Starting out as a musician, the first place that you will be playing is the dreaded “Open Mic.” The Open Mic is a voluntary, non-paying gig that lets anyone in a bar, café, or music store go onstage to perform. You will see everything from music and comedy, to poetry and philosophy. Depending on the venue, the night, the crowd and the atmosphere, the Open Mic can be either really great, or disastrous. There are many ways one can survive and even thrive off the Open Mic. In this article, I will share my tips on surviving the Open Mic.
The Venue, Crowd, and the Atmosphere
The venue of the Open Mic can make all the difference in the type of night that will happen. The three main types of venue are the bar, the café and the music store. I will start with the worst type of venue and continue from there.
The bar is the worst out of all three venues. The bar is the worst for a number of reasons. The first reason is overcrowding. Many bar owners tend to fill their bar over capacity in hopes of making more profit from the night. The bar will have an Open Mic at least once a month. More patrons will show up for a listed band, or a band that is headlined or advertised. The bar owner can count on these bands for bringing in more patrons per hour to the bar. The people at the bar are also the worst too. Because there are basically no rules at the bar besides being a reasonable drunk; be expected to not be heard at all. Bars are loud, which is not something a performer needs. I have dealt with many people not paying attention to me and it makes me feel unappreciated. I volunteered my time for you to play some music, the least you could do is listen. If there is one tip I can give for the bar, it would be this: Get to know the owner. If you introduce yourself to the owner of the bar, chances are that the owner will take some time to listen to your set and possibly give you an actual paying gig.
The next venue is the café. The café is what I like to call, “middle-of-the-road.” I call it this because there are both advantages and disadvantages. One big advantage is that the crowds there are quiet and actually appreciate a newcomer. I have always dealt with a great reception when playing a café. One of the disadvantages is the crowd number. There are fewer crowds at the café, which makes it almost not worth playing there. Yes, they're quiet, but they are so small that it almost feels like a waste of time. I do recommend introducing yourself to the owner, but I also recommend introducing yourself to the fellow musicians at the café. Introducing yourself to the other performers is a great way to start networking yourself around the local community and it can also create lasting musical friendships.
The last, and in my opinion, the best venue is the music store. Most music stores have an open mic at least once a week, which is great for an up and coming musician who wants to try out new material on a regular basis. The crowd at the music store is respectful and also numerous. Many performers at the music store have been patrons for a number of years and they can give great advice on performing. Also, many music stores have a song circle at least twice a month, which allows performers to play for strictly other performers in a more stripped down, intimate environment, away from all the judging eyes and bright lights. If you can, play at the music store. It is a really great experience.
Now that you have found the right venue, it’s time to play. Now, you may have many questions, such as, “What do I play?” and, “How long should I play?”
When it comes to picking songs, you can always bet that a cover will win over a crowd. Starting out, play covers. It is a great way of showing the crowd your musical style. Take a rock song and make it folk, or take an old spiritual and make it reggae. These covers will most definitely get the crowd on their feet and moving. After about a month of playing covers, you can then introduce your originals. Once the audience appreciates your style, then the audience will appreciate your song-writing ability.
When playing an open mic, there are two possible formats that will determine the length of the performers’ time onstage. If there are more than twenty people playing, then most open mics will limit the stage time to two songs per performer, which is great if you are just starting because it gives you the chance of learning two new songs a week. The other format is a rotating lists of sets. These happen when there are not a lot of performers and these can get tricky. If you happen to have one of these Open Mics in your area, you better get practicing, because I recommend playing at least two, six to seven song sets. This provides the audience ample time to get to know the performer in the little time an Open Mic takes place.
One of the biggest pieces of advice that I can give an Open Mic performer is to not self-deprecate yourself onstage. Never announce an original song with the phrase, “I don’t think it’s very good,” because the audience will start to believe you. When you exuberate confidence, the audience will definitely pick up on it and you can win over the crowd, even if you have a terrible set.
By following these tips, you will be one step closer to conquering your Open Mic fears. You might even get your own paying gig in the near future! Keep playing!