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Playing an Open Mic

One of the places that many musicians find their start is the open mic stage. Many venues host open mics and some even use them as a way to find new acts to play their main stage events. It’s well worth the time to play an open mic, especially if you don’t have much experience on stage. They are all different, but all mostly the same. So, what can you (generally) expect during your first open mic set, and what do you need to do to prepare?

How open mics work

First, most open mics either allot each player an amount of time, or a specific number of songs. Often it’s either 10-15 minutes or 2-3 songs (whichever comes first. Of course, some offer a longer set duration, and some shorter.

Second, most open mics require you to sign up early. Often that means you have to show up to the venue early to sign up. For instance, sometimes a 7pm open mic might open sign-ups at 5pm or 5:30pm. (Some open mics offer online sign up which is much more convenient). Players sign up for a time slot on a first-come-first-serve basis, so earlier sign ups get more prime spots. Often if you sign up late, you get a late night spot, which means fewer people will be there. That could be good or bad depending on your expectations.

Third, some open mics will limit your repertoire. For instance, they might request that you don’t play songs with bad language or a vulgar or violent premise. They might request that you play only original or public domain music because they have not acquired a license from the performing arts organizations that collect performance royalties for music such as ASCAP or BMI.

Of course there are different formats. Some open mics only allow one songs, some allow more. If there aren’t many performers, sometimes the host will let you play longer, or even play a second set…especially if they liked you.

Usually open mics have a host. In fact, the format almost requires a host or at least a stage manager. This is the person who runs the sign ups, announces the acts, helps the players get set up (sometimes), and is generally in charge. Often, the hosts are also performers and will take one of the spots for themselves. Sometimes they are musicians, sometimes they are comedians, sometimes they are enthusiastic fans of music, or emcees. Regardless, it’s good to get to know the hosts. Take a little extra time to chat with them if you can. More often than not they are volunteers or paid very little to host the event, so be nice to them. Also, they are in charge of the stage and the sound system, so they can make your set pretty miserable if they want to.

That leads to a great place to mention that open mics can often be stressful, and they are often less than ideal. There is a quick turnaround on stage, so there’s not a lot of time to get gear set up, which means you might not sound your best. Often, the crowd is talking through your set, and (especially in a bar) those crowds can be loud. Which means, you might wait a long time for your set and then have less than stellar sound and a a crowd that doesn’t listen. That doesn’t mean people don’t care, or that they don’t appreciate your music, it’s just the nature of the show. It’s stressful, and sometimes unrewarding…just like the music business. Be positive, supportive of others, and as helpful as possible. A good show for everyone means a good show for you.

Don’t let any of that discourage you from playing an open mic. They are difficult gigs, but they will help you get practiced for longer sets and other opportunities. If you can get comfortable playing open mics, longer gigs are easier. Also, there are things you can do to make your open mic sets (and overall experience) better.

Preparing for the show

First of all, practice. I know, I know…every musician says this. But I’m not talking about practicing scales or chords. I mean practice your sets. Since most open mics allow three songs, put together a set of three songs that you think work well together. Set a timer and make sure you can play them all within the allotted time. If you know the open mic only allows two songs, practice a set of two.

The other thing to practice is getting everything set up and torn down. Good stage etiquette means that you can get set up, play your set, and torn down, within the time given. If you are just playing a guitar and singing your setup will be fast. If you are using an amp, or pedals, or multiple instruments, or if you need a light show, backing track, etc. practice setting that stuff up so it’s fast when your time slot comes around. Sometimes a long set up means you only get to play one or two songs instead of three. So, maybe you should simplify your setup so you can play more songs, or maybe it’s worth sacrificing a song so you can play your Hammond B-3. Regardless, make sure you know your gear, and can get it set up quickly and efficiently.

Another thing to think about when you are preparing your set is that you don’t know what kind of act you will be following. That’s the nature of open mics, sometimes you follow a singer/songwriter, sometimes you follow a full band, sometimes you follow a comedian or poet. So, think about what your ensemble sounds like and consider some options for your set to suit different scenarios.

