7 Tips on How to Transition from Open Mics to Longer Gigs

May 29, 2012{ 44 Comments }

Microphone: transition open mics to gigsFor 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.

Touring Guide 1

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.

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[Mic photo from Shutterstock.]

  • Love this article. As someone who hasn't done any live shows this is a really great primer on how to break out of my shell. Thanks Chris!

  • Sure thing. Glad it helped.

  • Awesome. Did you continue doing the open mics after that point? Or did you just move on to regular ol' gigs?

  • Hey Matt, glad to help. How things in your world? Really loved your history of intervals post, btw.

  • Good point. You don't want to piss off the bar. Well, maybe I could amend my advice and say– "You don't have to get drunk every night."

  • Well, if you attend often enough to have gotten to know the usual crowd, I'm sure they'd be understanding if you have to get up at 6am for work the next day. Just tell 'em. Also, I think it's pretty common for bands to stop performing (as much) when they go into recording mode. Rehearsing to record is way different than rehearsing for a show, so between practice and the actual studio time– it's common for bands to "go away" for a little while. On the other hand, if you're recording your own album a little here and a little there, you might as well keep doing whatever you can do on both fronts. Otherwise there might not be any end in sight to your "hiatus."

  • You are awarded 10 points for subconscious Common Sense.

  • Lee Kitzman

    I am currently making the move from open mic to the real thing. Your shared information was very helpful, great tips!

  • I made a website for local open mics, it's been a great way to stay in the loop. I can't make it as often as I like but when I do people recognize me from the open mic site.

  • Good advice. Thanks for sharing.

  • Well, one thing that happens at a lot of open mics is that there will be a guest slot for a more established performer. So most folks get to play their 10-15 minutes. And then the name act gets 30 minutes somewhere in the middle. I think it's a cool thing to do; keeps a new crowd coming in each week; gives regulars a change; creates some nice opportunities to branch out and meet new people.

  • So see if any open mics in your area have that kind of slot– and try that first. If not, I don't see any harm in going under the radar and testing some material at an open mic.

  • I've been taking care, booking and hosting for the last 4 years a songwriter showcase every Tuesday in downtown Portland, Oregon, where singer songwriters get to play a 25 minute set (I book 4 each week): http://ericjohnkaisersongwritershowcase.wordpress

    I have met many artists from various backgrounds, places or walks of life, some of them have even become good friends. From my experience your article is totally relevant! If I could, I would also add that to give away free music (like a free EP for example if you have one) in exchange of signing up on a mailing list works well to build a fan base at this type of event. It could also just be a few clean recorded demo songs.

    Great article.

    Eric John Kaiser
    "French Troubadour" http://www.ericjohnkaiser.com

    • Hey EJK, thanks! I forgot to mention that part about giving away music. Good call.

  • Glad the article found you in time. Break a leg on your first open mic.

  • Corey Koehler

    Good tips here. I've gotten a bunch of gigs and contacts from playing open mics.

    One tip I have is, of the 3-4 songs you have ready to play make sure they are different tempo wise (I a ballad, mid tempo, something humourous and a rocker for instance – maybe even an easy blues tune other artists can pick up with harmonica or lead guitar).

    Then pay attention to what the person before you played and do the opposite. If they do a ballad, or somethign that has the audience yawning start with a rocker or something more upbeat to energize the crowd OR if they finish with a rocker, do a ballad and build up from there to a rocking finish. You want the crowd thinking…damn who was that?

    Helps you stand out every time.

  • Stephanie Logan

    I totally second your apprehension about the general social aspect of open mics! When I first started going to open mics, I was more terrified at mingling with strangers than actually performing. 🙂 The good news is that it gets easier every time! Strike up convo with the equally awkward person sitting next to you. You'll soon be fast friends. Maybe.

  • Erdodge

    Somehow I was able to skip the open mic step. I started performing as a glorified karaoke singer. Once I started booking smaller shows I met other performers who could write. I started to learn to cowrite a little and finally got an album. This led to forming a band and getting even more shows. I still have not been to an open mic yet.

  • Thanks for the great article and tips Chris! There's been other great advice from previous readers as well!

    I think another great way to make a lasting impression at an open mic is to bring product! After your 1 song or even if you get a 3-song feature, it's very helpful to have either a demo CD, an actual released record, postcards, business cards, t-shirts, key chains, download cards, etc that help you "go home" with the audience. One never knows who's in the audience at an open mic and your performance + your information may help grab some great gigs! It definitely helped me when I frequented open mics, and now that I've released a project, I hope to continue that more very soon!

  • FakeNoamChomsky

    You don't have to drink. Buy a drink for a friend. Buy a drink for the sound guy. Buy a soda and a bag of chips. Just try to show a little support. And when you wrap up the set, introduce yourself again, thank the venue, and encourage the audience to support the business.

