For the purposes of this article, I’m thinking of an open mic as a performance event where each person is given time to play 1-3 songs, usually maxed out at 10-15 minutes. Sometimes the list of performers is settled in advance by an MC or booker, while sometimes it’s open to the public and you’re encouraged to put your name on a list– first come, first served.
An open mic is a great place to begin for 3 types of players:
* Musicians who are new to songwriting and don’t yet have enough strong original material for a 45 minute set.
* Musicians who may have songwriting and instrumental skills, but who feel they lack performance skills, confidence, etc.
* Confident songwriters/performers who are new to a town or region and don’t yet have a local fanbase.
But what’s the next step once you’re ready? Well– your own show, of course– a nice cushiony 30-45 set of original material, maybe opening for someone else in town who has an established draw. And how do you get there?
7 tips on how to transition from the world of open mics to the world of longer gigs
1. Play weekly at the open mics-
Whether you’re building your repertoire, building an audience, or building up your confidence, get out there as much as possible. Open mic audiences tend to be respectful and receptive, so this is one of the best ways to get live experience in a low-pressure setting. Plus, keeping it weekly will help you stay motivated on all the other fronts (songwriting, practicing, etc.)
2. Build your email list from the beginning-
It’s never too early to start gathering contact info for the people who enjoy your music. Even if you don’t have any recorded music, merch, or gigs to announce (besides your open mics, of course)– you will someday! And when you’ve got big news to share, you’ll have an audience for that news. Don’t be pushy about collecting contacts; simply mention that you have a signup list and that you’d love to keep people notified about your music.
3. Announce your name at the beginning and end of your open mic set-
It’s sometimes hard to get into the promotion mindset at an open mic. They can seem rather informal and low on the drama-scale. But a quick “Hey, my name is____ …..” and a concluding “Thanks, my name is ______ and I appreciate you listening; I have a mailing list….” at the end of your short set will help you, literally, get your name out there.
I’ve been to quite a few open mics where I’ve liked a performer and said to whoever I was sitting with, “What’s this guy’s name?” They didn’t seem to know either, and we dropped it there– since the evening and the drinks and the conversation and the distractions have a tendency to tumble onwards. So, announce your name! People might not have the time, courage, or wherewithal to ask.
4. Stay for the whole open mic and make friends-
Your early shows will be attended by mostly friends. An open mic is one great place to make those friends. So don’t just pop into the open mic for your 15 minutes of glory and then duck out. Stay and get to know people. Trade info. See if any other talented folks might want to play in your band down the line (if you’re interested in fleshing out your songs with band arrangements). At the very least, get to know each other’s songs and styles. If you come back every week, you could be singing harmonies on one another’s tunes.
As you get to know more musicians, you’re also spreading your networking roots. Some of the people you befriend may have bands that you can open for; they may know booking agents; they may sign your mailing list too– and they may be your biggest early supporters.
5. Get to know the staff at the venue-
Most open mics are held at music venues. If you befriend the bar staff, the booker, the manager, the owner, and the patrons, it’s a short jump from a Sunday night open mic to a Thursday opening slot. If you’ve proven to be one of the popular performers week after week at an open mic, the booker will probably already be on your side. But don’t assume they’ll reach out to you first; booking agents have a hundred things on their minds at once. Make sure YOU ask THEM for the gig (once you feel ready)!
6. Balance your 3-song set-
People love familiar songs. When you first start performing at open mics, stick to your best 3 songs. Even if you’re sick of them, repeat them for the first 2 or 3 times you play at a particular open mic. Then slowly work in newer material by playing 2 of the now familiar favorites, and one new one. Then the next week, play one of the oldest tunes, the newer one from the previous week, and one brand new tune. From there, you can keep churning up the dirt how you like, but return to the tunes enough so that the regulars can get to know them. When you finally bring all those folks out to your first proper show, they may just sing along to a few songs.
7. Morph an open mic into a songwriters-in-the-round-
Instead of putting ALL the pressure on yourself for that big leap from open mic to proper gig, why not round up 2 more songwriters you’ve met and do a songwriters-in-the-round set? That’s where 3 or more performers trade off on tunes. You can either rotate after every song, or give each person 2 or 3 tunes before you rotate to the next singer. Instead of one person’s draw, you’re potentially combining all three performers’ followings for one awesome night. That’ll please the booker AND give you the chance to win over some of the other writers’ fans.
Have you had success transitioning from open mics to gigs? How’d you do it? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
Oh, and remember– if you’re going to an open mic every single week for a year to build your audience, skills, and confidence, there’s no rule that says alcohol is a must for every show. Have coffee, or water, or Kombucha, or tea. That way you’ll feel great most mornings, and can better suffer through the rare hangovers when you have a fuzzy night.
[Mic photo from Shutterstock.]