By Jennifer Sadler
Columbus has a rich and diverse history of hometown music with deep roots. The genres of music represented are as varied as the cultures of people who live here. Columbus embraces diversity and it shows in our local music. Columbus has fostered legendary talents from the likes of ‘60s folk-activist singer/songwriter Phil Ochs and great jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson. Country singer Dwight Yoakam, hip-hop producer and performer RJD2, rapper Bow Wow and American Music Club’s Mark Eitzel—are among many internationally-acclaimed musicians who got their start in Columbus.
As with similar big college towns, Columbus also boasts a long history of great indie rock music. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, Columbus experienced an epic period of highly influential music and long-deserved national recognition with the likes of The Toll, Great Plains, Scrawl, RC Mob, Gaunt, The New Bomb Turks, Tim Easton, Todd Sines, Titonton Duvante and the list goes on.
So what makes Columbus such a great “incubator” of music?
Without the eclectic, artistically ambitious and talented musicianship, there wouldn’t be great music exploding beyond the city’s boundaries. The Columbus community’s eager audience with a passion and pride for local music has created an environment that nurtures great talent.
Columbus is dedicated to showcasing live music, creating a place that attracts and inspires musicians and fans alike. Rife with excellent venues all over the city, music lovers can enjoy performances anywhere from the small but legendary jazz club Dick’s Den and the Rumba Café to huge indoor-outdoor venues like the LC Pavillion that can entertain up to 4,500 fans. Any night of the week, great local music can be experienced. Venues like the Ohio and Palace Theatres and the Wexner Center host some of the finest music from around the globe. Thanks to the Wexner Center, Columbus has experienced countless world-debut concerts since it opened in the early ‘90s.
In addition to the array of venues and resources such as independent record labels, record stores and recording studios, there’s tremendous support and collaboration among the musicians. The tireless efforts of local radio stations that host events and present quality programming, the continued support of local businesses, non-profit organizations, festival organizers and more—all help raise the awareness of Columbus talent locally and nationwide.
The mutual support among local musicians along with creative purpose has recently resulted in some ambitious collaborative projects that aim to share the Columbus sound with the rest of the world.
Coming up on March 16, a collective of local musicians known as We Are Columbus – Ohio By Southwest, will present South by Southwest (SXSW) festival-goers in Austin, TX with a steady stream of performances by more than a dozen local bands at a day-long showcase at a tiny pub called The Treehouse Bar. We Are Columbus exists not only to raise funds for these bands to travel to Austin to carve out a presence for Columbus at this world-renowned event, it also works to further the careers of local talent by encouraging the ideals of DIY and independent success right here in our community.
The group needed around $1,800 to cover the costs for the trip. As of February 23, supporters raised more than $5,000 through a Kickstarter funding campaign that will send them on the road in style. The bands and organizers also presented a local, one-of-a-kind night of acoustic performances at the Ace of Cups on February 25 for a fundraiser/send-off towards this big opportunity.
Another project that reflects the collaborative spirit of musicians in Columbus is a group called Music in the Round. Music in the Round is a unique concert format that originated in Nashville and grew organically from the traditional jam session. The only rule: the artists must play songs they’ve written themselves, using the instruments on which they were written. Through the program, artists polish new songs in an intimate, supportive environment made up of a music-loving audience and their fellow singer-songwriters. Music in the Round audiences get to hear the artists talk about their songwriting, particularly the stories and emotions surrounding the song’s creation.
In addition to featuring some of the most talented musicians that Columbus has to offer through performances, Music in the Round offers the artists the chance to give back to the community, hosting a fundraiser each year for various causes. Past events have benefited groups like Choices and Rosemont Center, both dedicated to eliminating domestic violence; TRANSIT ARTS, a youth arts development program that works in partnership with the Columbus Federation of Settlements and GCAC; and Flying Horse Farms, a camp for children with serious illnesses.
