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Monday, November 18, 2013

Open Mic - Key West

OPEN MIC – How I run mine!

Since I re-entered the music scene eighteen years ago, one of the most useful tools that were awarded to me, was attending open mics. I recall my friend in Miami, Charlie Rathburn, telling me about the first one I attended “Everyone’s here to have a good time. No one’s here to judge you, just have a good time.  Now I don’t know how good you are, but there will be people who are better than you and people that aren’t as good as you. But everyone’s having a good time”. That turned out to be very true indeed. Over those years, regardless of my level in playing music, I’ve always attended open mics.  One of the added benefits of going to open mics is that by nature, people with common interests attend them, so it’s inevitable that you come away with new friends. Perhaps another attribute, one of those things that is what is referred to as “reading between the lines”, no matter how good you are, or more importantly, how good you become, It also keeps you humble.

One of the things that I found was that every open mic I attended was different. Whomever ran it had their own style of organization. The great thing was that none were bad, just some better than others, for different reasons. I recall one in Tampa, at a bar called the Corsair, where you brought your guitar and jammed with the house electric blues band. The bar had sequins in the ceiling and a lingerie show that preceded it. Then, across town in a small coffee shop, lined with sofas and coffee tables, there was an acoustic open mic, in a very intimate setting, in a place where no alcohol was served.

Over the summer a bar around the corner from me, McConnell’s, was having an open mic. They were throwing it on a Thursday evening for some reason. The reason I say for some reason was because there apparently wasn’t any for thought put into it, as another open mic in Key West was on Thursday’s as well, with Larry and Dora at the Rum Barrel. Consequently, I never made it to that open mic. One night Larry and Dora’s open mic was cancelled, so I figured I’d finally have an opportunity to check out the one at McConnell’s. I got there and there was no open mic. They stopped doing it.
The next day I went in to talk to the owner, whom I already knew. I offered to run an open mic for him. He suggested Thursdays, which brings up rule #1 in my book:

Rule #1:  Know your market!

If you don't know your market, it's like running down the street blindfolded, hoping you don't crash into anything. I suggested to him that it wouldn’t make since going to go head to head with another open mic. That’s shooting everyone in the foot. My idea was Wednesdays. To begin with, we’re focusing mostly on a local clientele, so you don’t want it too close to the weekend. You need to give the patrons a little air to breath and Wednesday was perfect as it’s slotted directly in the center of every week. When this was brought to the owners attention, he agreed Wednesday was best and we started the following Wednesday. So, it's the organizer's job to know what the market is and what's best for themselves, as well as the venues. And understand, as an organizer, you may be the only one who does.  

To help get us going, 104.9 The X Key West was there to broad cast live. Not only live, but LIVE! Everyone who played was live, on the air! Additionally, this was both internet and terrestrial radio. So people could hear it in their car stereo, or in Los Angeles via the internet. We actually did this for several weeks. The station was doing it on an internet card. After that however, they needed to use McConnell’s internet, however McConnell’s internet connection is extremely weak and it just wasn’t working at all. Thanks to Gary, Sheri, and Bernard from 104.9 The X Key West!

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The way I run my open mic is, at least in my mind, the logical way. What I’ve done is take the best from all of the open mics I’ve attended over the years and rolled them all into one, and then toss in some of my own pizazz for good measure. We’ve already covered Rule #1, know your market.

Rule #2:  Make it FUN!

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This is the most important rule of all. What you want to do is make sure everyone’s having fun! Everyone starts with one’s self. As an organizer of anything, you’re the one that carries the atmosphere and the color of the event. Also, everyone includes not only the patrons, but also the staff. When the staff arrive and are feeling “Oh great! Tonight’s Open Mic!” it’s a great barometer! Plus, if you’re having fun, the patrons are having fun, and the staff is having fun, you’ll make out just fine.

(Popeye having fun at the Open Mic! )

How do we make it fun? Well, for starters, in any open mic, the organizer needs to check his/her ego at the door. In trying to assure that everyone is having fun the first objective is to make sure that you’re not aggravating anyone. How many times have I been to an open mic where the host gets up and plays forever? That will never happen at my open mic. When that happens people start rolling their eyes and say “Is this thing ever going to start?”. As a host, we must realize that the people rolling their eyes are the ones who are paying, in the form of buying product, for the privilege of playing. By having a long set list for the host becomes a frustration for the patrons who come to play.

