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 at which audience members who are amateur or professional may perform, often for the first time, or promote an upcoming performance, 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.
Open mic nights may have no cover charge, or a very low cover charge, although the venue may have a gratuity jar ,”pass the hat” for donations or hold a raffle with various prizes. 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 their 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 their 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.
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.