11 Reasons Why You’re Failing At Open Mics

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1. You don’t think it is a performance

Whether you’re on stage at Madison Square Garden in front of 10,000 or at your local coffee shop in front of 15, you are performing. Don’t let the informality of an open mic format fool you into laziness. Make sure you prepare like this is a true performance. A 3 song performance, but still a performance nonetheless. You never know who is watching and sometimes the booker of the club (or other local clubs in town) will be there to find new talent. If you wow the other performers, they’ll want to team up with you for co-writing or show booking.

No matter what room you’re performing for, you should take command and bring down the house.

2. You forget your lyrics

This goes along with point 1. It is a performance, not just a time where you can ‘see how it goes.’ Memorize your lyrics or bring a lyrics sheet on stage. At open mics, it’s acceptable to read the lyrics off of a music stand. These are low pressure events where songwriters test out new material. But don’t forget your lyrics and then make a big deal about it singing something like “I forgot this next line la la…” You may get a few awkward chuckles, but it’s annoying.

3. You don’t know your gear (and the room)

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen musicians get on stage at open mics and their guitar’s batteries are dead. Or their loop pedal is malfunctioning. Or the violin’s pickup is scratchy. Or the drummer doesn’t have hot rods or brushes on hand for the TINY room. Know your gear and make sure you play to the room. Don’t bring a full Marshall stack for an intimate coffee house.

4. You don’t stay for the other acts

Open mics are for networking. Sure, and performing experience if you’re new. In LA, the listening rooms hold open mics occasionally and most of the performers are world class. Songwriters attend these events to network with other songwriters. No matter if you’re in LA or Green Bay, you should network with the other musicians at these. Build (and get to know) your community.

It’s disrespectful to all the other performers if you show up just before you play and then leave directly after. Don’t be that guy. Get there at the start and stay until the end.

5. You don’t order a drink

The reason the club, cafe or listening room is holding an open mic is not out of the goodness of their hearts so you can test out some new songs. It’s so they can get a crowd in there that will buy drinks.

Order a drink, help your local establishment out, and TIP YOUR BARTENDER.

6. You look like you belong at a barbecue – not on stage

If you’re playing dad rock and your target demographic is 42-65 year old men, then feel free to wear cargo shorts and a Hawaiian T. Otherwise, dress like you’re going to be performing in front of people. You’re getting on stage. You’re inviting eyeballs to look at you. Give them something pleasant (or interesting) to look it. You don’t need to put on a Kiss mask or skinny jeans if this isn’t you, but how about some pants (or a dress) and a shirt that’s been washed.

7. You show up alone

One of the reasons the club is holding an open mic is to see who can bring the most people. The club will sometimes offer that performer (if she’s good), a headlining performance date. But the club is running a business and they want people in there. You don’t need to promote this like it’s one of your biggest shows, but at the very least bring a few friends along. If nothing more, you’ll at least have a couple people applauding for you.

8. You don’t have business cards, CDs or flyers

Many times at open mics, friends of other performers will fall in love with your performance and want your CD. Make sure you have them on hand to sell. You most likely won’t be able to setup your merch (because there are so many other performers), but you can mention you have CDs available. And again, open mics are for networking. Bring along business cards and flyers.

9. You don’t meet every performer in the venue

Even if he sucks or she only knows 4 chords on guitar, go up shake her hand and tell her something specific you liked about her performance. She’ll remember that.

If it’s someone you REALLY liked, make sure to exchange info and discuss possible collaboration or co-writing. Sometimes bands are formed this way.

10. You don’t meet the venue’s staff

One of the best ways to get in good with the venue is to meet the staff: the door guy, the bartender, the sound guy, the servers, the booker. If you become known as a positive presence in their club they will be excited to see you every time you show up and will think of you when they need to fill a date.

11. You don’t follow up

After the open mic, make sure to follow up with every musician you met and thank the person who set it up. Attend a show at the club that coming week and say hi to all the staff you just met.

Photo is by Nic’s Events from Flickr used with the Creative Commons License

17 Responses

  1. diymusicbiz

    Great article Ari

    connecting with others and being a real person pays off huge.

  2. Greg Savage

    Great article Ari

    connecting with others and being a real person pays off huge.

    • Jeff Robinson

      Wow, straight from the Music Connection publication. Is this germaine to the Digitalmusicnews audience?

  3. Curtis Leow

    That’s a very good list, I attend open mics and find #4 and #5 to be pretty common in my experience. That said, there also needs to be a companion article about “Why Your Open Mic Nights are Not Successful” (most of the items on my own list stemming from poor management of the signup list)

  4. Mike

    Great advice for any band as well. When we do a show, and the opening act leaves before all of the other bands play, I make a mental note of it. That’s a band I won’t ask to play with us the next time I book the bands for our gig.

