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Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2010

Musicians Find Opportunities at Open Mics

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Open mic nights have long been stigmatized as forums for inexperienced musicians to play off-key cover songs to disinterested audiences at second-rate venues, but local businesses are working to change the image of open mics, and musicians are benefiting from their participation in this unsung format.

Over the past three and a half years, bartender Tim “Timber” Buege has seen the Up & Under Pub on Brady Street build a reputation for its weekly open mic. Each Monday from 9 p.m. to close, the venue opens its stage to a diverse cast of musical hobbyists.

Host Matt Wilson and his band begin each Up & Under open mic with a half-hour set. From there, performers can sign up to play a 15-minute slot, and have the option of being backed by Wilson’s band. The unique format and diversity of performers have earned the bar’s open mic three Best of Milwaukee awards from Shepherd Express readers. It’s also been good for business on Mondays, a night when many bars struggle (or close altogether).

Buege credits much of the bar’s respectable Monday turnout to the live music.

“People are into it,” Buege says. “If you don’t like a band, 15 minutes later there will be another band. It goes all over the board, and that’s why it’s so popular.”

Other local cafés, bars and music venues that open their stages and mics to customers each week include the Miramar Theatre (Tuesdays), Bremen Café (Thursdays), Linneman’s Riverwest Inn (Wednesdays), Quarters (Sundays) and Conway’s (Tuesdays).

Singer/songwriter Lisa Gatewood got her start by playing open mics at Bremen Café in Riverwest a few years ago. She soon became a fixture at the open mic at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn. Gatewood says the quaint and inviting open mic format helped her adjust to playing live.

“Open mics are, by nature, safe and accepting places,” Gatewood says. “It's scary to go out there and play your original songs for people you don't know. So playing them at open mics helped bridge the gap from my living room to my shows.”

On top of the experience gained by playing live, Gatewood says open mics provide a place for musicians to meet and set the groundwork for playing together.

“When I first started playing open mics, I met a lot of really amazing musicians who asked me to open for them at their shows or share a bill with them,” Gatewood says. “This was a really important step in carving out my niche in Milwaukee, and I think it taught me right away that we're all swimming in this big pool together.”

Other performers, too, credit open mics as a source of improvement and increased exposure.

Milwaukee-area folk artist Tony Memmel also cut his teeth on the open mic scene. He’s been involved in them, as either a participant or host, for the last 10 years, playing regularly in Milwaukee and the Fox Cities, as well as some dates on the East Coast. 

Since his open mic beginnings, Memmel has recorded two full-length albums, toured extensively and cultivated a following around the area. He credits open mics for helping him realize these successes.

“When I first began playing open mics, it was really some of my first experience playing as a solo singer-songwriter without a band,” Memmel says. “[Playing them] helped challenge me to build my repertoire. I went from being able to play 10 minutes of non-repeating material to four hours in just a few months’ time.”

Memmel says the inclusive format is good for both inexperienced and seasoned performers.

“As a musician, the appeal of open mics is to get yourself heard,” Memmel says, “whether it's for the first time or if it's to network and play for new faces as an experienced veteran. There are benefits for everybody.”

Though he recognizes the stigma they have, Memmel says open mics provide talented musicians an additional outlet to play out.

“I have a hard time remembering an open mic that I have been to where I haven't been genuinely impressed by someone I have never heard before,” he says.

Though there’s a microphone open somewhere in the city almost every day of the week, the Up & Under’s Buege says even more businesses should offer open mic nights.

“There’s not a lot of music venues in the city anymore,” Buege says. “We have the soundboard and all the equipment, so you might as well take a Monday night and make it into something, as opposed to just being open at the bar. If you are a music venue, you should have an open mic.”