The Struggling Musician: Part 5 Open Mic Etiquette


Myself performing at an open mic night at Rad Brothers in Milton, Ontario November 2012

I love going to open mic nights. I enjoy meeting and networking with other musicians, I like hearing original material as well as artist’s personal twists on classic covers, and I especially like the fact that every open mic is different. It’s like filling a bucket with several different colours of paint without paying attention to the colour ratio….it will always be different.

Over the years I have attended many on a weekly basis. Some have been great fun with a friendly, open atmosphere where you are greeted with a smile and the musicians are all enthusiastic about all abilities and styles. I am sad to say that I have been to some that have been awful because some of the more experienced artists had little patience for the newbies. Many musicians do not appreciate other musical genres and styles, and some people simply do not understand the etiquette of open mic nights.

“There is an etiquette to open mic nights?” Not officially but there bloody well should be.

1.       How long should I stay after my set has finished?

One the things that really pisses me off about some musicians is the naïve and/or arrogant way they think it is perfectly acceptable to leave after their set has finished. I have seen musicians sit on their own in a corner, scowling at people and refusing to engage in conversation (you know who you are Erwin), play their set and then leave straight after. This is possibly the rudest open mic behaviour I have come across.

I know that sometimes people only have time to stay for a set before they have to get back home to the wife and kids, or have to dash off to work etc., but it really is poor etiquette. Personally I think that after your set you should stay for the sets of at least two more musicians and for most open mics this constitutes no more than half an hour of your time. Oh and here’s a novel idea…talk to other musicians too.

2.       Can I join in and make it a jam?


Myself and right hand man Todd Gallant, performing on the cajon. Rad Brothers, Milton, Ontario, November 2012

There is a clear distinction between an open jam and an open mic. At an open jam there are no set rules to who can join in. You can jump in and out as you wish and have the opportunity to play different instruments.  An open mic is directed towards musicians who have rehearsed specific material whether that be originals or covers.

At an open mic it is poor etiquette to pick up your guitar, tambourine, cajon, harmonica or whatever other instrument you may have and start jamming along uninvited. Even if you know the song, even if you are doing it quietly so no-one can hear your input. You should always wait to be invited to join in. A lot of the time the musician who is about to play may ask if someone can “do some percussion” for them or would like some bass or a guitar solo. Don’t assume people want their set taken over by a self-righteous fuck-wit who isn’t as good, or as popular as they think they are. For me it’s like someone cooking you a meal at their house and you bring your own food and start serving it at the table…it’s just not on.

3.       Electric or acoustic?


For me, Open Mic nights should be acoustic. If you want to bring a drum kit and electric guitars with numerous foot pedals and amps then I suggest Open Jam nights for that. You will be appreciated more and you won’t take up the time of other artists while you faff about with the gain on your Marshall amp, fumble around to change batteries for your pedals or wrestle with the untangleable (Yes I made that word up) mess of leads to hook them all up.

I am not averse to Keyboards but prefer the person who uses it to arrive before the open mic starts to get it set up. Once their set is done they can take it down as it takes a lot less time to strip down a keyboard equipment that to set up.

I have been to many open mics where whole bands come in and set up (which takes more than half an hour once equipment has been placed and sound checks completed, and therefore wastes the time of other performers) and end up playing more than the other open mic performers. Also once the band has finished then some poor solo acoustic artist has to go on afterwards and is usually ignored while everyone’s ears are still ringing from the band.

Establishing an ‘Electric’ or ‘Acoustic’ theme for your open mic is important as it informs musicians and audience members what to expect.

4.       Borrowing other musicians equipment

This is a controversial one as many musicians, including myself, prefer not to lend our instruments to people unless we know who they are. Instruments are not only expensive but they are like children to their owners and if they get mistreated by others it is likely to cause an explosive response.

Recently I lent my guitar to a young lad who shall remain nameless but I had seen him around on the scene a few times so knew he could play. During his set he broke one of my strings. No big deal, its easily done and they are easy to replace. What pissed me off was that his apology was half-hearted, and he didn’t even offer to restring the guitar for me or replace the string with one of his own. Now I know that strings are cheap but surely it’s the principle of the thing. You break it you buy it…or at least replace it. I recommend taking your own instruments to open mic nights. That way if you damage your own equipment you only have to blame yourself.

5.       No backing tracks


Singing kareoke at my little bro’s 18th birthday bash…that’s him on the left with the glasses. Folkestone June 2008

Open mic is not karaoke! Save that for Friday night at the Dog and Duck, Queen’s Legs or wherever you else you may frequent. Using backing tracks for me is an insult to musicians who spend hours practicing.

“But I’m a singer and I don’t know any musicians” I hear you wimper. In today’s multimedia day and age there really is no excuse for not finding what you want. Use Facebook, use Twitter, use Google. Just don’t use a backing track at an open mic, save that for your ex-factor audition!

Lastly, please, please, please leave your egos at the door. You are playing at an open mic night not the Royal Albert Hall. No one will be impressed by you wearing dark glasses inside or demanding that you get an earlier slot so that you ensure you have a larger audience. You are more likely going to alienate yourself.

Remember open mics are about having fun and networking with other musicians. Let’s keep it that way.

Have you had any interesting open mic experiences? Can you think of other pieces of open mic etiquette that needs to be addressed?


