The Open Mic Movement



Visit a collection our performers' Local Open Mics.

OMA is an Open Mic Showcase intended to support and foster "brick and mortar" Open Mics.  You can Volunteer to help us with that important job!

HISTORY


Bob Dylan, in his "Chronicles" autobiography said something to the effect that after he began performing live in small venues he had a feeling of being a part of an invisible nation, of people who shared a culture of the songs and stories that were at the heart of our nation. It really got its start in the Folk scene in the early 60's. Greenwich Village, NY with the so-called "basket houses", are most commonly thought of as the cradle of the movement. The music played at Open Mics has now come to embrace a wide variety of genres. Most prevalent are acoustic players, though instruments and vocals are nearly always amplified.

Those of us who have been at this awhile have probably experienced these events in terms of "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly". I personally have attended more than 500 Open Mics in dozens of venues from San Diego to Vancouver, BC. For the exquisite, visit "The Artichoke" in Portland, Oregon where there are candles on the tables, a stage with professional monitor speakers and where no one dares make a sound during a performance! Many venues are just "Bad" with miserable sound and patrons chattering away even during a fine performance. The "Ugly"? I'm thinking of a certain event in Tuscon where in front of the performer are 3 pool tables with games going and the bar where people are bellowing at one another! Or think even of the scene from "The Blues Brothers" where the band is protected with wire mesh... some Open Mics are almost that bad. So we at OMA are all about the "Good"!   When it's done right, both musicians and audience (who are mostly the musicians themselves) have a great experience!


TWO VERSIONS OF OPEN MIC


Generic Open Mic (The "Bad and the "Ugly"
A public event at which musicians of all skill levels are given the opportunity to perform in front of a live audience with the use of a sound system. No further organization or constraint is present.
Realities:
1. No consideration whatsoever is given to room size or configuration. Huge rooms dilute audience involvement with performers and audience feeling disconnected from players... gives audience permission for chatter during performance. "Shotgun" rooms can pose insurmountable sound problems.

2. The sound system can be of any quality and stage monitors may or may not be used. A "sound person" may or may not be present. There is no real commitment to optimum results. Sound is typically sub-standard and musicians often cannot hear themselves. The musician says; "I cannot hear myself" or "I cannot hear my guitar". The answer from those in charge is frequently: "Don't worry, we can hear you out here". It is useful to remember why we all started playing music in the first place... because we liked the way it sounded! If the musician has a poor experience in hearing him or herself, it is likely the performance will be lackluster. If a musician is asked to choose between an open mic with a good sound system or one with a poor sound system it seems obvious what that choice would be.

3. The Master of Ceremonies is not necessarily someone well suited for the job.

4. There is no effort whatsoever to control audience talking during performance. Those in attendance see the event as a gab-fest with music in the background. Musicians are distracted by the noise and are discouraged looking out over a crowd that seems disengaged from the performance. People in the audience who actually are there to listen can't hear the song given the crowd noise and they will become disenchanted with the event. Musicians who do participate will more often turn to up-tempo songs played at higher volume. Ballads will rarely be played in this atmosphere.

To see an Open Mic that has succumbed to the above maladies is a depressing experience. The sound system is not the worst but it's the lack of noise control that is a glaring example of just how bad things can get. The musicians themselves feel free to carry on loud conversations, including tables immediately facing the stage... some with their back turned on the stage while one of their "friends" flounders around on the stage totally unheard and unappreciated. Witness the spectacle of people so wrapped up in their conversations about music that they are totally ignoring that music... live music, is actually taking place! "Civilians" in attendance see that no respect is given to the performance and they add to the din. The result is instead of an environment that fosters artistry and musicianship, the event is more a training ground for those who seek experience playing in a loud bar or other setting where music is just background.


Musician's Open Mic (The "Good"
A public event at which musicians of all skill levels are given the opportunity to perform in front of a live audience with the use of a well-managed sound system. 

Guiding Principles:
1. Room size and configuration are important factors. The room can't be too large or too wide. The audience should be concentrated in one area and immediately contiguous to the stage area. Players should feel connected to listeners.

2. The sound system will be of good quality and stage monitors will be in use to make sure musicians are able to give their best. A "sound person" will make adjustments as needed for optimum result from each act.

3. A Master of Ceremonies will be in charge of the proceedings. The MC should be a person with strong speaking voice and friendly manor. 

