Open Mics

Local discussion on FB about open mics got me thinking. Issue is that a bar owner decided at the last minute to cancel a scheduled open mic because there’s a Leaf’s game and a World Series game the same evening - and it’s a sports bar. Owner doesn’t want to alienate his local regulars and so decided there’s goodwill and no doubt more money in keeping them happy and dumping the performers.
I’m really ambivalent about open mics. While they can be a good learning experience for a newbie, they exploit the talents of musicians who seem only too willing to play for free. In many cases, even so-called “feature” acts don’t get paid. The performers fill up the bar, and then are out of pocket to pay for their own food and drink. There is not usually any “upward mobility” for the performers, in that the clubs that feature open mics don’t usually hire live music to play on some other evening of the week, so it’s not like the performer is auditioning for a possible booking. In fact, quite often prime weekend time is filled with karaoke - no live players so no payment required. The bar owner’s self interest is in filling up the bar once a week on a slow night, with musicians who basically pay to play. The rest of the week it’s big screen TV, canned muzak and warbling weirdos.
I see the bar owner’s position too: open mic talent and experience varies wildly, from seasoned pros to neophyte hackers. One bad act and any regulars or walk-in traffic will head for the door. A lot of people go to the pub to chat and socialize, or watch the game. They aren’t there to hear live music, and a poor or even middling performance makes the situation worse. Who wants to be distracted from their conversation or the hockey game by someone slashing at an acoustic guitar and learning to sing into a microphone? And what fun is it for a performer to be surrounded by people talking - or cheering and jeering at a TV?
The modern open mic is a holdover from the coffee house days. Then, an open mic was an opportunity to test your nerves, learn how to perform, develop a bit of mic technique and try out your chops on a live audience. But in that situation the audience was actually there to listen and was supportive. Eventually, if the performer improved, the coffee house might book them as an opening act, with a chance to develop into a paid feature. Today’s open mics are mostly held in bars that have no commitment to live music, are not interested in nurturing performers or in developing an audience. So it’s the bar owner vs. the performer, in a constant state of uncertainty and tension that does nothing to improve the opportunities for either.
The simple but economically risky solution is for a small club to dedicate itself to live music and thereby become a destination for performers and listeners alike. Have to wonder if that would really be riskier than installing a half dozen big screen TVs and paying the monthly sports cable bill - like every other bar? Maybe live music would be a competitive advantage? Or maybe the bar owners know what I’m reluctant to accept: that there just isn’t much of an appetite for live entertainment anymore, what with American Idol and X Factor choking up the airwaves, and dancing, lip synching exhibitionists filling up arenas.