Open Mic: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I’ve read some musicians diss open mics on Facebook threads. They feel that it’s a way for venues to exploit musicians:

Having a slow Tuesday night? Go ask some music fools to fill up the place by giving them a 15-20 minute set. They haul their stuff in, play, and, hopefully, stay for drinks and a meal. If they bring their friends and family with them = more mouths to feed and throats to wet = more money in the cash register. Win!

Some venues are not interested in the music, and regard musicians merely as sources of profit. Sad, but true. So I understand why some musicians abhor open mics.

But He Sang and I don’t think this way. We owe much of our growth to open mics. People often ask us how much time we rehearse at home and we say not a lot. The bulk of our rehearsal time is done live via open mics. Whenever we have new originals or cover arrangements to try out, we hit the round of open mics we’ve come to love. There’s a huge difference between rehearsing by ourselves in the comfort of our home, and being on stage, nervous and excited, to perform songs for the first time in public. It’s scary but it has to be done. Like a couple of steaks, we stay on the grill until we’re cooked.

One of our earliest open mics at Faces Lounge, hosted by Gale, John Hirt, and Karen Dedier
One of our earliest open mics at Faces Lounge, hosted by Gale, John Hirt, and Karen Dedier

What we don’t support are open mics that pretend to be auditions. We also are wary of ones that ask you to pay to play for the privilege of performing at their venue. You hardly get anything in exchange because, with no effort from the venue to promote it, you play to empty seats and one resentful waitress or two. And when it comes to open mic competitions, we don’t go near the ones where you’re asked to bring a crowd because “the act with the biggest crowd wins $100!!!”. Why play then? We can just bring a bunch of friends, sit on stage and twiddle with our phones for 15 minutes, and still win by the end of the night. Success! We’re also very suspicious of open mic competitions where hidden judges with their covert criteria hand in their judgement by the end of the night. Who are these judges? (And why do the out-of-towners always win? Haha!)

But we have been mainstays of one open mic competition in town, namely Tin Roof Cantina’s Acoustic Showdown. Frankly, we won the first time we played there and kept coming back because of three factors: the stage and the lights, and the great sound system. Then we stayed on for the friends we’ve made. Everyone wanted to win, I guess, though they won’t want to admit it. But most supported each other. It felt a lot like music school where your friends are your competitors as well. So I felt somewhat at home at the “Tin Roof College of Music”.

At Bella's Pizzeria hosted by Lefty Williams. Photo by Tom Kettles.
At Bella’s Pizzeria hosted by Lefty Williams. Photo by Tom Kettles.

But, here’s the truth: for as much good experiences we’ve had at some open mics, we’ve probably had a wide array of the bad to the worst at others…

BAD: We’ve had one were the host would ‘open’ the event and play — a norm for open mics — but this one would play for as long as there were people present. It didn’t matter how much time passed or if the open mic-ers started dropping off like flies. He would play until the last diner had gone out and then magnanimously pass the mic on. Another host in a different open mic topped this selfish behavior with greedy icing by going back on stage every time new people would walk into the bar.

WORSE: One time, the host, a known curmudgeon, shouted at us several times to hurry hell up as we set up, with no attempts to help with sound; then shout at us to hurry the hell off the stage as soon as we were done. I’ve never seen the usually placid He Sang so livid and his anger made me furious. We also witnessed this host, in full view and ear shot of the crowd, shout at a keyboard player to stop playing while they were on stage jamming.

WORST: This host, a well-known ass, would shout, “Boo” as soon as he sees us and, often, while we’re playing. He spews racist remarks that would have been funny-acceptable to us if he wasn’t screaming them into our ears. And one time, he pushed me all the way from the venue’s doorway onto the stage while yelling, “You want to play? You want to play? Here!” In my 6-inch platform booties, I did everything not to fall on my face as he manhandled me across the venue’s uneven floor. (“Manhandled”… I hesitate to use the word. No proper MAN would do that.)

Just kidding. That last one didn’t happen! None such person exists…

… Actually, that really did happen. But wasn’t it so unbelievably bad that you were prepared to accept it as a joke?

Then there is this:

MOST IDIOTIC: This idiot guitar player stepped on my keyboard to get onto the stage at Darwin’s. He couldn’t wait for us to get off after we played. He didn’t apologize but he quickly left before the host, mighty John McKnight, could give him a piece of his mind (I asked for ‘fist’ but John is too nice… hehe!)

All that and everything in between; good and bad, too many and too long to recount here.

Still, we don’t regret any of our open mic experiences. We’re believers that, no matter how bad, we can learn and grow from all experiences; and we have grown so much from playing out through the years. All of the venues and hosts have contributed to our musical growth, some more than others. I guess it’s our mindset that keeps us from quitting. We don’t go thinking people will love us, and we don’t go basking in glory when they do. We don’t go to get praised, but we always welcome and appreciate honest feedback, especially negative critique. Really, we just go to rehearse on stage in front of people. We go for us. The rest is just gravy.

(Watch out for part 2 which I tentatively entitled “Open Mic: Advice for Newbies and Geezers”. Still thinking about that one because it could rile up some people. I’ll post it when I’ve stopped caring… heehee!)

(Featured photo was taken at Tin Roof Cantina for the Acoustic Showdown hosted by Ian Schumacher. Photo by Ed Lee.)


4 thoughts on “Open Mic: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

    1. Thanks, Rickey. This made me think of your own post on FB a few days ago complaining about open mic “auditions”. I can understand why it’s frustrating when some venues advertise it as such knowing full well they already have a roster of acts that make their rounds all year. But there are some venues that do book and some that don’t call the open mic auditions but book you just the same. You just have to keep trying, Rickey! Nothing is lost when you do. 🙂


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