As I type this, I'm sitting on a vinyl-coated bench at the tiny-yet-spaciously-intriguing Root Hill Cafe in Park Slope. It took me an hour to get here from Astoria by train, but that hour is well spent on the pursuit of a boundless opportunity -- a new open mic.
Open mics are a huge part of my lifestyle out here. It's how I make new performing friends, and it's key to the process of finding new venues and opening them up to my music. When I first moved here, I was taking the approach of bringing my Big Dang Album around, passing copies of it and my business card over countless coffeeshop and beer joint counters, only to find it scaring them off of me, because they thought I'd be either bringing the Big Dang Band with me, or that I wouldn't hold up as a solo performer -- in retrospect, I wish we had put some acoustic-only songs on it.
That makes it sound like I hate my album. I don't -- and I don't think my fans do -- but the next thing is going to be much more sparing in the bells-and-whistles department. I can't think of many artists out there that don't switch up their process each time.
I have a few policies when going to a new open mic, and they've served me well. So here's some tips:
1. Show up early. The first time I go to any open mic, I show up an hour before sign-up, to get used to the room, and to ensure that I get a slot. I don't usually sign up for the first slot, as I want to get to know the regular performers in the room, as well, but it's nice to have your options open. Having run an open mic or two, I can't tell you how annoying it is when someone shows up after the slots are filled and starts grousing that there isn't more availability. If you're not there when the list comes out, you're just not trying hard enough. So, until I know exactly how the rhythm of the sign-up for each place works, I err on the side of caution -- and I have never been turned away from an open mic.
2. Don't be a spaz. The worst thing you can do in this environment is to come off as a tryhard. I'm pretty ambitious and outgoing, so this is the rule I almost always break. In fact, I just broke it, because the second track from L.E.O's "Alpacas Orgling" just came on the store's iPod, and that never happens, so I just Spazzed about that to the owner.
3. Be a participant. When you're not playing, you are an audience member. This means talking is minimal, and that can be tricky when you've just played and people want to talk to you about it. The next person deserves the same attention you got, though, and you need to give them that. It's not hard to keep answers short and polite -- over the years I've gotten very good at getting email addresses and selling CDs with minimal gestures and conversation.
4. Play the 'hits.' I have a song called "Right On" that doesn't fail, ever, as long as I sing it well. Every open mic I play for the first time, I play that song, because I feel that it's owed to the room to at least give them one indication of my act at its best. For comedians, it seems like their rule of thumb is to exclusively try out new material and either tank it or watch it sail. I wish more of them would bring their 'A' game for the first minute or so. After that I can do whatever. (Tonight the backup number was a newer song called "Wonderful Lie" that is proving itself to be a pretty sturdy player.)
5. Banter light, banter quick, and get the eff off the stage when you're done. This should always be your behavior, but especially the first time. Load it up, load it off, and be quick about it. I have seen people show up to open mics with some of the most convoluted setups you can imagine, and it never goes well. If you have 8 minutes to play, and you spend 5 of those minutes getting your loop pedals to work in sync, guess what? 3 minutes.
6. Never, EVER ask when your spot is coming. I know I talked about this in the soundguy post, but seriously. Just don't. There's an open mic in the Village where if you ask the soundguy when your slot is, he will stare lasers into you and you will feel them, and I totally side with that guy.
7. Buy a drink. You're not rich -- you're doing open mics. Sure. But you are using a space that is opening its doors to you for the furthering of your career. Pay your rent -- buy a drink. Coffee, Soda, beer, I don't care, but buy something. Otherwise, you'll see the venue close, or you'll find yourself being received with much less grace as time goes on.
Rock it like you stole it,