Wednesday 8 October 2014

On Open Mics themselves...

A few days ago Jacob Moon sent me this article from Britain called 5 Reasons Why Open Mic Nights Are Killing Live Music. The week before we had sat around at an open mic in the city and chatted about the music business and live music and the whole open mic thing, so it wasn't entirely out of the blue.

Basically, I had said, I am playing open mics for two primary reasons
1) I have till very recently been known as a horn player, not a singer and/or songwriter and/or guitarist (although actually I've been playing guitar longer than trumpet).
2) I am a terribly lazy musician and almost never practice, so I use open mics as a chance to workshop my songs. It's pretty focusing to play tunes in front of people, regardless of whether they are a rapt or a disinterested audience.

He said he had stopped doing open mics some time ago mostly because it's a bad place to put yourself in, musically: an unappreciative audience, and sometimes sandwiched between other performers who, frankly, suck. Add to that that it's not a paid gig, and that you're basically building the venue's business not your own, and he has a point.

In fact, back in August I had an email conversation with Glen Brown, who's involved in the business side of music in Hamilton in a number of different ways, and I said some of the same things that the article says. So I don't entirely disagree. I just think it falls short of really considering the issues. So, point by point:

1) "they're a bad advert for live music"

True. And not true. I have been to and played a LOT of shows over the years, and so I know that good music is out there to be heard. I also happen to know a large number of very talented musicians who, for whatever reason, have never really made a blip on anyone's radar (to say nothing of some talent-starved megastars). We all know success is equal parts talent, hard work, and luck, and that last one can be elusive; sometimes the stars just don't line up. There certainly are plenty of performers who, really, should not, but then there are also rough – or even sometimes quite polished – gems who just love to play and make music, and they raise the bar and buoy the spirits of everyone there.

More pointedly, though, I want to push back against the "reification" of music. For decades now western culture has been pushing the idea that music (and art generally) is a specialized thing that only "experts" do. The effect, of course, has been the erosion of traditional folk musics, of people's desire and willingness to sing together, and even a contribution to a general breakdown of social cohesion. Singing used to be one way people got together and shared common experience. It was bonding. And I see that same spirit, often, at open mics.

2) "they are populated by a self-elected elite."

This is an interesting one. Again, yes. and again no. First, what this is actually describing in the article is people who bring their own fanbase, not a sort of artistic arrogance (which is nonetheless sometimes evident in spades). And so to address it, yes people do this. Must be nice. But the main problem with this one is that it just doesn't apply across the board. I can think of one or two open mics where this is definitely an issue for anyone who just wants to show up and play, getting completely ignored by the crowd as they wait for their friend, but I can actually think of more where the audience is in fact primarily other (attentive) musicians (and one where the audience could not care less whether anyone is ever playing music for them), and as such there's a general sense of support and appreciation. The Dundas Odd Fellows is by FAR the best example of this I have encountered to date.

3) "the money for a live act gets taken by a compere"

Again, I think this is just toooo general. I have no doubt that some "comperes" (I had to Google this: "host" to the rest of us) get paid, but I don't think that's unreasonable, and indeed I'd be dumbstruck if they were making anything more than a token amount for the night (as opposed to the 100-200 "quid" stated in the article), and that's because (with exceptions, naturally), most open mics – at least in this city – are hosted by musicians who genuinely love music. So they're not doing it for the money, and no one who gets up to play is expecting to make any money either.

4) "the brewery is taking a piss"

Basically, yes, the venue is making money and you're not. This is why there's not a single open mic to be found on a Friday or a Saturday: venues don't need help getting people in the door those nights. They need revenue the other 5 days of the week. By and large then, open mics serve that purpose. Even a venue that offers performers a free drink (and they're few and far between) knows they'll make enough in bar sales from you and your friends to make it worthwhile.

The one notable exception to this is the Dundas Odd Fellows Music Hall open mic, which happens monthly. When you buy a beer, they recoup the cost and give the rest to a charity they help support. If you tip your bartender your tip goes into the donation jar too. Not sure about bills and overhead, but I'd say this at least a not-sneaky way to do things.

5) "they become background noise"

...this one is about glut, and I'm not in wholehearted disagreement. The very fact that I can pick and choose from one of up to 5 open mics on any given night does mean this is currently a big "thing" in town. They're popping up all over the place; 4 new just since I began this blog! Some are very well-attended, some are not-so, and they do then compete with each other, with other events, with live music the rest of the week, etc etc. That's not exactly an open mic problem, though, that's a music business problem: glut is sort of the status quo these days, in everything. I'm not just competing to be heard at this open mic, I'm competing to be heard over the DoneFors at the Homegrown later this week, or with a big show in Toronto (although Cher did just cancel...), or with binge-watching the new season of House of Cards at home, or collapsing after another 14-hour shift at the steel plant... Meaning, I think this last complaint about open mics is really the most honest, because its frustration is inescapable: it's hard to get noticed, and it's even harder to make money making music.