Why not just play your set one way? Well, depending on your ensemble size and sound, some acts might be hard to follow, and there are ways to control the “energy” of the stage with your repertoire selection. This is especially true for solo singer/instrumentalists. If you follow a band with bass, drums, electric guitars, piano, etc. it will be nearly impossible for you to compete with their big sound. Your most grooving, biggest sounding song will likely sound small and plinky after a full band. So, if you start with a slow and sparse song you can bring the energy way down (it will be coming down anyway). Then, you can build it up from there. This will ensure that your set isn’t eaten up by the previous group.

Another (more likely) scenario you might face is following another performer that sounds like you. Maybe the performer before you plays guitar and sings just like you do. Maybe they like similar artists, or write similar songs. Maybe the last song of their set sounds very similar to the first song of your planned set. Having a few set options or set orders can make sure that you stand out from a previous performer.

Considering your repertoire

Often, people just play whatever they feel like at an open mic. Admittedly, I have used open mics as a place to try new material, test songs that I have written, and get some experience with instruments I don’t normally play. All of that is fine, but it is important to consider your open mic set the same way you would consider any other set.

There should be a flow of energy. A dynamic shift. An arc to the set. Whatever you want to call it is fine but it all means the same thing. That is, don’t play three songs that are the same speed, in the same key, with similar melodies/textures/chords, etc. Try to have some variety in your set (it’s difficult with three songs, I know). Think about what sounds you want to start with, and what sounds you want to end with. How do you build your set to a strong ending? What can you play between the first and last song to accentuate each of them? What skills (singing, guitar riffs, lyricism, composition, etc.) do you want to show off? You might not be able to do that in each song, but you could ensure that you demonstrate all of your skills within a set.

This becomes more difficult if you play an open mic with an ensemble. How can you make sure that everyone in the group gets a chance to shine while also making sure people know what your band sounds like? Is it worth playing one long song that showcases everyone even though you have three short songs that don’t? Do you need too much gear for one of the songs which makes it impossible to play in an open mic setting? And so on…

These questions can guide your repertoire selection and development. Think about your repertoire, what songs do you know that sound the same, or are in the same key, or have a similar vibe? What songs do you know that are different from the others? Make a few three songs sets that you could use for open mics. If all of your songs sound the same, then maybe its time to learn something intentionally different, or (better yet) write something that sounds different. If you don’t think that any of your songs are good for starting a set or ending a set then you should try to find (or better yet) write something with that in mind. Crafting an arc to your set is good showmanship and you should consider it for every set. Your goal is to make every song special so each of them shine through.

Open mics often recur weekly. That can provide a good opportunity to learn new songs or write new songs. Setting a goal to have a new song for each open mic can lead to a broad repertoire of music and you will be prepared for longer gigs before you know it. Perhaps you could play one new song each week and then two from the past weeks as long as you can build sets out of them.

At the Venue

After you have signed up and secured your spot for the evening, you should have a general idea of when it will be your turn to perform. It’s good manners to stay and watch everyone before you play, and gold star audience members stay and watch everyone. That’s not always practical because some open mics last for several hours and go late into the night. Furthermore, they often happen on off nights (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday) so you might have to work the next day and staying out until the open mic finishes up might not be possible if you want to be well rested. Either way, stay as long as you can, be as attentive and supportive as you can be. Clap for all the acts, buy something from the venue, tip the servers, etc.

For many people, waiting to play is a nerve wracking experience. It’s easy to be stressed, it’s easy to feel insecure, and sometimes those emotions lead to bad behaviors such as being overly critical of others, or having a short fuse with the open mic manager. Things are less than ideal at every open mic. But, hey, if you can play an open mic, you can probably play a gig. It’s a trial by fire.

Pay attention to the lineup. Look at the list and memorize the two acts that go on before you. When the first of those two acts goes on, start getting ready. Drink some water, go to the bathroom, etc. When the act before you goes on stage start getting your equipment organized. You shouldn’t tune or warm up, or make any sound while the other act is on stage, but it makes for a quick transition if you get your instrument out, and (if you’re using them) get your preamps and/or pedals set up.

