A few weeks ago while in San Francisco, I stopped by the Hotel Utah to perform at the open mic. My musician friends in the bay area had told me it was one of the better ones in the area, and I had seen it listed as one of the top in the US, so I made it my goal to get out there. The open mic had certain qualities that made it stand out. The stage was well-delineated and there was plenty of space for a band or performer to set up and not crash into equipment, the audience, or the bar. There was a great variety to the acts that performed. The night I played, there were pianists (on a well-tuned piano!), ukulelists, a laptopist, and of course guitarists. Songs were funny, kooky, sincere, disturbing, original, and covered. Most importantly, the host made it abundantly clear that any kind of act was welcome. That included an incredibly entertaining performer named Lady Zeitgeist who has fortunately posted a video of her performance that night:
I had a great time playing there with my friend Art Elliot, even though we went on pretty late. After we finished and were driving back, we got into a discussion about open mics. We talked about the folk circles where aging hippies play the same songs they’ve been playing for the past 40 years as well as the open mics where rap groups put on a backing CD and pace the stage angrily. Most importantly we talked about the dual role that open mics play for aspiring musicians, and how they conflict with each other. I have been making it a goal of mine to attend at least one open mic each week, and I have fallen far short. A lot of the reason I have fallen short is because of that conflict, and the frustration it causes.
The most obvious role of an open mic is to give any performer a venue to perform. Perhaps you just started playing your instrument, or perhaps you used to play Santana covers years ago, and you want to see what it’s like to play on a stage in front of other people. Your skill level is not especially important, because if you were experienced, theoretically you would be booking gigs as an established name. These types of performers will often bring a few friends and family members to hear them play (and then leave as soon as you’re done). The open mic is the perfect venue because by definition, it gives anyone an opportunity to play. I think it’s fantastic that these types of opportunities exist, because experimenting with being on a stage can be quite a thrill.
On the other hand, many people don’t realize that established musicians often come to open mics as well. Sometimes it’s to work out kinks in songs or work out new material in front of an audience. But the bigger reason, and the one that is more for people “in the know,” is that open mics are a community that can lead to more opportunities for performing. When an open mic is looking to book a featured act, a performer that plays a longer set in the middle of the open mic, they often pull from the performers that show up every week. The musicians who keep coming back get to know each other as well, and are able to network into collaborative projects or shared billings at larger venues. At one open mic in Philadelphia, the person who hosts it books at least 5 other venues in the area, many of which are paying gigs. So musicians return week after week to keep their names in the mix, to meet up with and hear other local musicians, and to become a part of the larger community as a whole.
Perhaps you can see the conflict between these two groups now. The first group is just looking for a place to play and have a good time. The second group is there to further their careers (and also play and have a good time). The first group is fine seeing anyone who shows up, as they’re just part of the show. But the second group often gets resentful about having to sit through acts from random people who will come and go and who are either not interested or not dedicated enough to be a bigger part of the music community. It does not serve the purposes of the second group to have the first group be there.
As I mentioned above, I really appreciate the role of the open mic as a place where anyone gets a chance to offer what they have. And yet, I will often decide not to show up to one, asking myself “how many generic covers am I going to have to hear? How many out of tune guitars? How many people with no sense of stage presence? How much time will I be wasting waiting to go on while performers that does not inspire me drone on?” I feel horrible for thinking these things; I feel elitist, cruel, and wholly unsupportive.
I’m not sure what can be done to solve this problem, but I have found a few mitigating factors.
First, when the host of the open mic makes it clear that all acts are welcome and interacts positively with even the less experienced musicians, it makes it easier for the audience to be engaged by them. When the host is dismissive or distracted, then we’re given the subconscious message that this person is not worth our time.
Second, I find that the more limited the number of songs each performer can play, the easier it is to pay attention to the act. This can be tough for the established performers, since you want to showcase as much of your talent as possible. Many local open mics give each performer 3 songs. The World Cafe Live only gives each performer 2. And when I played at the Hotel Utah, each performer was only given 1 song. But I found I was concentrating on listening to the music and giving it a chance when I only had one song to hear. That also forces you to pack your tightest material into your set and make yourself as relevant as possible.
Finally, and I can’t believe I have to say this, when everyone listens to the acts instead of talking through them, the whole experience becomes much more enjoyable. This can be tough, because those established musicians are Open Mic Dualitythere to network, as I said before. And often, people come to a club or a bar to hang out with friends, not to see an open mic. However, I am able to enjoy the multitude of acts so much more when I am giving them my attention and not torn between their music and the conversation next to me. This, by the way, applies to everyone there. The musicians, the audience members, the bartenders… the host of the open mic. When you show respect to the people on stage, it becomes a much better experience. Perhaps you’ll find out that act is better than you thought. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll find out they’re cringingly bad, which is a whole other level of entertainment.
In any case, my trip to San Francisco has made it abundantly clear that being a part of the open mic scene can be a delightful experience. I need to make the time for them in my life here in Philadelphia. So next time you’re at the Grape Room or World Cafe Live on Monday, the Milkboy on Tuesday, Dawson on Wednesday, or anyplace else where an open mic is held, look out for the accordion player playing quirky songs. If you’re listening carefully, you might find something you like. Or you might be entertained by something cringeworthy. In any case, you will be a part of the action.