Ah, the open mic. That beacon of entertainment that calls to shore new performers, experienced musicians, and shouting naked poets alike to come flex their performance muscles in front of a (more or less) like-minded audience. Whether you are a seasoned pro or you can’t get up the nerve to perform anything other than your signature cover of “TV Party” at Punk Rock Karaoke, there’s a spot for you at one of New York’s best free entertainment venues.
You’ll find open mics everywhere in the country, but the best ones are here in New York — because the hosts are usually working musicians themselves. Brooklyn alone is home to hundreds of musicians who regularly strut their stuff at Cafe Edna or Pete’s Candy Store. You never know—the practice you get and the friends you make via playing open mics could even be the first step to booking your first gig at Baby’s All Right, getting your album on the shelves of Rough Trade, or grabbing a spot on the stage at Northside. You could even end up as the next Beck or Regina Spektor — both got their start at open mics on the Lower East Side. We talked to open mic hosts from all over the city to get the inside scoop on where to go, what to expect, and why you shouldn’t be nervous.
Why are open mics so important to the musical community?
“They’re a totally non-judgmental place to try things. I try to create a spirit of giving—of sharing music. It’s not about who’s coming in and is the best, just sharing. It’s about building artistic community and fostering self-expression.” —Bruce Martin, who’s hosted the open mic at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg for 15 years.
“It’s always great to hear music in different styles from your own—we can all learn something from each other. I have released seven studio albums and have toured all over the world, but every now and again some young beginner will blow me away with their first song.” —Niall Connoly, host of the open mic at Path Café in the West Village.
What’s your advice to newcomers on how to succeed at an open mic?
“Don’t be scared! Don’t think about perfecting, use the open mic as an experimental place to see what aspects of your performance communicate. And be respectful — everyone is here to grow as an artist.” —Bruce, Pete’s Candy Store
“Each performer has a few minutes, so be respectful and don’t go over time. And try to make it a habit to bring a new song as often as you can.” —Niall, Path Café
“Do what you want to do, and don’t worry about the audience. Let your art breathe.” —Mike Geffner, who’s hosted the Inspired Word open mic night at various venues, including Parkside Lounge in the Lower East Side, for 15 years.
“Since there’s no cover charge, we ask that you buy food or drink. That’s the only way we can keep the mic going.” -Jason Shelton and Liana Gabel, hosts of the open mic at Greenpoint’s Café Edna
How can newbies overcome stage fright?
“Overcoming stage fright comes with practice: the more you perform, the more comfortable you are doing so. Mics are a great way to play whenever you want! Let your work speak for itself: don’t waste energy explaining yourself. Nervousness is just excitement, and if you’re not at least a little “excited” to be performing, then you shouldn’t be performing.” —Jason and Liana, Café Edna
“Honestly, alcohol helps a lot. Just make sure you tip your bartender.” —Kelso, SuperCollider
How can you know if you’re bombing? Does it matter if you screw up your first time at an open mic?
“Most people at open mics are performers or live music fans, and most of them are out to like you. It’s okay to not be great at open mic, that’s part of it. Be the best you can be, commit to the performance and bring as much of yourself as you can.”—Niall, Path Café
“EVERYONE bombs. Everyone sucks at some point, and when you just start out… you don’t even know if you suck yet, because you’re just beginning. Good on you for trying new things! Many people never get to that point, and they stay home. But the more vulnerable you’re willing to be, the more you’re going to get out of music in general.”—Emily Forst, who’s hosted the New York City Guitar Group open mic at various venues since 2009.
“Should you worry about bombing the first time? No! Mics are every week for a reason. Come back the next week and try again!” —Jason and Liana, Café Edna
How do I network at the show?
“Be bold, be kind, carry business cards if you like, announce your shows if you have them. More importantly, stay the whole time, pay attention, and when somebody does something you really like, tell them so. Just be open, supportive, and genuinely kind to your fellow artists.” —Jason and Liana, Café Edna
“Keep going, keep listening. Open mics are a great way to get better at what you do, find out more about who you are, and meet some really kind and wonderfully weird people. If you love music, go and meet other musicians, and listen to as much music as possible. When you do that, you’ll lose yourself in something bigger.” —Emily, NYCGG
Why should people come to YOUR open mic?
“IMHO, what’s greatest about SuperCollider Tuesdays is ‘Phase 2′ —our acoustic jam after the mic where we all kick it and pass songs around until kingdom come o’clock.” -Aaron “Kelso” Schwartz, host of the open mic at Park Slope’s SuperCollider
“We try to make our mic feel like home, a place where everyone can feel comfortable to express whatever they want. We also have a featured performer that begins the night with a half hour set, which gives folks an opportunity to showcase their work in a deeper way.
