Open mic at your stake center?

When I first heard about the 5th Friday Open Mic from Mark Simnitt (singer, guitarist, and songwriter from Fossil Fools), I was amazed.  I would love to see these happen elsewhere in the Church.  If any of you would like to see something like this in your own stake, read on.  Any successes should immediately be reported back to us.  Rock on! – Syphax

My mid-life crisis took me by surprise when it hit seven years ago.  I was happily married and serving in a bishopric, so the last thing I expected was to wake up one day and feel like there was something missing from my life.  I got a personal trainer and ran a marathon which helped a little.  I leased a Jaguar, which really didn’t help at all.  Then I started guitar lessons and miraculously, the hole in my life started to fill in.  Music, it seemed, was the answer.

My chops improved.  Before long I was writing songs and coercing my musical friends into rehearsing with me in my garage.   I had a band!  We rocked the ward talent show…  then the High Priests’ barbeque…  then birthday parties and weddings and a returning veterans’ picnic.   Our album sold hundreds of copies and we had tens or maybe twenties of iTunes downloads.  I was living the dream.

From this lofty pinnacle of success I looked around and thought, “I am so happy now, how can I share this feeling of contentment with like-minded souls in my LDS community?” And the more I looked around, the more like-minded souls I found.  You’ve probably already noticed this, but there are a TON of really talented musicians in the Church, many of whom do not play traditional Mormon music.   And sadly, those folks don’t have many places to play that don’t involve bringing their fans to a club to try and sell them alcohol.  That’s the thinking that inspired the Beaverton, Oregon Stake’s 5th Friday Open Mic.

For the past three years, every time there are five Fridays in a month we set up a PA in the basement of our stake center (yes – we have a basement) and invite all of the closet rockers and folkies and Celtic string ensembles to sign up to play for an audience of like-minded musicians and their friends.  It’s not a talent show because we limit it to the twelve-and-up crowd.   No interpretive dances to “Book of Mormon Stories” and no yo-yo tricks (unless they’re awesome).  Lyrics and subject matter must be “church dance appropriate,” but aside from that anything goes.  We’ve had everything from stand-up comedy to acoustic scream-o and even a brass band, all performed in front of appreciative – dare I say – musically starved audiences.

While it started with just our stake, word spread quickly and now we have regulars from most of the stakes around the area.  On a typical night we have between seventy-five and one hundred people cycle in and out over the course of the evening.  Even more surprising is the fact that nearly half of our performers and audience members are, well… not members.  This event has brought more of our non-member friends into our building than any other stake-sponsored event since…  maybe ever.  Some have even joined the church, a very happy side effect of our efforts.

So there it is, start your very own open mic night and share the love.  It’s fun, it’s needed, and it’s easier to organize than you might think!  Here’s a step-by-step plan to create a successful event for the many Mormon musicians hiding out in your stake:

1.)  Step one: Be a champion

Someone – one person – has to own this event.  This will never work unless you have someone in your stake (hopefully you) that is passionate about making the open mic night a reality.

2.)  Step two: Find a sponsor

Someone in a leadership position will think this is a great idea (because it is).  Your job is to find them and sell them on this idea.  This person needs to be able to present it to the stake presidency for approval…  Or to the stake activities committee so they can present it to the stake presidency.  The high councilor over activities is a great contact; a member of the stake presidency is even better.  (Bonus points if either of them is in a band.)

3.)  Step three: Assemble a team

Most church functions are carried out by assignment.  Open mic won’t work as well that way.  You need to sniff around and find people who are going to get as stoked about this as you are.  When I mentioned 5th Friday to my friends Bob Kojima and Mike O’Daly, they were so excited that within a week or two they had a website and a logo and a whole system for signing up on line.  Bob runs a light and sound business as a paid hobby, and Mike is a crazy-talented songwriter and guitarist.  They came up with great ideas, the likes of which I could never have imagined.  And they’ve been tireless supporters ever since.

4.)  Step four: Secure your place and time

Once you have the thumbs-up from the stake to make this an official stake-sponsored event, you need to log on to the church website and submit to both the activities calendar and the resource calendar, just like you would for any other stake activity.  We know in advance when 5th Fridays occur, so we submit our dates a year at a time.  The first year people tended to schedule over the top of us because we were new.  Now people know what we’re about and all is well in Zion.

