Is It Worth Playing Open Mic Nights?
September 15, 2017
Open mic nights are cropping up left, right and centre, and the musical world has mixed feelings about it. The open mic night is a steadfast tradition in the live music community, and is for a lot of musicians the first foray into performance.
All it takes is a decent space, some decent sound equipment, a few decent people, and you've got a ready made community. Sooner or later, you'll find yourselves attracting more and more inquisitive listeners and adventurous drinkers, and, next thing you know, a scene is born.
This is, of course, the best case scenario. Woefully often, nascent scenes succumb to cliques and elitism, which, coupled with stalls in development, can discourage newcomers, leading to their stagnation and eventual demise.
Nevertheless, any stage can be a platform for you to propel yourself into the musical stratosphere, and, in your capacity as an intrepid and curious musician, you will always find people worth talking to at such events. And, at any rate, you only get as involved as you want to.
The Benefits of Open Mic Nights
Here are a few ways to use the open mic circuit to your advantage, as, like it or not, they're here to stay for the foreseeable future. And if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Testing the Waters
When you're just starting out, there are some things you need to experience first hand, like breaking a string, losing your voice, or playing to crowd who clearly don't give a monkey's (and remember – three can be a crowd, so you can only ask everybody to put their hands in the air ironically).
Better to know what it's like to find yourself nervous, unready and even mildly humiliated at this stage than on one that takes a lot more organisation to reach. Here, you can turn up, plug in, do you bit and sit back down. You eventually realise how much of a luxury it is to not have to be responsible for your own mixing or set up your own equipment, so thank your lucky stars. Then thank whoever actually set it up.
"Better to know what it's like to find yourself nervous, unready and even mildly humiliated at this stage than at one that takes a lot more organisation to reach."
It's also worth mentioning here that you shouldn't get too attached to the first open mic you play at – there really are loads of them, of varying quality and popularity. By all means remain loyal if you make some real friends, but don't let that stop you venturing out. At any rate, there are fresh pairs of ears waiting for you at the next venue, so don't deprive them of the privilege!
Chances are your local open mic is going to run by someone in the know – or at the very least on the outskirts of the know.
They’re bound to have seen many acts come and go during their tenure, some of whom perhaps having moved on to greener pastures, but adopt a friendly approach, show an interest in their story and you can rest assured that they'll tell you it.
You never know – your future bandmates may be sitting right beside you, just as unsure of how to make the first move. Ask open ended questions and be prepared to be asked a few too.
"These connections will come in useful later on in your musical career – particularly when it comes to finding people to come to your gigs."
Also, these connections will come in useful later on in your musical career – particularly when it comes to finding people to come to your gigs.
When your promoter turns around and tells you that you have to sell 30 tickets to make ends meet, you're going to need to look beyond your immediate family and whichever school friends are still in town.
This way, you know there'll be people at your gig who appreciate you from a musical standpoint, rather than just thinking you're a nice person. But do still be a nice person – make sure you go to plenty of gigs too. Once the same faces start showing at the same places, things start to change for the better.
Improving Your Stage Presence
In closer quarters, the gaze of the audience is felt much more strongly, as is the need to avoid radio silence. When you’re playing to 5000 people, you won’t need to worry as much if they’re talking amongst themselves – but in a room of 20, many of whom being more interested in the contents of their glasses, it becomes much more important to keep their attention.
"Over time, you’ll become adept at glossing over interruptions like microphone squeals."
Over time, you’ll become adept at glossing over interruptions like microphone squeals, the untimely dropping of plectrums, or everyone’s favourite, a guitar that simply must be tuned precisely now.
Make light of the situation, like 'oh, there was this one time I just could not get my guitar in tune, and everyone got so annoyed that I just had to go home', but funnier. Sooner or later you’ll be spinning such a fine spiel, people will want to book you to give speeches at their weddings.
Contributing to the rise of a society just feels nice. People smile when they see you, people remember things you told them, in-jokes begin to get more convoluted and baffling to outsiders, you find yourself barely even minding doing favours for each other, you come to enjoy hearing the same songs week-in, week-out because they remind you of your friends.
"Welcome newcomers with open arms and share the love"
You feel like something's happening, like you're going somewhere. So and so's doing a radio show; let's all go and make fools of ourselves on the air. Matey's got a half-decent camcorder; let's shoot a no-budget music video.
Sooner or later you’ll have gathered momentum, and the whole town's being swept up in a big friendly ball. Welcome newcomers with open arms and share the love.
Debuting New Material
Working on a new tune, but want to give it a test run before taking it on the road? Head down to a nearby open mic, where you’ll find yourself in an amicable, accepting environment populated by fellow music lovers always on the lookout for something new.
It's a relief to trust you'll get honest face-to-face feedback from people in the same boat, rather than being swamped with yay and naysayers.
"Follow the 'strong start, strong finish' doctrine – get the crowd on your side, then hit them with something a little more risky."
Think strategically about where in your set you'd like to stick your new song. A lot of performers follow the 'strong start, strong finish' doctrine – get the crowd on your side, then hit them with something a little more risky. If it backfires, you've still got an ace up your sleeve.
You can't really stop in the middle of a gig and ask the audience 'is this new song any good?'. You can however have a quick word with a few open mic goers before and after your performance and see what they say. You don't have to take it on board, but their criticism's going to be much more constructive than anything your mate who only listens to drum 'n' bass can come up with.
This can be a bit of a sensitive subject, but an apt one nonetheless: you’re probably not going to like everyone you’re going to have to deal with in this game.
That’s not to say you should be two-faced about it – just try to be cordial enough to establish a working relationship with your peers. Don’t be put off attending open mic nights just because you don’t see eye to eye with the other attendees – it’s about the music, after all. And relationships change and develop over time anyway.
"You're going to have to get in the promoter's good books if you want a good booking."
That girl with the lensless frames and pre-ripped jeans who always sings the same three songs may turn out to be your greatest ally in this piranha tank of a business. And maybe you could suggest a few new tunes for her to look through the non-existent glass at too.
So as well as making connections, you'll be faking connections. Some people are going to keep cropping up, so politeness is recommended, but birthday invitations perhaps aren't. And you're going to have to get in the promoter's good books if you want a good booking. You want them to smile when they see you. And for them to give you more money.
Building a Career
Ultimately, this is what it could boil down to. If you're serious about making a go of it as a musician, it's a sensible decision to immerse yourself in the local scene, whatever state of repair it's in.
It's at nights like these where you'll meet future collaborators, future fans and other future figures who could be INSTRUMENTAL in your journey.
This is Being in a Band 101 – at this level, pretty much everything could be down to you: bringing along an audience, making sure the sound isn't fuzzy where it shouldn't be, learning your song to the point where you could play it blindfolded – all valuable lessons that'll stand you in good stead later on.
If you turn into a prima donna the second you first take to the stage, people will either think you're joking, or that you're just a joke. This is your small pond, and you're going to have to swim around it a fair few times before you've outgrown it.
What do you think of open mic nights? Do you have open mic success or horror stories? Let us know in the comments!
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