Open Mics – Proper Etiquette and Acoustic Performances

My life of musical performance started with the volume up to 11. Etiquette included outrageous behavior, shouting, dancing, smoking, drinking, dancing – general 70’s rock debauchery – as much as 13 year olds could get away with anyway.
Through the years came many more bands – the 80’s shows opening up for Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone, complete with stage diving, slam dancing, and more crazy, drunken behavior. Aside from my more refined jazz years and a bit of classical performance in college, I often found myself in the most outrageous(and loud) bands, so when I stumbled into the realm of singer-songwriters and acoustic musicians in the mid 2000’s – a world I barely knew existed – I was surprised on many levels how different this world of performance and this mindset was.


“You may ask yourself, ‘How did I get here’? Though so much of my time was occupied playing with various bands, I had my own recording studio at home where i could work alone on my own artsy music, unhindered by the collaborative band experience. This process led to 3 solo albums of complex, layered music – very much a full band sound. I had hoped to sell these albums online, but without a live act to go out and promote them, my intent of keeping things a ‘recorded material only’ project started to slip away, as online promotion only seemed to go so far. The whole reason for this project was to avoid a band dynamic – i didn’t want to compromise, nor was I interested in the often difficult personal dealings that come with a band, so I toyed with the concept of playing this music solo. Could I possibly strip it down to just acoustic guitar(an instrument I had not played much) and vocal(a skill I had not really mastered yet–thank god for multiple takes)? I had started down a road that would be the most challenging musical experience of my life, both musically and emotionally.
Late in 2004 I began to strip down my songs and the amount of work I would need to do for this format to be viable became staggeringly evident. The acoustic guitar was so quiet and dynamically limited, and singing constantly while playing took some time to get used to. Voice lessons happened promptly – I had to re-learn to sing, as years of shouting over loud instruments had no relevance in this format. Another question arose: where would I play music like this, and how would I get the skills I needed before I could justify doing a ‘real’ performance? And that is how I found the world of open mics, and discovered the world of the singer-songwriter.
I found many open mics throughout the bay area, and they were all quite different. Some were respectful and nurturing, others were loud and demeaning. There were great performers, and there were mediocre and weak performers, but in all cases, I found that I respected anyone who would get out there alone and put it on the line. I learned a ton from all of them – what worked as well as what didn’t. For me, the open mic was a means to an end and not a way of life as it seemed to be for so many.
I did move on to play shows, but still go to open mics to find recording clients and to try out new material. One thing that is common to both acoustic shows and open mics – something that was never an issue with bands – is that environment is highly influential on the performance and can make or break the music. It is a delicate music that needs to be treated more like a classical performance than anything else, yet so often, the ‘club music’ mentality prevails and proper respect is not given to performers. And sadly, fellow performers more often than not also perpetuate this dynamic. It is songwriter oriented cities like Nashville that understand this, and venues like the Bluebird Cafe, which I was fortunate to perform at on a US tour, that have strict ‘no talking’ rules.
Perhaps a bit of a long lead up to the main point of this writing, but hey, I’m a song writer and words/communication of ideas is my business : )
This is for audiences in general, but mostly for the songwriters themselves, as I am always surprised how neglectful of proper etiquette they/we can be given we are well aware of how it all works (yes, i even find myself throwing up my arms and joining in with bad behavior from time to time).
1) Be quiet – it is difficult to perform solo and it requires a lot of concentration, and it is difficult to hear oneself. Open mics are social situations too, so a little whispering is ok–or go outside if an important conversation needs to happen(though also note rule 2 coming up). If we songwriters don’t perpetuate a dynamic of respect toward the fine art of acoustic music, then how will others know to respect it?
2) Don’t leave immediately after your performance – this is a big issue for me, and I know it is for others too. It is so utterly selfish and disrespectful, it really makes me want to punch people who do it, and more often than not, the ones that do it are the ones who could most benefit from watching other performers. It brings up a big aspect of music business, and life in general: you have to give in order to receive. Don’t think other’s don’t notice they do… and they will be less respectful of you next time they see you.
If you want people (ie: fans!) to care about what you do, you need to reciprocate and care about what they do – and I’m talking about fellow musicians and plain ol’ non-musician fans alike. This is an important lesson for all of life, not just open mics. To really appreciate music, and to really have a meaningful life, listening is probably the number one most important thing you can do. Ideas and creativity are inspired by what you experience, and that means attention needs to be paid to the world around you. I have learned so much about music listening to both good and bad performers. I’ve been inspired by very small aspects of the most rookie open mic’ers at times, not just the experienced ones.
3) Listen – obviously, this is addressed heavily above. Out of respect for fellow performers and for the benefit of your own career, take in the offerings of others. Appreciate, learn.
4) Kindly help demonstrate proper etiquette – remind others to whisper, or as I sometimes do, motion them to another room if a conversation starts. Actively listen to others and serve as an example of attentive behavior.
Just these small, simple things can make for a better community of songwriters, and can help perpetuate proper etiquette to a world of acoustic music that seems to be growing. So many people love music and can’t live without it, but far too often, we don’t give it the respect it deserves.
I’d be very interested to know your experiences in open mics.

MY WEBPAGE – where you can see what we do at Basement 3 Productions  – we do recording, mixing, orchestration, work with singer songwriters, do photography and graphic design –