We are lucky enough to have the amazingly talented Gerald Jay King as a regular. If you don’t know him, you should–we have no idea why he hasn’t been recognized more widely, but are more than happy to hear his beautiful music almost every week.– Jason and Liana, Café Edna
[Note: Gerald Jay King is also a regular at Pete’s Candy Store. His beautiful music hearkens back to a different time, his presence is quiet, and Bruce has made up a secret backstory for him wherein he is actually a CIA agent with special weapons training.]
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen while hosting?
“Hands down the guy who stripped down naked and ran around the bar as some poor shy girl sang ‘Moon River.’ Needless to say, she never came back—but apparently he was some English tourist whose thing was that he’d get naked in every bar he attended.” —Emily, NYCGG
“We produce all types of open mics, from your regular “anything goes” open mic (music, magic, poetry, dance, comedy, balloon animals) to Titillating Tongues, our monthly erotica open mic. Once, at the latter, I was struck in the face with faux ejaculate. That’s a longer story, but picture the host of the open mic, in that scene from “There’s Something About Mary.” Another time, at our general open mic, we had a female dominatrix read from a book of poetry – the book was held by her male “pet,” who was about 40 years of age and dressed only in underpants.”—Mike Geffner, Inspired Word
What’s the best memory you have of hosting an open mic?
“Every time I think I’ve seen it all, I’m proven wrong. Hosting an open mic in New York City means we get people from all over the world showing up. I met Bruce Springsteen outside the cafe one night and invited him to play – he didn’t, but he stayed and chatted with some of the performers for about 10 minutes. Paul McCartney was also in the café one day: the waitress thought, ‘Wow, that guy really looks like Paul McCartney.’ It was only when he paid that she realized that it was, in fact, him.”—Niall, Path Café
“When we first started the open mic (15 years ago), there was this old guy named Arthur. Neighborhood guy, quasi homeless —had some issues. He would come in and do incredibly long mathematical equations at the bar, then get up and sing these old songs from the 1920’s —he wasn’t exactly good, but he had this great Tom Waits vibe, and he found support and community within the open mic.
He was one of our regulars, but as the open mic grew and people came in from outside the ‘hood, they didn’t quite know what to think of Arthur. He didn’t always smell great and people would be like ‘throw that smelly guy out of here.’ But there were always other musicians who lent an ear —people didn’t laugh at him, they supported him. We still have a photograph of Arthur behind the bar, because that’s what the open mic is all about: we’re all artists, it’s about support and self-expression.” —Bruce, Pete’s Candy Store
Thanks to our panel! Go support their open mic nights:
Bruce Martin, Pete’s Candy store, Williamsburg. 709 Lorimer St.. Sundays, sign up starts at 5. (Bruce has been running the open mic at Pete’s for fifteen years, and is a great host and generally excellent human. Think “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski, if The Dude had a penchant for fostering musical community and making up background stories for regulars at the open mic.
Aaron “Kelso” Schwartz, SuperCollider, Park Slope. 609 Fourth Ave.. Tuesday nights at 8pm. Kelso hosted a well-known Tampa, Florida open mic for years before realizing that New York City is where it’s at. His own music can be found here.
Niall Connolly, Path Café, West Village. 131 Christopher St.,Thursday nights at 6:00. When he’s not on tour playing songs from his seven studio albums, Niall can be found hosting one of the city’s longest running and well-reputed open mics at the Path Café. He also curates a number of musical gatherings through Big City Folk, a “collection/collaboration of folk/ somewhat-folk artists in New York City who perform often–and often together– and who are really damn good.” His own music can be found here and Big City Folk is here.
Emily Forst, New York City Guitar Group. Emily has been running the NYC Guitar Group meetup since 2009, and their open mic is every second Tuesday at Mary O’s on avenue A. The open mic is for everybody, but for the full experience you can join the meet up at the link above – you don’t HAVE to play the guitar!) Emily’s music is available here.
Jason Shelton and Liana Gabel, Café Edna, Greenpoint. Thursdaynights at 6:30pm. Liana and Jason met at an open mic, and now host Edna’s together! They are both musicians themselves and use the open mic to brush up their stuff. Liana’s music is here and Jason’s music is here.
Mike Geffner, Inspired Word. Parkside Lounge/ various venues and times (check the website!) Mike has been running open mics since 2009. They take place all over the city and run the gamut from anything goes (music/ poetry/ dance/ etc) to an erotica themed open mic called Titillating Tongues. His open mics are 21+ and can include anything from singer/ songwriters to award winning poets to male strippers.
Follow Lilly on Twitter, the open mic of social media: @LillyVanek.