That is a frustration. It can get worse. What can be worse? One player arrives at 8 and another arrives at 9 and the organizer puts the one who came at 9 ahead of the one that came at 8. Suddenly you see steam coming out of the 8 o’clock player’s ears. Worse than that? The biggest faux pas in open mics is the host starts the open mic, has a few performers up, then… goes back up to play again themselves, making the patrons waiting, wait longer. When I’ve seen that happen over the years, every time it pisses off those waiting. Not now and then. Every time. “What the fuck are they doing? I’ve been here for an hour and a half and now they’re going up AGAIN????” The end results of this have been from people being pissed off, to packing up and leaving. Guess what? They are not having fun. Remember, as the person running the open mic, we must remember to check their ego at the door.

The first and foremost requirement is put myself on the exact same level as anyone else. As an organizer I wear a different hat than everyone else, granted, but I’m no different than anyone else there. I’m not special HA HA! It might not be obvious to everyone, but if not consciously, they realize it subconsciously. This is important. If you’re humble, no one is at all intimidated and therefore they are comfortable with you and the event.

(City Attorney Larry “Paco” Erskine made every single open mic held at McConnell’s! Thanks Paco!)

The first thing I do after setting up, is put out a sign up list. I’m at the top of the list. This is an essential in any open mic and something that is never questioned, as the host needs to set up and balance the sound system.  Wherever one signs up, is where they play. Easy enough? My sign up list motto is “I like to make friends, not piss anyone off”. When we got to the end of the list, it would go back to the top again. If anyone came in after we re-started the list, they would go on next.

I’ve had several requests via messages or texts asking “Can you sign me up?”. Sorry.  It’s like signing a check. You have to sign it. Again, everyone’s equal and along those lines, everyone’s responsible for signing themselves in. If I were to sign someone in before they arrive, should someone come in before them and as a result signs in behind them, it’s just not a fair playing field for everyone. And for me, a fair playing field is essential to keep a good atmosphere and everyone happy. It’s worked very well.

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The results we’ve had since we started, have been exceptional. In the doldrums of the slowest period of Key West’s year, we’ve had a packed house at McConnell’s. People would consistently be saying to me “Every place in town is flat out dead, but here the place is packed!”.  Guess what? Everyone, the customers and the staff was having a great time, loads of fun and laughter every Wednesday night. More importantly, the cash register was chiming in as well, singing its favorite song all night long.

(LA Wood played our open mic and rocked the house. About a month later she won the Malibu Misic Awards!) Congrats Laura!)

There were several times that when I was in the bar off hours of our open mic, one of the bartenders told me that “Jerry (the owner) told me he is very happy with the open mic nights!”.  This was the slow season. I was told consistantly that "Every bar from Fleming to here on Duval is totally empty. It's packed here!"The formula works and works well. Everyone was happy.

We were kind of open ended as far as time went. Technically our hours were 8 to 11. However, when 11 rolled around and I counted 29 non playing customers in the bar and 6 players still around, I said “We’re keeping it rolling!” Fact: That’s 35 paying customers in the bar. The problem is, when the live music stops, the crowd leaves. In all the open mics that were run at McConnell’s, we NEVER closed at 11. It was always 12/12:30/1:00am, depending on the crowd. If the cash register was ringing, the open mic kept rolling. I didn't get paid any more. I got a flat fee. However, it was good for the house, so I always kept it rolling as needed.

In order to promote the event, I bought two radio spots for the month of October. One on local station 104.9 The X Key West, the other on internet station Beachfront Radio. All totaled it was $475.00. I did this because it was good for the event and good for McConnell’s. Everyone was happy and our philosophy was working very well!

A little over a week ago I was approached by a new manager at McConnell’s, Sarah. Among other things, she informed me “Next week you’ll be ending at 9 o’clock. We have a new singer coming in”.  Her personality was extremely abrasive and was the type of individual that I’ve come across many times in my former professional career. She was someone who thrived on being in control. I told her “Well, I start at 8 and you want me to stop at 9?” Her retort was “Well, you’re just going to have to start earlier then”. I shook my head and said “No. I’m sorry. My people don’t even get here until nine. That’s not going to work.” As I’ve said, I’ve seen this all before. To begin with she didn’t have a clue about how the open mic ran. What she saw was the register rings suddenly take off at about nine on Wednesdays. That’s what we did. When at 8 – 9 you have 10 – 15 people in a place and 9 – 10 you have 65, between nine and ten is when most of the people start coming in for the Open Mic. With her idea of changing things around, she was thinking to lasso that 9pm on crowd and say “Hey! Look what my wonderful new idea and performer is producing!”. It was quite confusing when one takes into account that she wanted to pay two people, when she was getting the hours needed already at the price of one? Odd. She didn't realize that these were the open mic crowd, spectators and performers alike and for her, the problem was, it wasn't going to happen on my watch. I've been down that street before and it's a case of  "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me". It may not have been with her who was the first time, per say, but it was just old hat for me.

