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Not Just for Folk Singers

March 14, 2008
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The old joke goes like this: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice! But ask any professional musician to name the one activity that's most vital in reaching the big time, and he or she is most likely to say performing.

Real-world playing experience can do more for your chops than weeks — or even years — of practice. The rush of adrenaline, the distraction of the lights and crowds, the changes in body position that inevitably occur onstage, all affect the way you play your instrument or use your voice. Equally important, the essential skill of communicating with an audience and winning over a roomful of strangers can only be mastered through trial and error.

Unfortunately, there are a limited number of gigs available, especially if you're playing original music. It's that old catch-22: you need experience to get the gigs, and you need the gigs to get experience. But there are alternatives. Open mic nights give you a forum for gaining performance experience quickly. (Organized jam sessions are similarly helpful, although they tend to be more ensemble-focused and don't usually offer the chance to play original material.)

“I think it's the greatest place to start,” says singer-songwriter Sam Shaber. Shaber has toured the United States and Europe and has just released her fourth CD, Eighty Numbered Streets, produced by Shawn Mullins for SMG Records. “The first time I ever performed was at an open mic; there's that aspect of people singing into a microphone or plugging their guitar in to something for the first time ever.”

Open mic nights are a rich and often overlooked resource for musicians. You can gain performing experience, test new material, network with area musicians, find and audition for gigs, or all of the above. And contrary to popular belief, open mic nights are not just for beginners or acoustic-guitar-slinging singer-songwriters.

Recording artist and producer John Sonntag (One More Midnight, Thunder Pumpkin Records, 1997) has hosted and performed at open mics in the New York area and sees them as an avenue for all kinds of music. “In my experience, everything shows up: blues, bluegrass, jazz, classical, ragtime, doo-wop, rap with prerecorded tracks, you name it,” he says. “If it's run well, the open mic is the perfect sounding board in a low-pressure situation. Serious songwriters can observe what works for both themselves and others and may incorporate some of those elements into their own material.

What Is an Open Mic?

An open mic is a forum where musicians and other artists can gather and perform an unscheduled set. You'll find open mics at clubs and bars, coffeehouses, and other venues.

“The cool thing is that just about anywhere you go or live, there's an open mic somewhere — at least one, if not five,” Shaber says. “I used to live in Ithaca, New York; there were a couple open mics up there, and that's where I started to learn how to perform, which is 100 percent different than playing in your room.”

Some open mics precede or follow more traditional sets, while others are the night's primary event. Performance time and conditions vary widely, but there's usually a limit of 10 to 15 minutes or as many as three songs maximum per performer. Some open mics are organized so that each performer plays one piece in a round-robin fashion. Once everyone has had a turn, you can play another piece.

Open to All

Although the open mic is traditionally associated with the singer-songwriter, you'll find that many venues offer opportunities for bands and instrumentalists as well. While acoustic guitarists have an advantage (“We're highly portable,” Shaber says), some clubs set up a back line that includes guitar and bass amps, as well as drums, to make it easier for a full band to get on and off quickly. You'll find pianos at some bars, but you'll most likely need to bring your own keyboard for an open mic. If there's no keyboard amp onstage, you can run the keyboard direct through the house system. It's always a good idea to call the venue ahead of time and find out what's available.

Although most open mic situations are geared toward “live” players, some will accommodate you if you want to sing along to prerecorded backing tracks. However, having witnessed this a few times, I would add a word of caution: Once you introduce prerecorded material, you're distancing yourself from the audience, especially if the crowd is filled with musicians (which is common at open mics). You might be better off singing a cappella. If prerecorded tracks are absolutely necessary to your performance, make sure to have them cued up and ready to go. If you're handing a CD to the soundperson, your best bet is to burn a custom CD with just the song or songs you will be performing, in the order of performance. Otherwise, you may find yourself shouting “No, no, track four!” to the soundperson across the room — definitely not a good stage move.

Sam Shaber, who recently released her fourth album, Eighty Numbered Streets, used open mics to gain valuable performing experience.

Sam Shaber, who recently released her fourth album, Eighty Numbered Streets, used open mics to gain valuable performing experience.

Getting Up, and Gettin' Down

The most obvious benefit of hitting an open mic is the experience it provides. For a new artist, it's a chance to get up in front of a crowd and play without having to go through the booking and gigging process. Because you're not required to bring a crowd (as you would to a conventional gig), you can focus solely on developing your performance chops.

“We're all rock stars in our bedroom,” Shaber says. “But then when you actually stand up in front of people and your legs lock, or your fingers are shaking and they won't behave, or you can't breathe very well all of a sudden because you body's malfunctioning — it's sort of the beginning of the learning process if you want to be a performer.”

