Open mics are a great place to gain experience. When you're starting off, you should be playing anywhere and everywhere. Your first 30 or so shows won't be paid. As they shouldn't be. You're most likely not very good yet and don't deserve to be paid for these performances. Open mics, however, aren't just for novices. Many times you'll see veteran singer/songwriters show up at open mics to test out new material and meet other songwriters. Open mics can be incredibly valuable to your career if you approach them right. Unfortunately, most musicians don't understand the purpose of open mics and fail miserably at them.
Here are 11 reasons why you may be failing at open mics:
1. You don't think it is a performance
Whether you're on stage at Madison Square Garden in front of 10,000 or at your local coffee shop in front of 15, you are performing. Don't let the informality of an open mic format fool you into laziness. Make sure you prepare like this is a true performance. A 3 song performance, but still a performance nonetheless. You never know who is watching and sometimes the booker of the club (or other local clubs in town) will be there to find new talent. If you wow the other performers, they'll want to team up with you for co-writing or show booking.
No matter what room you're performing for, you should take command and bring down the house.
2. You forget your lyrics
This goes along with point 1. It is a performance, not just a time where you can 'see how it goes.' Memorize your lyrics or bring a lyrics sheet on stage. At open mics, it's acceptable to read the lyrics off of a music stand. These are low pressure events where songwriters test out new material. But don't forget your lyrics and then make a big deal about it singing something like "I forgot this next line la la…" You may get a few awkward chuckles, but it's annoying.
I can't tell you how many times I've seen musicians get on stage at open mics and their guitar's batteries are dead. Or their loop pedal is malfunctioning. Or the violin's pickup is scratchy. Or the drummer doesn't have hot rods or brushes on hand for the TINY room. Know your gear and make sure you play to the room. Don't bring a full Marshall stack for an intimate coffee house.
Open mics are for networking. Sure, and performing experience if you're new. In LA, the listening rooms hold open mics occasionally and most of the performers are world class. Songwriters attend these events to network with other songwriters. No matter if you're in LA or Green Bay, you should network with the other musicians at these. Build (and get to know) your community.
It's disrespectful to all the other performers if you show up just before you play and then leave directly after. Don't be that guy. Get there at the start and stay until the end.
5. You don't order a drink
The reason the club, cafe or listening room is holding an open mic is not out of the goodness of their hearts so you can test out some new songs. It's so they can get a crowd in there that will buy drinks.
Order a drink, help your local establishment out, and TIP YOUR BARTENDER. I know this may sound like a a cliche statement, but if you DON'T tip, they will remember. You will not fall into their good graces. You will not get free drinks in the future. You will not be looked upon favorable by that bartender - who is friends with the sound guy, booker, owner and bouncer.
If you don't have enough money for a tip, you don't have enough money for a drink. Period.
6. You look like you belong at a barbecue – not on stage
If you're playing dad rock and your target demographic is 42-65 year old men, then feel free to wear cargo shorts and a Hawaiian T. Otherwise, dress like you're going to be performing in front of people. You're getting on stage. You're inviting eyeballs to look at you. Give them something pleasant (or interesting) to look it. You don't need to put on a Kiss mask or skinny jeans if this isn't you, but how about some pants (or a dress) and a shirt that's been washed.
One of the reasons the club is holding an open mic is to see who can bring the most people. The club will sometimes offer that performer (if she's good), a headlining performance date. But the club is running a business and they want people in there. You don't need to promote this like it's one of your biggest shows, but at the very least bring a few friends along. If nothing more, you'll at least have a couple people applauding for you.
Many times at open mics, friends of other performers will fall in love with your performance and want your CD. Make sure you have them on hand to sell. You most likely won't be able to setup your merch (because there are so many other performers), but you can mention you have CDs available. And again, open mics are for networking. Bring along business cards and flyers.
Even if he sucks or she only knows 4 chords on guitar, go up shake her hand and tell her something specific you liked about her performance. She'll remember that.
If it's someone you REALLY liked, make sure to exchange info and discuss possible collaboration or co-writing. Sometimes bands are formed this way.
10. You don't meet the venue's staff
One of the best ways to get in good with the venue is to meet the staff: the door guy, the bartender, the sound guy, the servers, the booker. If you become known as a positive presence in their club they will be excited to see you every time you show up and will think of you when they need to fill a date.