Dave Matthews Syndrome

Bruce Houghton
September 23, 2019

How to build an audience that keeps coming back.

With touring revenue accounting for the lion’s share of most musicians’ income, building a sustainable career as a performing artist has become more important than ever. This means it’s essential to develop an audience willing to pay to see you perform.

A great way to grow your audience is to perform for potential fans who love live music but aren’t specifically there to see you, such as at a private party, a free street fair, a multi-act festival, or a crowded local bar.

For most artists, one of the most sought-after opportunities to play for potential fans is as an opening act. But be careful what you wish for. 

Dave Matthews Syndrome

It's only natural to want to play in front of as many people as possible. So scoring that gig in front of a band headlining an arena can seem like a dream come true. 

For a number of years, I was able to book some opening act slots for the Dave Matthews Band. I would pick an artist on our agency roster who I thought was great live and would appeal to Dave Matthews fans. 

These artists would perform in front of 10,000 to 12,000 people, getting an enthusiastic response from the crowd. But a few months later when they returned to the same city for a club show, they might draw 20 more people than they had previously drawn before they played with Dave Matthews. This pattern repeated itself with multiple bands over a number of years. 

I started calling it the Dave Matthews Syndrome.

I came to believe that the fans of the Dave Matthews Band, no matter how much they enjoyed the opening act, were really there just to see Dave. Any act was virtually a placeholder as his fans waited for Dave to hit the stage. They weren’t seeking something new.

But when I put one of our artists in front of 500 or 1,000 people, opening a successful club or small theater show, they would often win many times the number of fans that they had gained from performing in front of 12,000 Dave Matthews fans.

Perhaps fans of a band that draws 500 people are more interested in discovering new music than are fans of a mainstream arena act. Or perhaps a developing artist can compete live more easily with a club or theater-level act than they can with a polished arena act with a dozen big hits and a million-dollar stage show. There are exceptions, but experience has shown me that opening for a band two or three levels higher often nets more true fans than opening a massive arena show.

Don't get me wrong: There are plenty of reasons to say “yes” to playing in front of a major headliner. I won't deny that I spent weeks telling talent buyers that my act was unavailable because they were opening for Dave Matthews. It became a key part of their story. But as far as building their audience as a touring act, it meant surprisingly little.

I often tell artists that if they can imagine that a reasonable percentage of the people at a show or event are potential future fans and they can afford to do the show, go play it. 

As Dave Matthews taught me, bigger is not always better. Winning even one new true fan puts you closer to your goal of having a sustainable career in music.

Bruce Houghton teaches Berklee Online’s new Touring 101 course.

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