Posted Oct 19, 2010
As I said earlier, the conflation of real and unreal in music can be the first stumbling block on the way towards making your life in music. There are so many conflicting notions of why we make music that it can be difficult to know what to do, and difficult to know where to begin. Hopefully, the last section on “goals” was helpful in trying to figure out your next step.
This episode is about beginning at the beginning: playing the open mic. When you start out at the bottom all you have is your love and your music. You may harbor secret ambitions for other things past just making a living, but really, just to make music for people (and make a living doing it) would be enough. This is the feeling you have starting at the beginning. Hold on to it. And don’t just hold on to it, wear it on your sleeve, because starting at the beginning is something you have to embrace with an open heart if you want to achieve anything.
I was sitting in the sub-ground closeness of Club Passim in Harvard Square. It was spring break of my senior year in college. I had travelled (I don’t remember how) from Ohio to Boston in order to play at Passim’s open mic. Passim is a famous club in American music history. Lots of people have gotten their start here and its open mic is the kind of generous testing ground for new musicians that exists with little fanfare and through the great generosity and determination of its volunteers. Sitting among the other anxious musicians I knew that I could write songs, but that was all. I had made this pilgrimage to see if what I had was really anything special or if I should just keep on dreaming.
Every open mic you got to will be run slightly differently depending on the club and who is running it. In some cases you have to come early and sign up, in others your name gets drawn from a hat. In the end it all boils down to a lot of musicians in a room waiting for their turn to play in front a microphone. That’s where I was sitting – in the midst of a bunch of other musicians, thinking that I was about to find out if what I did had any real value at all.
The next three hours were a revelation.
Because of the popularity of Passim’s open mic, the club runs a kind of “heat” system in which three people take the stage at a time, playing one after the other. When these leave the stage another three come up. Passim is organized and the whole drill runs like clockwork.
The music I saw that night, however, was anything but predictable. Rather the hours went by, a patchwork of emotions and talent, ranging from the very, very good to the simply banal to the most-likely pathological. The waiting musicians clapped for their friends and encouraged each other while calmly waiting their turns. Then, when their names were called, they came to the stage and hurled themselves wholeheartedly against the world. There was one guy who sang an incredible song about all the different species of woodpeckers. There was a guy who sang a long, completely serious song about how much he wanted to be one of the Indigo Girls. There was a lot of heavy right hand strumming that angrily denounced this and that, and a couple people who were so charmingly shy that they nearly brought the house down just by getting a few verses out. Their opposites, self-anointed musical aristocrats who acted as if they were doing all of us a favor by even being there, were also in attendance. In sum, it was a motley crew. I had been so nervous about whether I would measure up that I hadn’t imagined what everyone else’s music would be like. My name was called and I went to the stage.
There are a multitude of reasons to play open mics, but as I’ve progressed in my career I can look back and easily name three huge ones: audience, set-list and friends.
I can trace back my audience to the generous souls who would come up after my song or songs at open mics. I always had a mailing list with me, and any time that someone told me that they liked a song, I would ask them if they wanted to be on my mailing list. A year later when I became the featured performer at the Passim Open Mic, I made sure that everyone on my small but growing mailing list knew about the show and would be there for my three songs. The little place was rammed and after the open mic I was offered a half-hour slot supporting an out of town artist.
Secondly, playing open mics teaches you the valuable art of adapting your set to odd situations. You may have a new song, a perfect number that you are very proud of, but if it’s a slow one and three people in front of you have played dirges, the audience may appreciate a skippier ditty more than your masterpiece. On the reverse side, you may feel that there is a spot for something more serious if you’re following something completely different from you. You’ll learn to get a sense, almost instantly, of the weight an audience is willing to bear in their enjoyment of your music.
Finally, you’ll make lots of acquaintances and a few great friends as you play open mics. These are your peers; people like you who aren’t afraid to begin at the beginning. They’re the go-getters, the ones who aren’t afraid to go down to the water and drink. You may not always like their music. You don’t have to. What you should be able to appreciate, however, is their like-mindedness. And you won’t just meet fellow musicians at open mics; there will also be pure music lovers, future managers, future publicists, promoters and engineers. In short, people that you may be lucky enough to know the rest of your life. I met my friend Stephen Kellogg at an open mic. He now tours all over the world. Likewise, Flora Reed of the Winterpills worked with Jim Olsen, who gave me my first record contract. I met Glen Hansard, of the Frames and Swell Season fame, at an open mic, and his invitation to play in Dublin changed the entire course of my career.
Open mics are fun, but treat them professionally and you will learn about how to be a professional. Make them your second job. Attend them diligently, meet people, keep your instrument in tune, and in the words of a famous open mic superstar, learn your song well before you start singing. Pay attention to what the crowd needs, always have a mailing list with you, and if you have recordings, bring them along. It may take a few years and more than a few late nights before you’re ready to progress on from open mics, but you’re starting at the bottom and these will be some of the most memorable, beautiful, challenging times that you’ll have in your entire career, and I guarantee you’ll never forget them.
And you have your journal on your desk at home, so you won’t have to. Write down the stuff you don’t want to forget.
The song I chose to sing was a new one I had called “Potter’s Wheel.” When I finished there was a smattering of applause, no more and no less than anyone else got, but when I left that stage feeling like I had just slain a dragon. I knew I was coming back, and I knew that it wasn’t just a matter of whether my songs could stand up with the ones that I’d seen performed that night, I could see now that it was also a matter of determination to begin at the beginning and progress on from there. I also knew my next step.
Back at school were my two friends Darius Zelkha and Zack Hickman. Zack was a freshman renaissance man who could play the hell out of the bass. The other was my best friend and roommate Darius, who was a great drummer and had some ideas about recording a record. Over the next several years Darius was to become my manager as well as my drummer, and next week I’ll be featuring a conversation with him about one of the topics I’ve been asked about the most in regards to the music business. I’m calling it “What the Hell a Manager Does.”