So you’ve been working on mastering that guitar that has been taunting you from the corner of your apartment for months. You’ve put in the time and effort to make a sound that no longer makes your pets flee from you in bewildered terror. Maybe you’ve even written a couple of songs that you think aren’t terrible. But there’s still a lot of time and effort and luck between entertaining friends around the campfire and rocking a sold-out arena show. Where do you go next?
I’ve spent the past 7 years (give or take – the most generous estimates start my open mic career 10-12 years ago) as a regular performer at open mics. For a few years I was also the host of a couple of open mics around the city. By no means am I an ‘old timer’, but I’ve been around long enough to pick up a few tips on what to do, and what to avoid, when you’re trying to break into the music scene for the first time. I’m going to share them with you, because I’m that kind of guy.
Before you show up:
The keys to a successful open mic performance start before you even set foot in the room. If you’re just getting started with public performance, there are a few really useful things you can do to ensure that you have fun and get noticed doing it.
Most open mics allow you a time slot of 3-4 songs, depending on how busy the room is. You aren’t ready for an open mic performance until you have 5 songs that you’re happy with. The more songs you have performance-ready, the more prepared you are for some pretty common events like someone else playing one of your songs, or the host giving you some extra time. Performers will talk about ‘reading the room’, which means choosing your material based on what people respond to – if it’s a quiet and attentive room, you can throw in some slower songs. If people are there to party, upbeat and loud is the key.
I remember going to an open mic event where a kid who looked like the bum-fight version of Kurt Cobain went up on stage and played an 8-minute ode to noise. He was certainly enthusiastic, but by minute 4 he had completely lost the audience. Here’s the thing about the songs you write yourself: you love them, and I’ve never heard them before. Do you like every new song you hear on the radio or over a mall loudspeaker or in the background of a TV commercial? Probably not. It’s safe to assume that, regardless of whether or not your songs are any good, people aren’t as interested in the shitty things your ex-boyfriend did as you are.
When I prepare for an open mic, I walk in with 2 covers and an original ready to go. The first cover goes at the beginning of your set, and introduces you to the audience. Are you a powerful singer? Let them know that right away. Do you have a quirky sense of humour? Pick a song that showcases that. Pick songs that people know – some studies suggest that (somewhat counter-intuitively) the more we hear a song, the more we like it. What you buy for yourself by starting with a highly recognizable cover is that the audience will pay closer attention to the next thing you play. That’s when you hit them with your original tune as the ‘main course’. Your final song (assuming it’s a 3-song set) should be a barn-burner – something that will get people stomping and clapping and having fun. End with a flourish, rather than a fadeout.
One of the most important lessons to remember is that performing is an entirely different skill set than playing is. It might be no sweat to crank out your favourite REM cover sitting in your favourite chair in your room alone. When you do it standing up into a microphone in a room full of strangers, all of a sudden you realize ‘hey, this might not be so easy’. Performing, unfortunately, is not something you can practice by yourself. What you can do is make sure that the playing part of the equation is automatic. You should be able to play your set while backflipping off an active volcano – it should be a completely automatic process. There’s only so many tasks your brain can focus on at once, and practicing takes some of the pressure off your brain, freeing it up to make sure you’re not going to pee your pants.
When you show up
Okay, now you’ve got a set list that you’re happy with. You could play it blindfolded while skiing backwards down Kilimanjaro. You’re ready to hit the stage! Well… almost.
1. Research the room
Call the venue at least a day beforehand to make sure that the open mic is up and running. Sometimes listings for open mics are outdated – they may have moved to a different day/time, or they might have been cancelled. When you call, see if you can get the name of the host and find out what time signups are open. This ensures you don’t show up to an empty room. Also, if this is your first time playing at that venue, show up early to find out how the place works. Each open mic has its own rules and its own rhythm, and showing up early gives you a chance to feel that out.
2. Invite friends
This may seem like dead-obvious advice, but having your friends there can be the difference between a terrific and a terrible open mic experience. Not only will they keep you company while you’re not playing, but they’ll clap for you when you’re done. Perfectly good performances can get totally ignored by an indifferent crowd, and the presence of a few enthusiastic applauders can sometimes shake people out of their doldrums.
3. Find the host, introduce yourself
Open mic hosts are an odd breed. Most of them are aspiring musicians in their own right who, through some arcane process, have been handed the keys to the kingdom. They’re also going to be the person you hear the least from that night, since their job isn’t to play as much as it is to host. Introducing yourself (rather than just signing up and then going away) is a nice added personal touch that, in addition to being a ‘decent human being’ thing to do, is also strategically smart.
Getting ready to play
So you’ve signed up, and the time has finally come to show your stuff. This is what you’ve been working and prepping for – finally, your time to shine! Here’s some things to keep in mind.