What Do We Then Conclude?

An open mic is neither a perfect model nor a perfect system. But as a fledgeling songwriter, it has afforded me an "in" into the scene here in Hamilton, and I've met and started to get to know a whole range of people I would never have otherwise, and that has led to other opportunities and connections and collaborations. But also, as I say, I'm not really hoping some A&R guy from a big label is going to scoop me up. That's not what I expect. I expect to play as well as I can, figure out what songs work, see myself through the eyes of a generally pretty laid-back audience. I love to play, and no one really knows who I am, so I can't book myself into Hamilton Place (or even the Baltimore House, it turns out... or the Local in Toronto... ahem...) and expect anyone to show up. So as it stands, right now I can play a different venue every night of the week, to people who may never have heard my stuff and who may even remember me and come to see me again when I do start gaining traction, so for now I'll take what I can get.

Tuesday 30 September 2014

This Ain't Hollywood

First, an admission: despite having been invited to dozens of shows, I'd never been to This Ain't Hollywood before tonight. I know I know. I'm not sure how it happened.

But I did make it, tonight, to try out my own songs on the stage in front of an unfamiliar crowd. With the black painted brick and the roadhouse atmosphere it reminds me a lot of the Horseshoe... smoky, dark, atmospheric... A place it'd be easy to disappear into a corner and spend the night skulking and brooding, a little like the Doors (amaaaaazing beer there, btw).

I show up early, as usual, and am greeted by Patty "Buckshot" Beebee who tells me I can have any spot on the as-yet pristine list. I quietly decline to sign up yet. She plays a few songs to kick things off, then Yoda (Tim Lucas) plays (with my borrowed capo) some sweet simple Jack Johnsony heartache-tinged tunes. I'm up next. Jacob Moon has come by to see me, so I'm nervous, even though I've explained at length to him how much I like the audience getting to see "behind the curtain" in terms of flaws and changes etc. I play just adequately, but the bar is reeeeaaallly quiet and attentive, which is gratifying. I'm asked to play a 4th song, so I end w a less involved but lyrically smirky song, and come down.

This is a good crowd. You don't know what you're walking into initially, but it quickly feels quite accepting and receptive, and there are musicians willing to sit in if you want. There's no free beer for performers, but a pint of premium is only $6.50, which is not unmanageable.

I'm followed by a Gretsch in a cowboy-snap mother-of-pearl button-down shirt. He's amazing. Exactly in the pocket of 50s Rockabilly. He's joined first by drums, then bass, and eventually there are 5 guys onstage. They play and play... Maybe no one else has signed up? Jacob Moon has broken a fingernail and is thus out of commission, otherwise he jokes he'd air something new and not entirely complete.

In the end, this is again different from the other open mics in town. The stage is higher and more...central... the music on offer is different in a way that's difficult to pin down, but no one flops (maybe me? I can't gauge), and it's perfectly listenable. Good to get out to, finally. I will likely be back again.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

TWO mics one night...

This evening I did something unusual and went to TWO open mics. The Dundas Odd Fellows open mic happens every 3rd Wednesday of the month and, as I've said before, is a Good 'Un.

But before I get verbose, as I was planning my evening I was sideswiped by an ovation from a previous lover, the Staircase Theatre. About a decade ago (omg it pains me to say that) I was playing mentally unbalanced covers of pop tunes in an instrumental jazz context (I remember my bassist at the time saying "why are all your ii-Vs V-iis??") and the Staircase was really in its musical heyday. I played there a few times and was heartbroken when, to zero fanfare, it suddenly closed its doors. 

Fastforward a few years: the Staircase opened again, albeit *very* quietly, catering mostly to the improv theatre and comedy crowd, and it eventually started to book in the odd musical act here and there (Jacob Moon, Alfie Smith, CD releases, etc). Well friends, I have an announcement (!): from here on in The Staircase will be hosting an open mic every Wednesday! This is simply lovely news!... like a high school reunion (...for those of you who loved high school - ahem). All to say, yay!

