Reflections on an open mic

Common Ground Open Mic

Those who have been paying attention know that last year, I was asked to launch an open mic night – week 1, week 2, week 3. While I delivered my commitment to launch the open mic successfully, I was sad to find that the venue owners and staff weren’t supportive of extending its reach – a pity for the open mic, the performers, and for the business. The open mic withered away.

Fast forward 6 months and Craig Johnson mentioned that he was thinking of starting a weekly open mic at the Bulkeley House in New London, CT. I offered some advice, along with my commitment to support his efforts. Winter came and the open mic started – I was buried in recording and mixing Sparse, and didn’t emerge from that process until the release in February – at which point I was finally able to get to the Common Ground Open Mic.

Now, a few weeks later as we continue to build momentum for Common Ground – and a year on from launching the original open mic – I’m reflecting on the nature of open mic evenings, audiences, venues, and performers.

Let me start with a comment from a friend of a friend on Facebook, when I asked whether my friend was going to drop by Common Ground.

I hate open mics. Real musicians get paid.

Erm… No.

Real musicians make music.

And, having just invested a couple of grand in recording and mastering my record, and a further large amount in a run of CDs – I’ve already paid much for people to be able to hear my music. When I step on stage with my acoustic guitar – forget mics, PA and monitoring – I’ve already paid over two grand just to sing.

For the vast majority of local musicians, there isn’t an open mic or any other live performance that can come close to balancing the debit side of the business.

Real musicians make music – if they’re lucky, they get paid a symbolic amount for doing so.

I’ll stop there, as I really want to focus on the open mic – and, besides, I already wrote quite a bit about the business model of local live music over at MySetlist.co.

So, to the performers at the open mic. Common Ground is getting a quite eclectic mix of music, everything from Jack Johnson-esque singer-songwriters to sea-shanty accordion pieces; bossanova to indie-metal angst. As I’ve become the guy running the ‘list’

[sign-up sheet and who plays in what order]

I find that all these musicians just want to share the joy of making music, and of being heard. I’ve come across very, very few over-assertive, selfish egos; mostly, musicians seem to be a warm and communal bunch.

That said, there do seem to be a sub-set of performers who I would describe as “professional open-mic’ers” – I first began to notice them a year ago and, sure enough, they show up every now and then at the Common Ground. They sign up on the list with an air of

Don’t you know who I am?

come back to check many times when they’re up, and in the meantime completely ignore whoever’s playing, often talking VERY loudly with the small number of people they’ve brought with them. Finally, it’s their turn, and they take the stage. Often, not very well. They deliver self-indulgent, non-compelling performances – and often ask to play one more song than other performers. They leave the stage to some level of applause, pack up and leave the venue.

What a pity. Here is a chance for music as connection, music as support, music as extension of self, and they’re off into the night, ego resolutely un-pricked.

Sad.

On the whole, the quality of music available locally is pretty high. We’ve had a couple of ‘ouch’ performances, but our audience has been encouraging and accepting throughout. In the main, though, it’s possible to find something in the performance that attracts, piques interest, rewards attention.

Personally, I’ve enjoyed those performers just starting out on their journey – we’ve had a few “This is my first time singing live” – I still recall that moment when I first stood before an audience with a guitar in my hands

[some 36 years ago]

and it’s quite wonderful to see it happening for musicians now.

As we advance through the weeks, Common Ground is gaining momentum and a regular cast of characterful musicians is showing up – needless to say, as we commune in music, jams and sit-ins are on the increase – those chaotic moments where we walk the knife-edge, sending and receiving signals in the moment, trusting that each musician wants to make the whole stronger than the parts. Last night, I got to pull in a full band on one of my songs, play bass on a couple of other people’s work, sing harmonies on some more, bash a tambourine for others and add electric guitar to Marco Frucht‘s self-described

weirdest set I’ve ever done at an open mic

I’ll say it again: Real musicians make music.

And one final coda.

You at the bar… Yes, you… I love you for being here, I really do. And I know you’re digging the music. Thank you. See that big black thing near the guy singing into the microphone? It’s a loudspeaker – simple concept, it makes things louder. It’s that loud because we’re trying to make sure that all the audience here can hear what they’ve come to hear. Got it? Good. OK. Here’s the thing… If you and your friend stand right in front of that speaker and want to have a conversation, it’ll be difficult to hear each other speak. So you’ll start speaking louder. That’s natural. But when the level of your conversation gets LOUDER than the speaker, and impedes other audience members from hearing the music, we’ll ask you to quiet down a little. That doesn’t mean we want silence – it’s a bar after all – but it’s a big bar, and if you really are just wanting some background music while you socialize, maybe you could consider moving further back, so that you don’t ruin everyone else’s evening and, more importantly, don’t disrespect those performers providing your background music.

After all, none of us are getting paid. In fact, we’ve paid for the pleasure of having you talk louder than the PA.

Once again, thank you for being here, and for supporting local live music.

Ah well, I’ve written enough for today, I think.

Come on down to Common Ground at the Bulkeley House on any Wednesday night, 7pm onwards, sign-up, sing a few, listen to a few more – we’ll be there waiting.

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3 thoughts on “Reflections on an open mic

  1. Vince-
    That was a very thoughtful and engaging read, my friend. Thank you for being able to put into words the very things that I am both unable to, or lack the courage to, without some fear of reprisal from my peers. I have always had a great admiration for those who do not expect respect to magically appear, but rather to those who command it. You, as well as everyone else involved in Common Ground, are essential ingredients to it’s success. I enjoy making music every Wednesday with you.
    -Craig Johnson

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  2. Hey Vince. I had a great time playing for the people at the Common Ground open mic last night. I did have to leave early,as my wife needed to get up early for work this morning. I hope to get back there many times, and see more of the local talent,and maybe sit in with a few other people. We were really impressed by how nice and friendly the staff was there. See you soon, Tom.

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