  • Suedonimm

    Good article, but I have to disagree with the last statement. It would be sad to have an active open mic replaced with a songwriters-in-the-round format. There are not enough open mics in some areas for this to happen. However, the owner may want to try the round robin on another night.

    • Oh, sorry if that wasn't clear. That is exactly what I was intending to say– play on ANOTHER night as a in-the-round lineup. NOT replace the existing open mic.

  • Totally. Debuting new material as an opening artists in front of 300 people might be nerve-wracking. You could test it out at open mics a few times before and work out the bugs ahead of time.

  • Cool idea. Thanks.

  • Great advice about assessing the room and playing appropriate material. Thanks.

  • When I started I just closed my eyes and they loved it, when I opened them they was all still there and clapping, I was darn terrified, but now not so much now, they love original tunes and ones they know, I use all these ideas and they all work, if you mess up a popular song you can hear the audience set you right and you never forget it, and the most no.1 thing to do, is make sure the darn mike is on, I did that once and lost the music and had to catch up. Not good. also make sure you can hear the backing music, and that it is all good. Lot's to do you learn all the time !! Nothing is ever stable.

  • Bootlegpreacher

    In my experience, it helps to disappear from the open mic scene for a while before re-emerging. When you are comfortable with your material, go HOME and work on your 45 min setlist. This helps create a renewed interest and also helps when you try to get paid for something you've been doing for free.

  • Angela / Hot Water R

    Hello, my name is Angela and we are Hot Water Recipe!

    Thank you SO much for this article! I'm new to open mics. I'm a singer/songwriter, and collaborating with a guitar player has really helped, but it is still totally nerve wracking. I haven't found a great open mic though where I feel totally comfortable, and I have to admit that I am one who often has ducked out after my set (or a few later) because of feeling so painfully awkward after performing. I will continue to find a comfortable and cool environment, and will follow this awesome advice by everyone because I eventually want to piece together a cool rock band and perform 'real' gigs. This is great, really!

    Thanks for reading. We're Hot Water Recipe! Like us on facebook!


  • Eloise

    Yeah, but I've been to open mics where, even if you bought something but didn't buy enough, they'd literally give you the evil eye like you were some dirty old bum that crawled in off the sidewalk. I would always buy something, but I'm tired of being treated like that. So, note to organizers…if you don't like music and musicians, don't put on an open mic *just* to make money.

  • Rob Roper

    I agree with all that. I just wanted to add something to Point 4, "Stay for the whole open mic and make friends".

    I've seen people at open mics come early to sign up, the leave for 2 hours, and come back 10 minutes before they go on, play their set, and leave. The message that sends is, "I'm great but everybody sucks, so I'm not going to waste my valuable time listening to all you losers."

    I call those people the "Open Mic Diva". That's not the image you want. It won't win you any friends or fans. Yes, there may be some beginners there. I've been one; I used to suck when I first started playing. So did you. Don't be self-centered. You have to give if you want to receive. Support the other folks.

    Besides that, you will miss out on hearing some good songs. You just might hear somebody who knocks you out.

  • Great article Chris and some insightful comments as well. I've got a couple more insights for what they're worth.
    1) Scope it out one week before coming to perform the next. You'll be more comfortable with the room and crowd and have a better idea of the expectations.
    2) Another benefit of staying late consistently is that you often get called up early, then again later.
    3) If you're a guitar player but also play bass, bring your bass and let the host know you'd be happy to sit in with anyone that needs you. Bass players are always scarce and it makes it easier to put together pick up groupings if that's the tradition at the venue.
    4) If someone's got a cool instrument or plays a lick you like, take note of it and get them to one side to compliment it or have them show it to you. Gives you something to talk about.
    5) I don't drink but always order several juices, sodas, etc. Tip well and get the bartender or waitress' name so you can encourage the crowd to tip them. Good allies to have both for booking and for getting the crowd on your side.
    6) Buy the host a drink – every time.
    7) Once you're comfortable with the regulars, invite them to sit in with you and never turn down a request to sit in with someone else. The more stage time you get, the better.
    8) Don't hog the stage. Play the agreed upon number of songs and keep them in the 3 1/2 minute range. If they want you to play more, they'll ask you.
    9) Tune silently before taking the stage, don't waste time. When it's time to get up an play, get up and play.
    10) Plan and rehearse 3 times the number of songs you'll need, just in case.

    There used to be more jams than open mikes. I played in the house band for several and attended many more. In a jam setting, always keep your volume out front matched with the majority of the players, only take one lead unless signaled to continue and encourage the other players, regardless of their skill level.

  • I don't think so. I've never played an Open Mic myself and usually play venues with my band. I think the key is finding a community of musicians and fans that like your music–however you do it.

