I just came back from performing at an open mike in western Massachusetts, the Luthier's Co-op. Even though it was more than an hour's drive from my home, I feel that it is an Open Mike worth driving to. As an emerging artist, I tend to go to a lot of "Open Mikes" because it allows me to perform regularly and maintain contact with other artists and increase my visability for gigs. Indeed, I've gotten many paying gigs as a result of performing at "Open Mikes". So it's worth the effort. But all "Open Mikes" are not made equal. Which raises the question, for an emerging artist, what makes for a good "Open Mike"?
What follows then are some random considerations and thoughts of mine as to what makes for a worthwhile "Open Mike" experience.
1. What is the nature of the venue? An Open Mike can occur at a wide variety of venues: Restaurants, Pubs, Coffeehouses, Art Galleries, Music Stores, and Performing Arts Centers and college venues. Most venues can be divided into one of two super-categories: For profit (i.e. business-related) venues and non-profit venues. Each of them have their pluses and minuses. Business-related venues may have more "foot traffic" and therefore more true "listeners" (as opposed to Open Mike "players") in the audience, but the down-side is that you are there to euphemistically "sell the beer" for the venue. Non-profit venues (particularly those that are dedicated performance venues) are great places to play in terms of sound systems and professional staging. However, many of them require that the performers have to "ante-up" something in order just to play there in order to support the underlying institution.
2. How is the venue set up? Obviously, it's the people that attend the Open Mike that make the difference. Open Mikes at bars and taverns can be both good and bad for the emerging artist. Open Mikes where the venue is centered around a "U"-shaped main bar with the audience facing inwards is more likely to attract a primarily "drinking" crowd, whereas a tavern with tables and a stage (even a small one) is more likely to attract "listeners". The emerging artist naturally wants listeners, rather than drikers (who may tend to talk with their friend next to them and treat the artist as background noise). what is the ambient noise level like (HVAC systems, blenders crushing ice, loud appliances, etc.) and is the sound system sufficient to overcome it? A really good open mike will have a relatively low ambient noise level to begin with and a decent sound system.
3. Does the venue Open Mike night have a "professional"-acting Emcee? Is there a primary point of contact who acts in a professional way. By professional, I mean someone who shows up on time, is courteous to each act, is supportive of each act and helps promote the act by asking you when and where you might be playing next and annouces it to the audience after your set. Also, it is possible that the Emcee will be providing the sound system, so does he know how to use it well?
4. What is the sound system like? Most (but not all) Open Mikes will have a sound system of varying quality. A good sound system will make a good performer sound great and a bad system will make a great performer sound mediocre. On balance, even with a decent sound system, I will bring a few accessories with me, such as my own DI box (I use an L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic DI) and, if the sound system lacks a reverb capability, my own reverb pedal (I use a small TC Electronics Hall of Fame Reverb). For this reason, always check out the sound system and come prepared. Remember, if you have low expectations, you will rarely be disappointed.
5. Is there something that makes the venue unique or special? Luthier's Co-op has vintage guitars, mandolins, and other instruments displayed on every vertical surface of the place up to the ceiling. It has an incredible vibe. The Brooklyn Tea House in Providence, RI and Fritz's Place in Keene, NH have sofas and love seats abounding for comftable listening. The Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham, MA and The Center for the Arts in Natick, MA are full fledged performance stages with super sound systems. Look for venues that provide something special for the artist.
6. How is the Open Mike list designed? By this, I mean how many songs or how much time is each act given? Is there a finite number of slots on the sign-up list? Is there a "featured act"? Are there "openers" If so, does the Emcee encourage donations and contributions to them? I think that the most important thing here is one of time. How many songs or time can be devoted to each act. As an emerging artist, you will want as much time on stage as you can handle. Open Mikes that only allow you to play one (1) song because of the high number of participants are generally not worth it because how can an audience really get to know you and your music in the course of a single song, particularly if you have to "pay to play".
I'm sure there are other considerations such as the popularity and longevity of the Open Mike as well as the quality of the food or drink, if such is available at the venue. But these are some of the prime considerations I use when selecting an Open Mike venue. And yes, I would drive an hour and a half to participate in a great Open Mike venue, because a great Open Mike can greatly add to your visability as an emerging artist on the rise.
Food for thought
Yours in DADGAD