Volume 16 • Issue 36 | February 06 - 12, 2004

Keeping the mic open to musicians on Ludlow St.

By Tien-Shun Lee

Villager photo by Tien-Shun Lee

Tony Ryan, founder of the weekly open mic at EarthMatters.

Bluegrass singer Tony Ryan gave whooping introductions to musicians as they approached the stage during the open-microphone night he was hosting inside a Lower East Side organic health food store last Thursday night. Ryan’s zesty voice betrayed no trace of stage fright — which is something he does his best to assure the performers don’t experience either.

Amid a comforting atmosphere at EarthMatters’ upstairs venue, created with an old-fashioned fireplace and aqua-blue Christmas lights, Ryan, 34, ushered on stage Melody Man, a Japanese guitarist, then Tuna Fish, a female singer. Among several fledging musicians waiting their turn to perform were a country singer and a rapper from New Hampshire.

“When you go as a performer to an open mic, every minute up to the performance is like, ‘I’m going to get up there and do my two songs,’ ” said Ryan, who spent years playing his pawnshop guitar inside his apartment on First Ave. in the East Village, too shy to sing his soulfully composed songs even in front of friends.

Now the master of ceremonies at his eight-week-old event, called TryanSounds, Ryan credits open-mic nights for converting him from a closet musician to a seasoned performer. He started his free-to-play event in an enclosed garden on the third level of this health food store at 177 Ludlow St. with the idea of providing a safe, nurturing environment for artists to try out material and get a taste of stardom.

“A lot of people don’t have the option of hearing their music coming out of speakers and a microphone and getting positive feedback that’s constructive,” said Ryan. “They’ll wait for hours so they can get up there and have their eight minutes.”

Unlike other open-mic nights started by bar owners who are mainly interested in selling drinks, Ryan’s event is run according to strict rules to ensure that performers get fair stage time, regardless of how their music sounds. In addition, Ryan records performers’ music and puts audio clips of a few selected artists, along with their photographs, on his Web site.

“EarthMatters is like a little home. I can e-mail people and say, ‘Hey, I’m playing here,’ ” said Ryan. “I’m not in this to be a rich singer-songwriter on MTV. I’m in this to express myself. It doesn’t take much to fill that void of wanting to be a rock star.”

Ryan got his start at open-mic nights as a bartender at a nightclub in Nashville, Tenn., where it was very competitive for bands to get a gig on stage. Even during the club’s open-mic night, the owner of the club would sometimes switch around the order of performances so that musicians he liked could perform during peak hours.

Though he had always wanted to be a musician, Ryan didn’t start learning to play music until 1999, after he moved to New York City and saw a guitar in an East Village pawnshop.

“I said, ‘By God, I’m gonna buy that guitar and play it,’” said Ryan.

Ryan bought a CD-ROM by Ron and Morton Manus called “Teach Yourself to Play Guitar” and played it in his clock radio’s CD player. When not playing guitar, Ryan works as a personal trainer for companies.

One day, Ryan’s friend stopped by and taught him a chord progression. He practiced it for eight weeks after he left, and used it to compose his first song, entitled “Living In The City.”

After two years of playing alone in his apartment, Ryan met singer/songwriter Michael Turvin, who is now the recording engineer at TryanSound shows. The two agreed that they could never play on a stage.

They changed their minds after a few weeks and decided to make their first debut at an open-mic night at the Baggot Inn on W. Third St. Ryan was shaking so badly when he got on stage that he could hardly hold the guitar pick in his hand.

“I had to look at my fingers changing chords, and when I finished, I said, ‘Thank you, that’s the only song I know,’ and I ran off the stage like a scared cat,” said Ryan.

Ryan began playing at open mics all over the city, then in subway stations, in Tompkins Sq. Park and on an old couch in front of his girlfriend’s apartment.

“I play in Tompkins Sq. Park all summer long and people always come and read their paper with their dogs,” said Ryan. “I like to say, my music, it’s the kind of music you walk towards, as opposed to walking by.”

When Ryan saw a “Seeking Musicians” sign at EarthMatters four months ago, he checked out the garden space — which is like a greenhouse almost — where a new sound system had just been installed, and knew it was the perfect place to start his own open-mic night. So instead of having musicians playing gigs, which was the original idea, the store now features Ryan’s open-mic nights. The health food store is affiliated with Ludlow Studios, a three-year-old rehearsal studio in the building’s basement.

In addition to showcasing open-mic audio clips, Ryan is planning on starting a bulletin board on his Web site where musicians can advertise services they provide, such as demo recording and music lessons. He also hopes to compile a CD from his open-mic nights.

Signup for Ryan’s open-mic nights begins at 7 p.m. every Thursday at EarthMatters, 177 Ludlow St. Each person can sign only one name, and the order on the list is adhered to strictly. For more information, call Ryan at 917-648-5801, or visit his Web site at www.tryansounds.com.


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