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.