How Do Open Mic Nights Work?

Last Updated on April 11, 2023 by Lil Ginge

For both amateurs and professionals, open mic nights are the perfect way to get your start performing. But what is an open mic night and how do they work?

We will look at exactly what an open mic night is, and how to prepare for it. Plus, we will see how to have a great show. There are a number of steps you can make sure that your performance is a rousing success.

We’ll also discuss how to network at the event and what you may want to do after you perform. By the time you finish this article, you will be ready to play open mic nights yourself.

A guitarist playing blues guitar.

What Is An Open Mic Night?

An open mic night is a live performance where any amateur or professional musician can play a few songs. They generally occur at places like:

  • cafes
  • pubs
  • churches
  • restaurants
  • other event spaces

A host or MC runs the evening. The host helps people sign up, introduces the act, and takes care of the show’s technical aspects. Sometimes open mic nights are purely acoustic. But often there will be microphones, a PA system, and perhaps even house instruments.

The performance usually takes place on a small stage or in the corner of the room set up for performances. There will be a number of chairs and tables set up for audience members to use. And generally, people can eat or drink during the show.

Music open mic nights tend to focus on live instrumental music. But others may focus on hip-hop and rap and feature recorded beats. Open mics may also feature other art forms like spoken word, dance, poetry, dramatic monologues, and comedy.

An open mic night is a terrific way to start as a live musical performer. You learn how to perform music by performing in front of other people live. Not just by practicing in front of your bedroom mirror. This is the perfect setup to get that practice and have a fun evening.

How Do Open Mic Nights Work?

Every open mic night will be a little bit different. Generally, each performer during the evening will be given a slot of around 1 to 3 songs. Or sometimes 5 to 15 minutes worth of music. Every performer usually must sign up for a slot in order to perform. But sometimes you can just tell the MC you want to play and they will slot you in.

It is generally best to call ahead to make sure the open mic is still happening. You can ask for any details you might need to know about signups, etc. Generally, you need to bring your own musical equipment like a guitar or a keyboard. Although sometimes there are house instruments available for use.

Most open mic nights have a certain vibe and may feature different types of music or styles. Rock and folk-oriented open mic nights may frown on backing tapes as opposed to live instruments. Pop or hip-hop-oriented open mic nights may be perfectly fine with recorded beats and even have DJs.

The best thing to do is attend the open mic night as an audience member the first time you go. This way you can check out the vibe and styles of music. You will also see what equipment you’ll need to perform well. In terms of equipment or backing music, it’s best to keep things as simple as possible.

Finally, there is time to schmooze with other performers and audience members before, after, or during breaks between performers. Music open mic nights are a great opportunity for networking and making connections with peers. These may be people who can help you on your musical journey.

How to Find Open Mic Nights Near You

There are a number of ways to find out where there are open mic nights near you. These include:

  • Google searches or Facebook groups and events
  • Event sites like Eventbrite
  • Classified listings sites
  • Traditional or digital local entertainment or music magazines
  • Specific open mic directories on the internet or even in phone apps

You should always contact the venue or the host if their contact information is provided. Make sure the open mic night is still happening the day of the performance. Once you have found an open mic night you want to play, put it on your calendar and get prepared to go!

If the open mic is popular, you may need to get yourself slotted on the performance list prior to the night of the show. This is another good reason to reach out to the host even before the day of the show. But for less popular shows, you can generally walk in a half-hour before the show starts to get on the list.

Speaking of which, showing up a bit early to music open mic nights is just good practice in general. This gives you a little bit of time to relax, get in the right headspace, and mingle with other people at the venue. And talking to other performers is a great way to learn about other open mic nights in your area.

What Music Should You Play?

Essentially, what to play at a music open mic night comes down to covers versus original tunes. Which is preferred heavily depends on the particular venue or open mic night. So, you will want to find this information out as early as you can. Some venues do not allow covers at all. Other nights feature mostly covers. It all depends.

If you do play covers, try not to just mimic the original artist. After all, people can just as easily stay home and listen to originals on Spotify or vinyl. Try to find your unique voice and make the songs your own. This will allow audiences to delight in something familiar but also discover something fresh and unique about you.

If you play your originals, make sure to know them inside and out to perform them as well as possible. This will help you give the highest caliber performance possible. And will make it more likely that your audience will like your work. Finally, you should play music at open mic nights that you love to play. Music that gets you going, as this will likely rub off on the audience, too.

