I was trying to figure out how I wanted to stay connected and how I could somehow keep something resembling normal life going...
The open mic night is, in this author’s opinion, one of the most enjoyable kinds of live performance. During these cozy, ambient get-togethers, a lineup of talented artists strum, sing, and story-tell their audiences into a softer, more tender world.
The problem is this: in a time when the comfort of open mic nights seems to be most sorely needed, gatherings are banned due to COVID-19. But what if, since you can’t go out to an open mic night, the open mic night came to you instead?
That’s the idea behind local artist Gillian Nicola’s Stay Home Open Mic Night Series: the format we all know and love, live-streamed right to our phones and laptops. Every week, a different lineup of artists from all across Canada perform one-by-one, preserving the charming sense of variety open mics are known for. Two shows have been held so far, and they’re set to continue until the isolation period is over.
PICTURED: Official poster for the first open mic night (March 18th).
The idea for the series came to creator and host, Gillian Nicola, late one night as the world began to shut down, not long before her regular open mic night in Waterdown.
“I was trying to figure out how I wanted to stay connected and how I could somehow keep something resembling normal life going – a.k.a., connection with other musicians and seeing live music,” she explains.
Open mic nights don’t just benefit us. For musicians, they’re a great way to meet fellow artists, build community, and also a valuable opportunity to perform – and, in our current circumstances, opportunities to perform are unfortunately in short supply.
“I was…seeing so many of my friends post about the gigs they were losing, and I was losing them too, so it seemed natural to pull together a new online space to do shows.”
Having hosted songwriters’ rounds as well as open mics, Nicola loves giving fellow musicians the space to practice their craft, so it was only natural for her to take action.
“I posted a question on my personal Facebook page just asking who had had gigs cancelled. The thread blew up and I think people were kind of like ‘uh, duh, of course we’ve had gigs cancelled’ but they didn’t know that was actually going to be the list I’ve been using to book folks,” she tells me with a quick laugh.
“I’ve just been slowly working my way through that list – my goal is to not just have folks that live close to me, but from all over the country. Each week I give a signup form to a few of the musicians and they schedule their own slots, just like a regular open mic.”
I was…seeing so many of my friends post about the gigs they were losing, and I was losing them too, so it seemed natural to pull together a new online space to do shows.
PICTURED: Official poster for the second open mic night (March 25th).
Her efforts to keep the setup as ‘normal’ as possible have paid off. The natural flow of the stream from artist to artist with casual conversations in between is very true to the open mic night experience. As one might expect, however, the experience is not identical. Specifically, streams tend to run longer than a ‘regular’ open mic for a variety of reasons, Nicola explains.
“…What I’m finding is that there can be connection issues, or sometimes we get to talking – and I think the talking is just as important almost as the music, since the focus is community. So, I’m learning to go with the flow…”
I can attest that the conversation is a key component of what makes these streams so fun to watch, and the sense of connection is well worth the occasional wi-fi struggle. Also, going with the flow is essential for navigating streams, wouldn’t you say? (I can deriver more puns, if you'd like!)
On a more serious note, artists not only need to grapple with gig cancellations due to COVID-19, but also the financial fallout that comes along with them.
While it wasn’t her reason for starting the open mic series, Nicola did hope to generate some revenue for her fellow artists by setting up a virtual tip jar on her PayPal. She’s been amazed by how stream watchers have all come together to support Canadian musicians.
“I know so many people are losing income, so I wasn’t sure what people’s ability to tip would even be. So far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised… Folks have been so generous so far, especially during such an uncertain time!”
I think the talking is just as important almost as the music, since the focus is community.
PICTURED: Poster for the third open mic night (March 31st).
Ultimately, though, her main motive is to give fellow artists a platform to continue doing what they love most: performing. “Every artist that has played has told me they’ve had fun, which is the reason I’m doing this, so to me, it’s a success.”
The series has benefited her, as well. “I find I look forward to Wednesday nights now, which is pretty incredible considering every other night is me looking for stuff to do!”
They’ve also become a welcome dose of normal. “Personally, it’s very strange when I’m not playing shows, so this has scratched that itch,” she remarks.
Every artist that has played has told me they’ve had fun, which is the reason I’m doing this, so to me, it’s a success.
The audience is a key part of making the streams what they are, and Nicola encourages anyone watching at home to stay engaged and to take advantage of the comment function on Instagram Live.
“Thanks for tuning in! It’s so much more fun when I see those little numbers at the top rise – and I love reading all the comments while the video is going.”
She would also like to thank Paterson Hodgson for creating the poster "in record time", and Vanessa Cito from Reach for helping with social media-related logistics.
How to tune in
If you want to join the fun, all you need to do is go to Gillian Nicola’s Instagram page Wednesdays at 7 PM and tap her profile picture to join the stream. All that’s left to do then is sit back, listen, and show your support through likes, comments, and tips (if you can). These open mic nights have truly been a lovely reminder that, no matter what, the music community will always find a way to come together and support each other over some good tunes. See you there!