 I met with the owner the next morning and he changed it from 8 – 11, but their new performer would take it from there. I wasn’t clear as to why he hadn’t consulted me on it to begin with? Something like “Hey, we have an idea we wanted to run by you to get your impression and feedback on”. One would think that when you have a very successful night, it might be good to talk to the people involved first, before making a decision. I mean if the evening was a flop that would be another issue. Be that as it may, in the end I said “Fine. We’ll all leave at 11 and you can get a fair assessment of what we bring to the table and what your new act does for you. Besides, I don’t have a clue why you would hire a second performer when we go to 1am half the time anyway. You’re paying two performers for one night when you already have one who goes the hours you’re looking for. On top of that I come with a crowd and by and large, a local crowd at that. It’s also a proven product”. The local crowd that came in ranged from around the corner to Big Pine Key, 35 miles up the Keys. Because of this blog, my Facebook page, coupled with the fact that my music is played on stations across the US and in Europe, often the crowd we drew was people seeking us out who were in from out of town as well.

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Regretfully he didn’t realize this. The latest he was ever there was about 9:15 on a late night for him. In fairness to Jerry, he was in there every day at 10am. But I think it would have been beneficial to him if once or twice, he went home, rested up, and came back to see what was going on. However, usually he either already went home before we started, or was leaving shortly after I kicked it off on my first set. He also told me that the new manager told him that numbers weren’t that good on Wednesdays. Odd. We packed the place with professionals and their friends. These weren’t people who lived under an overpass. Everyone there was eating meals and drinking libations. That’s what I saw with my own two eyes, week in week out. I saw everyone smiling and having a great time, patrons and staff included. Again, one staff member told me several times that “Jerry is very happy with Wednesday nights”. Now, suddenly there is a new manager and reporting that the open mic people are drinking “water and cokes”. That's an insult to every patron who supported the open mic. The fact of the matter was, everyone was buying alcohol and many bought meals.She’s also doing the books and she goes by the name “Bandita”…. YIKES!

In the end they let us go. On the other hand, the atmosphere of mirth and fun had fallen off the edge of a cliff at McConnell’s in one night, when the new manager, spoke so rudely to me to me that evening.  It was sudden and quick. The most vital ingredient in the service industry, is to have a fantastic atmosphere. In that one night it was a lot like the change that Jimmy Stewart saw in "It's A Wonderful Life" when he went into Martin's Bar, after he no longer was born and finding the place full of angry people. Sadly, however that can be the nature of this business. The ignorant part of it is, when a bar cancels a performer, chances are better than average that they no longer frequent the establishment. When cancelling an open mic, one isn't only telling the organizer he doesn't want him any more, he just told all of the players and their respective friends who came in with them, that their business is no longer wanted. We usually had 40 -80 people in there. It's apparent that this establishment doesn't have a sales and marketing background.

So anyway, I’m looking for a new venue.

We had a great run there and I wish McConnell’s all the best. They have a fantastic crew there

Lesson learned? Indeed!

Rule #3: Educate the owner of the bar as you go.

I’ve always believed in the philosophy of “Give them more than they ask for”

I stuck to this philosophy by not only going from 8 – 11, but going the extra mile if there was still business in the house, which there always was, staying one time until 2am, but usually it was about 12:30 or so. That was for the sake of the house. I didn’t garner anything from it over and above what our weekly arrangement was, nor did I ask for it.

And also, taking out two radio ads at my own expense ($475.00) in order to promote my event there.
I’m not one to wave my own flag, however apparently this is something that I will do in the future, as far as keeping the owner a where of what I’m doing that is over and above the call of duty.  

However, dealing with ignorance is always one's worst adversary. One would assume that the bar owners/managers would be keenly astute to what is successful and making them money. However, some will throw a monkey wrench into the entire works, as we've seen in the aforementioned. Myself, I'm usually the quiet one who smiles in the light of success, allowing my actions to speak for themselves. Apparently this isn't the best philosophy. So, henceforth I'll be certain to make it known what is being done and blow my own horn a bit more.

I do what I do and I do it well.  And my philosophy of giving more than what is expected, will continue to hold true.

Meanwhile, I have a new venue to find!

All the Best from Key West!

Key West Chris

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