1. Be prepared
Before your name gets called, your instrument(s) should be tuned up. Whatever equipment or cables or backing tracks you need should be cued up and ready to go. Nobody likes the person who gets up at an open mic and kills the first 6 minutes of their set getting unpacked and set up – it’s boring and disrespectful of everyone else’s time. I strongly suggest having a glass of water up on the stage with you – performing is thirsty work. I also suggest that you don’t get drunk before you play – remember what we said about your brain having lots to do? You don’t want to impede its ability to do those things. A couple of drinks is probably okay, but the amount of alcohol it takes to fully drown stage fright will also drown your ability to play. Deal with the butterflies – as someone who’s been doing this for a few years I can tell you that they never completely go away.
2. Own your stage
Open mic (or open stage) performances are completely different from every other type of performance we commonly see. It’s an ever-shifting roster of people who buzz through for a few minutes and then disappear. When it’s your turn to be up there, don’t be bashful about making the space yours. Do you like to sit? Bring a chair. Adjust the mic stand to where you want it, not where the last person had it. Are the monitors too loud? Too quiet? Get them the way you like them – your new friend the host will be happy to help you out. The more comfortable you are, the easier it will be to connect with the audience.
The stage is set, you’re tuned up, the mic is hot, and the audience is ready. Nothing left to do but play.
1. Understand the vibe
When I first started playing open mics, I had the impression in my head that I would be playing in front of a room full of people seated politely and listening attentively. Open mics seldom work that way. More likely you’re going to be in a room full of mostly other musicians and their friends, drinking and chatting while they wait for their turn on stage. Most of them probably won’t pay very close attention to what you’re doing – it’s open mic, not a private concert. This threw me off a lot at first, and I had a hard time settling into playing. Don’t take it personally, just recognize that everyone is just as focused on their own lives as you are on yours.
2. Remember the non-playing part of performance
A common mistake I see from new performers is that they are there to play, and are prepared only for that. Performance is more than just playing the music. You’re going to need to connect with your audience. This means things like eye contact and adding some personal touches to your performance. If you sit up there with your head down, staring at your instrument, mumbling into the mic, people will have a much easier time ignoring you. Talk to the people, let them know who you are, and above all appear human. If they think of you as a human being rather than a faceless meat blob behind a guitar, they’re going to be more interested in what you’re doing. This is still true while you’re actually playing – look around the room, add some swagger to your playing, emote what you’re doing. Performance is its own art, and you’re going to need to know how to do it.
3. HAVE FUN!
Music is serious, but it’s also entertainment. The audience is there to have a good time, and you’re there to help them do that. Musicians have a tendency to take themselves pretty seriously, but that can be offputting. I’m not saying you have to bounce around and grin like a clown, unless that’s part of your performance. What I am saying is that your confidence level, your stage presence, and the impression you leave on the audience, are all immensely improved if you look (and feel) like you’re actually enjoying what you’re doing. Plus, if you mess up (and it’ll probably happen), a grin looks a lot better than a grimace.
Packing it up
You did it! You put on the show of your life, the applause is still ringing in your ears, and you’ve left the stage. But you’re not quite done yet.
1. Take some time
Performance is a rush. If you’re anything like me, you’re a giant ball of serotonin and adrenaline after leaving the stage. Don’t be afraid of taking a couple of minutes of alone time to ‘come down’ before returning to your friends or socializing with new folks. If you like, you can go over your performance in your head and identify the things you liked and things you want to improve next time. Don’t dwell, though. Very few performances are perfect, and getting down on yourself doesn’t help anyone.
2. Connect with other performers
It’s been my experience that you can’t get very far on your own in the music business. You’re going to rely on your fellow performers, and they’re going to rely on you. Making friends is an important part of success. Not only might they help you get gigs, but they’ll expose you to new musical ideas. Even if your act is solo, you’ll benefit immensely from being connected to other musicians. Now that they’ve seen what you do, this is a great time to let them get to know you as a person. Work the room – say hello, thank them for watching, exchange contact information, do whatever. The ice is broken, so there’s never going to be a better time.
A note on compliments: if you liked someone else’s set, you should definitely tell them. But be sincere – if it was good, say so. Don’t gush. Nothing squicks me out faster than having someone heap praise on me, especially if I can tell it’s just a ploy. If someone offers you a compliment, accept it humbly and gratefully. Don’t put down your performance (“thanks, but I screwed up a bunch”) – even if you don’t think you played well, that person did and they’re trying to offer you a compliment. Be grateful. Return it if you can; thank them if you can’t.
3. Thank the host
This falls under the same category as ‘thank you notes’, but it’s way easier. Make sure that, if you do nothing else, you thank the host for her/his help. Again, both because it’s a ‘decent human being’ thing to do, and because it’s strategically smart. Making a favourable impression both on and off the stage makes people more likely to want to see you play again. If you can, stick around for the other performers (although this is hypocritical of me to say because I’m the king of the ‘strum and split’ – my excuse is that I work early in the morning). Leaving right away can come across as exploitative – ‘thanks for watching, suckers!’.
Open mics are a fun and important way to build some performance experience, meet new musicians, develop networks, and potentially score some bigger gigs. Following these suggestions will help you avoid some of the common pitfalls for new performers, ensuring that you get the most out of your open mic experience. See you out there!