harry Styles throughout the global superstar’s Madison Square Garden residency, playing for up to 20K fans every night. Hynes orchestrated a different setlist for each show and immortalized the performance through live CDs that he burned in the venue’s basement, selling them on the spot to enthused fans.
Hynes’ streaming listenership skyrocketed. At the start of his Madison Square Garden run on August 20, he boasted around 2.3M monthly Spotify listeners, and it has since grown by nearly a million listeners, with the count peaking at 3.2M on October 7. His Chartmetric Artist Score also jumped from 13.2K to 34.1K, taking his Chartmetric Career Stage from Mid-Level to Mainstream. That sudden growth is a veritable dream come true for an artist like Hynes, who has flirted with the Pop and Classical worlds and produced for left-of-field Pop stars like Solange, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Sky Ferreira. The additional exposure gained through Harry’s fandom was seemingly the push Hynes needed to cross over into the next tier of Pop recognition.
With huge stadium tours now in full swing, more Mid-Level artists are being greeted with career-changing opportunities as a result of opening for Superstar—or even Legendary—artists. While headlining musicians have long used opening slots to champion emerging talent, this year’s tour lineups have been particularly eclectic, especially as the pandemic has brought in a new vanguard of artists—most of whom have gotten big on the internet and, therefore, may not be marketed according to the same strict demographic markers as their predecessors.
For their summer tour, for instance, Nine Inch Nails chose to bring on Experimental singer-producer Yves Tumor, Hyperpop pioneers 100 gecs, and Darkwave duo Boy Harsher. Florence + the Machine have also played shows with Yves Tumor, plus Indie Pop poet Arlo Parks, Geordie Roots-Rock singer Sam Fender, and Gothic Dream Pop singer Ethel Cain. But some of these opening acts have grown in profile more than others, and none of them have received anywhere close to the massive spurt of attention that Hynes has, suggesting that gaining new fans—or even listeners—as a result of an opening slot on a big bill is not always guaranteed.
Four Key Factors That Make a Successful Tour Opener
In the case of Harry Styles, a star with 66M+ monthly Spotify listeners who can sell out an entire stadium tour, it seems a certainty that any opening act would gain a sizable new following after every performance. Looking at Chartmetric data, however, that’s not always the case. It depends on these four factors:
- Venue size
- Show location
- Number of shows
- Stylistic compatibility
Madi Diaz, an Indie Folk singer, opened for Styles at his two Toronto shows in a 36K capacity venue from Aug. 15-16, but neither her Charmetric Artist Score nor Spotify listener count made any sort of significant jump. As her music definitively veers even further from traditional radio Pop, Diaz might not have been able to easily convert Harry’s fans into her own, especially in just two nights, and her folksy sound perhaps didn’t fare as well in an urban metropolis like Toronto as it would have in, say, a Midwestern U.S. city.
On the other hand, London Rock band Wolf Alice enjoyed an uptick in Spotify monthly listeners during their 17-show run opening for Harry’s Europe leg this summer, joining him on June 26. While their bump wasn’t as explosive as Hynes’ growth, the band saw a sharp increase in their Chartmetric Artist Score of about 5K points from 12.6K to 16K on July 7, which marked their fifth show on the Harry tour. Their Chartmetric Artist Score hovered close to 16K throughout the rest of the tour, until it dropped back down in early August after the run had ended.
The slight delay that it took for Wolf Alice to finally see a growth in listenership suggests that opening acts have a considerably higher chance of seeing fan conversion the longer they are supporting a bigger artist. This was also the case for Hynes, who didn’t really see any increase in Spotify listenership until Sept. 8—11 shows into opening for Harry. That was also the day that Hynes released a new single called “Jesus Freak Lighter” and announced his new EP Four Songs, which arrived at the tail end of the Madison Square Garden residency. From Sept. 7 to Sept. 11, Hynes’ Chartmetric Artist Score jumped from 13.2K to 34.1K, revealing that his strategic timing to announce and release a new project was the push he needed to convert live exposure into digital listeners.
It’s still worth noting that supporting Styles didn’t bring as many listeners to Wolf Alice as their performance at Leeds Festival did on April 28. After playing the 80K capacity event, their monthly Spotify listeners count jumped 47.7K in one day, which is significantly higher than the 14.4K leap they saw after playing their first Harry show. The difference suggests that while opening acts might feel like they have built-in exposure, fans of the headlining act might not always come early to see them or have any interest in listening closely. Roaming festival goers, on the other hand, are likely to be more open to checking out new acts.
While harder to quantify, the stylistic and aesthetic quality of the opening act plays an important part in whether they spark interest in the headlining artist’s core fanbase. After playing a string of headlining sets, Yves Tumor saw a sharp increase in Chartmetric Artist Score, from 4.3K to 5.7K, right before joining Nine Inch Nails on their North American tour on Sept. 2. That figure hovered around 6K throughout the rest of Yves Tumor’s six shows with Nine Inch Nails through mid-September, suggesting that the larger band’s fan base, which encompasses about 3.7M Spotify monthly listeners, had consistently shown interest in the newer rock band.
At the end of September, Yves Tumor joined Florence + the Machine for two dates that didn’t have as much of a marked impact on their growth. After Yves Tumor’s Chartmetric Artist Score jumped to 8K following their appearance at San Francisco’s Portola Festival on Sept. 23, that figure rapidly dropped directly after their last show with Florence on Sept. 27. Though difficult to prove, it seems possible that Florence Welch fans were less keen on Yves’ atmospheric Heavy Metal-inspired experimentation, at least compared to listeners of Nine Inch Nails.
While Yves Tumor was probably not well known among Nine Inch Nails listeners prior to the shows, their complementary style may have led to more Nine Inch Nails fans seeking out their music, relative to Florence and the Machine fans.
Making the Most of Being a Tour Opener
Though it’s exciting to see Mainstream artists enlisting supporting acts that are different in sound and genre, the likelihood of the shows immediately converting listeners seems to be pretty low—unless the opening act joins the bigger act for a long stretch of time. That’s not to say that the shows are not worth playing at all: There’s long-term value in being able to say you opened up for a household name like Harry Styles or Nine Inch Nails, and there's a lot to learn about live performance and touring when you are working closely with such experienced stars.
For any artist who wants to take advantage of an opening slot, it might be worth following the strategy of Hynes, whose perfectly timed four-song EP toward the end of the Madison Square Garden residency was enough to precipitate a whole new level of interest in his left-of-field Pop.