How To Prepare For an Open Mic Night

The first thing you must do to prepare for a music open mic night is to practice your ass off! Practice in front of your mirror. Practice in front of family and friends. Record yourself and play it back or ask your invited audience for honest, constructive criticism. Tell them not to be polite and let it rip!

Memorizing chords or lyrics is not necessarily required. Many people have played open mic nights with music stands and music sheets. But it is best and most professional to have your music and lyrics completely memorized. This will also help you focus less on the technical aspects of performing. Instead, you can focus on giving a confident and enthusiastic performance.

On the day of the show, drink lots of water throughout the day to keep yourself hydrated. But don’t binge on water right before the performance or you will need to make frequent bathroom trips. The evening of the show lay off the alcohol, it won’t help you even if you think it will. Practice is what you need to gain your confidence.

It is best to show up to the venue early to get yourself slotted on the list. This can also help you get in the right mindset or even mingle. Tune your musical equipment before the performance time. This way you don’t have to worry about tuning when you are supposed to be playing.

It is also best to prepare more music than you need. If performers generally just play one song, prepare three. If the slots are fifteen minutes, prepare 25 minutes worth. You never know if you may get to perform an encore or a longer set on a less crowded night. Finally, if you are singing, do not forget to warm up your vocal pipes before the set.

Performing At Open Mic Night

Generally, the host of the open mic night will let everyone know who is on deck between each performance. This gives you a set or two worth of time to mentally prepare to take the stage. Once you are called to the stage, check your instrument’s tuning one last time and head on up!

If you are using a lyric sheet or an iPad for lyrics, make sure it is firmly fastened to the music stand. Lyric sheets should be prepared and in the right order. iPads or phones should have the backlight turned on, be connected to the internet, or have the music needed saved and ready to go.

Then it’s time to have a great performance!  You can say a very quick intro and then dive into your first song. I generally recommend an upbeat, uptempo tune to start. Although a very dynamic and emotional ballad has worked for me, too.

It is good to try out a little stage banter between songs. Introduce the name of the song. Say if it’s original or name the artist you are covering. You can even crack a quick one-liner joke. You can even shout out other performers you liked. Make sure you can hear yourself on the monitor. Don’t be afraid of the microphone. And perform with as much confidence as possible.

At the end of your set, it’s great to thank the host and the audience. It will be appreciated. Wait for the host to tell you it’s okay to disconnect your instrument. Then head back to your seat to enjoy some more performers.

After Your Performance

The worst thing you can do at a music open mic night is to leave immediately after you perform. This is perceived as disrespectful and shows you aren’t interested in other musicians. Stay for at least a few more acts if at all possible. Staying for the entirety of the show can often be best to show your appreciation.

Be positive and enthusiastic during other performers’ sets. Make them feel welcome and appreciated, even if they are not the best musicians. This is the place for beginners or professionals of any skill level to hone their craft with a supportive crowd.

After the performance or during breaks, I highly encourage you to network with other musicians and people at the show. This is a great way to get to know people on the scene. You may even find other musicians to collaborate with or discover other venues to play. Compliment other performers you enjoyed but don’t be inauthentic. Also, don’t try to hustle and force your contact information or recorded music on everyone at the venue. That will seem too forward and inauthentic.

If you click with someone in particular, I recommend you give them your contact information and ask them for theirs. This can lead to great future collaborations or even future paid gigs at area venues!

If you invited some friends to watch you play, buy them a drink and thank them for their support. Make sure to thank the host or DJ again on the way out at the end of the night. Tell them you’ll see them again soon at an upcoming open mic night.

Final Thoughts on Music Open Mic Nights

Attending and performing music open mic nights is a fantastic way to get to know your local music scene. It will help you hone your craft, show off your songwriting, and get confident in performing on stage in front of an audience. 

If you take your preparation seriously and stick to these guidelines for the night of the show, you will most likely have a fantastic time performing. And watching other people perform as well. I also highly recommend recording your performance on a device such as your iPhone. This way you can give yourself constructive feedback later.

Open mic nights are generally a ton of fun and one of the best ways to learn how to perform live music. After performing at a bunch of events, you may even be ready to book your first full-paid music gig!

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