May 16

The Rules of Open-Mic – The Egalitarian Music Institution

I’m going to present you with a general code for open-mic.  It’s going to be edited on a rolling basis, and I’ll continue to take input.  But, it’s worth laying out as a guide for people in general.  Before that, a few words about open-mic as an institution.

There is no musical institution that elicits as great a contrast of simultaneous fear and disgust as the open-mic.  This is why the best test of a musician’s mettle is seeing whether he or she is willing to perform at one.  The disgust comes from the fact that open-mic is an egalitarian institution.  Everyone is allowed to perform.  Everyone receives the same amount of time to do so.  So, many musicians approach open-mic with disgust, because they feel that they’re too good to play alongside “amateurs.”  The fear comes from the fact that open-mic is an egalitarian institution.  Nobody knows who you are, so you have to earn your own respect.  There is no real advertisement.  You aren’t really given special billing.  You are placed on the same level as everyone else.  So, many musicians approach open-mic with fear, because they worry that without all that extra pomp and circumstance, their music doesn’t actually carry them that far.

That egalitarianism is what makes open-mic a valuable cultural institution as well.  Because there is little in the way of expectations, it lets people try things out that they otherwise might not have.  Open-mics also provide a built-in circle of smart musicians, who can talk about your work (and theirs) in ways that are constructively critical.  It’s why I think open-mics are basically the only real public institution devoted to developing songwriter talent.  And at good open-mics, you will run into some very intelligent and creative talents, as well as well-respected veterans who have been writing for years.

Representations of the open-mic in media are pretty terrible, by the way.  I’ve had a few acquaintances give me a run down about what the open-mic scene is like in New York City, because they watched Inside Llewyn Davis.  While the movie gets some aspects of struggling artist-hood right, the movie doesn’t know a thing about open-mics.  As a general rule, people don’t like to go to open-mics to watch musicians perform.  The scenes in Inside Llewyn Davis of a full crowd of non-participant audience members, listening quietly and intently, just does not exist in New York City (or most other cities for that matter).  Maybe this is something that happened in the 60s.  These days, open-mics take place more in relatively empty rooms – or if they are busier, its because other musicians are sitting around and listening to one another.  Ordinary people don’t listen to music at open-mics, just like ordinary people don’t listen to non-famous musicians, regardless of how good they are.  It’s what makes Inside Llewyn Davis a lie.  It’s what makes Phoebe from Friends a lie.

Anyway.  A few more anecdotes.  Before you go to an open-mic, you should ask around to figure out what the environment of an open-mic is like.  Especially if you’re just starting out, the environment of an open-mic can be extremely intimidating.  Some open-mics tend towards certain genres, some open-mics can involve a 6-hour wait.  You want to know what you’re getting yourself into, and you don’t want to ruin your experience with the institution by going to a place that is outside of your comfort zone.

I should also note that open-mics are to be distinguished from a few other formats that you’ll sometimes see.


  • The Pay Open-Mic:  These involve a pay-to-play system.  I don’t have anything against them per se, but as a rule, these open-mics tend to not be worth it.  Some are just taking money from poor musicians who are looking for networking.  They usually sell events with a tag promising a marquee person who has connections, or promising that talent agents and A&R reps are there.  These tags have never actually been true in my experience.
  • The Jam Session:  These can probably be broken down into Jazz, Blues and Generalized Jam sessions.  Jazz jam sessions require some level of specialization.  You either need to be somewhat experienced with the jazz repertoire (for instance, the Real Books), or if you’re a singer, have sheet music ready or be familiar with songs that the musicians know and the keys that they play those songs in.  It’s difficult to get an entry to – but it can be a very rewarding experience.  Blues jam sessions are a bit different – I have less experience with them, but the chord set is more limited, so it makes it easier to participate.  If you’re a singer though – they might expect that you actually lead the band – so I’d suggest going a few times as a listener first, so you understand the format, before you participate.  Generalized Jam sessions – from my limited experience – are more discombobulated, and usually center around a few musicians creating a 4-8 measure form, upon which people can improvise.  If you’re looking for a venue to present your own work – these venues are not great for that – but they each offer experiences for musical growth that you won’t find elsewhere.
  • The Songwriters Club:  The songwriter club isn’t a true open-mic, since it isn’t open to everybody.  There will be some kind of filter which limits participation, in order to ensure a certain level of competence in performance and writing.  Songwriter clubs can be a rewarding experience for both participants and audience members, as they provide a level of consistency and refinement that you might not necessarily get at a traditional open mic.

And now that that’s out of the way, here is a list of rules for open-mic.


