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Why You Should Probably Avoid Open Mics

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I don’t know how to ease into this article nicely and slowly, so I’ll just dive right into the shark tank: Open mics basically suck.

Sure, they have some value. And by some value, I just mean they have very little value, easily replaceable and replicable in many other live music contexts. But they do help amateur songwriters out in a few ways, namely by offering opportunities for networking, on-stage practice time, and a chance to hash out some parts you’ve still not settled on in front of an intimate audience that can give you honest feedback, before taking that song to the studio.

And while all of those are perfectly valid, acceptable reasons for wanting to perform at an open mic, they’re also all flawed, and, to me, result in making the practice of playing open mics a waste of your precious time. Here’s why.

1. The Networking Thing

An open mic event is one where 15 or 20 songwriters show up to perform usually between one and three original songs or covers, they put their names on a list, and wait their turn as the caravan chugs along.

First of all, most of the audience is there to see only one of these performers, the friend who asked them to come along to watch them perform. The audience is not typically made up of fans, and they’re usually tired and wanting to leave by half-way through. So if you’re number 13 and you’re patiently waiting your turn, you’re going to see a lot of people leave before you take the stage. And since the people that are in the crowd are statistically more likely to be there because somebody invited them, they’ll be biased about whose set they liked the best (it’s their friend’s).

So, as a songwriter, you’re kidding yourself if you’re showing up to the open mic to try to win over fans. But what about networking with the other songwriters?

Well, that’s a question I’d shoot back at you, the songwriter, do you really want to spend valuable time networking with people who are either, A) just starting out and trying to work out their on-stage jitters, or B) open mic lifers who have never left the scene and probably will never leave the scene? I think your time would be better spent securing yourself an entire set somewhere like a coffeeshop, or a friend’s living room, so you can be 100% of a listener’s live music experience, as opposed to 6%, and own the experience you want to introduce into a networking situation.

2) The On-Stage Practice Time Thing

I’d push back on this one too… If you’re using an open mic to practice performing, you’re setting yourself up for failure, since there’ll be 14 other (possibly) great musicians overshadowing you. And to the point I just made above, there’s no reason why you can’t show up to a local coffeeshop and ask to play 3 or 4 songs to try them out, and get a much more “real-world” live practice session in, with probably better feedback and a more focused, participatory audience.

Today, in every city, there are people who run DIY house concerts, that open their doors to up-and-coming songwriters of all kinds. Jessica Allossery did an entire tour playing house concerts and said it was one of the best experiences of her life. There are other intimate ways to get in front of a live audience that don’t involve a competitive rota of 15 songwriters of varying degrees of talent. If instead, you’re playing a short set of 5 or 6 songs to support a more professional artist, they’ll draw an audience in to come see you, and their experience will rub off on how that audience perceives your set as well. You can’t lose.

If you play a bad set, you’ll know why immediately and be able to make adjustments because a real show is a real show. You won’t be left wondering if the crowd really didn’t like your performance, or if it was because they were tired after seeing 10 other songwriters and unable to remember which was which.

3. The Workshopping Thing

Okay this one really bugs me, because in the fantasy world, it’s true — we’d love to believe that open mic audiences exist to help songwriters untangle the creative knots that their muse has woven. But who wants to go through the trouble of making plans for their date night, getting a babysitter, and traveling halfway across the city, and then instead of being entertained by a seasoned songwriter with immense talent and a command of the stage, end up offering free advice to a self-appointed guest that nobody had to approve to go up there in the first place.

Because open mic nights are not quality-controlled, everyone knows you’re going to get a range of talents up there, and that’s fine. But think about how much the bar benefits from that? The bar doesn’t have to pay someone to curate the evening, or promote it, if the songwriters want people to come, they have to do the work, essentially helping bring more people in so the bar can make money. And the performers almost never go home with cash in hand.

Once again, I just want to reiterate how there are tons of other options out there for stages to perform on where you just might play to a more receptive audience, gain “real world” gig experience, network with artists who are actually on the circuit, and you could even leave with money. Get creative and good luck out there!

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Jeremy Young

Jeremy is a Montreal-based musician, sound artist and improviser who loves giving advice to emerging artists on how to make their tours more effective. He writes, records and performs electroacoustic "concrète" music for tape, oscillators and amplified objects and surfaces, as well as solo guitar. He has performed and released material throughout Europe and the UK, Asia, the US and Canada, mostly with his trio Sontag Shogun.