The Definitive Guide to Surviving Open-Mics for Singer/Songwriters

Open Mic

If you’re reading this, I assume you’re a budding singer/songwriter who’s entertaining the thought of going out to an open mic.  Good for you!  Open-mics are often the first step a songwriter takes to “go public” with their music, and a great way to practice your performance on your way to becoming a full-fledged gigging act.

That said, it can be a daunting step when you’ve never performed before.  Make no mistake, open-mics are challenging environment to perform in, it can be quite hard to perform well (or at least feel like you did) when you have a short spot in which to play a few songs.  Below I’m going to share with you what I learned from attending various open-mics myself, and watching others do so, so that you are equipped to present yourself as well as you can.

Research Ahead

If you’ve never performed at an open-mic before, I highly recommend you go once simply as an audience.  It’ll do a great deal to your nerves to become familiar with the environment and know how the process works.  Observe how the sign-up works, who the host is, and how the stage and sound system works, how the audience and performers come across to you.  If you don’t vibe with a particular open-mic, by all means, go check out a different one.  There is no need to make your first few performances more difficult than they need to be — check out a few if possible, and pick one that feels more most comfortable.

Sign-up process can be an important thing to investigate, because if you don’t play the cards right you may not perform at all.  From my experience it’s most often a piece of paper with time slots and you can write your name anywhere on the slots on first-come-first-serve basis.  You know what that means — get there early and choose a spot of your liking.  But other, more popular places also engage in some kind of drawing, because they often get more performers than there are spots.  You’ll want to consider if the risk of showing up and finding that you don’t have a slot outweighs the benefits of playing there.

My personal preference is to pick a spot 3-5 slots in.  Being the first means you may be subjected to sound system kinks, but I don’t like to wait very long, because until my turn is finished I’m preoccupied with my performance to really take in other performances.  The other challenge is of course there usually isn’t a good way to warm-up right before you perform — you can do some vocal warm-ups on the way to the venue in the car perhaps, but the effect of that will wear off if your slot is late.

Technical Setup

Most open-mics use some kind of PA/sound system.  If you are a guitar-based singer/songwriter, it’s the easiest if you can bring a guitar that you can “plug in” — an acoustic guitar with a pickup installed.  If your guitar doesn’t have one, there are after-market acoustic guitar pickups that you can install, sometimes without modifying your guitar at all.  Choosing a pickup is outside the scope of this article (get one that requires a battery, unless you choose to have a preamp pedal — otherwise the output of a passive pickup is very soft, requiring the sound system to turn up a lot, which can result in poor tone, noise and feedback), but I do recommend you use an acoustic guitar with a pickup.

If the open-mic has more than enough mics and stands you may be able to just have one mic pointed to your guitar.  If you take this approach, remember to point the guitar mic to the place where the guitar’s neck and body meet.  Inexperienced people often point the mic at the sound hole, but that usually results in boomy, muddy sound.

You can also use an electric guitar but you may want to bring an amp or perhaps an amp simulator pedal — plugging an electric straight into PA doesn’t sound great and more importantly, sound very different from what you’re used to, if you have an amp at home.

Choosing the Right Songs

A typical open-mic slot allows you to perform up to three songs.  Choose the right songs knowing the nature of an open-mic:

  • An ideal song for an open-mic is a loud, up-tempo song with strumming guitar part and vocal melodies that sit in the middle of your range.  Most open-mics are in coffeehouses and restaurants, with lots of ambient noises and not-so-great sound system.  Intricate, quiet finger-picked songs can get drowned out, you may not even be able to hear yourself.  Even if your songs are gentle/folky kinds, choose as upbeat repertoire as possible, unless you care less about how you come across and more about getting experience performing.
  • Pick easy song(s), especially for your first song.  Start with the easiest one and have a more challenging song go second, with another easy/strong one to finish.  One caveat is that I’ve seen situations where you plan three songs but get to play less for one reason or another — so you may not want to save the best for the last.  Going with the easy/strong one first, get as good reaction as you can from the audience, and that positive momentum will carry you through the other songs.

During Your Performance

  • Introduce yourself at the beginning and at the end.
  • Thank the host and the venue for allowing you an opportunity to perform.
  • Introduce each song by mentioning the song name, and perhaps even what the song is about.  Don’t assume that the audience will hear or understand your lyrics!  The PA may be muddy, you may not be enunciating clearly, or the environment can be noisy.  By mentioning the song’s subject matter you’re assisting the audience to appreciate your song more.
  • Assuming there is applause, thank the audience.
  • If you have an online presence of any kind, mention that at the end.  If anybody liked you you’ll want to give them a way to get in touch with you or hear your recordings online.

Before and After Your Performance

  • Refrain from talking over the music/noise, especially before you perform.  In addition to being rude/disruptive, such chattering wears on your voice.
  • Do pay attention to other performers and applaud loudly after each song.
  • Even if your turn is done, stay as late as you can to hear everybody.  Typically early performers leave before the whole open-mic is done, leaving the later performers with less audience.
  • Do approach other performers you enjoyed, and mention what you liked about them.  Everybody loves affirmations.
  • Even if you have no CDs, web sites or social media accounts, I suggest you print some business cards.  In addition to your name and contact info, have a one sentence/tagline that describes your music.  Open-mics are excellent networking opportunities — business cards are a great way to help others remember that they met you.

If You Can Rock Open-Mics…

If you made it through your first open-mic, congratulations!  Performing in public is a huge achievement.  Even if it doesn’t go as well you’d like, don’t lose heart.  Open-mics are hard.  You get up without warm-up and do a quick three-song set with less-than-ideal sound system and listening environment.  It’s a great testing ground for you as a performer.  Longer gigs allow you time to get more comfortable in your performance, which will come easier for you if you learn to get comfortable with open-mics.  Remember, nobody starts out great — you have to give yourself time to develop your performance chops.  Open-mics are perfect for that, so keep going!

Any Tips to Add?

Did I miss anything, or do you have any of your own tips to add?  Please do so in the comments below.  Thanks, and have fun performing!


(Photo credit: Thorsten Krienke)

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