Oh, the motley glory of open mic venues!

If you’ve been to one, you’ve been to…one.

With the notable exception of Busboys and Poets (a handful of DC-based restaurants and political bookstores, each with a stage purpose-built for weekly poetry events), open mics are a case study in adaptation.

Coffeehouses make a classically quirky fit. Bars, too, especially the kind that have a stage for live music. For poetry-heavy or exclusively literary open mics, bookstores and libraries are another good choice.

Truth is, you can make one damn near anywhere. I’ve performed at or know of open mics housed in breweries, distilleries, the backroom of a pizza joint, a grilled cheese shop, a park shelter, museums, a sidewalk in LA, and Lenexa City Hall in Kansas.

My own open mic—Tongue & Groove in Raleigh, NC—takes place in a local art gallery.

Wherever you house it, your show will be shaped in large measure by the space it fills. Your vibe and their vibe need to align.

Dealbreaker Questions

So how, then, to choose?

For any potential venue you’re considering, first get answers to the deal-breaker questions:

Is there a stage or a suitable space to claim for one?

This requires a yes for obvious reasons.

Is there room and seating for the audience?

Another required yes.

Will people have to pass between mic and audience during the show?

Trust me, this is horrible. Novice performers can easily get thrown by a waiter carrying a bus tub or the shrugging slink of an embarrassed audience member heading for the john. Unless you can definitively say no to this question, proceed no further.

Find a Venue that Gives a Damn

Once you’ve got yes, yes, and no on the dealbreakers, talk to the owner/manager. Like for more than 5 minutes. You need to get to know this person.

This isn’t just a pitch. It’s a screening. Meaning YOU are screening THEM.

Why is this so important? Because after the enthusiasm of your host, the single biggest influence on the success of an open mic is how much of a damn the venue gives.

For an open mic, success is chiefly a function of longevity. Many a regular and avid performer has encountered the major bummer of learning their favorite event is suddenly on hiatus because the owner of their venue lost interest in that whole open mic thing. To dodge said bummer, you need a home that loves what you are and what you do and wants in on it. Like, badly.

The perfect proprietor is a someone whose business self-defines as providing a home for creatives. Promising signs include an owner/manager who is also a musician, former or closet poet, card-carrying storyteller, or just an old hippie.

So find out if they read, write, play, perform. If they ever have or ever wished they could.

The Perks of a Venue That Cares

Find a venue that truly gets open mic, and you gain three major advantages:

  • A pass on explaining the point of an open mic (which I’ve had to do)
  • A safeguard against abrupt cancellation of your show for other events—like, say, World Cup soccer or “Beer and Banjos” (which totally happened to me)
  • A massive promotional lift, because the owner will be so geeked that they’ll feature your show on their event calendar, socials, and in-store signage.

Want another promotional bump? Here’s some tips on giving your open mic a search-friendly name.  

Is it easy to find a place like this? No. But it’s absolutely worth doing some legwork and compromising on other criteria on your Ideal Venue Wishlist.

More Questions for Your Ideal Venue Wishlist

Speaking of your wishlist…

Setting aside generally desirable features (like accessibility and free parking), here’s a few open-mic specific questions to help narrow down your options:

  • Is the room acoustically friendly? Even with a mic and amps, some spaces are just too hot or bouncy for people, especially poets, to be heard.
  • Does the venue have sound gear or will you have to supply that? Depending on how intimate your open mic aims to be, this may not be necessary.
  • Do they have a firm closing time that will force a hard stop for your show?
  • If they run other events, what nights of the week are available for your show? Schedules gotta jibe.
  • If the venue doesn’t serve drinks, will they let you bring in a cooler? Not strictly necessary, but adds a hospitable flair.
  • If they serve drinks, will they offer drink tickets to your performers? Or, conversely, will they require your attendees to purchase something? I’ve seen both, so make sure no one’s unpleasantly surprised on arrival.
  • Will they let you charge a cover? The cover-or-no-cover question is a whole ‘nother blog post, but if you’re set on doing so, make sure the venue is cool with it.

Accidental Audience and Lucky Passersby

Let’s talk about accidental audience.

If your show will have the venue to itself—like, say, at an art gallery that lets you use their space during its off-hours—everyone who comes will be expecting an open mic.

Not so in a bar or coffee shop, where people may come out for other reasons—sometimes loud reasons. Like playing pool, getting drunk, or ordering fancy coffees that keep the milk frother squealing nonstop all evening.

On the other hand, sometimes people are thrilled to find themselves unexpectedly at an open mic, because they’ve been secretly carrying a poem in their pocket for years just waiting for a chance to read it out loud.

My point is, accidental audience ups the ante on randomness. Host and organizers will need to be ready for interruptions. You can mitigate some of the downsides (if the venue will let you) by rearranging tables and chairs or otherwise carving out dedicated space for those who want in and those who don’t.

Conversely, the absence of accidental audience means you will need tactics to entice lucky passersby.

That is, if your show has the venue to itself, you gotta make sure people who walk past can tell that something awesome is going on inside. If it’s got big plate glass windows, position stage and audience for some visibility. If not, invest in a sandwichboard sign and some chalk.

The Perfect Open Mic Venue

Based on my experience, the perfect venue for an open mic—other than Busboys & Poets—is the backroom of a restaurant with a full-service bar, owned by a beatnik soul with a flair for cool chalkboard art that drives people to peek through the portal and check out the show.

The Red Dirt Home for Wayward Poets comes as close as I’ve seen yet. With luck and legwork, you can find a place that awesome.

But if not, for the love of Apollo don’t let that stop you. Like jobs, it’s easier to find a better venue when you already have one. Launch your open mic at an imperfect venue and find workarounds.The musicians, poets, and storytellers will adapt. The audience will too. Because the beating heart of an open mic is a sense of creative community.

And like all intangibles, that follows along wherever you make your home.