5.)  Step five: Plan and Execute

Depending on how ambitious you are, an open mic night can be a simple affair or a major production.  We lean toward the latter with an elaborate P/A and mixing board and Bob Kojima’s amazing lighting.  I think it adds a great deal to the ambiance, but it’s not critical to the success of the event.  Here are the tools and tasks you will need to be successful:

  • Venue – you need a cultural hall or similar space.  Some people like setting up on a stage – I prefer being closer to the musicians  (maybe a corner of the gym) – it’s your call.
  • P/A – something powerful enough to amplify vocals so they can be heard over a guitar amp.  Nobody should need earplugs.  We frequently need up to four mic stands and microphones.   You‘ll also need a couple of power strips for people to plug in their gear.
  • Drums – we provide a house drum set (mine until recently).  Switching out sets for bands is a tedious process for the audience and usually puts us behind schedule, so we encourage everyone to use our drums.  Last month a generous member donated a decent set of drums to the stake to be used for 5th Friday (very cool).
  • Refreshments – we do cookies, chips, Costco red licorice, and vegetable platters with water and soda.  For the first year I paid for the refreshments.  Year two we got a budget (yay).  If you don’t have a budget for refreshments, I suggest having participants bring snacks to share.  Church activities fail without food.  Think about it.
  • Posters – someone needs to make posters and put them up in all of the buildings in your stake.  We only advertise at church.  If non-members find out about us from their Mormon friends, they come with a clear understanding of what our standards are.  We also do bulletin announcements and occasionally fliers for the back bench of the chapel.
  • Job Assignments – there’s work to be done to make this happen.  The three big jobs are emcee, sound technician, and stage manager.  I’ve tried to do all three at once before…  not fun.  Divide and conquer I say.  And you’ll also want some help with set up and tear down.  Add lights, that’s another job.  Add photography and/ or video, there’s a couple more.  You get the idea.  Trust me, when your musical stake members find out about this event they will come out of the woodwork to help.

One final note: set time limits and stick to them.   It keeps the audience engaged and the evening moving forward.  We started with three songs or ten minutes per performer, but now that we have a really full playbill, we’ve shortened it to just two songs.  Too many people were starting their third song at nine minutes and forty-five seconds and we kept running over.  Follow the plan outlined above and before long you’ll have the same problem…  and it’s a wonderful problem to have!

For more information check out our website at 5thfridayopenmic.com.

Open mic at your stake center?

12 thoughts on “Open mic at your stake center?

  1. Matt says:

    very cool. great story to share. obviously, the local leadership must be on board and the activity needs to be within the guidelines of appropriate music/behavior. What a great way to strengthen friendships, foster development of talents, and spend some quality time. thanks again for sharing!

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  2. Truly awesome. I don’t know if it would work in our very young, overflowing with children, stake, but it is a great idea. If we were to do it here I think it might have to be open to all ages.

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  3. Though it is not encouraged, we often have children at our 5th Fridays. As long as they don’t disrupt the evening, it works out great. Unfortunately – there are a lot of different parenting styles out there – and there’s nothing so disconcerting as trying to deliver the performance you’ve been practicing all month and having a little kid come up and grab the microphone away from you or try to strum your guitar. Jumping up and down on the guitar cases – also something I’ve observed.

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  4. Matthew says:

    Mark! This is great. It had been years since I performed in front of anyone. Your little 5th Friday shindiggery has really got me back into the swing of things. So glad I moved into your stake. You Rock!

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  5. Notto says:

    Yes, I felt the same way as Mark, I played concert after concert in my mind, wrote songs and sang them in my dreams, kept my secret desire to be that “funny guy” on stage that actually didn’t swear to make people laugh — And 5th Friday Open Mic was my venue. Thanks Mark for being a visionary. I love you man!

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  6. Great idea. some years ago I put on an LDS ‘Big Day Out’. The red tape I had to cut through seemed endless and while the day was a success with approx 2 thousand attendees (many of them being non-members), and the spirit was strong (1 non-member performer who was part of an LDS dominated group told me it was the best vibe he’s ever had on stage), the local leaders still deemed it too ‘wordly’ and told me it would never happen again! They said it wasn’t that the music was too wordly, but rather the concept!

    As a regular performer I would love the opportunity to share my live music in a church environment.

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  7. Local leaders often have to make judgment calls about these sorts of things, and usually it takes one squeaky wheel in a particularly conservative corner to ruin things for everyone. I certainly don’t envy those in leadership positions. However, I think if these can get a little more widespread, perhaps that will set a good precedent for the rest of the Church! Hopefully.

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  8. Nate – 5th Friday started as sort of an underground event. It was on the calendar, but it practically got ignored when it came time to make announcements… I think the only reason I was able to get it off the ground is that I was serving on the High Council at the time and the stake presidency knew I wouldn’t do anything to embarrass them… Even so, there were a lot of raised eyebrows at first. People were worried and nervous because they hadn’t ever seen anything like this before. I sort of billed it as a stake talent show for the 12 and up crowd which made it sound less ground-breaking. At first we had about thirty people showing up, but it grew fast.
    Now we have a new stake presidency and the new stake president’s brother is my bass player and his counselor is my drummer… They’ve seen what a great event this is. I’ve heard leaders say that – for this group of people – 5th Friday fills a similar purpose to Stake basketball… It’s just another wonderful recreational activity.
    By the way, that “Big Day Out” sounds amazing. We are talking about doing a music festival for all of the bands that participate in 5th Friday… I would love to pick you brain about how you put together your event.

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