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Why You Should Play Open Stages, and How To Make the Most of Them

This article is adapted from a piece I wrote on The Developing Artist. I’ve included it today because there are many DIY musicians who don’t take advantage of open stages, or try to believe that such events are beneath them. As it is, open stages can be a useful tool in your own development as an artist, no matter how advanced you believe yourself to be. Read on, and find out how you can make the most of open stages in your local area. Enjoy! 

Open mics can definitely be a mixed bag–a few people who think they can sing/play, occasionally some people who simply like to hear themselves play/sing (whether the audience concurs or not)–and a few occasional moments of absolute genius. And a built-in chance for you to play for a new group of people and get some new fans. (Translation: you get to try for one of those “absolute genius moment” things.)

Open stages aren’t always comfortable, but they can be a great proving ground for you–a great place for you to learn and grow.  Seasoned pros often use open stage nights to test out new material on an unsuspecting audience.  The thing about the open mic is that the people are there because they like music in general, but they didn’t necessarily come to hear you perform. It is one of the best places EVER to get an unbiased reaction to a song, because these people aren’t necessarily your fans. If you can win them over with your performance, it’s a good sign both for you (the artist) and the song you’re singing. Plus, if you impress the venue owners on the open stage, there’s a chance you could use that to negotiate a paid booking with them some other night of the week.

Thus, rather than avoid open stages, it’s a good idea to look for creative ways to utilize them to help further your goals. Here are just a few helpful hints to help you get started.

  1. Study the open stage night beforehand. Find out what kind of music is played there, the overall vibe of the musicians and the audience. If it’s an acoustic type of stage (as many open stages are), your death-metal act is probably not going to be a good fit.
  2. Make it your goal to win the audience. Remember, most of these people (except for some you might have invited) didn’t come to hear you specifically. It’s a great victory for you if you can arrest and hold their attention.
  3. Don’t be self-indulgent. Nothing turns off an audience more than feeling like someone has hijacked the stage for his/her own benefit. Play and sing songs with your audience in mind. Make eye contact if possible, and be gracious–and don’t present yourself like everyone should be as glad to hear you sing as you are. You’ll go a lot farther toward accomplishing the 2nd step above.
  4. Be flexible. Don’t just prepare four songs for your 15-minute slot; have a few songs ready on the side. If your audience just isn’t jiving with your original tune, don’t get offended–just try switching gears by playing a cover song. The more flexible you can be with your song choices, the better equipped you’ll be to connect with the audience.
  5. Be respectful. Don’t try to take more than your allotted time, and don’t demand the audience’s attention.  If they aren’t just giving you their attention, it means you haven’t earned it.  Go home and work harder for next time.
  6. Listen to the other performers. Take note of some of the more talented musicians you hear, and don’t be afraid to network with them.  Some of the best bands have formed from open stages.
  7. Use every open stage as a learning experience. If it is allowed, try having someone shoot video of your performance, and watch it back to see what you can learn about your stage presence. Be aware of the audience response (whether positive, negative or neutral), and take note of what works, and what doesn’t.
  8. Be prepared to connect with new fans. Have business cards, press kits or CDs (if you have them) with you.  Some diva types go overboard with this step and try to power-sell their product at open stages; this is distasteful (remember, this isn’t YOUR gig). However, if people come up to you afterward, it’s foolish to waste that opportunity.  Give them a CD, or a bumper sticker, or offer to put them on your email list.  Do something tangible to connect with your new fans, so they’ll remember you and keep coming out to see you play.

One final point about benefitting from open stages–and this is probably the most important point:  DON’T TAKE ANYTHING PERSONALLY.  Do not allow the open stage to be a referendum on your validity as a musician.  If you get a tepid response from an audience who doesn’t know you, don’t get depressed or rejected; just use that as a learning opportunity to tweak your act for the next time out. The open stage is a testing ground for you, and if you come away feeling like you failed the test, you can always come back and re-take the test.  See the open stage as a personal lab, and work it to your advantage.

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About the Author


Jeff McQ is a songwriter/composer/musician with a diverse resume that includes everything from directing music in church to scoring short films. In addition to his role as chief editor for Music Is My Oxygen (and writing our DIY Musician Channel), Jeff also covers the local music scene for Examiner.com in his hometown of Denver, Colorado, and maintains The Developing Artist [http://artistdevelopmentblog.com], a blog dedicated to offering advice and encouragement to indie musicians.

When he's not tinkering in his home studio or blogging for hours on his laptop at the local coffee shop (to the annoyance of the baristas), Jeff McQ enjoys taking in local shows, going on road trips, wandering aimlessly, and talking to himself.

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