But back now to Dundas. Having played to a lovely and attentive empty theatre (like kicking its proverbial tires) at the Staircase's inaugural open mic, I ventured west to the Oddfellows only to find myself forced to park TWO blocks away! Danny and Jay have clearly started something here. As always, an unbelievably appreciative audience and a  craaaazy spread of styles underpinned by all kinds of raw talent. And apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so! At least 40 people in attendance, and a totally packed venue.

This isn't exactly a review, then. At best it's a re-view. A snapshot. But it does afford me the opportunity to add a new and exciting open mic to the list at right...!

goodnight now.

Wednesday 6 August 2014

Baltimore House: "live blog"

(written while sitting there:)

Baltimore House: Aug 6

... There are always the usual suspects - same people show up to the same open mics. Interesting. It's about... What? Just playing live? Trying stuff out? Getting yourself out there? Getting the professional ball rolling?

   Seems to me that, in a way, playing the same one time again defeats the point a bit, @ least if the point is to get out of your comfort zone and get exposure... And, as I was saying to Glen Brown earlier today, when it's musicians playing to other musicians, there's only so far that can go...

   Anyway... First guy is playing originals. They're rhythmic, harmonically complicated, and boring.
Heard the second guy last time, and this time out he's waayyyy more interesting! Originals, m4s, Beatles and Dylan covers... And his own Yamaha, which totally fits his "thing"... 3rd act has a Martin and some ridiculous high-heeled boots. Reminds me of Cindi Lauper. Yup. She's a good fingerstyle player, and she writes ok songs, but there's a disconnect btw the two I can't quite put my thumb on... Do the songs need to be more plugged in? Does her voice need more smoke damage?

   Anyway, then me: happy w my set, but everyone loud-chatted through it. Meh. Frustrating. After me: Aaron Schwartzman. Honestly. Even his personal, specific, slightly-too-close-to-real narrative tunes. Is he being ironic? Funny? Is it a send-up of the open mic thing? Of singer-songwriterism? Seems genuinely nervous... During his set, someone comes up to me where I'm sitting - an older guy - and tells me off for strumming my last song. "What the fuck is that?" he asks, good-naturedly... says he wanted to slap me. Makes me think of Barzin and his whole "vibe". Uncompromising. Tells me he was listening and clapping the whole set. Yay! Small victories.

   So I pack up, unceremoniously turn tail, and run for the Corktown. There are 9 people in the pub when I get there. I count them. Not many BUT they are allll listening. And my age. And I listen to Andy Griffiths, to Tomi, and to Frank Koren, and I play a set, and this is the right crowd for me. They listen, they chat with me while I'm up (just like @ a Bruce concert), it all feels friendly and relaxed. It's the Odd Fellows demographic. MY demographic.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Dundas Odd Fellows Music Hall

...well so this is the open mic that feels the most like home to me. The Dundas Odd Fellows Hall Music Club open mic is relaxed, has a familiar cast of characters, and is eclectic and accepting... it's like a songwriting workshop without all the sitting around taking notes (NB I have never actually attended a songwriting workshop, so that's just what I imagine...).

   Hosted by trombonist Jay Burr (who is also an Odd Fellow and does the sound) and singer-songwriter Danny Medakovic (an odd fellow but not an Odd Fellow, far as I know - Hi Dan!), this open mic is held once a month at the Odd Fellows Hall in Dundas (the western edge of Dundas, really) and features a super-attentive and supportive audience comprised mainly of other musicians.

   Genre-wise it's often a weirdo eclectic hodge-podge of musics, from Nirvana covers to east coast traditional music to opera to solo piano stuff (e.g. Fur Elise mashed up with House of the Rising Sun) to  blues to straight-up rock'n'roll. Everyone jumps up and in at any point in any tune, people flounder their way through stuff they only half know (because that's okay here!), and there's lots and lots of people trying out new original material. This is really an open mic for artists, in the broadest sense of the word.

here is a picture of the space:

   The sound system is quite respectable, featuring a proper sound board and sound guy, multiple guitar plugins, various mics, monitoring, a Rhodes, a full drum kit, a few amps, and the requisite woven carpet to play on... Jay is pretty quick to pick up on people jumping up (tonight there was at least violin, sax, trombone, djembe, trumpet, and backing vox) and mixing them in tastefully. There's even a music stand (and I wasn't even the only one using it).

   Beer is $5 a bottle (nothing on tap), and tips all go to the Trillium foundation for disadvantaged kids. In addition to the 8-or-9-beer selection, tonight there was also a smattering of snacky foods strewn along the bar and available for a donation.

