I remember I was quite young when I came out to my parents. It’s never an easy thing to do, to look your mother in the eye and say those words: “Mum, I want to play drums.”
A racket became my defining characteristic. I was either a child prodigy or a gigantic pain in the arse, depending on your current proximity to our back shed. By 14 I had succeeded in both mastering the drums and lowering house values the length of Rangituhi Crescent. My work done, I took up the guitar. I still believe that the ability to play the intro to Pearl Jam’s Jeremy was the only thing that kept me from being beaten to a pulp at high school.
Recently I came across an old photo, taken in my early 20s. I’m playing an acoustic guitar at bar my friends and I used to go to every Wednesday night. Wednesday night, you see, was open mic night.
Putting on an open mic night is always a high risk option for any bar. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If your bar is thinking of running an open mic night check first that you’re already running a dive. Open mic nights attract alleged musicians who can’t get a real gig. The sad, the awful, the ranting, the drunk, most definitely the delusional. The mere term provokes connotations of failure, mediocrity, a sign that the bar has run out of ideas, that the owner is one loss-making night away from putting a gun to his head; and for the performer it means no one cares, that you’re a schmuck, that no one believes your inflated self-importance and we all know you’re not getting real work. Kind of like the term, “Freelance.”
But I loved it. Open mic night cured my debilitating stage fright. My particular form of stage fright mine manifested in the fear of never being invited to play on a stage. So I went along every Wednesday night and honed my craft until I no longer needed open mic nights. A success story!
I didn’t think about open mic nights again until a couple of weeks ago when I saw a friend of mine from Brisbane, Tom Smith, play a gig. It wasn’t an open mic night, but he did have a song about the topic. He also had a theory. Sick of the hassle of booking gigs, promoting them and organising support bands, to say nothing of organising something as ambitious as a tour, Tom hit on a genius idea: do a world-wide tour of open mic nights. No need to book anything, just check the guides and turn up. Tom’s song set out the case for open mic nights, rebranding them as a worthwhile option for any musician. “You don’t have to fill a bio with lies, or get the right photo megabite size,” he sings, liberated.
As noted in Tom’s song, the rules for open mic nights are simple. You turn up and write your name on the board (“You get four songs and no more”). You can flog your CDs, but it’s impolite to flee the venue without watching the other musicians (“Sit and listen, it’s a good trade, for an audience ready-made”). With some lateral thinking and positive spin, Tom turned hell into heaven. “Open mic night, world wide tour – I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” could become the chant of a generation.
The concept of open mic night isn’t constrained to the world of music either. I’m pretty sure that’s how our senators are elected. And in its most sickening form open mic night takes the form of the dreaded online “comments.” Hint: you’ll never get a real gig.
But for the authentic experience, get along to your local dive bar and sing it proud. Remember: “Everyone’s got a song, give it a try, this is the pinnacle, you have arrived…at open mic night.”