Open Mics Suck, but They’re Worth Enduring
It’s a warm Wednesday night in West Philly. I’m at a dingy dive bar’s monthly open mic night, and the room is packed with eager musicians.
I look at the signup list. It’s long. Spot number 15 is open, but the performances haven’t started yet. It’ll be at least 90 minutes until I play. I want to leave immediately, but I’m here to back up my friend on guitar and feel obligated to stick around. I show him the list, hoping he’ll agree that we should do something else, but he tells me that he’s a featured act, so we won’t have to wait too long to perform.
Feeling relieved, I settle in to watch the night unfold. The first three people give refreshingly polished performances. One plays singer-songwriter folk, another raps, and the third sings to a funky backing track he produced. Spirits are high, and people are actually paying attention to the music.
Then, a fourth performer walks up to the stage, removes his shoes, and adjusts the microphone so he can sit cross-legged on the floor. At this point, I know he’ll either be irredeemably terrible or incredibly talented. There’s just no middle ground for someone who feels the need to show the world his feet at an open mic.
The barefoot man looks stoically into the audience and, after a long silence, says, “I wrote this song today while I was feeling a lot of hate and anger towards our president.”
He then subjects the crowd to six self indulgent minutes of a protest song that sounded like it had indeed been written today. The crowd responds with a meager round of applause. It turns out, hatred and anger don’t translate very well to solo acoustic performances.
The following act decides to try stand up comedy for the first time in his life. He insists on continually reminding the crowd of that fact during his set. After three and a half jokes, he decides that comedy isn’t for him and leaves the stage. The crowd, ever supportive, coaxes him back to finish. He tells one more joke and leaves. The crowd responds with a thundering round of applause that the barefoot man is visibly jealous of.
After a few more performances, I play a short set with my friend, hang out for a bit, and leave. I get home around midnight and think to myself how I’d be happy to never go to another open mic night in my life.
When it comes down to it, open mics suck.
They’re long, the quality of music is all over the place, and sometimes it feels like everyone is just focused on themselves. On any given night, I’d rather be jamming with friends or watching someone perform an uninterrupted set of music. Regardless, I find myself at another one two nights later. It’s an open jam this time, and, dynamically speaking, the music is a mess.
Why keep going then?
Open mics have undeniable value when it comes to networking. For example, at that open jam I went to, even though the music wasn’t anything to write home about, I met two really cool musicians who are active in the local scene. I now regularly jam with both of them.
To rip off Forrest Gump: open mics are like a box of chocolate, you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes they’re dreadful and you’ll leave feeling like you wasted your night, but other times, you’ll connect with someone who could turn out to be a strong musical ally. You might even hear some great music while you’re at it. The key is to bounce around and find out which ones suck the least.
I usually prefer open mics with backing bands. They’re conducive to hanging out and meeting people, and they tend to draw serious musicians. Every type of open mic has its place, though. The afternoon coffee shop open mic could be the right setting for your music. Alternatively, you might find that the noisy, cover song-heavy open mic is the ultimate litmus test for that new, high-energy song you’ve been perfecting.
If there’s a moral to this story, it’s this: get off your phone and go to open mic nights. You might leave with nothing, but you might make a new friend. Whatever you do, just keep your shoes on.
Kyle Sparkman is a musician and writer based in Philadelphia. He writes about music and other things that are interesting to humans. If the music is funky, he probably likes it.