Playing your own songs in public
Updated: Dec 10, 2020
A guest post this week from Singer-Songwriter Mark Sims.
So, you’ve written a few songs, you’ve practiced them, you believe in them but now it’s time to take the big step and perform them in public. Most people probably start by performing covers and undoubtedly this is the easier option. It all depends on where you want to take your music. If you are in it for an income and regular bookings, then playing covers may be the way to go, but if you are in it to be creative, innovative and prepared to work hard and take risks, then playing your own songs is so much more satisfying.
This is the situation I found myself in. I really didn’t want to perform covers. For me, it was all about the songwriting. My view was, why should I play Oasis or Neil Diamond or Jonny Cash? Surely, however competent I might be, they will surely not be as good as the versions readily available on the jukebox and people’s phones. If I was an artist, would I paint my own pictures or stand up a familiar classic on the easel and copy paint it? My songs were personal to me, they were authentic, they were about things and places that a local audience would associate with ………. But they were also songs that nobody would know!
The idea of approaching a pub or hotel and asking for an hour’s set of original material at the outset was like trying to run before I could walk, so the obvious route was the Open Mic.
There are more Open Mics than you might think, often it’s the way pubs and bars keep the till ticking over midweek. Sometimes, the audience is made up solely of other performers patiently awaiting their turn and a few regulars. I had written a batch of songs and wanted to perform them, I mean, otherwise, what’s the point!? I saw an advert on Facebook, so I contacted the host and tentatively turned up for my first public performance. It was terrifying, but over time I got used to it. I learned to expect to be nervous, it’s all part of the deal, it’s not supposed to be easy – and most people would never do it, this is your USP! Interestingly, I can recall a couple of gigs much later on, where I was complacent, I wasn’t nervous, I didn’t run through the songs before I left, I swaggered up to the mic …. And promptly put in a shocker – NERVES ARE GOOD!
Sometimes, if it’s busy you might only get 2 or 3 songs. If it’s quiet, there may be an opportunity to play more. So; here are my tips and rules for playing at open mics.
Rule 1 – Be quite good – Remember, you are not being paid to play your songs, but you are there to entertain the audience, whether it’s a handful of punters or a full pub – both present their challenges. Nobody expects you to be the finished article from day one, but at the same time, you don’t want to be driving people away from the venue!
Self-regulate yourself, if a song isn’t up to scratch, or you haven’t quite mastered it, don’t play it. I often hear singers say “I’m still working on this ……..” well go back home and finish it, bring it back next week! That’s what rehearsals are for. I also see people messing around between songs, trying to find the right key, moving the capo around, even announcing “Hmmm what shall I play?!” Just ask how many songs you are allowed, and then deliver them! Know your set before you go, prepare a 2-song, 3-song, 4-song set etc.
When I write a new song, I have my own rule (1) Finish it (2) practice it (3) Play it for a couple of weeks at home. Even if your first thought it was a classic, if, by the 20th time you play it at home, you’re starting to get bored with it, then your audience will certainly feel the same! (4) If you still love playing it, then give it a go (5) Check on the audience reaction, they will be the final judge, if everyone goes out for a fag or the chatter gets louder – perhaps it’s not quite as good as you think.
Rule 2 – Don’t just play it – Perform it – Lots of people (including me in the very early days) rely a music stand and read their song, some will use an i-pad or even a phone, which are less intrusive, but any type of ‘script’, in my opinion, is a barrier between you and your audience. I think it’s different if you’re playing 2 hours of covers and might have to react to requests, but for your own songs, there’s really no excuse for not learning them.
After a few performances at my first Open Mic, the host suggested I “Lose the songbook”. I think he could see that there was a performance in there being stifled by the barrier I had created between me and the audience. I was apprehensive and for the next few Open Mics, I found myself forgetting the odd word or chord, but he was right; the performance was so much better, I was connecting with the crowd. Eye contact is so important.
