Meet Me at the Open Mic
Updated: Aug 25, 2021
I think the color crayons made all the difference.
Put some paper and a cup full of crayons, markers, and pencils on a table, and magic happens. This is true for adults as well as for kindergarteners. That's why every week on Wednesday night, I would set out big boxes that read ‘CRAYOLA’ on all the tables of the Rookery Cafe.
And that's why an hour later, when the room filled to bursting with people of all ages, they scribbled and listened quietly all night. Even during an open mic.
I’ve been to a few truly great open mics around the US, but they’re very rare. I can understand why. It’s hard to attract an audience. It's hard to keep the vibe supportive, and it's hard to make people stay after they’ve played. Above all, it's hard to make the money work out for the venue.
But open mics are a crucial part of any music scene. It’s so difficult to get started as a performer! When you’re ready to play in public for the first time, you find yourself trying to climb a ladder with very few rungs at the bottom. How can a new artist go from zero to their first paid booking unless they find a good open mic?
Performing itself is a discipline that has to be learned, just like scales and arpeggios. Playing in front of people is its own musical skill. On stage the fingers freeze up, the breath won’t obey, and the lyrics wander off, even when a piece has been practiced to perfection. And there’s a lot of learning how to ignore things: a ringtone, a walkout, a glass breaking in the kitchen. You can only acquire performance skills by putting in stage hours.
I owe a great deal to Alaska’s open mics and “starter venues,” those precious places that will book a low-stakes set or a show, even if you can’t draw 50 people yet. You may know some of these places, past and present; to name just a few, the Taproot, when it was in South Anchorage. Side Street Espresso. Organic Oasis. Jitters in Eagle River. Vagabond Blues in Palmer. Whole Wheat Radio in Talkeetna. College Coffeehouse in Fairbanks. Veronica’s in Kenai. Not to mention many, many First Friday galleries.
As I matured into the Alaska music scene, I realized these spaces didn’t simply happen -- someone had to create them. When I moved to Juneau and learned there was no all ages open mic, I realized it was my turn to step up and organize an event to pay it forward.
After touring for years and seeing all kinds of different venues and formats, I had a very specific idea of what would work in Juneau. So when I started planning Mountainside Open Mic, I had a list of concrete plans and non-negotiables:
An all ages space, where kids and teens could perform and elders would feel welcome
A venue with counter service and a beer and wine license (no table service, no liquor)
An event that ended before 10pm
Short spring and fall seasons, not a year-round event (running from February into April, ending when the daylight returns, and from October into December, starting after the tourists are gone)
A venue that believed in the idea
Strict rules and time limits, clear signage, and a code of conduct
A supportive listening room environment where everyone could feel heard
Color crayons. Lots of color crayons.
A 30-minute paid artist showcase at the end of the night
I wanted to create a space where musicians and audiences could level up. That’s why the featured artist showcase was crucial. It ensured that we ended every week with a bang, hearing truly great music from Juneau artists.
The showcase slot created a goal for the the motivated musicians in the room: they might book that short paid gig in the future. This gave participants an incentive to come regularly and work hard on their songs. When someone played consistently and well, I would book them for a showcase in the next season. It was a very effective motivator! And it was a doable gig for emerging artists; they knew they could play for thirty minutes, and they knew the room would support them with attention and encouragement.
Our little open mic ultimately got to present rock, bluegrass, newgrass, folk, hip hop, jazz, soul, a women's choir, musical comedy, and more. And we heard a lot of new original compositions in just about all of those styles. For many of our artists, it was their first paying gig.
The showcases also essentially created a new concert series for Juneau. This made our open mic unique for another reason: beyond a crowd of musicians waiting for their turn to play, our open mic had an actual audience. A silent audience, too, hanging on every note while they sketched or knitted or did origami. It’s amazing how providing art supplies and inviting crafting can silence a cafe full of gregarious Alaskans. And it’s amazing how a full, focused room benefits performers.
The audiences paid our featured acts directly, which made the event more sustainable for our venue, the Rookery Cafe. Everyone got used to me aggressively passing the hat for the artists when I emceed (training up the audience is important, too!). By the end of season one, our listeners knew to come with cash for the hat. The featured artists usually earned between $70-120.
Because the showcase was at 8:30pm, I could book moms with kids in tow. I could book teachers and teenagers who had school early in the morning, and seniors who weren’t up for staying out late. We even featured our local elementary school string program once, which was possibly the cutest show I’ve ever seen.
The diverse artist pool we got to see at Mountainside felt deeply authentic to Juneau. The whole community seemed to be there, not just the usual crowd that comes out for bands. And we saw musical growth happening right before our eyes.
Within the first few weeks, it became a standing-room-only event nearly every time. Limiting the season to ten weeks kept it that way, because it was a special event. It also kept our volunteers from burning out, and it honored the natural rhythms of Juneau life (quiet Januaries and busy summers outside).
I don’t know when we can start our next season of Mountainside, but when it returns, it will be all the more magical. In the meantime, we're left with the most precious souvenir: at the end of the night, people were invited to leave any scribbles they didn’t want to take home on the tables, knowing I would collect and save them.
After our second season, we posted a collage of our collective art in the window of the Rookery for a couple weeks. It was a perfect snapshot of the community’s creativity. Between the music and the artwork, it's absolutely wonderful what our neighbors can do, given some time and tools to express themselves. Just give a few Alaskans a room, a microphone, and some crayons, and prepare to be amazed.
Marian Call is a singer, songwriter, and producer based in Juneau, Alaska.