When & When Not to Play Open Mics

When & When Not to Play Open Mics

Do you have regular open mic nights in your hometown?

In Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where I live, I got connected with a lot of musicians I know because of the open mics I regularly attended (a couple of years ago; I don’t go to as many as I used to these days). There are a lot of great things about open mics, but there are also some not-so-great things about them.

A recent conversation sparked the idea for this post, which goes onto explain when and when not to play open mics. Sometimes it’s a great idea to play out, and at other times, it won’t do much for you.

Let’s start with when to play.

When to Play

Here are some thoughts on when to play open mics:

  • When you’re trying out something new: not sure how your new song is going to be received? Looking to try out a new arrangement of an old song? If so, an open mic is often a great place to test out your ideas. You can gauge audience reactions and get a sense of whether or not people like what you’re doing. Some open mic crowds are too polite not to clap, no matter what, but if you play enough of them, you’ll probably be able to figure out whether or not people like your new direction.
  • When you’re trying to get connected with other musicians and industry people: and let’s not get too carried away here. When I say musicians, I mean people that typically have other projects on the go already. I have seen some collaborations happen as result of people meeting at open mics, but that doesn’t happen all the time. And when I say industry people, just so you know, you’re probably not going to run into an A&R rep, but you might meet bloggers, podcasters, studio engineers, and so on.
  • When you’re trying to gain more live experience: as a musician, you have to know when you’re good and when you’re not. If you’re not, you need practice, and an open mic is a great place to get that much-needed live experience. Keeping that in mind, if your sincere intention is to improve, don’t just show up every week without preparing. Other attendees should be able to see that you’re making an earnest attempt to get better.
  • When you want to have some fun: there’s nothing wrong with showing up to an open mic to have some fun, to play a few songs, to get together with friends, and to enjoy some drinks and pub food. Just don’t construct any delusions about “moving your career forward”, because that’s probably the last thing that’s going to happen next time you play at an open mic for fun.
  • When you need to qualify for a real gig: some pubs require you to play at their open mic if you want to do a full show at their venue, and in cases like that, you might want to show up at one of their open mic nights to prove your worthiness. However, you still need to think about whether or not you actually want to play that gig. If it’s a venue you absolutely want to play, and the money is good, why not? Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time.

When Not to Play

And here are some thoughts on when not to play open mics:

  • When you’re feeling entitled: open mics are almost universally first-come, first-served. Some performers do tend to get special treatment, especially if they’re regulars or if they’re hosting. However, the general idea is that you aren’t more important than anyone else that appears onstage. Own it while you’re up there, but don’t pretend like you’re owed something. You get to play three songs (or however many), just like everyone else, and you have to wait your turn, just like everyone else.
  • When you’re looking to get paid: generally speaking, only the hosts get paid at open mic nights. Unless you happen to be the host, you probably shouldn’t expect to make a lot of money at an open mic. Most of the time, they’ll let you sell your CDs and merch, but selling to other musicians is often an uphill battle. If you need money and you’re looking to get paid, you should start looking for other opportunities immediately.
  • When you think you’re too good for it: no one is ever “too good” for an open mic. There might be strategic reasons not to go, and you may hit a point where the opportunities are tapped out, but that doesn’t mean you’re beyond open mics. It just means that you have higher priorities to tend to.
  • When you already know everyone there: have you met everyone at the open mics you’ve been going to? Does it seem like there isn’t anything more you can do at the open mic nights to move the needle on your career? Odds are, you’re right. If you’ve explored every opportunity and relationship, it may be time to pursue other prospects. You can count on your true fans to buy your music when you put out a new release, and subscribe to your email list given the opportunity. Anyone that hasn’t done that already is probably lukewarm and isn’t likely to become a dedicated fan… ever. Don’t write off creative possibilities, partnerships and collaborations, but don’t blindly stick to a routine that isn’t benefiting you.
  • When your fans are fatigued: fan fatigue is a very real phenomena, and I know it’s hard to hear, but too much of you isn’t always a good thing. When you go to open mics, people have free access to you and your music. Granted, it might just be a taste of what your full shows are like (especially if you’re only playing three songs), but on a local level, it’s almost better to limit your appearances so that your fans feel more compelled to catch you on a less frequent occasion. They’ll tend to appreciate your performances a lot more too.

Final Thoughts

What’s the big deal about open mics?

Well, it all goes back to your goals. What do you want to accomplish with your music career?

Do you want to make it big, or do you want to have fun? Do you want to make a living, or do you want to pursue what makes you happy?

There isn’t necessarily a right or a wrong answer, but you have to make sure you don’t have any delusions about hitting it huge when the only thing you’re doing to make your dreams a reality is playing open mics.

What do you think? Do you go to open mics? Do you think open mics benefit your music career?

Let me know in the comments section below!

