Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Open Mikes

And Why I Like Them

I think Open Mikes get a bad rap. They're often the butt of jokes on TV and in movies where they are usually seen as merely the lowest rung on the entertainment ladder, the top rungs being the only ones that "matter".

For ambitious people who are climbing that ladder, or wish they were, this attitude is understandable. The whole point of climbing it to distinguish yourself, to be better than other performers, and that involves climbing over them to the next level. And playing at Open Mikes is a level that most ambitious performers want to climb over as fast as possible.

When you play at Open Mikes, you may very well have to share the stage with beginners, some with talent, some without. There is no test you have to pass in order to play at an Open Mike, anyone can play and anyone does. The crowd is not there to see you. The crowd, if there is one, is there to see what's happening, support their friends, or maybe they're just stopping by to have a drink.

As an image enhancer or career opportunity, Open Mikes don't rate very high. Many performers will even publicly state,"I don't play Open Mikes" or "I only play Open Mikes to break in new material." I've seen many performers show up at an Open Mike looking almost embarrassed to be there. They often don't listen much to the other performers, are only focused on their own performance, expect the crowd to fall at their feet when it's their turn, and if that doesn't happen, they never come back. They are much more interested in what they can get than what they can give.

But there are other ways to approach playing at an Open Mike. It doesn't have to be a platform for your ego. It doesn't have to be an opportunity for career advancement. It doesn't have to be a proving ground, or a challenge, or an indicator of your value as a person.

It can be a way to participate in a musical community. It can be a chance to experience what you have in common with other performers rather that what distinguishes you from them. It can be a chance to just enjoy making music or poetry or whatever it is you like to do. It can be a chance to watch people, ordinary people, not celebrities with polished "acts", sing songs about their lives. It can be a chance to compare your attitude towards success or towards "the business", with that of other performers. It can be a chance to listen to how other people are meeting their creative challenges. It can be a chance to be polite, suspend your judgments, and let someone who you don't enjoy have their 15 minutes on stage. It can be a chance to set aside your standards and jam with other musicians who are not at your level. It can also be a chance to discover someone who might really touch and move you, even if you've never heard of them before and they don't have an album or even a career in music. It can be a chance to participate in a community of people who do their art because they love the art itself, not just the response they can get from an audience. It can be a chance to move ordinary people with your music, people who can't help your career or offer you anything more than a smile and a round of applause.

I actually feel sorry for performers who think they are too good for Open Mikes, who are more concerned with image building than just the simple joy of playing music. When I hear about "artists" who won't appear anywhere unless they can get a quarter of a million dollars up front, I just shake my head in wonder.

I've been writing songs and performing professionally since 1975 or so, and I never get tired of playing and hosting Open Mikes. I've had amazing experiences and made some life long friends at Open Mikes. The Sunday Night Open Mike at The Spot in Evanston, The Victory Music Open Mike at The Antique Sandwich in Tacoma, The Monday Night Open Mike at Folk City in New York, The University Bistro Open Mike in Seattle, and, here in Ashland, The Sunday Night Open Mike at The Wild Goose, as well as Tease Unplugged and the Tuesday Night Open Mike and Jam at Tabu, have been some of my favorites.

I don't consider myself better or worse than anyone else. I write and sing songs that "do it" for me, songs that release a charge for me and make me feel better for having written or sung them. If other people get that same release, it's wonderful, but that's not why I'm doing it. I'm doing it for myself first, then I see if anyone else is moved by what moves me. And Open Mikes are a great place to find that out.

I also like the feeling that we're all in this together, that no one's special or above anyone else, that we're just people making music for each other. I do my best to cultivate this attitude in myself and at any Open Mike I play or host. Because in the end, that's all that matters to me. In the long run, there will be no trace that we even existed, let alone had a hit record. We're just people making music and that's a good thing. Open Mikes help me remember that.


  1. Interesting, but I wish you'd stop talking so much about the long run.

  2. Hey! Only one sentence about the "long run"! The rest was all about what I like about Open Mikes now! ;~)

  3. i like the list of open mikes from all over. what a long strange trip it's been...-terry

  4. Terry, See my fb post thread about this blog. I tell a few stories about those open mikes...