  5. Veteran TalentBuyerPromoter

    I’m happy to see DMN stretch out beyond simply digital / internet music related news, and begin to explore the crossover relationship between physical venues and cyberspace. There’s a lot there to explore, and a lot we can learn about how the two worlds interact. Keep it up Ari.

    I have produced, played at, or done sound at over 1000 open mics. There is no real standard for how to run one successfully, or how to be a successful performer at one. Experiences are varied. There are some good/gold standard practices however, and I think there are several in Ari’s list.

    Neighborhood bar/coffee shop open mics are a good way for beginners to get some live performance experience. I do not expect them to know the rules of the road that we professionals should be learning and employing daily.

    I do sound at a weekly open stage/jam. This one is 4 yrs old now. I do not generally see new faces – sometimes – not often. Most who show up are regulars. Most don’t stay through the three hours. THREE HOURS is a LONG TIME to stay in one place doing nothing. Most stay an hour. Most have a beer or two ($5-$10 spend per person). There are few non-musician types in the room … and they don’t stay any longer or spend anymore money.

  6. River Waters

    This has nothing to do with digital music. Paul, if you keep on posting this newbie how-to manual stuff, I’m going to start paying attention to it less. Stick to the focus of this site, would you please?

    • Coulnd't agree more

      Indeed – every third article seems geared towards DIY musician tips. Got old 2 months ago, now it’s just stale
      and can’t even be remotely connected to digital music. Isn’t there some other site for crappy musicians
      to congregate on and learn how to “make it”?

  7. Veteran TalentBuyerPromoter

    I would disagree wholeheartedly that discussing things not digital in nature is “for crappy musicians to congregate on and learn how to “make it.” The simple fact is that there are thousands of very good / very credible musicians who are just at the verge of breaking across from part time hobby to full time occupation – and as much as learning about how shitty Spotify and Pandora treat the DIY artist (which is all I seem to be reading lately), it is equally as important to discuss any and all parts of what we do as professionals.

    I’m quite frankly tired of reading the whining and hand wringing about how shitty Spotify and Pandora are. I personally welcome more constructive, HOW TO, types of discussions that enhance and embellish our efforts – — perhaps we’ll actually learn something from one another about HOW TO do things professionals.

    Professionals don’t cry and whine about shit they can’t influence. They influence – so that crybabies can complain about how unfair life is.

    Funny that – huh?

    I’m in a pissy mood today – can you tell?

  8. fat guy in a little coat

    All your points are great but I’m so sick of hearing about the bartender! Enough with the tipping your bartender shit.

  9. Caliek

    How about just be nice to the bartender then? Just like you don’t always know who watching you in the audience, you might not always realize who’s serving you but they’ll remember you.

    ( From a former bartender who now works with one of Canada’s largest festivals and trust me I have a looong memory)

  10. Keystrings

    Great job with this one. I host 2 open Mics every week and would love some insight on how to do a better job of promoting and maybe some does and don’ts or being the host. (To much time between acts to keep people around and kicking someone off stage the is scaring away patrons???) And for the record, showing up and playing, then leaving with out buying a drink, you are there for no good reason… you are a terrible person… Just saying (#4 and #5)

  11. CJ

    12) You’re singing a bastardized version of “Old Time Religion” with your shirts off.

    …oh wait, I’m pretty sure that qualifies as WINNING AT LIFE, not to mention open mic nights. (Does Nick McPhee have any idea your using his photo? You realize that flickr is not a stock image site, right?)

  12. George

    this sounds like the same nonsense they teach you at real estate agent school – lots of Kumbaya, “Dress for Success!” “Get out there and meet people!” and other bullshit like that. Have business cards? Really? You’re singing a couple tunes. People will dig it or they won’t. Your not trying to close a deal here.

  13. Ann

    If your goal is to commercially succeed as a musician, and you aren’t the host of venue owner, open mics don’t seem wise. Some business savvy musician who is a mover and shaker approached the restaurant owner (or GM) and negotiated an agreement to continually earn money hosting the open mic. That’s who the host is. Then the guest musicians come along, spend their gas money to wait in a line, perform for free, and then experience pressure to buy food/drinks or watch other performers afterward. Of course, people will dangle carrots in front of you and say you can booked here and there, but you aren’t in control and the (smart) host is the one making the money. Have some self-respect and value your art. Unless it’s well-known that big celebrities, agents, or rich customers who book musicians hang out there, you’re probably wasting your time and talents. That’s my 2 cents.