   This feels more like a potluck than an open mic. It's warm, it's friendly, it's accepting and supportive, and it tends to push the performers to be more adventurous and courageous than they might otherwise, trying out unusual or even unfinished ideas and music, which is great!

  It also happens to be one of the very few open mics that is all-ages, which makes a BIG difference to people like Hannah (aged 12? 13?) who played this evening. Maybe Democracy is also all-ages (?), but this one even starts at the kid-friendly hour of 7pm.

   This was my third time @ the Odd Fellows and I'm totally gonna go back as often as they're there!

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Sundays: The West End Pub!

   So full disclosure: the West End Pub has been a secret haunt of mine for about a year. Tucked away onto a corner down Emerson Street near McMaster, they have a decent selection of beers, great pub food, a lovely little patio, and friendly staff. So when I found out there was an open mic there on Sunday nights, it felt like a bit of a homecoming!

   I got there at 9:30 and I was quite early (luckily so was my friend Jack...!). Turns out this one really does start closer to 10pm.

   Hosts Kim and Frank Koren, stalwart luminaries of the Hamilton scene, started with a polished set of originals and covers, and then opened it to the floor, first-come-first-serve. This should of course have meant I went first, but I deferred (evilly) to Jack, knowing he can hold his own as a fairly accomplished guitarist. Another performer and I sat through his set, drinking our free pints (yup! yay West End!) and anticipating our own sets. The sound system the Korens bring in includes two stand-mounted speakers, a proper mixer, a couple vocal mics, and even a music stand (on request), so it was a balanced musical sound overall.

   I was second, and by that point the crowd that had arrived was already a solid split of regulars (acting, naturally, like mouthy regulars...) and performers. My zeal for a music stand left enough of a gap for the smokers (apparently 2/3 of the audience) to imagine they'd have time for a couple drags, so I ended up playing a subdued set (all except for the last song, which turned suddenly into a comedy act when I sang "farts" instead of "hearts") to a pretty empty bar, but it was nonetheless a nonjudgemental (and I say that with new authority) and supportive audience, with an age mix of early 20s to likely mid-50s.

   The other acts were clearly musical people, though perhaps, like me, still not quite as seasoned as the Korens, so it was a good place to work out the kinks in new or in-progress material for sure. I'll be back every couple of weeks I hope!

   PS: they have a music stand!

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Wednesdays: the Baltimore House

[Alright so a few things right off the bat: this is my new favourite spot in Hamilton. Head and shoulders above anywhere else. I plan to spend what little extra money I might have, here, as often as possible. It's awesome. Also, they have good beer and good people. If I'd had a sleeping bag I might have stayed over... I do have yet to eat anything there, but I'm hopeful! anyway ahem...]

    I arrive early and grab a regal seat near the front... an old 1890s upholstered thing in throne red with a high back. The whole establishment is a Toronto-esque hodge-podge of antique chaises and sofas, with religious icons in alcoves and on walls, a tea bar on one side and a proper one (showing my bias) on the other. Pints of Amsterdam Blonde and Nickelbrook BufCafé are $5.75, so the bartender – complete with bowtie and waxed moustache (are all bartenders Hipsters now?) – pulls me a pint of the latter and I take a seat. The sound guy (who it turns out also books the night) worries busily over cables and speakers and stands, but still has time to graciously fetch me a music stand for my lyrics, even though I'm not on for at least 90 mins. It seems like a pretty serious setup, sound-wise, and as the evening gets underway I'm not disappointed by the sound, on-the-fly as it inevitably is what with 15-min time slots and different gear every set.

  The crowd: selectively attentive fairly arty 20-somethings. I feel like people did in fact bring their own crowds, which is really nice for those performers, but some sets got chatted through more than others. Not loud, mostly, but a low buzz; a din.

   What impressed me most about this particular open mic – and maybe it was just this night? – was that virtually everyone who took the stage sang originals. In 3 months of attending open mics I've only come across this once before, and that was at the Oddfellows Music Hall in Dundas with Danny Medakovic and Jay Burr. Also a fair proportion of songwriters @ the Corktown, but it's like 50%. Here performers get 3 tunes, no more, and so song selection is crucial: what is most important to this singer this set? What does he or she want to say that will be representative of them in such a short span?

   It was a really impressive turnout talent-wise: lots of variety in genre and style, but all filtered through acoustic guitar and solo vox, such that there was nonetheless a thread of similarity, if only in the vulnerability of being laid so bare. I'd say maybe an overall grade of 7.7/10? That's great for an open mic!  Kinda ranged between 6 and 9. (and that's super-subjective; so take it with a great big snobby salt lick of salt). Totally going back!

