I sat sprawled out on my futon, glaring at a pair of underused red leather pants and a low-cut blue top, one that Mick Jagger would have worn in the ’70s. A stack of my own professionally recorded albums—ones that I had marketed and distributed on major music networks such as iTunes and Spotify—remained stationary in my dresser drawer. I moved to the mirror and stared at my rather corporate appearance that had replaced my glam rock persona: khakis, a dress shirt and a tie. Oh god, I thought, have I really “sold out?” Something was completely wrong with this situation.
I had gone from putting on loud, wild rock ’n’ roll shows with an award-winning band at renowned venues to playing guitar for audiences of zero in my dorm. I had received praise from some of my biggest music heroes and networked with major industry figures. I had set out to dedicate my life to being a full-time musician, but two years into college, I had only played two acoustic shows on campus—one of them opening for my a capella friends, Jewop, at the Sett. The audience of proud parents was not there to see some rocker in women’s clothing singing about a “greasy” waitress. It’s all about working your way up, I told myself.
After struggling to find a band, I discovered the magic of backing tracks—songs stripped of guitar so aspiring rock gods like me could solo over them. Shortly thereafter, I learned about Wisconsin Union Directorate Music’s open mic nights during the spring of my sophomore year. I was interested in performing, but hesitant to sign up. “Open mic” generally has a negative connotation in the music community, not to mention I didn’t know if my outrageous act would be deemed “acceptable” for an open mic set. It’d be Bob Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival all over again. But I yearned to give the people what they wanted: a show.
A last-minute decision one April night proved to be one of the best of my life. I put on my glam rock wardrobe, took a mirror selfie, posted it all over social media and told people to come to open mic night for some rock ’n’ roll. Many of my friends showed up to the Rathskeller that evening, two even made custom t-shirts for my performance. My act—where I went under the name Dizzy Joan—was the epitome of in-your-face. Afterwards, I received loads of compliments from audience members. This was the energy and exposure I had been looking for since day one of freshman year. From that night on, it was my goal to perform at open mic night every other week. I continued practicing and incorporating new and entertaining material in my sets. I was given a makeshift “dressing room” at the Memorial Union and gained the following I was looking for.
During this past summer, I continued treating my open mic sets on the Terrace as concerts. I implemented various social media marketing techniques to promote these shows and even themed certain ones. People would come to the stage and dance. A woman told me one of my solos made her cry. People would tweet about my performances, referring to me as the “next coming of Van Halen.” People sang along with my songs. My music finally had impact.
In addition to bringing a whole new meaning to “open mic” and chasing my dreams, these events allowed me to network with other highly talented musicians with whom I am now in a band. We already have a WSUM in-studio performance and official debut concert scheduled, and we are one of the top ranking bands in an online competition that allows the winner to perform at Freakfest.
So, musicians, take every possible performance opportunity you can get. You’re never “too good” for an open mic set. Believe in your music and fake it till you make it. Do the impractical. Life is too short to play it safe only to ask “What if?” later on.
I went to Domino’s the other day to order a pizza. The employee behind the counter asked me, “Hey, you’re Dizzy, right?” I responded, “Yes,” and asked him how he knew. He proceeded to give me a fist bump, compliment my guitar playing and tell me he saw me “shred” on the Terrace. I walked into Domino’s hungry and walked out a rock star.
The glam apparel is now in use, and the albums once lying in my drawer are now in people’s hands. My purpose in life has been affirmed. I’ve learned how to efficiently balance my academic, professional and musical careers. I’ve been inspired to follow my passion. I’ve made a name for myself. And all of this resulted from performing 15-minute open mic sets.
Dream big, Madtown.