Once the act before you is done, wait for them to get offstage before you go on. Ideally they should be quick getting off, but it makes for a chaotic scene if you are trying to set up around them tearing down. If you’re ready, you should be able to hook up quickly. Usually you will get a quick soundcheck (to make sure your stuff is working) and then (sometimes) the open mic manager will announce you.

Not all open mics are the same, but generally, you can expect there to be at least one microphone on stage (it is called an open mic) and either a second microphone for your instrument or a direct input. Some venues have more sound system capabilities, but generally you should be able to plug your instrument in and sing into a vocal mic. If your instrument doesn't have a pickup, that's often alright, but it might be worth it to invest in a pickup if you're planning on playing a lot of these kinds of things. Of course, with a pickup comes the need for a preamp. That opens up opportunities for effects pedals and digital modeling, etc. All that aside, it's probably worth the convenience to get a pickup if you're going to play a lot of open mics.

Since your time is limited, focus on communicating your style as accurately and efficiently as possible. It’s easy to ramble when you’re talking to the crowd if you are nervous. Have a plan about what you are going to say. Some ideas are to introduce your songs, introduce yourself (a couple of times if possible), thank the host and venue. Make sure to mention your website, social media, YouTube channel, or anywhere else people could find your music (if you have it.) Some people use storytelling as part of their show, but if that’s a significant element of your set, then consider your story to be the same as a song. Tell the story and play two songs. Regardless, have a plan about what you are going to say.

Don’t sweat it if you can’t hear, or if people aren’t listening. Just play through your set the best that you can and know that being able to muscle your way through a difficult set is good practice for playing shows. Things are going to go wrong, you aren’t going to play your best, and that’s OK. Often, the crowd only realizes that you made a mistake if you acknowledge it. If you blow it, just continue on and get back on track the best that you can.

Wait for the crowd to stop applauding before starting your next song or talking to the crowd. It’s OK to leave that space (and perhaps a little more) to give your show a good rhythm. When you are nervous you might be tempted to just charge ahead with the next thing, but it’s good stagecraft to let the song settle before starting the next one. If no one claps, don’t feel bad, just carry on (and maybe go to a different open mic the next week. They should clap for you!!!)

Once you have finished, gather your gear quickly and clear the stage before wrapping your cables or putting things in the cases. The next act will be as nervous and excited as you were to get on stage, so be courteous to them. Once all of your stuff is off the stage, put it away and then return to your table to be a good audience member. You don’t have to stay the whole night, but it’s nice to stay for a little bit afterwards to talk to people. Often, people in the crowd or other players will come by to congratulate you on your set. Make some business card to pass out to people in case they are interested in your music, or booking you.

The Benefits of an Open Mic

Besides being an opportunity to practice your stagecraft, open mics can lead to other opportunities. Often, venues use open mics to test out acts. If they like you maybe they will ask you to be part of a show sometime. Perhaps someone in the crowd is looking for music for a party or event and they may want to hire you to play. Other artists might like you style and might be interested in collaborating or starting a band. You certainly can just treat it as a performance experience, but you should stay open to other experiences it may bring.

Most of these benefits come from being social. It is hard for some people to talk to people they don’t know, but that is how you gain a network, and open mics are perfect places to start building that network. You will have something in common with each of the other performers who played the open mic. Congratulate them on their performance, ask them how long they have been coming to the open mic, and ask them where else they go to perform. Start making a list of other places where you can perform. The more you play the better you get.

If there was a performer that you particularly liked make sure to let them know that. It feels good to get compliments so give them whenever possible. If there is a performer that you would like to collaborate with, let them know that. Give them your card and see if they would like to write songs together, or get together and jam sometime. The more friends you make, the more opportunities you learn about. If you see them the next time you are at the open mic sit down with them and chat about music and how they approach what they do. These are the first steps towards playing other shows, and building these networks are one of the significant benefits of playing an open mic.

Regardless of how serious you are about playing, it’s nice to have a community of folks to support you and it is often hard to build that community. Open mics offer great early performance opportunities for people, but they also offer networking, and artistic collaboration opportunities. Most large cities have a group page on Facebook, or even a website listing open mics around the area. See if you can find one of those groups and start playing out as soon as possible!!!

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