11 Tips for Open-Mic Success

I’ve been holding songwriter open-mics called Nashville Rising Song for the past eight years and have had lots of experience with songwriters. Here are my favorite tips to ensure a pleasurable and successful open-mic experience. None of this is meant to be mean spirited. I love songwriters and encouraging them. The humor is meant to be tongue in cheek. However, there is always truth to be found. For some, it may make them bitter. I suggest instead of getting bitter, get better.

1- Tuned In or Tuned Out

Make sure your guitar is in working condition and in tune BEFORE you step on stage. Nothing is worse than making everyone wait for you to get your guitar in tune for 5 minutes at an open-mic, and it is “crawl under a rock” embarrassing if you don’t know HOW to tune your guitar. Also, make sure your battery is fresh and alive. When an acoustic guitar sounds like it’s going through a Big Muff distortion pedal because the battery is almost dead, and then it completely dies… this is the kiss of songwriter death. Finally, be sure the 1/4″ jack on your guitar works. When your guitar starts sounding like a Vitamix, that’s when people will start wondering if you are a songwriter or a smoothie maker at Jamba Juice. Maybe you are both?

2- Checking 1-2-3

At an open-mic, there is no need to check the microphone, because the sound person has already done his job, plus others have used the mic before you. When taking the stage, promptly locate the 1/4″ cable, plug in your guitar, turn the volume UP to about 90% of maximum, and flatten out the EQ. Don’t forget to disable the built-in tuner, so the guitar actually makes a sound. (I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve had to figure that one out for the songwriter) A good sound person will be able to dial it in by your 3rd chord. Don’t strum your guitar incessantly, wait for the sound man to ask you to check your guitar. Play it like you will during your song. Don’t finger pick “Stairway to Heaven” quiet during your line check, and then play “Highway To Hell” loud for your song. After your line check is completed, stop strumming. Really.. stop it. Other songwriters also need to check their mics if it’s a writer round. And speaking of the mic, sing INTO the mic! Don’t sing across the mic, or 5″ off the mic. The sweet spot on an SM-58 is about 1/2″ off the mic. Too far and you sound like you are singing in the next county over and too close and you sound like you are singing through a sub-woofer.

3- Guitar, what Guitar?

Be sure that you keep track of your guitar and case at an open-mic. All cases generally look the same, so it would be wise to have your name on a piece of white masking tape on the OUTSIDE of your guitar case, so no one takes your $25,000 1958 Martin D-28 and swaps it out with their low-end Walmart special. It’s happened before, believe me. We had to do some serious detective work after one of our events several years back. Thankfully, we took pics of all the contestants and found the missing guitar. It was an honest error.

4- Introducing…

At an open-mic, there is no need to introduce your song as “this is a new song I just wrote last night.” Every song is a new song to a new audience. Also, do not ever tell an audience “this is the first song I ever wrote.” People will immediately assume your song is going to suck. (maybe you are fishing for some sympathy applause?) And if you are a Christian songwriter, don’t ever say “this is a Christian song.” Songs are not Christians. People are Christians who write songs. Also, never, ever tell an audience “God gave me this song,” (btw…don’t forget to put his name on the copyright form) or the derivative, “I wrote this song in 3 minutes because God gave it to me and its perfect.” (maybe God didn’t want it anymore?) People in the audience will immediately roll their eyes and hum KumBayYa to themselves. Just sing your song and let the audience figure out what you are singing about.

5- Keep it short and sweet

Nothing says,”I’m an egomaniac” more than playing a 7 minute song, with a 45 second intro, 6 verses that could be said in 2, the chorus over and over and over and over and over, and a 16 bar section in the middle where you say “this is where the guitar solo is” or where you whistle a lead part. Really? Keep your song to the standard 3 minutes or under. It’s respectful, and it’s to your advantage. People these days are like 2-year-olds who just drank a 24 pack of Red Bull and snorted a 2-pound bag of Skittles. Think of your song like a Twitter Post. 144 syllables or less. Personally, I think the next big thing in music will be “micro songs” that are around 1 minute long, have no punctuation and are one long chorus.

6- Change Will Do You Good

Remember this; songs are like chickens…they have parts. Also, songs can be like a railroad track or as a roller coaster. Use dynamics to build emotion into your song and take the listener on a joyride. Don’t strum the same pattern the same way the entire length of your 7-minute masterpiece that God just gave you in 3 minutes:) By 45 seconds in, people will start looking at their phones and posting how boring your song is to all their Facebook friends. You don’t want that kind of viral marketing, right? Listen to popular songs and hear how they change it up. There’s a reason these songs are on the radio. Most are well thought out and crafted.

7- Banter or Ranter?

Keep the banter in between songs to a minimum and keep it positive. No one likes to hear someone rant about a former boy/girlfriend who did you wrong (unless you are Taylor Swift, but she made a career out of it) Set your songs up clearly and concisely and then do your song. People like to know why a songwriter wrote a particular song. Especially if you are a famous songwriter and everyone has heard your song before. Gee, come to think of it, if you were a famous songwriter, you could do whatever the heck you wanted to, and people would love ya regardless!

8- Us or Them?

Nothing makes me smh and wtf more than when 3 songwriters are in a round and who, in between every song, talk (loud enough to sorta hear them, but not loud enough to hear exactly what they are talking about) to one another about what town they are from, or who does their hair or their nails, and who completely ignore the audience. One of the best rounds I ever had was when three guy writers encouraged the audience to have a contest to see which of the three could get the loudest applause after each song. Smart guys.. their tips were 600% more that round than any other round and their egos were highly inflated (in a good way). Remember, music is just a tool to engage and impact culture. It’s not the end. It’s a means to an end. That’s your job as a songwriter. Invite the audience into your world, and they’ll invite you into their wallets.

9- Mumbo-Jumbo

As a sound man, something that drives me crazier than 8k feedback are singers who either don’t open their mouth and sing or those who don’t pronounce their words clearly. Practice singing your songs by over-pronouncing your lyrics and projecting your voice. Lyric and melody can be like a rock or like a marshmallow. Keep them hard and edgy so your lyrics cut through and people can understand them. You have to own the stage. Don’t get on stage and be introverted or meek; it’s time to take the ball by the bulls and giddy up. People in the audience shouldn’t be hoping you make it through your song; they should be enjoying your song.

10- The eyes have it

Why do so many sing their entire song with their eyes closed? If they are so scared to be on stage, stay off the stage! I heard it said that 97% of people want to like you, the other 3% hate everyone and everything. So why worry about those 3%? Open your eyes, break the 4th wall, bring people on stage with you and watch how they respond to your song! Give people a reason to like you!

11- Nice songwriters finish first

Contrary to the popular saying, be nice to everyone you meet. You just never know who they may be and that they may be able to help further your career. I heard a story recently of a songwriter who ran into a guy at a church event, and that guy turned out to be the president of a major label/publisher here in Nashville. Be nice to other songwriters as well, and always treat servers and facilitators with mucho respect. There’s a fine line between being confident/bold and being egotistical/arrogant. That line is called “passion.” Be close to that line, but stay on the confident and bold side.

Hope these tips help you as your pursue your dream! If I think of more, I’ll be sure to add them!

Keith Mohr
Nashville Rising Song