Mankato Music: The importance of open mics and karaoke

The music scene in Mankato has seen better days, and those better days are rapidly returning.

Some major factors that have recently hindered the area’s music community are the closing of the Red Sky Lounge, the recent complications with violence at the What’s Up Lounge, and the stoppage of shows at the Cherry Pit (a local house venue). The Red Sky Lounge was the mecca for live music in downtown Mankato, the What’s Up Lounge, with its sticker-plastered walls, was the pinnacle of teenage music fandom, and the Cherry Pit was the venue that wasn’t a venue, rather a dingy place that had frequent good music without the presence of alcohol.

I have experience playing in all of these venues and am truly saddened that they no longer function as they once did. Mankato musicians, and the crowds that support them, seem to have fewer and fewer venues to showcase their stuff. And yet, the number of musicians seems to be growing. The reason? Open mics and karaoke.

Many of the bars downtown Mankato host some form of live music nearly every night of the week. As one who has performed in a few of the Front Street bars, I can speak for the incredible times to be had on a musical night downtown, but, until recently I have partaken in the open mic opportunities. Playing with a band is one thing, but there is a different kind of caliber necessary to take the stage solitarily. I normally try it on a whim, when the timing is right, and it’s been a blast every time.

Yet, no matter how honed they may be, the capabilities of performers isn’t the only factor that make Mankato a musical place; it’s the people who orchestrate the opportunities for people to come out and play that really make a difference.

If you are an aspiring musician in the Mankato area and you don’t know Ocho, he is a must meet. Ocho is a local artist that has been involved in the Mankato music scene for quite some time now. When he’s not playing in one of his umpteen bands, Ocho supports other local artists by hosting open mics and karaoke. Ocho started his first open mic at the Coffee Hag in 2001 and has been putting the axe to the grindstone ever since. Because of his constant drive to support musicians, Ocho has had to fill multiple roles and has transformed into somewhat of a music guru for Mankato.

There are nights when Ocho has to host, perform, run sound, perform again, promote future events, and sometimes even has to play bouncer if the regulars turn into ruffians. But Ocho doesn’t label himself with the titles above. Instead, he simply refers to himself as a “musical entertainer.” Ocho’s humble and devout dedication to the community’s music scene is a crucial element in what makes Mankato music so successful.

Ocho believes that there is an “appropriate amount of music” in the area right now, but this might be biased if we consider his constant involvement in the music community. More music would mean more work for Ocho, but he doesn’t seem to mind the stress, and, ultimately, more musicians are on their way to the downtown circuit from campus (more on that later).

For now, Ocho continues his open mics and karaoke with formulaic, yet sporadic precision. No night is the same, although there is a good chance that the performers are the same. (He tries to get new performers up earlier during open mics, but he’s willing to bump you up if you buy him a drink.) Ocho says that “ninety-five percent of them I’ll see again,” which is a pretty impressive percentage. For the same performers to come back week after week may seem like it would get boring, but Ocho thoroughly enjoys witnessing the improvement in their performances. And the performers enjoy getting better, too. As Ocho puts it, “The more you practice, the better caliber of musical entertainment you’ll have.” And multiple weekly opportunities for musicians to perform certainly aids in growing that caliber.

Karaoke, however, is a different story. Ocho says that there should be “no more than thirty” performers per night at karaoke, whereas open mics allow for up to twelve acts per night. Open mic requires more from the performer themselves – they have to be practiced and able to keep their cool on stage – while karaoke requires much less practice and often attracts those who don’t necessarily have the instrumental skills needed for open mic. In the wise words of Ocho, “you don’t need to be good at pool to put quarters in the slot.”

Nevertheless, whether the performers are good or bad, karaoke is successful. According to bars such as Moonshiners and Pub 500, the nights during which karaoke occurs result in higher sales and increased foot traffic, and the people that come to watch the music are highly supportive and well behaved.

On the variety of patrons that attend karaoke Ocho says that people are “cliquey, but the cliques are supportive of each other.” It’s easy to see this when you go down to catch a show. A country singer performing at Moonshiners has a backdrop of the hip hop crowd waiting to get in at Chopps across the street, and his fans intermingle with the crowd and share their cigarettes, stories, and support.

Things rarely get violent. Chris Perez, a bartender at Moonshiners who has been working the open mics for a while now, says that there are “never any complications” during music nights because of the civil nature of these show-goers. Perhaps because of this civility, it appears that Moonshiners has been the most successful downtown music bar as of late. Owned by the previous owner of the Red Sky Lounge, Moonshiners is the only bar in town (to my knowledge) that hosts the trifecta: open mic, karaoke, and actual booked bands.

Moonshiners also holds native Katonian Justin “Fuzzy” Fasnacht’s ‘FuzzTalkRadio Thursday Night Drinking Club’ which has been running for forty-one consecutive weeks and during which local bands perform live. The performances used to be livestreamed, but Fuzzy recently ceased putting the shows online, saying that “it takes away from the magic of shows.” So, the goal has shifted toward promoting and getting more people into the bar itself to see the performances. And it’s been working. According to Perez, Thursday nights are the busiest and most profitable time of the week for Moonshiners, which in turn puts a more positive stress on promoters like Fuzzy.

When asked what he would change about the way his drinking club runs, Fuzzy had two responses: First, that “people know their own equipment.” Knowing a few songs and playing them in a bar is one thing, but the more you know your equipment, the easier it is for the sound guy to hone your sound. A good way for new bands to do that is to attempt open mics and karaoke with the goal of improving their vocals and nerves. Fuzzy’s second response was that he wished the Red Sky Lounge was still around. Me too, Fuzzy. Me too.

With so many opportunities to perform in downtown Mankato, either through open mics or karaoke, it’s no wonder that we’re seeing an increase in the area’s musicianship. They may not seem like earth-shattering opportunities, but both open mics and karaoke give a stone for artists to step on as they move toward potentially larger performances. The happenings in the Music Industry program at MNSU are another important factor for this increase in musicianship, but you’ll have to until next week for more on that.

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