Think of other types of scenarios; for a play, you would not expect the actors to be carrying scripts around, the best presentations, even at work, are delivered by people who know their subject matter and therefore can engage with the audience. In any case, if you’re playing originals, nobody knows if you add a couple of bars in while you think of the next line (something I do often), sing the verses in the wrong order or drop in an Am instead of a C! If you do get it wrong, keep going, don’t stop, the chances are nobody will notice and even if they do, it’s the overall performance of the song which they will remember, not a few duff chords or a missed lyric.
Additionally, sometimes I see performers who are over-indulgent, even if they are very accomplished musicians, they seem to be playing just for their own benefit – I find the kitchen is the best place for this type of performance – engage your audience!
Rule 3 – Introduce your song – If your song has a story or a meaning, just give the audience a few pointers, they are far more likely to be more empathetic and listen to your lyrics. Another note here is when talking into the mic, stand back a bit and speak loudly and slowly. PAs are often not great when it comes to relaying the spoken word.
Rule 4 – Don’t be put off – People come and go, people will talk, pubs and bars are noisy places. As a rule, other musicians will generally be courteous because they’ve been in your shoes, but others often seem oblivious to the noise they’re making, talking and shouting right in front of the Mic. But ultimately, they have a right to be there, you’ve just got to sing over it.
I have certain locations where I would never dare to play my quieter songs, they would be drowned out. My rule is that if someone is talking particularly loudly and it’s off-putting, just give them a glare and up the volume!
Rule 5 – Stick at it – If you play a regular Open Mic, then the punters are likely to be regulars too. The first time you play a song, nobody will know it, but by week 4 or week 10, if you’ve played the same batch of songs, they will start to become familiar – this is a massive break-through and if your songs are good enough and you stick at it, you can get there. Eventually, I was able to get bookings to play full sets consisting entirely of my own songs – and even, occasionally, get paid, although I tend to stick to charity events. The first time somebody came up to the mic and requested one of my OWN songs, or asked me which songs I was going to play, it was such a thrill. Through sheer bloody-mindedness, because I believed in my songs, I kept playing them. I can currently deliver an hour set of original songs, most of which will be familiar with a decent percentage of the audience – but it took a lot of determination to reach that stage.
Back to the Open Mic, If you are determined to play your own songs, then stick to your guns. Ensure you have 3 or 4 fully practiced and ready to wow your audience. If you have more, then still play your best songs, I have made the mistake of holding back my best songs (like you might in a full setlist) and then not getting back on!
Playing your own songs is a high-risk strategy, but ultimately it will be far more rewarding than just playing songs somebody else has written – HIGH RISK = HIGH REWARD!
I have this vision of say an unknown Neil Diamond being booed off because he played a new original song called “Sweet Caroline” when the punters just wanted some familiar rock ’n’-roll covers. Every song has to start as an original at some point, why not yours?
Rule 6 – Be courteous to other musicians – This is one of my personal bug-bears ….. treat other performers how you would like to be treated. Listen to their songs, applaud their songs, ask questions about their songs – they will reciprocate. The local music scene is very supportive and your network will enable you to grow. You know how frustrating it is when people talk or shout over your song, so don’t do it to others, don’t just sit there playing on your phone, it’s discourteous and most of all, and this is a very important one for me – wherever possible, arrive at the beginning of the event and leave at the end. You will still see people who arrive late, play their songs, which they expect us all to listen to, and then they promptly disappear. Most musicians who I know find this very disrespectful. There’s a code of conduct even if it’s unwritten!
Sometimes at open mics, other musicians will unexpectedly come and accompany you, this is a great sign, so encourage them. Firstly, only very accomplished musicians would dare to join you on a song they might not be wholly familiar with. They will almost certainly enhance your song, but most of all, they have done it, because they like your songs and they want to be part of them.
Rule 7 – Don’t forget your roots – even if you’re starting to get regular gigs, Open Mics remain a great place to try out new songs and see how they are received, before deciding whether to add them to your set. Whilst, I have stated that you need to self-regulate at open mics, the threshold for playing ‘paid’ gigs or even unpaid gigs, where an audience has paid for tickets, must be set higher out of respect for those who have paid to employ you or see you. The Open Mic scene continues to be a vital stepping stone for all musicians, however far up the success tree you have climbed.