(oh and also, this from Portlandia: the Dream of the 1890s)

PS: they do have a music stand!

Friday 27 June 2014

Thursdays (biweekly): Democracy on Locke

   Once the home of the beloved Locke Street Bakery, upstart café Democracy now hosts an open mic every second Thursday (there's a decent article from the Spec about the new place here). I missed the one two weeks ago, but managed to drop in last night about 2/3 of the way through the night.

   Since I was recording with Danny Medakovic right beforehand, the hosts – a local group called The Tallest Tree  – had signed me up ahead of time, and even texted me to let me know when I would be playing...! When I arrived, a young guy was playing guitar and singing some covers, all to very wild and enthusiastic applause – an encouraging if mildly intimidating atmosphere, like arriving late to the coolest kid's birthday party.

   The setup is simple: a couple small speakers, a guitar amp, a mic plugged into a small board, a drum kit, all tucked away into the back corner, with the storefront walls opened up so the sound billows out onto Locke. It works for making things heard, but the musician in me prefers a system that lets my voice and guitar sound a little richer and fuller (I didn't pay $300 for that Martin for nothing! ;).

   So I got a bottle of Mad Tom ($6.85, poured for me into a glass by the barista-slash-bartender with the Arcade Fire haircut), found a free seat near the front, and listened for awhile. A drummer joined in near the end, and again the set wrapped up to hoots and hollers.

   Since I was at the end of the list, I was given the green light to play more than 3 tunes, so I think I actually played 5 (including the slightly culturally sideways folk song "Groundhog") and then got the signal for "one more," which is more than I usually get to do, but is likely not the norm. Dawn and Armando were friendly and accommodating, helping me get set up and find a spot to place my lyrics (for lack of a music stand) and lending me a pick when I suddenly couldn't find mine halfway through...

   The crowd was pretty representative of the gentrified Locke St area, and I'd say generally younger than other open mics: student and Hipster 20-somethings enjoying specialty coffees and microbrews on tap (I also had a pint of Barking Squirrel: $5.65. Mental note: buy pints not bottles). (Oh! also? they had wine on tap! this was a new one on me) There was a low buzz of chatter throughout the night, but it wasn't overwhelmingly loud like it often can be at the Coach & Lantern's open mic. I looked around during the two sets after mine, and I'd say there were some pretty attentive listeners – maybe a third of those there? Later as I was leaving I even got some positive feedback from a few of them, meaning they'd paid enough attention to remember my stuff even after two other acts, which is good!

   The repertoire was notable: some interesting covers of things like Weezer and Sianspheric and stuff, and from what I heard this younger crowd was a pretty talented bunch: diverse, unusual, eclectic, and some really good players and singers (I'm lookin at you, Ana).

   All in all a decent event with a pretty atypical vibe for an open mic, which is kind of refreshing.

PS: no music stand :( ...but we did build one out of a bar stool and some other bits and pieces.

Thursday 19 June 2014

Hamilton talent!

   This city, Hamilton, Ontario, is a massive pool of talent. It's pretty astounding. And every week, all over the place, in cafés and bars, musicians (and sometimes comedians – hi Andrea!) show up and wait for their chance to share music that's important to them with whoever will listen.

   For the last year I've been writing songs, and after awhile the urge to play them out in front of people drove me out the door, so I decided to pluck up my courage and hit an open mic. My first one was the Corktown, a few blocks from me. Tomi Swick was slated to host but wasn't there, so I just played, and it was great! ...and then I got hooked. I have a somewhat addictive personality, so it doesn't take much, but I've been going out to as many as my schedule and circadian rhythms will allow, at least 2 per week right now for close to a month.

   I went to one tonight, @ Homegrown Hamilton (and hosted by the very friendly and supportive Dave Gould) ...and it suddenly occurred to me, I am becoming an sort of afficionado! and so, without further ado, I present to you,

Hamilton Open Mics (a blog)!

...I'll be reviewing open mics based on a number of factors:
  • audience (i.e. attentiveness)
  • crowd (hipster? fogie? folkie?)
  • beer prices (anywhere from a free pint for playing to $7.50 plus tip...!)
  • talent and energy...
  • repertoire (folk? rock? blues? post-metal?)
  • ...and the overall experience, basically
EDIT:  It's also been suggested I discuss the congeniality of the host, the quality of the sound and/or the sound technician, the gear available (so potential performers know what or what not to bring), and timelines: when to sign up, whether it runs on schedule, etc. Good ideas Tom Shea! Thanks!

so heeeeeere we go...!