Tuesday 26 August 2014

In defence of open mic nights, by Ruth

I’ve read a few blog posts recently knocking open mic nights, primarily from the usual “don’t play for free” standpoint that gets hashed and rehashed and then mashed and bathed in oil and fried and re-hashed again over on many music forums (including the wonderful Liverpool Bands).

Now, the “don’t play for free” thing is quite an old debate and tends to go like this: “I’ll get a plumber to come over and offer to pay THEM with ‘exposure’ shall I?” “Yes but a plumber has had to take exams and learn how to be a plumber.” “So have I, I did my grade 5 piano when I was 19.” And on, and on. I don’t want particularly to rehash that argument because it never ends. I will say, we’ve played the vast majority of our gigs for free, and we’ve also done a handful where we’ve been paid (though not huge amounts by any stretch).

I am also perfectly aware that it’s different for us, an acoustic duo who practise at home and don’t have massive overheads (although we really should get that piano tuned), than, say, a four or five piece band who have to pay out for rehearsal room hire and sound equipment and so on. But this is about open mic nights, and let’s face it, they’re aimed at small bands and solo acts.

Anyway, the anti- open mic stuff I’ve read seems to be based on the premise that this, too, is playing for free, and given that musicians should apparently Never Ever Do That, it’s also wrong to perform at an open mic.


That’s a picture of us, performing at an open mic, by the way, in case you were wondering on which side of this argument we fell.

I really do think that doing a slot at an open mic is different than doing a gig for free. I have some sympathy with the idea that bands shouldn’t do the latter (though, see earlier, we have) but … an open mic? Really?

Let’s take this in two parts.

Firstly, the idea which I’ve read a bit that landlords are putting on open mic nights to avoid paying to put on a band. Okay, let’s start with the thing about “landlords”. Most open mics I’ve been to have been in cafés or bars. I’ve been to literally one open mic in a proper old school “pub with a landlord” pub, and that was a weird little place in Deptford in 2001, back when I lived in London. Also it was a poetry open mic, which may - or may not - be different.

In fact, I ran an open mic a few years ago in a café in St. Helens. The owner of the café actually opened it up specifically on a Monday evening once a month just for the open mic. I approached him with the idea, not vice versa. He made no money off it on the night, at least at first, as everyone brought their own booze. The only people who came were performers and their friends; there was no passing trade because the café wouldn’t have been open then anyway. If it wasn’t for the open mic, the place would have been closed on a Monday night and it might even have saved him some money on heating and lecky bills. He was a big advocate for the arts, and in the long term, I think having the open night there made people kindly disposed towards the place and more likely to come back. Hardly a cynical landlord putting on an open mic because he was too tight to pay a band.

Also, let’s be brutally honest here. Lots of acts performing at open mics are amazing, but some are … on their way to amazing, and not quite there yet. That’s okay, of course, everyone starts somewhere, but the idea a pub landlord would believe that punters would be just as happy with an open mic as with a booked band is a tad silly, n’est ce pas?

I’ve also met quite a few people running open mics, but never once have I met one whose motives have been about “saving money on bands”. Mostly, they’ve wanted to give new talent a platform, hear new music and have a bit of a ‘jam’. Occasionally they’ve wanted to make a bit of a name for themselves as a compère. Once or twice it’s so they’ve a regular opportunity to perform their own songs/poems. But even the more cynical of those reasons is nothing compared to the suggestion that they want to save money for the venue.

Most of the time, running an open mic is an unpaid task, too. If anyone should get narky about not getting paid, it’s the compère/organiser and not the performers; they’re doing a hugely hard job behind the scenes and on the night and usually on a volunteer basis too, and usually they go largely unthanked (people seem to think the compère is part of the furniture. So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank from the bottom of my heart anyone who has ever ran an open mic event we’ve attended. You’re amazing, you really are). But no one seems to mention them in the anti-open mic stuff.


There we are at another open mic night, depriving booked performers of a decent crust. Oh, wait, there were some booked performers that night too, earning a decent crust.

Secondly, the idea that playing an open mic is the same as playing a normal gig, unpaid. It just isn’t! In order to get a gig, you have to - well, I’ll be honest, we haven’t completely figured it out yet. Be lucky, in the right place at the right time, know the right people and work hard. And be really cheeky too, but the right amount of cheeky. But what you CAN’T do, is just turn up and start playing.

Unlike an open mic night.

Time to be totally honest here. We’ve not always been that good. I know, I know, you’re shocked and horrified. But it’s true. When we started out in the winter of 2012 with nothing but a violin and a really cheap ukulele we played the rounds of open mics because we were literally okay. It took us over half a year of playing open mic nights before we could even dream of being good enough to play a full gig. We are SO grateful to those places that put them on and gave us the chance to practice in front of an audience, seeing what worked, and what didn’t, and who put up with our “let’s use a violin to open Hark the Herald, instead of a trumpet, that’ll totally work!”

Let’s face it, too; not all, but some open mic events have some quite sophisticated sound equipment and someone knowledgeable around to work it. If you really can’t shake the idea that you’re somehow being “done” because you’re playing for free, think of it as a barter. You’re getting to hire a PA and a sound engineer for fifteen minutes; they’re getting to hear your unique finger-plucking cover of Shakermaker.

And at those open mic events that are unamplified, which are basically busking without the hat? What does the performer get there? Well, we’ve made friends at these and got talking to other musicians who are at similar stages to us; we’ve shared tips and swapped contacts, and again… you’re getting to practice in front of an audience. Yes, you could do that with busking too (and we plan to) but people are less likely to sit and listen when it’s chucking it down and freezing cold. It’s also fantastic for young musicians (I mean really young, too; I’ve been at an open mic where a ten or eleven year old boy performed a violin solo that would have made Nigel Kennedy’s eyes open wide with amazement) who wouldn’t normally get that kind of platform outside of school assemblies. You’re getting a warm audience, in more than one sense of the word “warm”.


One thing I will say, however, is that the idea that venues and promoters, or even music executives, are scouring the open mics looking for new talent, has certainly not been our experience. I think we’ve got just two gigs from people seeing us at an open mic, and that’s in going on three years of doing them (as I said earlier, we have got our gigs through a mixture of other methods, but rarely this). I think if you’re going around open mics expecting to be noticed and given gigs, or signed, or whatever, you’re possibly approaching it with the wrong idea and it’s going to make you a bit miserable. If, however, you see open mics as a great place to practise playing in front of an audience, and also a wonderful opportunity to be the first of your friends to hear some amazing new music, and of course, to make friends, to have fun, and to do what you love, then you’re probably going to enjoy yourselves.

So, yes, we’ll continue to do open mic events in amongst our gigs. Because we love them. The whole “don’t play gigs for free” thing is another discussion for another time, and with that, I can genuinely see both sides of the debate. But I don’t think open mic events fit into the category of “playing a gig for free”.

And if you want to earn a living from music? Join a covers band and practise every day and do the ultra-competitive world of weddings and pubs. Become a music teacher (hey, all you need to do is increase that grade 5 piano to a grade 8, and then maybe get your ABRSM diploma in music teaching, and sort out your DBS form, and get a customer base and a reputation). Work hard and learn a craft as a sound engineer (because it’s true, no one does ask them to work for “exposure”).

Or become a rock star. I’m not sure how you do that though.

(Other ways of making money within the music industry do exist and all involve lots of hard work and tend not to be impeded by playing, or not, open mic nights.)

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