Open mics are a vastly underutilized resource available to musicians. While no one’s going to be making a sustainable living exclusively from open mic performances, there’s a lot that many musicians don’t take into consideration. Some of these steps might seem like no-brainers, but we hope that they’ll help you on your musical journey!
Step 0. Why?
How does $1200/hr pay sound? I’ve been able to make more than $300+ off of a single open mic performance on several occasions. Not bad for 10-30 minutes of playing time! But it goes beyond the money. What is most important to venues? Easy: draw. Draw = money.
Don’t have a good draw? It’s time to find people to support you! Where’s a place you can play for free (or nearly free) in front of a crowd? Open mics. Where can you find an audience full of music lovers who want to hear music? Open mics. Where can you network with other musicians in an environment where you can hear them strut their best/newest stuff? Open mics.
Let’s get started.
Step 1. Prepare
First, you have to find an open mic. Resources like Openmikes.org are tremendous in helping you find open mics near you. Treat this like a true show. Most open mics will give you 2-3 songs (10-15 minutes), but be sure to know the rules ahead of time if you can. Some have featured acts who get prime time slots and a longer set. Grab these if you can! Talk to the host ahead of time if his/her/their contact info is readily available.
Next, have something to plug: merch, an upcoming show, a crowdfunding campaign, etc. Generally, people aren’t going to throw money at you because you play well (even though they probably should). That way, you can plan your …
Set list! I know, ridiculous, right? Why do I have to have a set list if I’m only playing 2-3 songs? Because there’s more to a performance than the music … if you want to make money. How do you introduce yourself in a way that stands out from the other performers? When do you make your plugs? How do you make your performance truly memorable? Who do you thank after your performance?
As a musician, your job is to create an experience for your audience. They want to feel like they drove from work, went to play at some open mic, and met the next [insert awesome musician here]. When you’re famous, they want to be able to say, “I met that guy/gal years ago at an open mic! He/she was super cool to us!”
Step 2. Show-up early
If it’s an open sign-up, show up early, especially if it’s a popular open mic. Otherwise, you might not get a slot. Also, you can get a sense of who the “regulars” of the mic are. Look for people who are chummy and happy to see each other. Get yourself tuned, warmed-up, and relaxed. Showing-up early will ensure you have enough time to …
Step 3. Connect
Introduce yourself to the host. Learn his/her name. Ask if there’s any way to help (they’ll most often kindly say, “No,” to a newcomer anyway). Talk to anyone who seems like regulars. Talk to people who are loners. Talk to the bar/restaurant staff. Be friendly. Order food and drinks. Make people happy. This is good practice for what you’ll need to be doing as a musician anyway. Don’t spend the entire time warming up and ignoring everyone else: you’ll ruin the surprise you have in store for them. Listen to everyone. Applaud everyone. Share kind words to any musicians you think stand out. In no time, it’ll be your time to …
Step 4. Perform & plug
Do what you do best. Start with your most attention-grabbing song. You want the entire place to go silent in awe. After you have their attention, connect with them. Share a story. Tell a joke. Throw a contest to promote your merch (“Whoever can guess what I had for lunch gets a free CD!” or “What state do you think I was born in?”, etc). Anything. The time between your songs is just as important as the music itself. It’s also the best time to plug whatever you’re trying to plug. A good pitch will help you sell merch.
End with a song that ends with an impact, something they can take home with them. If you have a middle song, it’s a good place for a sing-along cover or something new that you’re trying to test out. Any “moments” you can create will make for a better open mic outing.
Step 5. Be a class act
Thank the host, venue, sound guy, bar/restaurant staff, etc. Be nice to everyone there. Get people to applaud the person before. Hype the person after you. Be generous to those you like your music. Some people might not have cash or money on their card. If you have a sampler you can give them, they’ll appreciate it.
Step 6. Passively schmooze
Impress people enough, and you’ll likely get some people coming up to compliment you. You’ll get everything from a, “Nice job dude!” to someone who wants to sit down and have a lengthy conversation. Give everyone the time of day, but be kind to other performers and try to move to somewhere where the conversation won’t interfere with another performer. Say something like, “Hey, would you mind following me over there? I have to put my gear away and want to stay out of everyone’s way.”
Be engaging, but if there’s a line forming, look for opportunities to kindly end the conversation so you can talk to others. An easy way is to move the conversation into asking if they’d be willing to join your mailing list. While they’re scribbling their info, you can start the conversation with the next person. Everyone who’s taking the time to come talk to you is a potential, future fan (AKA local draw!) and/or someone who’s willing to buy some merch (AKA gas money!).
Step 7. Actively schmooze
Not everyone who enjoyed your music will feel bold. If you had a strong, positive reception in the room, you’ll want to grab some merch and walk around the room with your mailing list kindly going person to person asking if they’d like to sign-up. It also helps to have something simple to stay like, “Hey! Thanks so much for coming out and supporting local music! Would you be interested in joining my mailing list?” If you saw them perform before, them definitely say something positive about their performance. Sometimes, you’ll have to explain to people what it’s for (updating about shows, get a free song download, etc) and that it’s risk free (info’s kept private, you won’t spam them, etc). You’ll be surprised at how many people not only join your mailing list but also end up buying merch as well!
Step 8. Stick around
Many musicians don’t get a lot out of open mics because they basically practice the entire time leading up to their performance then jet right after their performance. It’s poor etiquette. The more people you get to know, the more you’ll get out of your night. I can’t tell you how many well-paying private shows I got from quietly-listening audience members who got my contact info from a host/performer I’d befriended.
Performers want to be listened to, and even if everyone clears by the end of the night, those last few performers are going to remember you for being there to listen to their music. The host will probably notice it as well.
Step 9. Wrap-up schmooze
This has all been about relationship building, both in the short term as well as long term. Before you leave, say a friendly, “Goodbye & thanks!” to everyone you connected with that night. They’ll be much more likely to remember you down the line.
Step 10. Follow-up
You may come home with a bunch of CDs, business cards, social media cards, and music recommendations. Make the time to contact everyone who gave you their contact info. Add the new sign-ups to your mailing list right away! Go the extra step and record a short video for them thanking them for coming out to the open mic.
Do your social media follow-ups as you would a regular show, thanking people, posting pictures, writing about your experiences.
If you found the open mic through a website that allows you to review it, write some feedback. Hosts love it!
Phew! There you have it! A lot of work, no? For the performing musician, this may seem like overkill for “just an open mic.” And for those who consistently have a good draw at every market they play, that’s probably true. However, I’ve seen plenty of full-time artists use this process to KILL at open mics and promote an upcoming show nearby (or better yet, at that very venue!).
We hope you find this guide useful! Please let us know your thoughts and share it with anyone you think would find this useful! Anything you’d add? Anything you found useful? Any funny stories from open mics?