Open Mic Etiquette

One of the best ways to test your skills as a rock/pop/indie/etc. performer is to sign up to play at an open mic. For many developing musicians, it’s a rite of passage, where your music is put into the cauldron of fire before its first audience. For the more experienced musician, it’s a place to experiment, stretch skills and challenge yourself in a live situation. Some open mics develop into communities and networks where musicians can form partnerships and work together professionally.

And like any social sphere, the open mic has its own etiquette. I had a chance to ask some fellow participants in the Black Lotus Brewery open mic community what they consider good etiquette, and I was floored by how much passionate feedback I got. A lot of it is common sense, but how common is that stuff, really?

Here’s what I distilled out of the conversation:

Learn the rules first and then follow them. Find out the basics ahead of time: how many songs you can play (or how many minutes you can play), when and how you can sign up and get on the list, what equipment is available, and what restrictions there may be to volume and other sound factors. The best way to find out these things is to go to the open mic first to listen and meet the host before you actually go to play. Then when you sign up and “bring your axe,” as they say, you won’t be surprised by anything and you can simply go with the flow of the evening.

Be a good listener. And this means actually make time to listen; don’t just sign up at 8:00, show up at your 9:15 start time and play until 9:30, then leave. If you don’t listen to others, then they won’t want to listen to you, either.  Listen with respect, the way you would want others to listen to you. Clap for music that is applause-worthy, and if you like and admire what you hear, tell the musician afterward, face-to-face. If a musician doesn’t play well, it’s okay not to clap, but don’t yell “you suck!” in the middle of the crowd. If you feel the need to offer constructive criticism, do so privately and honestly, and be sure to ask first.

Respect the venue. Open mics happen in the context of a business, whether it’s a restaurant or coffee shop or whatever it happens to be: some kind of public place that serves food. What allows that business to keep offering open mics is monetary support from patrons like you. Therefore, buy drinks and food and tip well. Be polite to the staff and to other patrons. Likewise, make sure your style and volume suit the venue well; you are not Slayer playing at the Silverdome, and hopefully you are reminded of this when you hear the espresso machine frothing your milk.

Respect the stage. Be nice to the stage equipment and let the sound staff and/or host help you to hook up and adjust things; don’t try to do all the technical stuff by yourself. If instruments are provided like drum sets or keyboards, be nice to them. Use the campsite rule and leave things as well or better than when you found them. If another performer lends you a guitar or other instrument (because you needed something with a different tuning or your own equipment isn’t cooperating with you), same thing: treat it as well as your own and thank the donor.

Be a good band-mate. Part of the fun of open mic is the chance to actually play with others, to form an impromptu duo or band for 5 minutes, but you must distinguish an open mic from an open jam. They are not the same thing. If you want to play with someone else at an open mic, don’t just jump on stage and assume that they will want to play with you right then. Things always go better if you ask permission first. But perhaps you can’t accompany yourself? If you only sing or play a linear instrument like a saxophone, have the host introduce you to people you can perform with, and lay the groundwork beforehand. When you get on stage, make your band-mates aware of keys, chord changes, and other musical technicalities so that you are all on the same page before you start. And keep good eye contact during the song so that you can coordinate all those things well.

Don’t overstay your welcome. Play only in your allotted time; don’t go over unless your host asks you to. If a time slot needs to be changed, do it with the host in a way that’s agreeable to everyone involved. Don’t spend all of your time talking and waxing poetic while on the mic. If you are limited by the number of songs you do, don’t have each of them be 10-minute epic symphonies.

Don’t be the usurper. Don’t try to turn an open mic night into your own gig. The open mic community exists for itself, not for you or just a few shining stars. If you get to a level where you are developing well musically and have a good relationship with hosts, venues, and other musicians, don’t just troll around playing the same music in the same places every week. Maybe it’s time to move up and play an actual gig. Put some demo tracks together and take it to the next level. If you just try to usurp every open mic in town, you might be seen as an annoyance. The REAL test is stepping through that scene toward getting gigs. The open mic is only a gateway; you don’t want to get stuck there. You want to leave it open for others to come through, as others have allowed for you.

I’m sure this list could go on for a while, as everyone’s pet peeves rise to the surface, but I figure that’s what the comment section is for. But really, aside from all the rules of participating, written and unwritten, the open mic environment is all about fun and being musical. Anything that gets in the way of that is not cool.

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One thought on “Open Mic Etiquette

  1. A personal pet peeve: If you’re in a band, don’t reserve a separate slot for each member of the band with the rest of you backing him/her up, effectively creating a 45-minute presentation of just one band passing the mic around. This is a sneaky way to monopolize stage time that I have no patience for. Even if it’s okay with the host, it still looks bad. (Fortunately I haven’t seen this at Black Lotus. Elsewhere, I have. It’s never good.)

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