How to Host a Successful Open Mic Night
Format and Location
First and foremost, you’ll need to decide what type of open mic night you’d like to host. Will it be acoustic with light percussion; or full-band with “house” musicians who are available to support guest artists upon request? Perhaps something in between? Once you’ve decided on the format, you’ll need to find a venue to partner with — one that is willing to provide an appropriate budget and performance space for your chosen format; and one that will help you promote.
It’s also important that your venue-partner is willing to sign on for the long haul. Due to the voluntary nature of an open mic night, participation on any given night is unpredictable. It’s not as if you’re booking paid acts that are obligated to show up — your event depends entirely on artists being motivated to donate their time and talent. It will also take some time to build audience attendance. And although your venue-partner is primarily in this to sell food and drinks, they should be willing to invest enough time to let it grow.
Get the Word Out
You can promote your event for free with websites that specialize in open mics, such as www.openmikes.org, www.openmic.us, etc. Promote heavily on social media, making sure to also join and post to as many music-related groups as you can find; not just your home page. Establish a social media page specifically for your open mic band and invite people to join. Create flyers and post them in local music shops. And most importantly — go out and support the very artists you’re hoping to attract! One hand washes the other, as the saying goes; they’ll be more inclined to support you if you do the same for them.
Make sure that all of your gear (house PA, backline, lighting, etc.) is in good working order and that you know how to operate it. Your goal is to make the open mic night experience as pleasant as possible for your guest artists so they’ll want to come back. Broken or sub-standard gear detracts from the experience for both performers and audience members. And please, for the sake of everyone in attendance — learn how to properly EQ your PA system! If you can’t do it, hire someone who can. The goal here is to help your performers come off as favorably as possible; quality sound reinforcement is a big part of that equation.
Keep the Vibe Going
Play canned music from your iPod, phone, etc. between acts. Dead air is a real buzz kill, but some cool tunes will help keep the positive vibe flowing during your breaks. Unless your open mic night is targeted at a specific genre of music (Country, Blues, Hip-Hop), choose a variety of program material that has mass appeal, i.e. something for everyone. Don’t like this song? Just wait 4 minutes! Also, avoid potentially offensive material and keep the volume at a reasonable level. It’s especially important to give everyone’s ears a break at full-band open mics.
Efficiency is Key
Schedule an early evening start, set up well in advance, and begin the event on time! Since most open mics occur during weeknights, many guest artists who need to get up early for work the next day won’t want to be there too late. And if they weren’t able to secure an early slot, starting the event late will only make them more anxious and less likely to hang around waiting for their chance to perform.
Set a specific length for each performance and inform your performers about the time limit in advance. This will likely be dictated by the length of your event and the number of performers who typically sign up. Since average song length varies greatly depending on genre (1 Pink Floyd song = 10 Ramones songs), I typically go with 4 songs or 20 minutes, whichever comes first. If the performance roster is a bit light, I’ll offer artists an extra song or two. You can also economize a bit if the list is maxed out — but keep in mind, any less than 3 songs is less motivation for your performers to make the effort to come out.
Another option (particularly if you have a large number of performers signed up) is to limit sets to 2 songs, keep the changeovers brief, then go back to the top of the list after your last act has performed. This will not only ensure that all performers will get onstage reasonably early; it also provides motivation for them to stick around a lot longer, rather than do the “play and dash” that seems to be all too prevalent at open mics.
You can and should accommodate a limited number of advance signups (2-3 max) to guarantee a decent turnout. But be sure to leave some early slots open for walk-ins. No one wants to arrive at the appointed time the signup sheet is scheduled to go out, only to find that half of the early slots are already filled by regulars who are “in the club” — or, worse yet — not in the club at all!
Discouraging “newbies” and “outsiders” may very well be the most prevalent reason why open mics fail. Not to mention the fact that your audience will grow tired of seeing and hearing the same people week after week if you continually stack the deck against newcomers. Conversely, welcoming everyone and making sure you get them onstage within a reasonable amount of time after their arrival is a sure-fire way to encourage repeat participation.
Make Your Artists Feel Comfortable
Conduct a brief interview during your guests’ introductions. If they’re a first-timer, ask how they heard about your open mic night (valuable info for targeted promotions), where they’re from, how long they’ve been playing, etc. For returning performers, tell the audience what you already know — how long the artist has been coming to your open mic night, what type of material they typically perform, that they’ve done a great job for you in the past, etc. This type of casual banter helps to calm performers’ nerves and serves to foster audience member support for their new “friend”.
Create Repeat Performers
Make your guest artists feel like rock stars! And be sure to thank them, both publicly and privately, for their participation. Remember, they aren’t getting paid for their performance. The least you can do is to let them know how much their participation is appreciated. Because, quite frankly — without them, there is no show! (I’ve actually said this to performers who thank ME for “allowing” them to perform.)
Return the Favor
Always ask your guest artist if they have a website, Reverb Nation page, CDs available for sale, etc. And if the venue will allow it, help them promote their upcoming gigs. Many open mic acts come out and perform for free specifically to network and promote their projects. Return the favor and help them out with a plug or two.
Capture the Moment
Take lots of photos and maybe a few videos of your performers. Then post an album on your open mic’s social media page as soon as possible. Tag everyone you know so your photos are seen by your guest and their friends. This will not only make the artist feel special by garnering props from the people whose opinions they value; it will also help to spread the word about your open mic night.
Above All, Be Professional!
Stay sober! Or at least try to limit yourself to whatever your metabolism can fully process in an hour. No one likes a sloppy host who can’t deliver a proper introduction or capably back up a performer. I’ve personally taken over a few open mics from hosts who just couldn’t keep their act together. And as with all artistic endeavors, the best performances are delivered by those with the clearest heads.
Here’s something that shouldn’t even need to be stated: Regardless of how questionable a particular guest artist’s abilities may be — DO NOT bad-mouth them! Obviously, this would be a grievous act if committed publicly onstage. But it can be just as damaging and embarrassing for everyone concerned if your sidebar jokes to a “friend” are overheard by the performer. Simply put, as host, the quality of your entire show and the willingness of performers to participate in the future depends on your commitment to conducting yourself professionally. That’s what’s expected — and that’s what you’ll need to deliver, each and every time.
How did it go?
Okay, so you just got paid for a night’s work. Hopefully, you had some fun with it too. But if you do this right, your guest artists will actually thank YOU for your noble act of supporting local musicians. That’s not only a personal feel-good; it also generates goodwill throughout the music community — which benefits your venue-partner — which helps ensure that your open mic night will thrive for years to come!
Written by: Tom Najarian
After a few Open Mic Night’s, you might be ready for a gig? Check out some tips on preparing for your first live show Here