Open mics also offer showcase for marginalized performers, connections and bigger stages
For a lot of students, university is a chance to further their interest in music or even make a serious attempt at a career in the local scene. For those students trying to play shows across the city, open mic nights are an essential first step.
Budding musicians are spoiled for choice in Ottawa, with plenty of major venues hosting popular open mic nights. University of Ottawa students don’t even have to leave campus, with Café Nostalgica hosting its own open mic every Thursday night.
Amanda Lowe, a fourth-year psychology student, has been running the Thursday open mic night at Café Nostalgica for five years.
There’s a wide variety of performances on stage every Thursday. In addition to the expected acoustic singer-songwriter fare, there’s also poetry, hip-hop, bands, and a mixture of originals and covers.
“We have a house keyboard and a house guitar open to anyone. But people can plug their phone in … play YouTube songs, if it’s in your email we can play your song,” said Lowe, demonstrating the variety of music performed.
As for a close-knit community, it’s hard to beat Café Nostalgica. Lowe said that there are “cohorts” who come to open mic night every Thursday of their entire undergrad. The open mic is also open to the community, so there are regulars of all ages.
Lowe said what she loves to see the most is when these regulars move on to other stages in Ottawa. Often, she has a role in that herself. One of the more interesting facets of open mics, particularly at Nostalgica, is that they act as a training ground for up-and-coming musicians. Lowe personally liaisons with larger venues and promoters to suggest talent for upcoming shows.
“If they’re really good or they have a lot of originals I will send them off to some promoters always looking for openers,” Lowe said of her role in helping build careers. “I really appreciate local promoters working with me, they trust my open mic and the talent coming out of there is really good.”
Other well-known open mic venues in the downtown core include Rainbow Bistro on Monday, Live on Elgin and Meow! That’s Hot on Tuesday, and Pressed on the last Thursday of every month. That’s just a small sample, however, and there are multiple open mics going on every night of the week in venues across the city.
For Lowe, diversity and inclusivity is the cornerstone of her open mic night. When Lowe first started going to open mics, her friend group was often the only non-white or openly queer people participating. Now, Lowe makes sure to book queer, trans, BIPOC, and differently-abled folks as her feature performers.
“You can’t really control who comes in, but you can change the atmosphere a little bit. People that have featured acts, if they pick acts that are more marginalized, then they’ll see the crowd changing,” Lowe said. “You just have to put a little bit of effort into it.”
One perennial issue is funding. While open mics have a low-cost model, Lowe would still like to see some funds for the featured performers, who are usually more established artists in the city. She’d also like to see more importance placed on open mics as a training ground for musicians, poets, even dancers.
“This is where everyone practices, this is where everyone comes up. It’s still a really good spot for folks to get noticed and where people are genuinely interested,” Lowe said. “I’d like to bring a bit more hype back to the open mics … they make our local scene.”