  • I'm no purist, so I always like when someone has an extra interesting element. BUT… not if it takes the person an abnormal amount of time to set up properly. If it's just as smooth a transition as every other act, fine.

  • Scottjbrown

    Every bit of knowledge helps. Thank you. S.J.B.

  • Very helpful! Thanks for the advice. It motivated me to sign up for this week's open mic and build that confidence up again. 🙂

  • Somemightsay

    I played open Mic for years & found it a good starting point as well! I suggest playing at as many different ones as possible, to get use to different crowds / sound systems & how to adapt to different situations & remain comfortable (as possible). I build up a really good set of songs over time for a 25 min showcase or 45 min set….then started giging !! Cheers !!!

  • Somemightsay

    Another good point I see on the posst hear…YES, Buy something !! Open mic are done to bring in customers !! In southern Ca. I can't tell you how many times I see Musicians come a play tunes & leave early & buy NOTHING…(& play over time limits). Soon enough the open mic is gone !!! Very sad !!!!

  • SteveCapt

    @Peter Fitzpatrick… Good point you make about balancing a 24-hour work day. Most important to remember is that staying fresh and enjoying the music making is key. I do all these things that you speak of and then feel tired on some days… so if I skip recording or practicing my live set for one day, it's okay, no worries. Because I know that life challenges are going to be what they are, and that is life, pure and simple. I guess the amazing thing about making music is that it truly is an art, and art can't be forced out on to a conveyer belt or made with a cookie cutter. Good luck to you!

  • Myron, obviously there are exceptions in every case. Folks with kids or day jobs can't be expected to be there till the bar closes! 🙂

  • Guest

    Excellent article. I'd like to reinforce the wisdom of going to a venue to see what it's like prior to playing at that location. It's important to know your audience. Some places are quiet, coffee shop venues that are perfect for sensitive, folk songs and introspective music. Others are bars where people go to have a drink, watch sports on television, talk with their friends, and where they can unwind. If your going to play a quite coffee shop, you probably don't want to come in and do a full-tilt-boogie cover of an AC/DC song. Likewise, playing a gentle song about green fields and blue skies with soft fingerpicking won't get much attention at a bar filled with cowboys and bikers. Now this isn't anything to get upset about, it's simply the way the venues are so don't get your ego wrapped up in any of this. As much as you may hope to sway the public with your songs, there is only one of you and perhaps fifty of them. Recently, I was playing at an open mic in a neighborhood bar when a woman came in who broke about half the rules established in this post. She had the host sign her up so she wouldn't have to come in early. After the first hour and a half passed she came in with her entourage and took a table in the back. They ignored the singers and talked. When her time came she went on stage and performed two lengthily quiet songs. The bar, by the way, was in full stride with games on television, lots of conversations, laughter, and general chatter. Nobody could her her lyrics and the mood she was going for was completely alien to the venue. Then, prior to her third song, she put her fingers in her mouth and let out a very shrill whistle. It screamed through the bar and everyone stopped talking and looked over at her. "Now, I want you to be quiet for this next song!" She demanded. Well, as you can imagine, that quiet lasted perhaps 30 seconds and then everyone went back to what they were doing. She finished her set, put away her guitar, and she and her entourage left the building. From what I could hear, the songs were imaginative, and her guitar playing was lively, but she was in the wrong place for that kind of music. Know your audience, and be prepared to give them music that will enhance the evening. Also, and I think this goes without saying, don't tell the audience how to behave. It's their place, not yours. You'll get a far better reception.

  • MIchael Kennedy

    Checking out the venue before playing there is very important. If it is a quiet little coffee house you might want to reconsider performing your tribute set to AC/DC. Likewise, if it's a bar full of bikers and cowboys, your salute to Joni MItchell might not be the best choice for grabbing the audience. As much as we'd like to believe the audience will be drawn to our music, the fact is we are there to enhance their evening whatever that may be. Once your well known, you can play what you wish (although, even then you need to play to the audience if you want to remain popular). Until then, if you want them to actually like what your doing, know what to play so they'll actually pay attention. Oh, one more thing. Don't demand that the audience listen to you. Don't be rude. I was at an open mic the other night at a bar where people were talking, laughing, watching a game on television, and having a great time. A woman got on stage and did two soft folky songs. She was almost impossible to hear, and her words were completely lost in the room. Prior to her third song she put her fingers in her mouth and let out an ear piercing whistle. Everybody stopped talking and looked at her. She demanded they be quiet and listen to her song. Well, that lasted about 30 seconds and everyone went back to talking, laughing, and so on. I'm sure she sang a lovely song, and her guitar playing looked imaginative. But when she whistled she lost everybody. Don't be rude to the audience. Be sensitive to the venue. If your MIles Davis, you can blow them off, but until then, be aware of where you are and do your job with skill and communication.