This article first appeared as a Facebook Note here. I have updated the original just a little.
I am writing this in response to a Facebook comment I saw by a professional musician regarding open mic’s and jams. He was dissing on both as “pay to play” and something shameful to be avoided. I think that is a very black and white way of looking at things that are a bit more nuanced, and I would like to expound on that. First of all, a definition of terms: An open mic is where you bring your guitar, your voice, maybe your best friend, and you hopefully throw original material down for the public. A jam is when there is always a group onstage and they swap individuals in and out of the various slots. The objective of a jam is to improve your skills improvising and playing in a group.
First, Open Mics: You are usually allowed to do a maximum of two songs. Some open mic’s allow covers. If I were hosting one, I would allow them, but give first preference to original music. The music is usually quite raw and unpolished. Some of the performers are better composers than they are performers; some of the ideas are half baked, and let’s be honest, a lot of the music is kind of unoriginal rehashing of old ideas, both music-wise and lyric-wise. I saw a notice for an open mic hosted in a public eating establishment that required a minimum purchase to play. Someone labelled this “pay to play,” and to a certain extent, it is. It is unfortunate that this has to be made explicit. When you occupy a chair in an eatery, you are denying it to someone else if the place is full. You are soaking up their heat, benefiting from their light an sound system, etc. It is only common courtesy to thank them tangibly for their hospitality by purchasing some food or drink. It is not necessary to tip the performers at an open mic. Their objective is simply exposure, hoping that someone will take their idea and run with it. Established professional musicians who gig regularly in bands do not normally need to go to an open mic. Neither is it a platform for an emerging band to air their gig-ready live arrangements, mainly because it requires too much setup time in between acts. If a professional musician is new to an area, or branching out into a new genre, he or she might wish to sign up for an open mic. It is not the same as a gig for exposure (which I don’t believe in.) She is going to do two songs at most, not the whole evening. If an individual is there on behalf of a band, the event flows better if they provide a music minus one style track that THEY HAVE RECORDED as a back track, then sing or play over it. I regard this as a free sample. Virtually all musicians offer 30 second clips of their commercial tracks. It’s savvy marketing, and it is not to be ashamed of. The experience and artistry of the professional will hopefully set him or her apart from the other wannabes and perhaps she or he will make a connection. But if you’ve been going to open mic’s for two years and everyone claps kind of lamely and never hooks up with you, maybe you need to up your game.
Now I move on to jams. Jams are a touchy subject. The objective of a jam is to play or sing semi extemporaneously with people you do not usually play with, and to improve your skills playing with a group. Professional musicians can be handed an unfamiliar chart and read it in a group, on the stand, but they are precisely the people who DO NOT NEED TO JAM. The typical jammer is an intermediate to advanced learner who doesn’t have the luxury of a bunch of buddies to get together and suck with privately until one day they don’t. In order for a jam to work in a public space, it absolutely HAS to have a core of people who know what they are doing. I think it works better if they choose from an established set of music that everyone has had a chance to look at previously. Otherwise it’s a random group who may or may not even be able to keep time together. Without a common core of music you waste a lot of time on the stand with junk like, “oh that’s not in my book” and “I only know that in Eb.” Poor flow and really bad trainwrecks can happen. So the most successful jams HIRE the rhythm section to make sure the underpinnings are solid, and in order to pay them, they charge a small cover such as $3. Either that or it’s in an establishment where the venue pays them and attendees are more or less expected to purchase food or drink, same as for an open mic. It’s a shame if people do not understand that a public establishment is in the business of selling food and drink, and if they don’t do that they will not host a jam. If there is a cover, everyone who is not in the core band pays the cover. Including the jammers. The benefit to them they are getting is that they are learning to play with others. They are paying musicians better than them to put up with them, in other words. Hopefully one jams for a few months to a year, then one graduates to being in the rotation for the core band, and/or playing out with others. A professional musician new to an area, or trying out a new genre, might want to go to a jam for the same reason he or she might go to an open mic–to know and be known.
This is the role jams and open mic’s play for the professional musician.
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