Being Open To Open Mic Nights

AAbout four years ago, I was in a band that was having a crack at breaking onto a local scene. For some reason, I thought that the best way to do this would be to book us as many local gigs as I could into a short space of time. In hindsight, I can’t help but question my logic. In my head, it had gone something like this: “Lots of shows meant lots of exposure, and lots of exposure means becoming the next Guns N’ Roses.”

It didn’t quite work out like that…

By the time I’d finished drawing up the gig schedule, we had around 11 gigs booked in the space of eight weeks; shows that were all within a 30 mile radius of each-other. When you’re in a band that has just started out, you’re typically dependent on the support of friends and family. Getting 20-30 of your friends and family to see you play, say, once a month should be very do-able. Getting those twenty people to come and see your same set twice a week for two months though… yeah, good luck with that.

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The most people that showed up to one of our gigs on the mini-tour was 30. The least was two. That’s two people in a 200 capacity venue. Oh, and one of them left half way through our set. In two months, we played on average to 5 people a night; usually the people that had gotten in for free on our guest list. Now, thanks to all the playing, the band got really tight during this period. Problem is that we were a really tight band that no-one outside of our nearest and dearest was coming to see. Also, we’d pissed off many of the promoters in the area because we didn’t bring anybody through the door, meaning that most of them would never book us again.

By going into booking overkill, I ended up massively dropping the ball. But looking back, my plan wasn’t as far off as I first thought. Had we kept up the rigours of our gig schedule, but played open mic nights instead, we might have had more luck.

It’s easy to be snobby about open mic nights. They instantly conjure up images of shoddy P.A systems in dingy pubs; of would be singer-songwriters whose feeble attempts to be the next Noel Gallagher are almost as bad as the off-key Oasis covers that they will inevitably end their sets with. And y’know what, for the most part, that’s exactly what you’re going to get (I’ve been to hundreds of open mic nights over the years – ‘Wonderwall’ has been played at every one of them).

What you’ll also get, though, is a platform to promote your music that is free from the pressure of bringing an audience. The genius of open mic nights is their audience to act ratio. Say there are ten acts on the bill and they each bring 3 people with them. That’s already 40 people, 35 more than my band’s average attendance. And if those 40 people don’t show up for some reason, it’s no big deal. The organiser isn’t losing any money and your band can look on the experience as a glorified band practice.

For the first 12 or so months that you are in a band, your gigs should be an event. If you can’t get 30 people to come to a show, then don’t bother booking it. Open mic nights though, those are your bread and butter. They’re dingy and you’ll be subjected to some abysmal cover versions, but you’ll also get to practise playing live and hopefully build up an audience without the risk of pissing off promoters.

Alec Plowman is writing a PhD thesis on liveness in rock music at the University of East Anglia. He is also a freelance media journalist, musician, and collector of Star Wars memorabilia. Check out his blog at