Sonntag notes that, in addition to having a relatively big audience, you can find a sympathetic one, as well. “The audience will help you settle down if you're nervous,” he says. “but you want to have a professional attitude. Be ready.”

Extra Seasoning

Open mics aren't just for newcomers. Seasoned performers and writers also use them as a forum for testing new material and developing arrangements. The latter is particularly useful in today's more accessible and affordable recording environment. In the past, songs were developed live before being recorded; now, however, many artists write and arrange in the studio, recording their songs before ever playing them for an audience. If you've just spent months building arrangements in a recording studio, an open mic gives you the opportunity to strip your songs down to the bare essentials and reconstruct them for live performance. You can work through the same song over a number of open mics or try different songs as you develop or refine your set list.

“It's great to try out a new song if you don't really want to risk it at your own gig,” Shaber says. “It's a safe atmosphere.”

Sonntag points out that an open mic can also be a place to get input and constructive criticism. “Sometimes, I bring songs that are in development,” he says. “I play a song that's still a work in progress and get input from others, especially if I know and respect their work.” The value of this input varies depending on the vibe of a particular open mic. Some nights attract pure beginners, while others seem to draw the seasoned writers and players. “If you're consistent in going, you're developing a community,” Sonntag says. “You'll get to know the regulars; you'll hold court for a while. Most likely, you'll be gigging at the place and after a while, you get to see the next generation of people coming behind you.”

Promo Tool

In addition to fine-tuning new material, you can use an open mic as a promotional tool by plugging upcoming gigs, adding names to your mailing list, and even selling CDs. “When I'm on tour, I still sometimes hit open mics in other towns,” Shaber says. “It's an instant way to meet a huge group of people.”

If you're trying to expand your following into uncharted territory, an open mic can be a low-risk, high-gain opportunity. As Shaber points out, you can get to know the clubs in a new town — and get the clubs to know you. “Some places might not be able to book you because you might not have enough of a following in that town. I did a bunch of these [open mics] — one in Woodstock, one in Philly, one in Chicago, a couple in London — and it was great because at the time, I didn't have an audience there. I would play a regular slot like everyone else at the open mic, and I would still sell CDs and get people to sign my mailing list, and meet people.”

Club owners recognize which musicians are willing to hustle to draw people to their regular gigs, and they book accordingly. If you show up for an open mic the Monday before a Saturday gig, it won't go unnoticed. “I'm now headlining a room called Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” Shaber says. “The first time I ever played there was at the open mic. I actually had a gig somewhere else in town later that night. But I went to that open mic beforehand and played my song and promoted my gig across town. It caught the attention of the club owner and he started booking me as an opener because he saw that I was serious about what I was doing.”

Networking

Open mics and jams are both great venues for meeting musicians. As a bandleader, you can hear other players in action before going through the hassle of the audition process. You also get to see the intangible qualities that you'll never find out in an audition room: stage presence, preparation, and the ability to communicate with other players in a stressful situation. An open mic lets you teach a prospective band member one or two songs and then hit the stage without the pressure or time commitment of a full gig.

You might also meet writers and artists who end up being valued collaborators and colleagues. “I met so many people through the open mic that are now my best friends,” says Shaber. “Even though we don't do the open mics anymore, we play together all the time as a group called Live from New York. We all can pretty much sell out the same venues on our own at this point, but when we get together as Live from New York, there's sort of a faster buzz that happens because we're this unique grouping of five people.”

Choosing an Open Mic

As with all performance opportunities, the nature of open mics can vary widely. There are plenty of opportunities for solo performers — every open mic can cater to the single musician, especially those who play guitar. On the other hand, bands should call first and find out about the gear and the ground rules.

Some open mics are all-inclusive: everyone who shows up plays. While these events ensure that you'll get a slot, they can also run very long, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. I've seen open mics where it's first come, first served, and others where you throw your name into a hat and the host chooses your slot, raffle style.

Other open mics have a limited number of available slots. Only the first 15 or 20 people who show up get on the bill. The advantage: if you get to play, you know it will be at a reasonable hour. The disadvantage: a well-attended open mic will fill up quickly. At the BMI sponsored event in New York, for example, the list closed within minutes of posting.

Another consideration is the crowd. Open mics tend to develop a vibe; some can be extremely uncritical, while others can carry the pressure of a regular gig. Some venues turn an open mic into a sort of shoot-out. “At Eddie's Attic in Decatur, Georgia, the open mic is actually a competition every week,” Shaber points out. “Every week, they charge a $3 cover, and they have judges hidden in the audience. The winner of the open mic gets $60.”

