For a songwriter who is new to Nashville and just starting out, writer’s nights and open mics can be a valuable tool. They are a place to network and meet other writers, a place to find out which of your songs get a good response and which don’t, and a place to begin building a reputation for what you do. It is rare to find people from the industry with the power to cut your song or sign you to a deal at a writer’s night. Because of how busy those people are they generally prefer to listen only to songs and singers recommended to them by people whose judgment they trust and with whom they already have an established relationship. However, it is possible at a writer’s night to meet people who know people in the business and to begin the process of working your way towards the inner circles where decisions are made. Therefore it is important to present yourself in the best possible light. Here are some hints to help you make the best use of the time you spend playing out.
First, I want to explain the difference between a “writer’s night” and an “open mic.” The term
“writer’s night” is generally used in Nashville to refer to a show where the writers are scheduled ahead of time. An “open mic” is, as the name suggests, a show that is open to anyone who wants to perform. Many of the writer’s nights in town have an open mic at the end of the night which can sometimes serve as an audition for the writer’s night. As I give you some helpful hints, I am going to present them as if you will be playing at open mics, since that is where you will most likely have to start until you become known to the hosts and the other writers.
1. Learn the procedures.
Find out how and when to sign up. If you don’t you will most likely lose your chance to play. Find out if you will be the only writer on stage or if you will be “in the round.” (Many writer’s nights and open mics in Nashville use the “in the round” format where several writers take the stage at one time and take turns doing their songs.) Find out how many songs you will be expected to perform, how you will know when it is your turn, if there is a time limit on your performance and if there are any restrictions on the type of material you can do. Make sure you know what equipment is available, which microphone to use, where to plug in your guitar, what to do if your guitar does not have a pick-up, what to do if you have a keyboard, etc. If you perform as a group, be sure to let the host know and verify that there will be an adequate number of microphones and instrument inputs.
2. Follow the procedures.
This may seem obvious, but you would be surprised how many writers don’t pay attention or want special treatment. Listen when the host explains how the night runs. Be ready when it is your turn. If you have a special request, ask politely; don’t demand. Remember that the host has everyone’s needs to consider and procedures are set to allow the night to run smoothly. If you find the policies and procedures to be inconvenient to you, find a different place to play, or accept that as a newcomer you will have to pay your dues. Arguing with the host will rarely get you what you want and will work against you in the long run.
3. Tune your guitar.
Tune it perfectly. Do not assume that close is good enough. If you cannot tune perfectly by ear, get an electronic tuner. If you can’t afford one (they’re not that expensive, really!) then borrow one. Tune BEFORE you get on stage. Tuning on stage is boring to the audience and it will be harder because you will be nervous. Check it just before it is your turn. Whenever possible do not change your strings right before you plan to play. If you do, stretch them out so they will stay in tune. Does it seem like I am spending too much time on this point? I am stressing this because I have found in all my years of hosting that the best way to make a bad impression is to play out of tune and so many people do.
4.Present yourself in the best possible light.
Dress attractively. Casual attire is the norm for writer’s nights in Nashville so there is no need to dress up, but a sloppy appearance doesn’t win you any admirers. Do songs you are comfortable with. It’s perfectly appropriate to try out a new one at an open mic, but practice it first. Don’t subject the audience to a rehearsal full of mistakes.
5.Be confident but humble.
If you are nervous and afraid, act as if you are comfortable and confident. It will put your audience at ease, and will help you feel better too. Don’t apologize for anything you are going to do. If you need to apologize for it, don’t do it. Don’t say anything negative about your song or your performance. If you don’t tell the audience that your voice isn’t in good shape or that you’re not a very good writer yet, they might not know any better and they might just go ahead and enjoy what you do! But don’t go overboard and broadcast how great you think you are. I find that when people drop names or brag about their accomplishments it tends to alienate the audience. Wow them with your performance, not with your credentials. A mediocre performance presented with unassuming sincerity is generally better received that a stronger performance from someone who seems arrogant.
If you follow these suggestions it can help you have a positive experience playing the open mics in Nashville and assure that you will be welcomed back to play again. If you live in Nashville or come on a regular basis, you may eventually be able to play during a scheduled writer’s night. One way to achieve this is to be invited by another writer to be in a round they have lined up. Be friendly and get to know the other writers. Show up to support them when they play out. Not only can this make it easier for you to get to play, but the camaraderie and support of other writers is one of the greatest gifts this town has to offer.
Another way to get scheduled ahead of time is to be invited by the host. It is perfectly appropriate to ask the host if you can be scheduled, but bear in mind that a host has many factors to consider when arranging their line-up and every host has a different process of selection. Some are happy to book you simply because they like you or like your music. Others have limited slots and need to reserve them for those who regularly support their nights. Unfortunately, every host has to consider the bottom line. They are paid by the club owners and if you are an incredible writer with no following, you may have a much harder time getting booked than a less talented writer with a lot of friends who spend money. Yes, even at this entry level where you are giving your music away for free, it is still a business.
Speaking of business, I want to put in a word for the club owners who give us a place to perform our songs and for the people who work there. It is true that you are coming in and donating your music free of charge But please realize that the club is providing you, free of charge, with a stage, a sound engineer and an audience. In my way of thinking, that is an even trade. Past that point, you are a customer. If you do not plan to spend any money, do not expect to be served anything. If a waiter or bartender is kind enough to bring you a free glass of water, TIP THEM! They are there to earn a living from the tips they make and it is grossly unfair to expect them to serve you for nothing. If the place is crowded, do not take up a good seat that could be given to a paying customer. If you are scheduled to play out, tell your friends and fans and help generate some business. If you are going to eat out that night, eat at the club where you are playing. This will not only help you get more bookings, but it will help keep the writer’s nights profitable for the club owners who have no reason to hold them if they don’t make money.
I hope these hints will help you have a positive experience playing in Nashville. A writer’s night or open mic where the energy is high and the music is good can be tremendously inspiring and lots of fun. There is a wonderful, supportive community of writers here and anyone with a good attitude and a love of music can be a part of it.