Even after over a decade-and-a-half of performing in all kinds of venues, from subway platforms to coffee shops to house concerts to music clubs, I still think an open mike is one of the best ways you’ll ever find to get your old songs heard by new fans, practice performing your new tunes and meet fellow musicians.
Open mikes (or mics, however you like to spell it) are the reason I got started as a singer-songwriter. I spent several years haunting all the popular open mikes in New York City, sometimes 3 and 4 times a week. And I still attend open mikes when I can.
But after years in the open mike trenches, many songwriters I know are happy to say “sayonara” to what some see as an evening of listening to terrible songwriters sing mediocre tunes while waiting for their chance to get up and sing.
Clearly, I don’t agree. Sure, at any given open mike you may hear performers you think are great and those you think are middling and those you think, well, stink. But watching and listening to other performing songwriters is always a great way to learn. And, it has always been a wonderful way for me to network and meet other like-minded folks, and sometimes I’ve booked gigs based on my open mike appearances. Plus, I almost always see at least one artist that I think is truly talented and I enjoy hearing, if not several! In addition, it’s one of the best community-minded ways I can think of to support songwriting and songwriters in your neighborhood, your city, your state.
No, I don’t spend every single weekend heading to open mikes. But I still get there when I can — and I often check out www.openmikes.org for new places to try.
Some of my best do-and-don’t tips for a great open mike experience:
1. Don’t be a diva.
There are always going to be songwriters with less or more experience than you at any given open mike. Don’t assume that you’re the bomb just because you decided to walk through the door. Be respectful of the local scene and polite to your hard-working host.
2. Don’t be nervous.
If this is your first open mike or the first you’ve been to in a long time, take a deep breath: Everyone gets a little jittery before performing, especially when you only have a chance to play a couple of songs to give your best impression. It’s an open mike — no one is expecting the performance of your life. Just give it what you’ve got and hey, the greatest thing about open mikes is that there’s usually another one next week, or next month — you can always give it another try.
3. Don’t be afraid to play something new.
I’m guilty of this as anyone…I’m planning on playing tunes from my CD at the open mikes this weekend, for instance, rather than trying something new. But it’s important, I think, to slip in some new material whenever you can. After all, one of the best ways to decide whether your new tune hits the mark is to gauge response from a variety of audiences. If you get big applause, it’s a keeper. If no one looks up from their drink, maybe you should think about what you can improve. Either way, feedback is feedback.
4. Do introduce yourself — on stage, and to others in the audience.
So often, I’ll see someone play an open mike who I think is terrific — only to have him/her leave the stage without letting the audience know his or her name. While you don’t want to promote yourself endlessly from an open mike stage, don’t hesitate to introduce yourself at the beginning, middle OR end of your one-to-three song set by saying, “Hi, my name is [insert your own name here] — thanks for listening!”
5. Do focus on performing your song, rather than prefacing your performance.
One of my pet peeves is watching songwriters take an open mike stage with some version of the following: “Hi there…this is a new song I wrote just this morning, so it’s going to probably suck and I probably won’t remember the lyrics, so you might want to just talk to each other instead of listening because this is really bad.” Don’t preface your performance and turn people off ASAP; instead, just get out there and do the best you can. You might surprise yourself!
For more open mic inspiration: Check out this interview with Barbara Cloyd, songwriting teacher and host of the Bluebird Cafe open mic in Nashville!