These rules are pretty much for music based open mics, blues jams, acoustic open mikes, etc. I don’t follow the comedy, or poetry open mic scene, so I’m not sure if they have the problems that exist with music open mics.
Open mic formats: There are a whole bunch of ways that people host and run open mics. A busy open mic will generally have a list. This list is usually a chronological list of performers who sign up to play, and will play in that order…. That is, in a perfect world. If it’s an acoustic type open mic, everyone takes a turn, and does their songs. If its an electric jam, there could be whole band signed up, or a guitar/vocalist who needs a backing band, or just a bass player, drummer, flute, sax, keys, whatever, looking to jam. It is the unwritten job of the host to try to pair up players, and put things together to help make performers sound good. Some open mics have full house backing bands who will back up the performers, but this is not always the case. In any case, this is a great way to meet other musicians, and play with new people, who knows when something will click!
I have seen open mics run like a well oiled machine, with barely a minute of noodling between sets, and I’ve seen others where it take 20 minutes to shuffle one group of performers off and then have the next tune up. I’ve found that the best open mics, are the ones with a TIMED list. If you want to spend your playing time tuning and re-tuning your A string, or adjusting each and every cymbal stand, its your time!!! Without a timed list, it could take hours to get through 3 performers. I don’t like the NUMBER OF SONGS format. To me, it is unfair for one guy to go up and do three 25 minute endless jams, while the next guy plays three 4 minute pop songs. Many open mics still run this way. I particularly don’t enjoy when the open jam is attended by mainly the host’s friends. To get to a place early to sign up, and then wait two hours and then see the host’s buddy walk right in and get up is bullshit. These open mics eventually fail! A good format is 3 songs OR 15 minutes, or some variation. This way you can do one long epic or 3 short songs, it’s your time.
1- Ask questions when you get to the open mic. Ask about who is in charge, find out what the house rules are, where and when to sign up, how many songs or how much time you have to perform. I like to visit an open mic some time before I actually go to play there. It allows me to get a feeling of the place, crowd, host, etc. Then, when you come to perform the first time, you are at least familiar with the surroundings, backline, etc. If there is a person there who runs the open mic, that is the person who makes the rules. Follow Them!
2- Sign up. Sign up for you or your band. Do not sign up your friend who should be, could be, or might be coming out later. If you sign up for a late slot, and then leave and come back, that is fine. Don’t call the bar, or call the host to ask to get put on the list. Many good open mics have lists that fill up within a half hour of the list being started. It is not fair for someone who has come out early to have to play after someone who is not even there. If someone crosses their name off and decides not to play, you may NOT take their slot. All slots just move up. Also, if you come in with three friends, it’s not cool to sign up one after another, and play together for 40 minutes. For the benefit of the rest of the performers, break up your sets.
3- Bring your own Axe, Bass, Sticks, etc. Most times, amps, PA, and drums are provided, but find out first. Don’t expect everyone to just lend you their guitar. If you are attached to your favorite snare drum, bring it. Don’t expect top of the line equipment at an open mic. If you like the sound of your amp, bring it! Many times, all the equipment is owned and hauled in and out by the host. Please be respectful when using other peoples stuff. You may bash your junk all you want, but the pay to run an open mic will not pay for constantly fixing broken stuff. Spend a few minutes making sure you have all you need, strap, picks, wires, etc.
4- Tune up! Why is it, that after sitting and waiting to play for 2 hours, many performers will go up to play with a completely untuned instrument. NOBODY WANTS TO HEAR YOU TUNE. If you don’t have a tuner, ask someone. Drummers, you aren’t setting up the kit to play a concert in a stadium. Ask the host if you can fool with the house kit. Adjust the seat, figure out where things are, and get comfortable. You are playing 3 songs on someone else’s drums!, it should not take 20 minutes to re-adjust the height and angle of the mounted tom-tom to your exacting specifications. If you’re a lefty, all bets are off.
5- Have some idea what you are going to do. If you know beforehand who you are going to play with, go over with them, songs you might do together. Don’t wait till you all have instruments in your hands to start asking each other, do you know this?, or what about that? This is not fair to other musicians who are patiently waiting to play. If you don’t know the song, say so. Why drag other musicians into a huge train wreck because you had no idea how to play it. Ask beforehand and find songs that everyone is comfortable with.
6- Don’t start songs that you are not going to play. It’s really great that you know the beginning to 95 songs, but nobody is impressed that you know the intro to some obscure Dream Theatre song that no one else knows how to play. This goes for everyone. Once your instrument is adjusted, stop playing! It sounds like hell when there are 5 guys all noodling and wasting time. If you are not the singer, find out if the person that is singing knows the lyrics, or has them written for the song you want to play. Singers, if you don’t know the lyrics, bring them with you. Even though you think it sounds cute, making up the lyrics as you go will sound like crap. If you need to go over chord changes for something you’re going to try out, no problem, go over the changes, and then PLAY THE SONG. Endless noodling is very annoying to the spectators.