How to Cope with Disappointing Audience Turnouts

How to Cope with Disappointing Audience TurnoutsAs artists, most of us have experienced an instance in which we booked, planned, and promoted a show only to be met with a small or lukewarm turnout.

Disappointment sets in. We begin to feel as though our efforts were in vain. Or maybe we even flashback to previous times in our lives when things did not turn out the way we hoped they would. Then we enter a downward emotional spiral that ends up affecting the quality of our performance.

“It doesn’t matter anyway,” we reason, “no one showed up to see us.” But is that really true? Is how you handle yourself at this juncture inconsequential?

Stop. You don’t have to go down that negative track. You get to decide what kind of meaning you attach to events in your life.

Here is a better way to cope with disappointing audience turnouts.

Step 1 – Take a Deep Breath

Deep BreathYour promotion efforts may have failed. But then again, there may be circumstances outside of your control that led to your predicament.

I can recall:

  • Hosting an open mic with no jammers. I made sure to let people know where to sign up after every two or three songs, but it was 90 to 120 minutes in before anyone even realized that they could come up and play. I also had to take breaks for each period in a playoff hockey game (I live in Canada; I’m serious). Fortunately, there were many upsides to this gig, including pay.
  • Booking a Halloween-themed show that very few people attended. I put together a band, and even got into costume for the occasion.
  • Playing multiple coffeehouses, lounges and bars where the only audience was the staff, the bartender, or the baristas.

It’s easy to go down negative alley, but first, take a deep breath and realize that your promotional efforts may not have been the root of the issue. Maybe a sporting event impacted your turnout. Maybe your local audience grew a little tired. Maybe another local event attracted people that would have been at your show. There are hundreds of possibilities.

So reframe the problem. Then, when you’re ready…

Step 2 – Get Realistic

Get RealisticMaybe you put your best foot forward, maybe you didn’t. Either way, you should take a moment to think about your preparation and promotional efforts leading up to the show.

By the way, even if you did the best you could, audiences are fickle, and there are times when things just don’t go your way. Also see the last point.

However, you can’t face what you haven’t owned up to. This is not a good time to blow matters out of proportion. Take some time to evaluate all of your efforts leading up to the show date. Are there any things you could have done better? Did anything fall through the cracks? Did you make any costly mistakes?

It isn’t necessarily fun, but you also have to take a closer look at how good (or how bad) your act actually is. You will get better with time if you commit to gaining more experience, but you might still be in a growth season at this moment in time. You can only gain a realistic perspective if you are ruthlessly honest with yourself.

If you’re in the process of paying your price for success, then realize that you will encounter a lot of resistance and disappointment along the way. Inevitably, you will have some underwhelming experiences on your journey.

Step 3 – Have Fun

Have FunNo one showed up for your show? No problem!

As long as the venue is okay with it, you can take the opportunity to rehearse onstage. There is no experience quite like live experience, and if you can keep a good attitude even when there isn’t anyone there to see you, you’ll have a lot more fun on your journey.

In addition, take a break or two during your sets to connect with your fans. Take Instagram photos of your band having fun onstage. Send texts to your fans letting them know that you’re playing. Post a few tweets about your “impromptu” performance. Show them how much fun you’re having.

With any luck, you might have a few people show up for your second or third set (depending on how long you are playing for). However, even if that doesn’t happen, at least you made the most of an unsexy situation. Your fans may even remember it as “the time we missed out on a great show”.

Step 4 – Reflect

ReflectThe show is done with and you’re happy to have it in your past. Maybe you played to a small crowd, or maybe you played to an unresponsive crowd. Both situations aren’t much fun, but you’ve made it through, and you’ve gained some valuable experience. Maybe you even had the chance to work out some kinks in your set while onstage.

This is a good time to take a moment to reflect. If you truly have the desire to gain something from events (good or bad) in your life, you will have to reflect on them. The act of reflecting gives a chance for growth to catch up with you.

Did anything go wrong with the planning, organizing or promoting of your show? Don’t dwell on this question for too long, as it can direct your focus to the wrong place, but if you identify anything that you could do better next time, make sure to write it down.

In some cases, “nothing” really truly is the right answer. It’s entirely possible that a set of circumstances beyond your control made your show a less-than satisfactory experience. If so, you don’t need to spend too much time dwelling on it.

Here are a few more guiding questions to ask yourself:

  • What did I learn from this show?
  • What could I do better next time?
  • If a similar situation arises in the future, how will I prepare in advance to manage myself and my emotions better?

Conclusion: Audience Turnouts

Hopefully you’ve gained a better understanding of how to cope with disappointing audience turnouts. Most of the time, you can’t take these things personally. Let it be water under the bridge, and keep your end destination in mind. You may not be where you want to be right now, but if you persevere and adapt, you will certainly have better moments in the future.

