Opening minds with open mics

There’s a fascinating paradox at the heart of Maine’s music scene: The most commonly offered type of musical entertainment is also the least popular among fans of live music. I’m talking about the open-mic night.

How common are open mics? The website, a database of bars and restaurants nationwide that host such evenings, lists 19 of them in Portland and within 25 miles of the city, and that’s not even a complete list. On Wednesdays and Sundays, there are at least five different open mics happening in the Portland area. At least six more take place every Tuesday night, and three or more happen every Monday and Thursday. Tellingly, there are no open mics to be found on Friday or Saturday nights, when most people are out on the town.

What’s going on here? In the April issue of The Bollard, an aspiring singer-songwriter named Nick Farago tackles this question through his own experience playing open mics. His account might — just might — change your attitude toward a type of entertainment typically shunned by the general public.

It’s not hard to figure out why open mics are so popular among bar owners. For them, it’s basically free entertainment. Why pay a band when musicians will show up week after week to play for free?

Bands get paid because they bring in customers, but so do open mics. The difference is that the customers at open-mic nights consist almost entirely of the performers themselves, their friends and family. Still, any customers are better than no customers, especially on a slow night of the week. Amateur musicians will buy drinks to calm their nerves. Their friends and family will do the same to endure what can be a boring or annoying experience.

But as Farago discovered, open mics can be great entertainment. The only thing they have in common is their unpredictability — you never know who’ll show up. The database seems to be bringing a more diverse selection of acts to these nights, including some surprisingly talented and famous ones from away. For example, one Monday this winter, the ’90s boy band Hanson was traveling through Maine on their way back from a gig in Canada and decided to drop by the open mic at Rí Rá, the Irish pub on Commercial Street that posts its event on the site. Needless to say, minds were blown.

Alli Stevens — proprietor of The Thirsty Pig, on Exchange Street, which started an open mic called The Exchange on Tuesday nights this winter — told me there have been Tuesdays lately when she’s wondered if she’s in her own bar. A small jazz combo recently showed up from out of state, as did an astounding, blind jazz flute-player passing through town.

One of the most popular open mics these days is not in a bar but in the studio of a public-access TV station. Turnstyle Thursdays, originally offered at the Meg Perry Center on Congress Street, takes place at the Community Television Network a couple blocks away. It’s routinely packed with performers of all stripes and styles, creating a carnival-like atmosphere.

As Farago explains, open-mic nights give musicians more than an opportunity to play for audiences, which tend to be either small, indifferent or both. They provide opportunities to meet other musicians and form new partnerships or groups. They can also lead to paying gigs. It’s not uncommon for players to parlay an open-mic appearance at Blue or the Dogfish Bar and Grille, on Free Street, into a “headlining” gig at those clubs.

Music fans aren’t the only ones who tend to avoid these nights. “Musicians see themselves as above open mics,” Shanna Underwood, host of the weekly event at Blue, told Farago, noting the difficulty she has persuading experienced players to show up at what the club, sensitive to the term “open mic,” bills as an “Acoustic Jam Session.” The scene is like minor-league baseball. There are some players who spend their entire career at that level, but most either move up or drop out, and those who advance have no inclination to return.

The scene stays alive and thrives because there are always new hopefuls eager to break into the business. Most eventually give up and fade back into obscurity, but a few will break into the big leagues. The next Bob Dylan and Ani DiFranco are strumming away somewhere to a roomful of distracted strangers. The only way to discover them is to show up and listen.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.