10 responses to “The Struggling Musician: Part 5 Open Mic Etiquette

  1. Pingback: The Struggling Musician Part 6: Busking | Lawrence of Canadia·

  2. Save it for …. what? You can’t sing your own songs at karaoke. Or did I miss something?

    I really don’t understand people. Some of us works so hard for weeks or more on our full compositions. Most musicians are so full of hate. Kind of like you said. But there you go, hating.

  3. ““But I’m a singer and I don’t know any musicians” I hear you wimper. In today’s multimedia day and age there really is no excuse for not finding what you want. Use Facebook, use Twitter, use Google. Just don’t use a backing track at an open mic, save that for your ex-factor audition!”

    Yes, technology. And what I want is my own electro compositions with plugin effects that I work tirelessly on to nanosecond goodness. I don’t imagine my music for acoustic guitar. It’s no fit.

    Ex-Factor, haha. Like you get us so well.

    • Hi Elle, once again thank you for reading and commenting. I do see your point about creating your own music at home and bringing it along to Open Mic nights to perform. There are plenty out there that would whole heartedly welcome you in.

  4. The backing track comment is absolutely ridiculous. Yup, instrumentalists practice for weeks and I absolutely practice far more. I am a vocalist and my voice is my instrument. I have no interest in working with other musicians, period. Don’t like it suck it. Either you love my voice or you don’t. I’ve worked professionally pretty much my entire life save the first 10 years. Studios use backing tracks as well as many live performances where audiences actually pay a substantial amount of money. To date ‘open mic’ has not surpassed any of those to be the holy grail of music.

    If the snobbery of “OMG, you did what?!” is distracting you, then you’re already focusing on the wrong thing. I absolutely could play a second instrument and did play six incredibly well growing up. And just in case the eye rolling starts I was accepted into a fine arts high school with two points below perfect, I’m also an opera singer and use backing tracks when doing events because I want an orchestra and can’t haul one over.

    If I split my focus or had to deal with having other musicians involved my vocals would not be nearly as good. I want to do what I want to do and don’t have a lick of interest in taking time away from rehearsing to include another party. Backing tracks give no attitude, have no opinions or input, have no conflicting schedules, etc (insert whatever human issue you choose).

    My personal pet peeve is being subjected to any singer who does not have perfect pitch. That pretty much sums up damned near every dual musician I’ve heard. And that is far more important than whether a person or robot is backing me anyway. It’s not their show, it’s mine, so enough with the “we’ve practiced”. I practice 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, year round. So, shut it.

    • Yaasmeen, Apologies I thought I replied to this.
      Firstly, thank you for commenting. My response to yours:
      Yes your voice is an instrument and no doubt you spend time doing exercises to keep it up to scratch. But by saying you have no wish to perform with other musicians smacks a little of being a diva, and is my point entirely which is the problem with the modern music scene.

      Congratulations on your achievement in getting into a Fine Arts High School (That is sincere praise).Using backing tracks for professional events is perfectly fine, I never said it wasn’t. I said that I didn’t think they should be used at Open Mics.

      Yes I appreciate dealing with musicians egos, opinions etc. can be tiring or time consuming…we can also learn from other musicians. I for one certainly do not think I am so good as to not wish/think that I have more to learn.

      You talk of perfect pitch. Once again you are mistaking Open Mics for professional events. Open Mics are where musicians go to try new material, and practice their craft in a nurturing environment. Some may not be good singers or pitch perfect as you say. Some may not be very good at playing their instrument, but that is why they are playing at an Open Mic and not being paid for an event.

  5. There’s nothing wrong with using backing tracks if its your own original material, it even adds some variety to the otherwise identikit acoustic singer/songwriter types. This is the age of technology, lots of people compose using software and drum machines.

    • Thanks for commenting Mark. Since writing this article, I have agreed that my initial thoughts on backing tracks were unfair. While I still hold that I do not agree with backing tracks for cover songs, if someone has taken the time to compose a track themselves, then I would welcome this to an open mic as an original piece of music.

  6. Hello. I found this after attending a particularly shambolic open mic last night and it was a cathartic read! I’d like to add a few rules:

    1. Learn your lyrics and chords! A small cheat sheet is fine but you should have rehearsed and learned what you’re going to play so you can engage with your audience, not be staring at a songbook or phone or ipad. Even though we’re not professionals, it’s only polite.

    2. If you ask another musician to perform on your set, pay them respect when they have their own set. Especially respect multi-instrumentalists and don’t label them as one thing. I say this because I play fiddle but also play guitar and sing. Last night I arrived early to meet my friend George – I’d agreed to accompany his songs with some fiddle. The host took my name and noted that I’d play fiddle with George then have my own set to sing later. Anyway I played with George and the night went on. And on. I enjoyed the other acts, and was asked to play fiddle for a few songs with other people which was nice. But there was no sign of the host giving me my slot even though several people who had arrived much later were getting theirs. When I eventually managed to get his attention he said “oh it’s just so busy tonight and I thought that, since you’ve already played a lot I should give others a chance”. I was gobsmacked. Utter failure of organisation on his part. I told him it should be first come first served – and that by trying to please everyone he had royally pissed me off! He was quite apologetic and to be fair it was a fairly new event that had never been that busy before, so he was swamped (although he did make time for a long set for himself…). But on another point, I think he and others had labelled me as “the fiddle player” last night rather than someone who had their own set to do as well. Very annoying…

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