Open Mic Night an entrepreneurial and creative success

It was a dark and stormy night.

But, inside the Log, it was warm, friendly and crowded. Over 70 people would find refuge there – as well as free pizza and live student music. It was November 2, the commencement of Open Mic Night.

Over the next few weeks, the numbers would decrease, but two more successful Tuesdays proved that Open Mic Night could weather the attendance storm.

Performer Miles Baltrusaitis ’00 noticed the difference between the first week and those following it – and not just in terms of numbers, either. “The first week was a little more of a recital-type atmosphere, which some performers were comfortable with. But the following two weeks were much more relaxed and experimental.”

The smaller crowds were preferable to other performers as well. “It created more interaction between the audience and the players,” said Nick Goggans ’01. “It was much more laid back.”

“I usually get nervous performing people I’ve never sang in front of before,” said Molly Venter ’02, “but it’s always a responsive group of people.”

“I know all the performers had a blast, and from what I’ve heard, people in attendance had a really good time too,” Open Mic Night organizer Pete Stein ’00 said. “The opening night had a very big crowd and was really fun, but the following weeks were more like I had intended.”

“We are trying to avoid the recital feeling that was produced during the first night,” said Stein. “We found a cool blue spotlight, so the lighting will be much more intimate.” He is also planning to change the seating arrangement, in hopes that the audience will “feel more inclined to move from room to room.”

Another key component in creating a comfortable atmosphere for both performers and audience involves beverages: a coffee bar and one-dollar beers.

“With the addition of beer and coffee, I think people will feel more comfortable. If they are served, I think people will also have more incentive to come down,” said Stein. “And people will have something to do while performers are changing mics or tuning up.”

It hasn’t been easy to accomplish. “It has been a challenge to get the bar opened to serve beer,” admitted Stein simply. “But there have always been one-dollar beers available on Thursday nights at the Log. And, of course, there are pricier drafts available as well.”

Alcohol has only been served at one Open Mic Night, since Stein was still trying to secure authorization during the first two weeks. Stein noted that, while it may be too early to judge whether the one-dollar beers will lure more students, attendance has been steady. And he has noticed a change in the atmosphere since alcohol has been served. “People filtered in throughout the night, whereas the first two weeks, everyone was out of there by midnight.”

The only problems Stein and other performers have encountered have to do with timing. Venter said she thought a less frequent schedule would encourage more crowds and make the event more noteworthy, while Moges Abebe ’00identified one of the problems as the time slot – 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. – which he thought would strike some as inconvenient. Before changing the schedule, Stein hopes to give Open Mic Night another trial period. “Winter Study will probably be the best time for this event,” he said. “People around here should have much more flexible schedules in the winter term.” Also, he added, “It remains to be seen how successful we can be in drawing faculty and staff in there.”

Open Mic Night is the brainchild of Stein, who had been entertaining the idea for almost three years. “I’ve been thinking about this ever since my first performance at the end of Bernice Lewis’s singer/songwriter Winter Study class freshman year,” Stein said. “It was so much fun performing.”

Stein saw his chance to make his idea a reality when he noticed the Student Activities Council (SAC) soliciting student opinion on the future of the Log. He quickly realized that he could not put Open Mic Night on alone; he would need funds to make everything work. “I figured that if SAC was looking to revamp the Log, they would naturally be the most likely funders,” Stein recalled.

Stein’s vision proved to be harder to achieve than anticipated. “The biggest challenge has been learning the system for getting things done around here,” said Stein, recounting his run-around. “I originally asked College Council Treasurer Nelson Hioe ’00 for help, and he set me up with Carrie Ryan ’00,” Stein remembered. Ryan, a member of SAC as well as the Log Committee, connected Stein with Associate Director of Dining Services Helen Aitkin. Dining Services runs the Log and thus picks up the tab for the Hot Tomatoes pizza offered at Open Mic Night. Still, the complicated logistics do not end there: Dining Services could not pick up all the costs. The Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) is helping fund Open Mic Night “on a trial basis,” Stein explained. Baltrusaitis and Jeff O’Neill ’01 fulfilled a vital need for the venture by providing their personal sound equipment.

Even with aid from multiple committees, Stein admitted that he bears most of the responsibility for organizing and coordinating, “with guidance from Ryan and Damian Zunino ’00 from SAC,” he added.

Open Mic Nights generally feature about 15 individual acts, most of which are musical. Abebe has been a notable exception, reading poetry regularly. Though Abebe notes that he was skeptical as to whether the audience would be receptive, he was pleasantly surprised, and hoped “anyone who would want to do anything imaginative or entertaining or both in front of an audience” would attend and perform.

“Originally, I had only thought of the singer/songwriter aspect of the Open Mic,” admitted Stein. “But when Moges read that poem, it was pretty cool.” Goggans, too, liked the poetry aspect. “More poets out there ought to come down,” he said. Goggans added another hope: “And I want Molly to sing more of her songs,” he said. “Joni Mitchell better watch out.”

Venter encouraged the timid to attend and decide whether to perform while there. “You’ll probably realize it’s not all that scary, and then you can just jump up and play whenever there’s an opening,” she said.

Goggans hopes that anxious performers – musical or poetic – will not be deterred by the prospect of performing in front of a crowd. “Just do it and the nerves will go away,” he said. “And if you mess up, don’t worry about it. At first, I was so nervous that I didn’t want to perform. I was surprised at the large showing for the first night, but everyone was so attentive,” he said. Goggans was so bolstered by the audience’s support for his first song with O’Neill that he decided to play by himself. “The audience looked really serious and introspective,” he said. “I decided it was time to lighten the mood.” Goggans then played a “funny old country song” by Texas folk singer Robert Earl Keen, called “Copenhagen.” “No, nothing to do with Denmark,” Goggans said, “but the snuff. Being able to share that song with people who hadn’t heard it and watch them laugh [about the lyrics] and enjoy it was absolutely fantastic,” he remembered.

Baltrusaitis thought of Open Mic Night as a response to larger issues. “I feel there is a growing dissatisfaction with where popular music is going,” he said. “An open mic gives each of us music snobs a chance to break out the old stuff no one plays anymore or, better yet, play the songs no one has heard before.” Those who aren’t self-described “music snobs” belong at Open Mic Night too, Baltrusaitis noted. “Everyone here has a voice that deserves an arena for creative expression. Aural diversity, I think, is celebrated at the Open Mic Nights for those with all levels of training. Don’t be afraid that your music won’t be appreciated,” he said. “Chances are, at least I’ll listen.”

Baltrusaitis has high expectations for the effects of Open Mic Night. “I hope we can encourage songwriting on campus. I also hope to introduce the musical influences that have encouraged me to live a life dedicated to music,” he said.

For Stein, the idea and goal is simpler. “I just thought this would be a fun way to get musicians together,” he said.

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