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This series of articles is written with the beginner and intermediate level performer in mind. It is also written primarily for musicians that play instruments and sing during their performance. However, with a little imagination these principles can be applied to public speaking, teaching or reading poetry. These suggestions are by no means original. Many of them come from more seasoned performers of music and other arts who I cite whenever possible.

What’s The Difference Between An Open Mic And A Talent Showcase?

On September 16, 1985, I began The Spook Handy Show, a weekly "open mic" that has since become New Jersey’s longest running and perhaps one of the longest running in the nation. Now on September 13, 2005, I will host the 1000th and Final Spook Handy Show. The show has occurred every Tuesday – with the exception of the occasional holiday or death in the family - at the Corner Tavern in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the home of Rutgers University. The show has never been cancelled for hurricanes or blizzards, though there have been a few that have hit hard on Tuesdays.

In 20 years of running my show and attending other "open mics," I’ve learned that there are different approaches to how such events are run. And it’s probably a good idea for a prospective performer to check ahead to find out what policies are in place at each "open mic" they’d like to attend. It’s also a good idea for someone who is thinking of running his own show determine if his is a traditional open mic or what is more technically a talent showcase.

An example of a Talent Showcase

My "open mic" is technically a talent showcase. Here’s why: We encourage performers to sign up in advance. I let musicians, poets and comics sign up once in advance, as far ahead as three months. So, if it’s September and a musician is headed to Oregon to college, but knows he’ll be back on Nov 14th because his sister is getting married, I’ll let him sign up for a spot that far in advance. Some performers get into the groove of playing every second or third week.

I also allow performs to choose their own 20 minute time slot (5 minutes for poets and 10 minutes for comics) on a first come first served basis – with a little tinkering on my part here and there to facilitate the flow of the show. So, if Eric Squindo works until 11:00PM washing cars at his uncle’s car wash, I can sign him up in advance to do a 12:30 spot. This way he can tell all of his friends, who can rest assured that Eric is guaranteed to play.

The Traditional Open Mic

Here’s why this set up is different from a traditional open mic: What most people call an open mic is an event where performers show up 30 to 60minutes before the event to sign up to play. Then through some predetermined method, like drawing names from a hat, the host selects who will play and when. Most performers get to play one, two or three songs or get 10 or 15 minutes. These types of events have many advantages. They seem to work best at venues that otherwise have a buzz about them.

Godfrey Daniels in Bethlehem, PA, is a perfect example. This venue is known for having national acts four or five nights a week. Dozens of up and coming performers are excited to get a chance to play on the same stage that John Gorka, Bethany Yarrow or Chris Smither have played. So, there is already a guarantee that the event will draw a lot of people to the venue. Next thing you know there is a buzz about the open mic itself and this can draw the attention of the press, other venue operators, or concert promoters who are looking for fresh new talent. Other examples where this type of arrangement works well are the Blue Bird Café in Nashville and Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta.

Potential Drawbacks to Open Mics

But there are draw backs to this approach, as well. I had an experience at Eddie’s Attic that has left a sour taste in my mouth. I was at the venue, 800 miles from my home in NJ, and went to the open mic hoping to sing a couple of songs. The standard practice was to have everyone put their name on a slip of paper and if more than 25 people signed up, names would be drawn randomly out of a hat.

The night I was there, 26 people put their names in the hat - 24 from the Atlanta area, one from Michigan and me. It turns out that the fellow from Michigan was the odd man out. What made it worse was that he really wasn’t from Michigan anymore. He had moved to Decatur six months earlier. His Mom had driven from Michigan to surprise him for his birthday. It was the first time he’d seen her since he had moved, and his mom had never seen him play.

When I heard the young man’s story, I appealed to the host to bend the rules. But the host said no. So, I cleverly reasoned that surely if I, the other out of stater, gave the follow my spot that would convince the host of the virtue or bending rules. But as it turned out, no rules were to be broken that night and I didn’t get a chance to play. So, one "rule" I adopted that night is to always do whatever you can to make accommodations to folks who are from out of state or to folks who have extenuating circumstances. At my show in NJ we’ve squeezed in extra time slots for folks from New Hampshire, California, Arizona, many other states and from England, France and Australia. That practice adds an awful lot to the character and reputation to the show.

Another potential drawback to the traditional open mic model is that the host has little control of the content of the performances. Meeting many of the artists just minutes before the show begins does not allow for much screening of what kind of music is going to be played or what kind of lyrics are going to be used. Some venues don’t care about this issue, but some do. Godfrey Daniels is known for singer/songwriter folk style music and the Blue Bird is famous for country. Scores of industry people attend the open mics expecting to hear those styles of music.

But what if a hip hop artist took the stage and began a sexist, racist, violence-promoting rap? That could be a real turn off, and could eventually harm the venue’s reputation. I’ve not heard of this happening at the two mentioned venues, but I have personally witnessed it at other open mics in New Brunswick, NJ, where I run my show. One way to avoid this potential problem is to make it clear before people sign up what the parameters are concerning style and content.

Some advantages to the Talent Showcase

The model I use is more technically considered a talent showcase precisely because the mic is really not "open" to all comers. This immediately provides the advantage of pre-screening the performers. It is my policy not to ever exclude a performer because he or she has yet to polish his or her performance skills. In some cases I may offer them shorter sets, but they are never excluded. However, in the twenty years the show has run, I have had to ask a few not to return because of their "negative energy." Of the 2000 or so musicians who have played the Spook Handy Show, a handful have shown up high on drugs or looking for fights. Even more who fit that description have approached me to sign up for a future spot and were told no.

I also exercise the prerogative of deeming my show "acoustic." Hence, no drum kits - only hand drums. With a few exceptions, there are no electric instruments, but I always make the exceptions with a clear understanding that the volume has to be at an acoustic level. I also exercise the prerogative of disallowing pre-recorded music (with a rare exception) and all music, poetry or comedy that is demeaning to women or otherwise distasteful.

Drawbacks to the Talent Showcase

Of course, one of the unavoidable drawbacks I have run into at my show is that every few months someone comes down about 30 minutes before show time with a large group of friends looking to sign up for the "open mic." This usually happens on a night when I’ve already turned away a bunch of people who tried to sign up in advance. It can be very difficult to explain to her that the show is all booked up. And it’s always hard to turn away someone who’s made the effort to bring a crowd. When this happens I explain the dilemma and try to find some way to fit her in for two or three songs.

It’s your choice

So, if you’re going to start a show you can choose one model or the other, or something in between. Neither is necessarily better than the other in all cases. But, in your case, one may be. It’s worth thinking about.

Spook Handy runs "The Spook Handy Show," New Jersey’s longest running open mic, at the Corner Tavern in New Brunswick. The show began in 1985 and has over 860 nights under its belt. He is also a songwriter and performer and a co-coordinator of the Princeton Songwriters, the New Jersey chapter of the Nashville Songwriters Association International. For more information on Spook Handy go to www.spookhandy.com.



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Copyright © Tag It 2004 - Republished with Permission