I’ve been to enough open mic nights in my day, specifically since my move to Seattle, to develop some concrete thoughts on what elements can make or break the event. I’d like to have some sort of defined rubric to judge them – especially in future blog posts. Here is the spectrum model that has been bouncing around in my head lately, and I’m hoping that all of y’all with open mic experience (performing and observing) will critique it, add your own elements, or just comment in general. Have at it!
First of all, it’s come to my attention that many folks outside of the music world are unclear on what “Open Mic” means. To get everyone on the same page, Open Mics (or “Open Mic Nights”) are open performance spaces generally held at bars, cafés, and music venues during off-nights. Anyone can come, sign up, and perform original or non-original music, poetry, performance art, etc. They are a vital part of any music community, especially for songwriters and poets, as a place to come together, share art, connect with each other, and get feedback on their work. Sadly, this ideal community-building scenario is quite rare, which prompts my desire to articulate the factors that make for a good (or terrible) Open Mic.
Core, interwoven factors by which to judge an Open Mic (in order of importance):
Two extremes of the Open Mic spectrum: The GOOD
1) Purpose: The best open mics are about not just the music, but also about forging real connections and friendships between musicians. The music is the reason for getting together, and the performances make up the content, but it’s the overall feeling of community that separates a good Open Mic from a great one.
2) Host: The host of an open mic plays a huge role in setting the tone, especially around Purpose as discussed above. Ideally, this is a person who cares deeply about local music community, building connections between artists, and fostering a positive artistic space. They go above and beyond the call of duty with their time and/or resources to create an inclusive and familiar weekly event – making it a “thing” and a destination spot. They are a charismatic MC, taking on an appropriate amount of personal ownership over the event, but above all else they exhibit a clear reverence for the art and the artists who create it. The host also tends to be the sound engineer, so of course some mixing and troubleshooting skills are a big plus.
3) Space: Ideally, the open mic takes place in a dedicated music space (whether legit music venue, or dedicated music room of a bar or restaurant). A perk that generally comes along with this is a good sound system, with a good mixer, plenty of inputs and microphones, and monitors (speakers on the floor pointed at the performer so they can hear themselves better).
4) Audience: This is often connected to the space, as described above. If the space regularly features live music the audience is much more likely to be there for the music. This kind of audience is very attentive and appreciative. Furthermore, at the best open mics there are a significant amount of people there who are not performing that night, but are interested in seeing some good live music and experiencing new local artists.
1) Purpose: In the worst cases, this is a two-headed monster of cynicism wherein the venue’s sole purpose is to sell food and drinks on an otherwise dead night and the performers’ sole purpose is to play their own songs and “promote themselves.” In this case, the venue really doesn’t care about the music itself, and the performer really doesn’t care about anyone else there, unless they are a potential fan.
2) Host: They are apathetic, narcissistic, or both. They are just “at work” and not interested nor invested in building relationships, remembering people’s names, or making the event a success on the whole. They avoid the soundboard, do not pay attention to the music, and are generally devoid of any reverence to anything that happens that night.
3) Space: An empty or overly noisy bar with a bad (if even functional) sound system and microphones that smell like 30 years of beer and cigarettes. Plus, the Open Mic goes from 10pm – 1am on a Tuesday night so no one who play early in the night sticks around to see those in late slots.
4) Audience: Either an audience composed entirely of people performing – just waiting for their turn to play (see Purpose above) – or a room full of non-performers who are there despite the fact that it is Open Mic Night and really wish they didn’t have to talk over the music. But they will.
1) Number of songs / time per artist
I almost made this a primary factor, but I recognize that my strong opinions about it may be shaped by correlation as opposed to causation. All of my favorite open mics only allow 1 song / 5 minutes per person per week (unless there are only a handful of people there, in which case it would end too quickly). In contrast, many (most?) Open Mics allow 2 or 3 songs (10-15 minutes) per act. I vastly prefer the 1-song rule for several reasons:
A) It’s way more fun to watch. Most open mics last 2 or 3 hours beginning to end, but getting to see 20 or 30 different acts in that time helps it fly by. The variety keeps it moving and keeps the audience engaged – especially non-performers. This, in turn, makes people more likely to stick around until the end. There are few things more frustrating than being at the end of an open mic list and watching a full house dwindle to just you and the MC by the time you finally take the stage.
B) It encourages performers to come back and become regulars. If I go to an open mic for the first time and can play 3 songs, I’m going to play my 3 best songs and unless everything else about the night is amazing I will consider that open mic “done.” If I only get one song and it goes well, however, it makes me really want to go back next week and see how song #2 goes, and so on. There are drawbacks, of course, such as being defined that night by only one of your songs, but I feel like the things that matter most (community, relationships, etc) cancel this out over time.
C) It leaves them wanting more. For the best performers, just doing one song – a taste – really encourages the post-show “Hey that was really good where can I hear more” conversation. The result is a much more authentic means of promotion for their website or an upcoming gig – as opposed to the inevitably tacky URL shout-out before on the mic. It also encourages return trips for artists and spectators eager to hear more.
That’s all I can articulate right now. I figure this might be an issue people have a lot of different opinions about, so please leave a comment below and get the discussion going!
2) Average talent level
If the overall quality of music, poetry, whatever is high, this is obviously going to make the Open Mic more awesome. A high level of talent is definitely a necessity to be considered one of the best Open Mics around. It cannot, however, save an open mic that is 4-for-4 in the “crap” category above. Quality is certainly an incentive for both artists and spectators to go out on a weeknight for a few hours, but if all these really talented people are there just to show off their talent, as opposed to appreciating and being influenced by their peers, the Open Mic just becomes a side-stage variety show with no hope of larger music community development.
3) Contests and competition
Some open mics have a formal competition or contest element – judged either by the host or the audience – with prizes, opportunities, or money attached. I have mixed feelings on this. Sometimes it totally works, sometimes it totally sucks, and sometimes it kind of sucks but the pros outweigh the cons. I think it risks adding more passive-aggression to an already unspoken and stupid competitive dynamic between music-makers. But it does help achieve certain worthy goals, such as an incentive to staying until the very end of the night, coming back next week to try again, and creating recognition and some financial support for the best local artists. What are your thoughts on this? Are there certain contest structures that are more positive than others?
This is already a hugely epic post so I will leave it at that. Based on your input and the discussion that hopefully comes from this, I will soon attempt to create a concrete “ratings” point-system for the above factors and do a couple case studies to see if it works. So please share all of your thoughts in the comment section below!