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An open mic or open mike (derived from the expression "open microphone") is a live show at a coffeehouse, nightclub, comedy club, strip club, institution or pub where audience members who are amateur performers or professionals who want to try out new material or plug an upcoming show are given the opportunity to perform onstage. Typically, as the name suggests, the performer is provided with a microphone which is plugged into a PA system, to make the individual's performance loud enough for the audience to hear. Often the performers sign up in advance for a time slot with the host or master of ceremonies, typically an experienced performer or the venue manager or owner. The master of ceremonies may screen potential candidates for suitability for the venue and give individuals a time to perform in the show. These events are focused on performance arts like poetry and spoken word, music (often singer-songwriters who accompany themselves on guitar), and comedy. Less commonly, small groups, such as a small rock band duo/trio or a comedy duo may appear. Group performances are uncommon, because of the space and the logistics of loading in and soundchecking such a group. In strip clubs terms, amateur night is a contest for everyday women and men who compete for a cash prize by taking their clothes off just like everyday strippers.
Open mic nights may have no cover charge, or a very low cover charge, although the venue may have a gratuity jar or "pass the hat" for donations. Venues that have no charge make revenue from selling alcoholic beverages and food. The performers are not typically paid, although the venue may recompense the performers with a beverage or meal. The host or MC, as an experienced professional, is usually paid for her/his services. The host or MC may perform at some point during the evening, either a full set or to fill in when an amateur member is not available for her/his slot. Open mic events are somewhat related to jam sessions, in that in both cases amateur performers are given the opportunity to sing or play instruments. The difference is that jam sessions often involve musical ensembles, possibly even a house band or rhythm section and a jam session may involve the participation of professional performers, especially at a high-end jazz club.
Poetry and spoken word
Poetry and spoken word open mics feature a host, who is normally a poet or spoken word artist, poets and spoken word artists, and audience members. A sign-up is done before the show begins, so that the host has a list of names to call from. Some spoken word artists use pseudonyms or stage names when they perform. Poetry/spoken word open mics range from laid back, serene settings to lively sessions where readers and/or performers compete for audience applause. They are usually held in libraries, coffee houses, cafes, and book stores or bars.
Each poet or spoken word artist is often asked to keep their performances to a minimum/specified time slot, giving each performer enough time to share some of their work with the audience. The host or MC acts as a "gatekeeper", determining which performers are suitable for the venue. If a performer goes over their time limit, the host diplomatically thanks the performer for their contribution and asks them to yield the stage for the next performer.
Comedy open mic nights can be held at established comedy clubs, but are more commonly held at other venues with or without a stage, often the upstairs or back room of a pub or bar. Such nights give newer or emerging comedians an opportunity to practice and improve, with a view to getting paid work in the future. More experienced comedians may use open mics as an opportunity to work out newer material or a new character, as the audience is not paying in anticipation of seeing their normal act. In a typical open mic night, newer acts will get three or maybe five minutes of stage time, but more experienced acts may get ten or more minutes.
There are booked shows, regular open mics and "bringer" shows. A booked show is usually booked week in advance with some lottery spots selected by pulling candidates' names from a hat. With a regular open mic, a person puts their name on the list and they go on when their name is called by the host. With a "bringer" show, each performer has to bring a certain number of people (friends, family members, etc.) to get on stage. Open mic shows may have no cover charge, a reduced cover charge, or a minimum drink requirement. Open mic comedy nights are most widespread in larger English-speaking cities with a well-established stand-up comedy scene, especially London and New York. In these cities, with a plethora of aspiring comedians, the greatest challenge may be in attracting an audience.
These shows provide an opportunity for emerging musicians to gain experience performing to a live audience without having to go through the process of getting normal music gigs, which is very difficult to do without experience or a demo recording. Open mics provide an outlet for singer-songwriters. Prior to their popularity, the only outlet generally were folk clubs, which were not always friendly towards creators of new music, preferring traditional, well-known music. They also suggested that music performed by acoustic musicians or solo artists in this manner would necessarily be folk music, a misconception that still commonly exists today. Some organizers have chosen the title "acoustic night" or "acoustic club" in an attempt to indicate an event run broadly on the lines of a folk club, but with a much wider range of musical styles.
Open mic events are most commonly held in the middle of the week or at the very end of the weekend when footfall through venues is low. They rarely occur on the hallowed Friday and Saturday night time slots when venues are busy with weekend revellers and any live performance is usually specifically booked, professional artists. The most common night for a UK open mic event is Thursday, followed by Wednesday.
In the United Kingdom, the largest ongoing open mic-styled music contest is Open Mic UK, which regularly attracts 10,000 participants of all genres. The grand prize for the contest is an investment up to £30,000. The size of the event has necessitated that all participants sign up for performance slots beforehand, instead of simply walking onstage.
A popular open mic arrangement in the United States is the "Blues Night". In this format a bar or club will dedicate a particular night, usually in the middle of the week, as being "open mic blues night". The establishment may supply a house band, typically guitar, bass and drums, sometimes a keyboard. Singers, guitarists, harmonica performers who wish to play sign up, usually with the master-of-ceremonies or host. This person is tasked with screening the performers, choosing and ordering, and getting the performers on and off stage in a polite manner.
Since the songs chosen need to be simple enough so that a band of musicians who have not played together can perform them without practice, blues standards are used. Songs might be announced as a "12 bar fast shuffle in C" or "slow 12 bar blues in F", or similar phrases, that should be familiar to all concerned. Lead singers, keyboards, horn players, (usually saxophones) and various percussion instruments are common additions.
Rarer niche variations
The terms "open deck" (where deck refers to the kind of turntable used by a DJ) and "open reel" (where reel refers to a 35 mm film reel) are used for more niche open mic events where keen amateurs can meet to exhibit and critique their skills/artform. A decrease in the cost of consumer video technology combined with the powerful editing capabilities of modern PCs has caused an increase in the popularity of DJing and amateur filmmaking, but these types of events are still very rare.
- Open Mic UK (music competition in the UK, 2008–)
- The Raving Poets (open mic poetry with live musical backing 2000-2010)
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- Aldredge, Marcus. "Negotiating and Practicing Performance: An Ethnographic Study of a Musical Open Mic in Brooklyn, New York."
- Aldredge, Marcus. 2013. Singer-Songwriters and Musical Open Mics. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.