Matt Zara at Manhattan Oxjam 2014

21st November 2014

Open-mic nights

An article looking at open-mic nights in Leicester/shire.

So what exactly is an open-mic night, anyway?

Well, in practice it’s a night that opens its stage to anyone who wants to come down and perform music. You turn up and you do your thing. In Leicester there is an open-mic night pretty much every day of the week, except weekends.  These are free events; you usually do not pay to get in and those who perform do not get paid for doing so.

Is that a good thing?

Opinion is divided over whether free open-mic nights are good for the music industry. One website gives a clear thumbs up for these events:

playing at an Open Mic night will have its benefits for you… if you are serious about a career in the music industry then it is something that must be done. Here are some common gripes with Open Mic nights and why these aren’t  necessarily a bad thing! [Open-mic UK]

By contrast another source slates them as damaging the music industry:

Open mic nights are an ‘open’ invitation for musicians to be exploited and are leading to the death of  paid gigs. [Gigs& Bands]

Here in Leicester we have seen several of the most successful and talented singers begin their musical careers at open-mic nights. They choose to perform at these events in order to try out their material, get live experience and capture new fans. Some artists have been very successful in doing all of these things.

Are they good for the venues?

Attendance at open-mic nights varies a lot – not just venue to venue, but gig to gig. Some nights have invited artists who come in and do feature slots; these can be established singers who provide a backbone set and can sometimes attract substantial audiences.  Venues and bars that put on open-mic nights are usually trying to pull in a customer base on nights that otherwise might be poorly attended; though this is not always the case, it parallels the pubs that offer karaoke one night a week, often when trade is a bit slack. Some venues (and promoters) put on open-mic nights because they regard them as being an important part of the musical life of a local area.

What standard of performance can we expect?

Standards of musical ability at these evenings vary hugely – from the absolutely awful through to the best you can get and certainly some singers who do a few such nights are those who go on to being acts that people pay to hear. Some gigs are better than others; if you choose the right show you are likely to hear a range of talented artists and the standard of musical performance can be generally very high. Open-mic nights are very useful for young artists who need to get live experience and to get themselves known and some of them have subsequently been hired for paid performances.

So it’s just for singers then?

Yes, generally speaking open-mic nights are for singers. Having said that there are quite a few instrumentalists going to them and sometimes duos and trios, particularly those of the acoustic type (mainly folk and sometimes those who perform their own music.) Some nights  welcome spoken word performances, including poetry recitals and stand-up comedians. It is not unknown for there to be rappers and beat boxers too. Nights vary as to their music policies; some are more flexible than others. Some venues have offered ‘bandioke’ sessions where a live band plays requests and people get up and sing. Rare, but not unknown in Leicester. Some venues also allow artists to perform to backing tracks if they do not play instruments.

What’s in it for the audience?

People who are new to Leicester or to county towns can try out a venue to see if they like it. Going to a free open-mic night is a way of testing out to see if you like a particular venue. If you feel comfortable with it, the chances are you will go back there and pay to get in to a full gig. These nights also offer a way of finding new artists. One of the reasons I go to them is to ‘talent scout’ new and up and coming artists. If you are happy to put up with the awful acts you can frequently also hear some very talented performers. Free nights offer taster opportunities for music fans who might be reluctant to pay to attend a night with artists they do not know or to go to a venue they have not been to before.

Page updated 23/1/17.

See also:

Open-mic nights in 2017.


About The Editor 535 Articles
The Editor of Music in Leicester magazine is Kevin Gaughan assisted by Trevor Locke