  1. Respect the Format / Equipment.  Listen to the open-mic host.  If he or she cuts you off because time is up, end it quick.  If he or she tells you to do 2 songs, for the love of god, don’t try and sneak 3 songs in by combining 2 song into a “medley”.  It’s never worked.  Everyone automatically labels you a hack, and you can be sure that people will be commenting on it behind your back for the rest of the night.
  2. Respect the Equipment.  Check with the open-mic host for when its okay to plug and unplug.  You risk damaging the equipment, and giving everybody a earful of noise otherwise.  Treat the house equipment in general with respect.  Don’t drop the mic.  Adjust the mic-stands appropriately by loosening, adjusting and then re-tightening.  If there’s a house guitar, treat it nicely.
  3. Cut The Jabber.  One of the biggest mistakes to make, and an easy way to draw the ire of your fellow musicians is to spend the first several minutes on stage telling a long shaggy dog story about your song.  A little bit of intro is fine, but people want to hear you perform.  Remember that when you’re using your time to casually converse with the audience: You’re cutting into other people’s time.
  4. Get Your Gear Ready Ahead of Time.  Similar to (2).  This is the classic amateur move.  Taking several minutes on stage to tune your guitar, or setup electronics, where it could have been done ahead of time.  There’s a bunch of musicians watching you, exasperated that you’ve made them wait another 5 minutes – and now another musician later down the queue can’t perform a second song.  Occasionally, you’ve kicked a fellow musician off the queue entirely because there isn’t enough time.  Likewise – break down your equipment and get the off the stage as soon as you’re done.  Remember: You’re cutting into other people’s time.
  5. Cut the Extended Outro/Xth Refrain.  These are typical tricks that amateurs use to try and extend their on-stage time.  By repeating the final verse several times, they hope the repetition will get people to remember the song better, and give them a few extra minutes.  Instead it’s pissing off the other musicians, because: You’re cutting into other people’s time.
  6. Do Original Songs.  This isn’t a requirement so much as an aim.  Unless you’re doing a really interesting spin on an existing song, you’re missing out on an opportunity to write a song and present it to people.
  7. Don’t Just Do the Hits.  Also more of an aim as opposed to a requirement.  Some open-mics can be pressure situations where you feel you have to “perform” in order to get the respect of your peers.  But there are many people who can hear if you’re good – even if you fuck up on a new song – and respect the fact that you’re putting something new out there for the first time.
  8. Talk With Your Fellow Musicians.  Open-mic is one of the few places where you can engage in intelligent discussion with other musicians about their work and your own work.  You can get a lot of helpful feedback at open-mics, and you’re wasting your time there if you aren’t actively seeking out feedback.  If you’re looking to network, bring a card that has your info on it, and if you’re getting along well with a fellow musician, hit them up on Facebook.
  9. Respect Your Fellow Musicians.  When you do talk with your fellow musicians, make sure you’re not interfering with whoever is on stage.  Find a quiet spot off to the side or in the back, or talk during the interludes between performers.  Looking for an opening line to talk to a performer?  Telling them they did a good job, and observing a specific thing that you liked about their performance is a good way to start.
  10. Try to Do a Good Job but Don’t Worry About Fucking Up.  It goes without saying.  If you aren’t taking the performance seriously, you’re wasting everyone’s time, including your own.  So, for instance, don’t get too drunk to perform.  But also, don’t worry about messing up.  No need to apologize for not doing your best, and just soldier on.  Good musicians can hear what you intended to do, and will ignore the small things.
  11. Stick Around and Watch the Other Acts.  Other musicians see it when you perform and then leave the venue as soon as you’re done, and they remember who you are.  It turns out, other musicians are a great resource for performance and networking opportunities – but they only share them with people who demonstrate a modicum of good faith.  When you cut and run, you’re actively burning bridges, and publicly telling people that you’re not worth connecting with.  Stick around and really listen to the other performers, because you’re likely to hear some very good work.
  12. Tip Your Bartenders and Buy Drinks.  Open-mics are essentially events that bars set up when they can’t make money on a particular day.  They are the last resort because musicians are generally financially-challenged misunderstood loners.  Alternatively, if a bar can make more money with an insipid bourgeois trivia night, or some self-indulgent upper-middle-class foodie event – they will destroy the open-mic.  (If the bourgeoisie has to choose between heartbreaking poetry set to music, and various cheese, they will go for various cheese every single time).  So, go buy a drink and tip your bartender, so the open-mic stays open.

Suggestions on additional general rules to add to the canon are welcome.