4. Efforts should be made to control noise that can diminish the quality of performance. This includes excessive audience talking. An occasional (perhaps just one time per event) reminder by the MC along the lines of: "We ask our audience to please respect the musicians and limit talking during performance". It is understood that this is a social event and people wish to interact. It is possible for interaction to take place without compromising what the event is actually all about. The first line of defense in this area is the musicians themselves. If musicians do not respect their fellow musicians, the "civilians" in the audience will follow suit. Once an Open Mic has established itself as a real acoustic show, crowd noise becomes less of a problem. Accordingly, the MC's reminders to the audience can less frequent.
Examples of excellent "Musician's Open Mics" are Hub's Coffee (formerly City Espresso) in San Jose, South Bay Folks in San Jose, GVA Cafe in Morgan Hill, CA, Artichoke Music in Portland, OR, Mt Pleasant neighborhood House in Vancouver, BC, BC Firefighter's Center, Vancouver, BC and Art Beat On Main St in Vista, CA.


STARTING AN OPEN MIC IN YOUR COMMUNITY


OK, so you've got a little group of people that get together to play music every once-in-awhile.  But you need more room and wouldn't it be great if "civilians" could hear your music!  So let's do it... let's start our own Open Mic!
1.  Chances are, your folks will mostly be playing "cover" tunes.  So right here is a fork in the road.  If you go the local coffee shop route you will soon find that if you want to play cover tunes, the shop will have to pay an annual fee to the Performing Rights organizations such as BMi and ASCAP.  More often than not the fees are so high that the smaller venues simply cannot afford to do it.  Maybe some of your folks have deep pockets and you can take up a collection to meet some or all of the obligation. 

Or, you can choose a venue that is very successful and would not mind paying. BUT, the more successful the venue, the more crowded and the more you will have to reckon with patron noise. This is mostly the case with bars.  Maybe the bar has a separate room where you can isolate from the noise. Be aware up front that a true blue MUSICIAN'S OPEN MIC cannot flourish in a noisy setting.

2.  You can mostly circumvent the issues with playing cover songs by choosing a venue that is a NON PROFIT organization. Fire halls, church buildings, civic facilities are a good way to go. There is no cover charge, just a donation bucket for the organization. Bring in coffee, donuts, pizza whatever. Another great benefit of this approach is you will not be playing for noisy drunks or listening to clattering silverware!

3.  In choosing your venue, ROOM CONFIGURATION is an important consideration. Huge rooms dilute audience involvement with performers. Audience is disconnected from players and gives the audience permission for chatter during performance. "Shotgun" rooms can pose insurmountable sound problems. Rooms with lots of glass walls or other reflective surfaces can make your Sound man's job impossible.
the IDEAL VENUE would have a good playing area and a good additional area... that serves as a "green room" where we go to warm up before playing, or chat with others so as not to disturb the show.

4.  You'll need an MC for your show that is really up to the job. Often the person who is the primary organizing force simply cannot accept the fact that they are not suited for the job of MC. The MC needs a strong speaking voice and a friendly manner and be accommodating to players... yet he or she knows when to put the foot down.

5.  You'll need a decent sound system. There are many options. The older analog units work fine using unpowered speakers. Digital equipment will require powered speakers. It's extremely important to have GOOD MONITOR SPEAKERS. Give your performers great sound on stage and they will soar! It's beyond disappointing when you step up to the mic, strum your guitar, sing a few notes to discover that you sound like you are at the bottom of a dumpster! When you express your distress, someone in the crowd says: "Don't worry, you sound great out here". Not acceptable! We didn't start playing music so we could sound good somewhere else!Performers should fight for good sound and organizers of events should work hard to give it to them!

6.  And so, it's important to have a Sound Person, someone who will pay attention to the needs of the performer as well as what is heard in the room. The Sound Person doesn't set up the system and then go gab with friends, effectively a "one size fits all approach". Different players and ensembles have different needs. A great Open Mic has great sound and a great Sound person will become very popular among the group!

7.  Establish a culture that is all about performance! At a great Open Mic, all talking stops when the performer begins to play. Folks at the tables may murmur to a table mate something like "Wow this gal is great".  He should not be chattering away about the new pizza parlor that opened. When you establish a culture of respect for the performer, outside folks that come to the show (I like to call them "civilians") will instantly recognize the nature of the event and will themselves stay respectful. After a time, a show like this, what I call a "Musician's Open Mic" will magically be transformed. Beginning musicians will quickly improve. Average musicans will soon be well above average and the better players will start turning in stunning performances! 

Best of luck with your Show!
Capo Dave      If I can help, please feel free!   dave@CapoDaveWilliams.com