One of the fascinating topics of discussion that came from last week’s ABC Songwriters’ Circle was that of the seeming proliferation of open mics in the GTA — thanks, Kayt Lucas for bringing it up. I admit to having conflicting thoughts on the subject.
On the one hand, open mics were instrumental (yes, groan!) in getting me re-invested in music. Not a must had I chosen to stick to cover material—I’ve started bands and gotten gigs without that—but certainly made playing originals in front of a friendly audience far more reachable. It also hugely expanded my network of musical friends and acquaintances, particularly when I started attending not just to perform, but also to recruit acts for the songcircle. All said, very beneficial from those points of view.
The flip side is that open mics don’t typically pay for the performers, expect for the hosts, and continue to reinforce the notion that music is a free commodity. I have written about that extensively, as have others, so I won’t revisit the arguments. In those situations, the performers’ only satisfaction is in the opportunity to play. Given the large number of talented players and the dearth of venues, this can create very strong feelings with some performers as they sit and wait for their turn, albeit enjoying others on stage. Through alcohol and unrealistic expectations into the mix, and it’s a volatile situation, as was recently witnessed at a local blues jam, hosted by superb blues guitarist Mike Sedgewick.
So what can be done about it? In the short term, limiting the number of open mics to encourage paying gigs sounds good on paper but simply won’t work. Right now, it’s a buyer’s market, so the terms are set by the venues and hosts. There is zero appetite for that, and it’s not likely to change anytime soon. Curating the open mics is already done as well as can be expected. It’s a huge responsibility for the hosts to manage the sometimes dozens of performers who wish to play, without bruising egos, respecting the artist’s talent and commitment, and being conscious of time constraints.
I admit to having come back from open mics disappointed with the way things went, but in almost every case, it’s because my expectations and the reality of the show were out of sync. So below are some constructive suggestions for both hosts and players, some coming from my own mistakes. I hope they will look at then in the spirit of kindness and support they are intended. After all, many of these suggestions are gleaned from their own social media posts.
For hosts, manage expectations by being transparent about how the show is run.
- Every performer should be informed ahead of time of the song/time limit they have, preferably on the promo material on social media, not just when they sign up;
- Publish a basic list of available backline gear (i.e., drums, 1 x bass amp, 2 x guitar amps, keyboard), and whether bringing extra personal gear is okay;
- Create flow rules and stick to them. If it’s first come, first served, don’t have your best mate jump the queue;
- Avoid as much as possible matching up performers who don’t know each other; that can sometimes work, but if it doesn’t, guess who’s blamed;
- Monitor the acts and keep them on pace;
- Try to be equitable in the long run, meaning that if you curate the order, rather than FCFS, if an act played late in a past show, try to put them early.
For performers ( I include myself), be aware of the context of the show and the common courtesies expected.
- Check out the show before signing up. It may not be a good fit for your style/genre;
- Read anything posted about the open mic so you know how the show is run. If nothing is online, ask friends who have done the show or contact the host directly beforehand. Preconceptions may result in disappointment;
- Be aware of the distinction between a jam and an open mic. The terms are often interchanged but there is a difference, and sometimes a crossover;
- Come prepared to have fun. It’s not a showcase;
- Tune before hitting the stage;
- Don’t fiddle with the PA or complain about the sound, at least on stage. You can and should politely advise the host after your set if it benefits others though;
- Don’t bring too much gear (I have to remind myself of this…); however, an extra cable, battery, pick never hurts;
- Originals are great, but not for some open mics. Know this;
- If originals are acceptable, bring charts if you want the rhythm section to sit in;
- Ask the host when you can expect to play. It’s not rude to do so, and if the time is too late for you, bow out gracefully, and try again another time showing up earlier to sign up. If you keep being pushed to the end, this open mic is not for you;
- Listen to the other acts courteously if you expect the same in return;
- Always thank the hosts after you’ve played; link to your social media as you both benefit.
I’m sure there’s more so please send me any further ideas and I can include them in a sidebar or special page down the line.
This Friday, Dock on Queen
The band will be performing a special “unplugged” show at a new venue for us, the Dock on Queen this coming Friday, May 4th from 8 – 10 PM. We have been working hard on reformatting the songs for acoustic, so this promises to be an extra special performance. We are very excited about the changes it makes to the sound and invite everyone to come check this out, and the beautiful surroundings of this licensed café.