Open mics create a space for independent music, eclectic networking, and they help to support community businesses and entrepreneurs. In the right scenario, everyone, audience members, hosts, performers, and even vendors, can benefit from a great night of art and sharing. Open mics have the potential to be a creative well for all types of artists and art lovers.
For three years, I hosted an open mic at Terra Cafe in Baltimore, QueenEarth & Friends. I loved it, and when we moved to San Jose, the show ended. It was a great era for me and I learned so much. I vowed to never forget what it was like to sit in an audience chair and watch a show. I love performing and hosting. I knew that I would want to start my own event in San Jose. How would I do it? Where would I begin? Who would come out for my show? This past season, I put my guitar down. I took my name off the open mic list, sometimes 😀 I watched. I listened. I studied. I’ve spent about 6 months watching from the audience chairs at a few Oakland and San Jose open mic venues. I learned that, East Coast or West, the rules are the same.
If you’re a host, audience member, or performer, here is my quick guide to open mics! Find the answers to these questions in your town, and you’ll be on your way to community building and creating better spaces for artistic expression.
When/Where is the event? Hopefully, the event is at a time that works with you lifestyle, work schedule, other commitments. Is it reccuring? Weekly? Monthly?
If you can, stop by a venue or research it beforehand. Some things to consider:
Atmosphere – What type of venue is hosting the event. Is it at a bar or a coffeeshoppe? Is it a lounge? How would you describe the ambiance? It is loud? How is the surrounding neighborhood? Are people listening to the art? Are the performing artists serving background music to clinking plates, food, and beverage?
Product – Food and drink? Do they have it? Is it good? Worth the price? Is the event FREE or is there a cover charge?
Parking – Is there adequate/close/cheap/free parking? Trying to find parking sucks. If folks aren’t driving to the event, how close is it to public transportation?
How open is the mic? A good open mic should be able to accommodate a variety of performers. This can be accomplished in many ways. If the PA system is up to par, most anyone should be able to come to the event and share their art, or at least the host/venue knows who they can/cannot accommodate. I have piano player friends who avoid events because they don’t want to load their gear. Now that I know this, when I can and I’m hosting, I try to find someone to bring a set of keys (black and white) to the venue. I also let artists play my guitar. As a host, I try to be accommodating because I don’t want people to stay at home if they don’t feel welcome by the physical hardware to deliver the sound. As a performer, I want to make sure there are a few mics on hand. Mic stands are cool too. What if a duo wants to sing? What if they both play guitar? What if the acoustics in the room don’t allow a small voice to reach the back of the room? I always hope the venue has good mics and enough channels for my favorite band type: a beatboxing, acoustic guitar, vocal trio. Google search Marc Evans Little Big Band, Acoustic Thursdays. This is my favorite open mic.
“Open” can also refer to the audience. It’s great to have a following and an open mic family, but the best hosts and family always make sure to speak to newcomers and regulars with the same enthusiasm. A host can show openness by featuring a variety of artists and supporting eclectic genres, races, genders, musicians, local/touring, etc. Openness adds an element of surprise that also makes an event entertaining. Good audience members are important. Good performers are crucial. When an event can brag about having something “good” to offer, fans and musicians are more willing to leave the house (after a long day of work and traffic), even if they don’t know who is performing. That type of confidence is earned by trust, for the venue as a whole and for the host. If you are more likely to appreciate a certain type of consistency, if you don’t like surprises, it’s okay! I urge you to find an open mic that fits your genre or demographic. It is ok to know where one is comfortable. I encourage folks to grow.
Who is going to be there? Ask yourself who you want to find at the open mic. Are you a host looking for new talent? Are you a new artist looking to network with other hosts and find featured/paying gigs? Are you a performer trying to sell CDs or promote a show? Will there be any seats left? Will folks listen or talk? Is is a bar or a coffeeshoppe? Find out about the venue and the host and you may be able to gain insight about the followers of the event. Sometimes, we won’t be able to find our tribe. ‘I encourage brave souls to create a space that has what they need.
What kinds of performers are usually in attendance? I’ve had hosts tell me what they don’t allow. I’m not talking about swearing or vulgarity. Some open mics, either the hosts or the audiences, don’t like hip hop. Some open mics have a large group of acoustic singer/songwriters on the list. Some feature more emcees. or comedians. I’ve been to open mics for erotic poetry. Sometimes, children are present and/or people are eating. Open mics have a niche, just like the venue only serves a certain type of food. Don’t be disappointed. Know before you go.
Who is Hosting? There are many types of hosts/entertainers who are skilled at facilitating the artistic expression. These people are the “face” of the event and their demeanor will set a tone for performers and listeners. It’s great to have a following and an open mic family, so a good host should try to connect with newcomers and make them feel welcome. Veteran to novice, performers want to be comfortable and audience members want to know that a host can keep the show moving at a good speed. Sometimes, this is done well with a DJ/Host duo or a House Band/Host team. Think David Letterman and Paul Schaffer? Jimmy Fallon and The Roots? A good house band can add to the atmosphere. The open mic scene can also thrive and blossom when hosts support each other to keep audiences excited about the culture of sharing art and open expressions.
When a network of hosts support each other, an open mic event can become a staple in a scene. Artists desire a chance to play at certain venues because there will be other hosts looking for artists, other promoters, and even other musicians who may want to collaborate in writing or business. In this way, the open mic is like an artist’s well. I often look to open mics for inspiration. There is thirst quenching behind the microphone and in an audience chair at an open mic. This experience can be elevated by having an event created, promoted, and led by an individual or a team who can see the value in the “we” of an art scene, the “do it ourselves” culture that supports indie expression. I’ve been to open mics where vendors sell soap and jewelry. Small mom and pop restaurants can also benefit from the hungry and thirsty patron who came out to spend a few hours in their restaurant. There is room for everyone to thrive.
I am so proud of the open mic that I created in San Jose. Even though it only ran for 6 months, we started a family and a West Coast fanbase for QueenEarth and ijava cafe 🙂
I also believe in my traveling open mic where allies and the GLBTQ community can share stories. I created my event QueerCore because someone, at a farmers market, told me that I might make patrons uncomfortable if I sing songs about someone of the same gender. Basically, s-h-e vs. h-e, was going to be a problem. I defy this notion and strive to create safe spaces for everyone, especially those who are looking for a place to share their art and their talent.
This venue, the open mic, is where we learn to love the people in our communities and where we learn to love ourselves. Maybe I can only speak for what I’ve seen in Baltimore and the San Jose/Bay Area. If other cities do what we do, I have great expectations and I look forward to traveling and sharing my gifts. London, from what I hear from other artists and musicians, is going to be amazing! Stay tuned!
These are some of the newest members of my open mic network! If you’re even in San Jose or Oakland, CA, be sure to pay them a visit!
Read below to check out a student from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) and her research about the open mic scene in Baltimore!If you want to get an additional perspective on open mic communities, please check this out!