When & When Not to Play Open Mics

by | Nov 27, 2015 | Uncategorized

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!