Also note that you can learn to thrive in these situations instead of merely coping with them. When you know what you’re after and why you do what you do (i.e. your purpose), you’ll let the smaller things slide; and everything is a small thing on a journey towards success.

Live Performance: Using Story to Connect with Your Audience

Live Performance: Using Story to Connect with Your Audience

Image: Dan Tappan

I’ve had several conversations recently about disappointing concerts. I’m not really sure why that is, but maybe I’m meant to learn something.

When you think back to concerts that really didn’t impress you, what comes to mind?

The people I’ve been talking to have been referencing a lack of storytelling and stage banter as the leading cause of concertgoer boredom.

What that should tell you is that people don’t just come to shows to hear music. They come to soak up the entire experience. They aren’t there just to hear a bunch of songs in a row; they can do that at home.

Story before Music

That seems a little backwards, doesn’t it?

After all, music and songwriting is where the bulk of your energies go into as a musician. You want people to notice that clever play on words, frantic guitar solo, or transition from the Lydian to the Mixolydian mode in the third verse.

In other words, when you perform, you want to share your blood, sweat and tears with your audience.

But if all you do is play one song after another, that’s all your fans see or hear. This is especially true if all of your songs look alike (but that’s a whole other subject).

So, if you really want to engage your audience, perhaps you should be thinking about how you can incorporate more stories into your live shows.

A Willingness to Share

It’s not enough to intro songs and tell a few jokes. It’s definitely better than saying nothing, but if you’re going to play a full night of music, you need to offer your fans something more.

I’ve definitely been guilty of under-delivering at times. I’ve played lots of shows where I didn’t really get into the meat of the story behind the music.

But there is something attractive about being vulnerable, isn’t there? We often think of it as being a weakness, but it usually comes across as a strength, because it takes guts to reveal what’s on your heart and your mind.

Moreover, your fans don’t really get the chance to experience your songs to their fullest unless you share relevant stories with them.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to tell all of your stories, though certainly some artists do.

The Art of Story

Steve Bell is one of those musicians that emphasizes story just as much as – if not more than – his music. In fact, he has entire CDs that are just compilations of stories.

I am beginning to realize that telling stories actually requires some practice, much like playing a song does. If you haven’t practiced telling your stories, you can feel ill-equipped to share about them onstage.

There are also artists that are great at telling stories through their songs; Jonathan Ferguson and Sean Harley are a couple of examples that come to mind.

Last weekend, I had the chance to run sound for The Wardens. Virtually every song of theirs was preceded by an in-depth story, and they even had a projector screen with slides rotating in the background. This made for a very engaging experience. By the way, the show was sold out.

Is that a convincing enough case for the power of story?


What I’ve talked about in this post are some things I’m just beginning to realize for myself. I’ve had shows that have gone great and others that have gone not-so-great – and we all have those – but I’ve come to believe that story really can make your live shows more remarkable.

Are you in the habit of sharing stories at your live shows? What are you doing to make your performances memorable? Let us know in the comments section below.

Lessons from Yanni: A Living Legacy

Lessons from Yanni: A Living Legacy

Tonight I had the chance to watch Yanni: A Living Legacy on KSPS (public broadcast, for those who don’t know). As a musician, I am often taking notes on other musicians and concerts that I go to. I thought I would share with you some of the things I picked up while watching Yanni.

Now, I should point out that I don’t usually watch TV. All of that kind of changed when I was offered a free DVR. The ability to skip through commercials is rather essential in my opinion, and the ability to record what I want to watch and watch it when I want to is also a nice feature. But I digress, let’s move on.

Whether you’re a Yanni fan (I’ve never identified myself as such), there are some important lessons that could be learned from his music.

Yanni is Always Engaged in the Music

You can see that music makes him come alive. He feels every note and every beat that’s played. He’s always involved in the music, whether he’s actually playing or not. That in itself could be a big lesson.

Sure, he has an entire orchestra backing him up, but knowing when NOT to play is just as important as knowing WHEN to play.

Yanni isn’t Afraid of giving up the Spotlight

Yanni is indeed a great musician himself, but the musicians backing him up are equally so.

He isn’t the only one that gets a solo; many of the musicians and singers playing with him have the opportunity to be in the spotlight as well.

Basically, you can see that he gets great joy out of letting others shine.

Yanni Performs in Exotic, Unusual, and Beautiful Locations

Now this might be a little harder to duplicate for us independent musicians. But there is something to be said about the venue you play in.

So, is the venue you’re booking interesting in some way? Does it engage your audience? Is it easily accessible? Does it have plenty of parking?

There’s a lot more to picking a venue than we usually like to think about.