7- NO FALSE STARTS. This is not a studio recording, once its going, let it roll down the tracks heading for the washed out bridge. There are no take 2’s, do-over’s, mulligan’s, etc. The mark of a professional, is to somehow make it through.
8- Save the heavy boozing till after you play. No problem with a little alcohol to ease the butterflies a little, but trust me, if you’ve been sitting and drinking while waiting to play for a few hours, when you get up on stage you may find yourself out of sorts and light headed. It will be difficult to keep your composure, remember your songs, and have a good time.
9- Don’t be rude, pushy, or obnoxious. Do I have to say this? If you are given 3 songs, do them and stop! Don’t start song number 4, don’t cry for one more. It’s wonderful that you think that everyone wants to hear an hour of your best tunes, but most of them are there to perform themselves. You had your opportunity, now it’s someone else’s time. I know its difficult to leave the stage when everyone is having such a great time, but, it’s an open mic, NOT YOUR CONCERT! It is NOT ok to go up and grab the mic when someone else is singing. It’s great that you know the song too, but it’s not your turn. If you are invited up, wonderful, but don’t think that since you know the part so well on the harp, flute, or kazoo that you should run up and join in. The host is there to hopefully ensure that everyone has a good time. He/She does not want to be Music Cop. If you are a blues performer, you do not need to do introductions with solos on every single song! If your drunk friends are with you, please keep them from falling into the equipment. Be courteous to the host and other performers. If you are waiting anxiously to play, it is NOT ok to sit and strum your acoustic guitar, out of time, 5 feet from the guying playing the song. It is distracting and rude!
10- Watch your volumes. This goes for everyone not playing an acoustic guitar or piano and singing along. Loud music is awesome! I love a cranked amp that pushes air as much as anyone, but in a small club in the back corner, it is obnoxious! There are other patrons there who might want to have a conversation while having a cocktail. If the music is too loud, all of the patrons will leave so they can talk. My experience is that when 3 guitar players get together, it very often turns into a volume fight. First, is the volume of the drum kit. If the drummer only knows how to SLAM the drum with each hit, everyone will have to play that much louder to play over them. Use some dynamics. Drums can be played hard or soft, know when to play which. Bass players, again if you are too loud, it forces the guitar player to turn up to hear themselves. Very often the weakest part of the setup is the PA, if you play louder than the PA can deliver clean undistorted sound, you will bury the vocals. Guitar players, harp players, keys, etc. Set up your amp so that it is easy for you to hear yourself and to not overpower everybody else. I know that it can be difficult, but not impossible. Think of your listener. They want to hear a cohesive sound, to hear the vocals clearly, and have the music at a bearable level. If there is a sound man who has everything miked, make sure you can hear yourself in the monitors before starting off, keep your stage volume at a low roar. If you insist on blasting away, no one will stay to hear you.
11- If you have an odd request, ask the host. If you want to play along with an mp3 track you have brought with you on your ipod, walkman, etc, ask. It depends on what equipment the host has, and the overall format of the jam. Most of the hosts that I’ve seen will bend over backward to accommodate someone who wants to do something different. If it is strictly a music open mic, don’t try to bring in your comedy act. Find an open mic that welcomes comedians. Try to find an open mic that has other similar types of performers to what you do. There are many acoustic open mics that don’t have drums or amps, and bringing in your metal band will not work, just as trying to do your hip-hop stuff at a blues jam will not be welcomed.
12- Try to exercise a modicum of decorum when choosing material. You may love to write songs about licking your girlfriends pu**y, but it may be inappropriate in certain settings and you may be asked to leave and not return. Use your head. Keep your potty mouth to yourself, not everyone wants to hear you spew!
13- Buy something. The bar, club, or coffee house will not keep paying to have an open mic at their location if nobody buys anything. The bar owner may love live music, but they can’t pay the rent off of a really good tune. Order something, tip the servers. If everyone is there, drinking water and spending no money while waiting to play, the venue will cease to exist.
14- Be a good audience member. If you want other people in the room to not be distracting you, don’t distract them with loud talking, laughing, etc. If you are a seasoned open mic pro, remember that at some point, we all were beginners and somebody gave us a chance and support to develop our chops. There is no reason for putting down others because they don’t meet up to our/your standards!!
15- Do your homework. Check out web sites that list open mics in your area. Use MYSPACE to find nearby venues too. You can learn a lot about the type of open mic that is listed, by checking out the host’s site, or even the venue’s web site. A lot of open mics are cancelled, postponed, or otherwise not happening the night you want to go. I always say, call before you haul!
16- Have fun. Open mics are a great way to try out new material in front of an audience, and a great way to meet and jam with other musicians. You should leave your attitudes and egos at home and come out to make music and have a great time.