While this can be intimidating, it can also be an opportunity to mingle with more seasoned players. “A lot of people who are touring and don't have a gig on a Monday will go (to Eddie's),” says Shaber. “Maybe they can win the open mic and sell some CDs, which is as good as a gig for a lot of people.”

Some venues use the open mic as an avenue for finding talent for other slots. For example, twice a year Eddie's Attic does an open mic shoot-out where all the winners from the last six months are set up head-to-head. Says Shaber, “It's nerve-wracking, but the club gets sold out, and they get judges from local industry. The winner gets $1,000, but if you don't win, you don't get anything.”

Be Open

Perhaps the most valuable thing you can get out of an open mic, especially one that's diverse enough to include a wide range of styles, is a new appreciation for the possibilities of live music. Hearing jazz followed by reggae followed by metal followed by folk, all in short order, helps you see what elements of musical performance remain consistent, no matter the style. Your time offstage as a member of the audience is as important as your time onstage. Go, listen, play, learn: the door — and the mic — is open.

Open Mic Tips and Tidbits

  • Be as self-contained as possible. “Have your instruments in tune, your picks and accessories ready. Make sure that your instrument works before hitting the stage,” says John Sonntag. “Act professional.”
  • Know your material. It's okay to bring charts and lyrics onstage, but it's not okay to forget the words midsong and have to start over.
  • Don't waste time. “People are aware of their own time slots and might not be able to stick around late,” Sonntag notes. “If you dawdle, someone else might have to skip their slot to catch a train.”
  • Be considerate of others. Being a good audience member is part of going to an open mic. If you talk during someone else's performance, why should they listen to yours?
  • Buy something. “A lot of clubs actually lose money on open mics because they're paying the soundperson and staying open,” Sam Shaber explains. “People should buy a few drinks or a sandwich; do something, because you're benefiting.”
  • Watch your volume. Defer to the soundperson when it comes to setting levels. Their goal is to get you heard while keeping things under control. If you can't hear yourself, get used to it: it's often part of being onstage.
  • Promote yourself. Have CDs, business cards, postcards, and other promotional material with you at all times. “When standing onstage at an open mic in Detroit you might feel stupid promoting your CDs,” Shaber says. “But it's a valid thing to do, because otherwise, they wouldn't know.”
  • Work on the little things. An open mic is a great place to focus on background vocals, guitar solos, and transitions and to hone your audience patter.
  • Go often. Regular attendance can help you find like-minded musicians and learn of other gigging opportunities in the area. “I used to have my Monday, my Tuesday, and my Thursday,” Shaber recalls. “And that was my gig every week. I'd see the same people, and I would go to their gigs and they would go to mine.”

Open Mic Web Resources

There's plenty of info on the Internet about where to find open mics and jams. Here's just a sampling:

www.abbiegardner.com/mics.html
Open mics in the New York — New Jersey — Connecticut area.

www.halsguide.com/o.m.guide.html
Hal Cohen's guide to open mics in the Los Angeles vicinity.

www.shenandoahmusic.com/openmic.htm
Contains a short national directory and a directory for the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.

Be a Host

If you're a seasoned performer with the ability to interact with a wide range of musicians, hosting an open mic (or jam) can be a good way to earn a few extra bucks while getting all the other benefits: a chance to play your stuff and to meet other musicians. John Sonntag has hosted a number of open mics in the New York area and shares some insights.

“Network and be part of the scene,” he says. “I've been asked (to host) by the club owner or the previous host based on a recommendation.”

Once in place, Sonntag says, your job is to create a community. “Anyone can host an open mic,” he cautions. “But the idea is to nurture the event, because people are sensitive about what they do. You can never say anything bad about anyone who has the guts to get up onstage. For me it's about creating an even playing field for everyone. As a host, it's about developing an environment where a community comes together to listen.”

On the business end, Sonntag says that while you won't get rich, hosting an open mic can supplement your income. “Most open mics don't make a lot of money,” he explains. A club owner can drop a night without warning if he feels he can make more money another way. Unless people are generating revenue by eating and drinking, there's not a lot of money for the host. “Some places charge admission because the host wants to get paid and the room doesn't want to pay him,” Sonntag continues. “Some places also let you pass the hat. Remember, the host has several jobs: to set up, make sure the sound is together, keep an eye on the gear, and make the evening flow.”

As for the most important thing, Sonntag comes back to the idea of creating a connection between host, performer, and audience. “I've been to open mics where there's just somebody calling out names,” he says. “I don't go back to those.”


Reach Emile Menasché and his band Speak the Language at www.speakthelanguage.net.

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