Yanni’s Music has a Particular Esthetic

Orchestral, New Age, Middle Eastern, Instrumental, whatever you want to call it, Yanni’s music has a particular quality to it. And he doesn’t pretend to be anything he’s not. He’s not a punk rocker. He’s not a blues crooner. He does what he does.

I think this is often overlooked in music. All too often we’re caught up in trying to engage everybody, when we should be focused on who we are and the people that are attracted to our music. Everything from your hairstyle to the way you play your instrument plays a part in who you attract to your music.

Yanni has Quality Musicians backing him up

I think I’ve already touched on this, but Yanni has some incredible musicians backing him up. Not that everyone and anyone should aspire for virtuosity, but rather we should aspire to be the best that we can be. We should get comfortable enough with our instrument and what we’re playing that we don’t stumble over ourselves in the process.

Any thoughts?

A Venue is Where You Play, Not Where Alcohol is Sold

A Venue is Where You Play, Not Where Alcohol is Sold

One of the things I’ve learned after performing live for seven years is that just about any place of business can be a live venue. It doesn’t have to be a club, a bar, a pub, a lounge or a coffeehouse. It can be a clothing store or an office or a mall. It can even be a house!

I once held an event at my mom’s house called “Bijutsu”, which means “art” in Japanese. I displayed my art on the walls, my mom prepared refreshments, and I invited several friends to perform throughout the night. It wasn’t a massive runaway success, but it was a fun experiment nonetheless.

Sometimes the best opportunities are the ones you create. If you play where no one else plays, that market is yours. Moreover, if you’re a young band that can’t get into places with alcohol licenses, you’re going to need to consider alternative venues anyway. Playing in an alternative venue doesn’t guarantee success, of course, but you never know where it could lead.

Sometimes the best opportunities are the ones you create. Click To Tweet

Take Control & Dictate Your Own Terms

In an alternative venue, musicians can usually dictate their own terms and price. They can have more control over the logistics and how much time they get to perform.

In an alternative venue, musicians can usually dictate their own terms and price. They can have more control over the logistics and how much time they get to perform. Click To Tweet

After all, you’re not applying to perform at a local live venue where everyone plays. In a situation like that, event organizers and venue owners could already be cynical and negative about booking and promoting musical acts. And, their willingness to pay more for certain artists is going to be diminished. They probably pay the same for most acts across the board, and have no intention of paying them more unless they happen to bring out a big crowd that consumes a lot of food and alcohol.

In a venue where no one plays, you can ask for what you’re worth. You can perform for as long as you like. You can play at a time that’s advantageous to you. And, if you’re turned down, no big deal. You can always find someone else who’s willing to partner with you.

Find Events in Your Locality You Can Insert Yourself Into

In Calgary, where I live, I found out that jazz musicians play at a variety of venues I’d never played at, like hotels and storefronts. I had a friend who played at the grand opening of a furniture store, and got paid very well to do it besides!

There are many events happening all around you. Businesses are conducting grand openings, customer appreciation days and seasonal promotions. If it makes sense for them to book a band, they will.

There are many events happening all around you. Businesses are conducting grand openings, customer appreciation days and seasonal promotions. If it makes sense for them to book a band, they will. Click To Tweet

The organizers may not necessarily be thinking about music, but if you bring it to their attention and make a value proposition that’s worthwhile, they will likely consider hiring you. This is something I learned from my friend Daniel Guy Martin, who managed to tap into many opportunities guerrilla style just by actively talking to people about his music and suggesting that they make him a part of their events.

Think Outside the Box & Make the Ask

The bottom line is that you never know unless you ask. If you ask and they say “no”, you’re in the same position you were before you asked. You haven’t lost anything.

A hardware store could be a live venue. Again, you never know unless you ask. If you can create a mutually beneficial proposition, don’t rule it out.

If you have a PA, then anywhere you can set up could potentially be a live venue. I’m not saying that you should run over to the nearest park with an outlet and plug in (use some discretion here), but I am saying that if they have electricity, don’t discount the idea that you might be able to play there. You might  be able to do an acoustic performance even if not.

The main limitation you’re facing is your imagination. So, learn to think outside the box and see opportunities where you may not have seen them before. Sometimes, music and alcohol go hand in hand. But they don’t have to. There are so many places you could bring your music to.

The main limitation you're facing is your imagination. So, learn to think outside the box and see opportunities where you may not have seen them before. Click To Tweet


Ultimately, bars aren’t the only place where you can play your music. There are opportunities far and beyond venues with alcohol licenses.

Find out where your audience likes to hang out. If you’ve been performing for any length of time, you should already have a Facebook page with a few hundred likes. Look at your Insights to find out what kind of people have liked your page. You can learn a lot about your audience just by analyzing this data.

Then, you can go where they like to go, and show up where they like to show up. These tend to represent better opportunities anyway, because you’ll be playing to a group of potential fans as opposed to the people who happened to show up at the local pub.