The pros and cons of the open mic scene

By Alex Jones

17 May 2024

Bedroom musicians exist in their millions in this country. But taking that next step to performing in front of people is easier said than done and the prospect of multiple pairs of eyes and ears, fully focused on a performer is absolutely terrifying to many music players. The open mic scene has always been a more relaxed way to get your sound out there, but how useful is it as a tool to grow your music? Feedback looks into the bands and artists that launched a career off open mic performances. 

The concept is simple. Go to the pub. Have a few pints. And then get up and entertain the rest of the drinkers for a short set of 10 to 15 minutes. If you believe in ‘dutch courage’ or are convinced you play your best pool or darts after a couple of jars, this could be the pastime for you. In short, it’s mainly just a bit of fun. But if the right people are watching and the set goes down well enough, who knows what it could lead to.  

I’m sure you’re aware of the band Queen. Queen in the pre Freddie Mercury days was a band called Smile, made up of Imperial College London students, playing the open mic scene. The truth of it is that Smile frontman, Tim Staffell wanted to take his music down a more jazzy path and the band already had Freddie in the crosshairs as a replacement. But a beautiful music legend which makes up the opening scene of the award winning film ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ exists whereby Mercury sat in the crowd at a small Smile gig and took his chance to join the band that very night. 

Bob Dylan’s presence in the bars of New York had to be mentioned. Greenwich village was deemed the capital of folk music in the area in the 1960s. Dylan’s first day in the village consisted of a brief harmonica set in Cafe Wha? which instantly spiralled into multiple bookings. He had his first gig that same night and picked up gigs at Gerdes folk city and the Gaslight Cafe off the back of it. 

Ed Sheeran had an interesting loophole to his open mic engagement. The Suffolk-raised singer used to attend open-mics intended for comics and poets, his logic being he didn’t stand out at open mic nights where everyone had a guitar. It’s very brave but he’s doing alright for himself. 

Open Mic nights are commonplace in most UK cities. You can find spots to play without too much trouble but it goes without saying there are a few gems out there that are worth a visit. The Whiskey Jar in Manchester is famed for its strict rule of silence during performances. If you want a room full of people solely focused on your playing, head to Manchester. Any talkers are often heckled by organiser Joe Mcadam. 

Albeit out the way, the Tynemouth surf cafe is worth visiting for the aesthetics and look of the place. Random artefacts droop from the ceiling in a Budapest ruin bar style of decor. It is very popular and has drawn the likes of Pete Doherty for an intimate gig in recent years. 

It is pretty far-fetched to say musical notoriety spawns from playing a couple of nights at the local. But as a practice arena for playing to a crowd, an opportunity to meet other musicians and the small but magical chance that an influential giant of the music industry feel a bit thirsty on a random weeknight and has wandered into the boozer in question, the open mic scene can’t be a bad thing for growing your music. It is simple logic at the end of the day. Playing in front of people will get your music heard.

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