The 7th annual Music in the Round event took place in February and will benefit the Marafiki AIDS Orphanage in Kenya.
On March 6, after a year of successful fundraising, roughly 25 people will make a nearly 8,000-mile trek to Nairobi, Kenya, including at least two performing musicians to help kick-start a program called Musiki Columbus. Organizers of the project will establish the Rafiki School of Music at the Marafiki AIDS Orphanage. With instrument and monetary donations received during the year-long campaign, organizers hope to leave the program with $10,000-$15,000 to start the school.
Elizabeth Lessner, CEO and president of Betty’s Family of Restaurants, is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Columbus. Lessner opened her first bar and restaurant, Betty’s Fine Food and Spirits, in 2001 and has since opened Surly Girl Saloon, Tip Top Kitchen and Cocktails, the Jury Room and Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace with great success. If you’ve ever been to Dirty Frank’s, you’ve probably enjoyed the music they play—and it’s all exclusively local, save for Lessner’s favorite band, Dayton’s Guided by Voices.
Lessner discovered her passion for the Columbus music sound while her brother, Thom Lessner was playing in a few bands here in the early ‘90s.
“During that time I lived in San Francisco but grew to love the music coming from Columbus, especially Scrawl and the Great Plains,” said Lessner. “Since then I've worked with some of the city's finest musicians and have nothing but awe and respect for their contributions.” To feature some of her favorite music, Lessner helped to found the annual Here Comes Your Weekend Parking Lot Blow Out. Lessner eventually partnered up with the Columbus Music Co-op (CMC), a local non-profit that presents events and offers resources for local musicians, and “they took the event to the next level.”
“I served on the board of CMC which the Parking Lot Blow Out event now benefits,” said Lessner. “Our restaurants heavily support their mission and incredible work, which has such an admirably broad reach.”
Lessner says that working with Erin Moore, co-founder and executive director of the CMC, has been a great pleasure, calling her “local music’s biggest champion!”
For the past five years the Blowout has been held at the parking lot of Lessner’s Surly Girl Saloon. This summer it will move it to Marcy May's (of Scrawl and Surly Girl Saloon) Ace of Cups, a new live music venue that’s quickly creating a buzz, drawing huge crowds who want to see underground acts and obscure favorites.
When asked about local music, Lessner replied, “It's very personal to me. I believe our music scene identifies us. And working for the past 10+ years in the Columbus restaurant scene, I've had the privilege of working with some of the best musicians in the region—it's really inspiring.”
Lessner believes that Columbus is a great place for musicians, too.
“It's a friendly and relatively easy scene; getting shows is pretty easy,” said Lessner. “We celebrate music here with free events like Comfest, Independents' Day, Urban Scrawl, the Parking Lot Blow Out and dozens of other events throughout the year. There’s a real spirit of inclusiveness here in Columbus—and people are always dying to see new stuff.”
Lessner mentioned a few other groups that are doing great work supporting local music that you should check out:
Music Loves Ohio - a non-profit organization dedicated to providing opportunities for children of all backgrounds in Central Ohio to learn, perform, and record music. In addition to hosting workshops and activities throughout the year, MLO loans instruments to young people free of charge.
Girlz Rhythm and Rock Camp - Founded by Suzi Simpson the camp is held twice a summer to teach girls of all backgrounds how to play music. Simpson teams up with local musicians like Donna Magavero and Jazzmary to provide girls a once in a lifetime opportunity. Many girls get to go on scholarships and come back more confident and ready to learn more.
The Columbus Music Co-op (CMC) exists to support musicians with programs like Columbus Musicians' Assistance Program grants, Youth Committee, free workshops and more—and to raise awareness of the music community with the greater Columbus population.
“I feel like sometimes you say ‘local band’ or ‘local music’ and people think ‘amateur’ or not good,” said Erin Moore, CMC’s executive director. “We're on a mission to correct that mentality and show people that Columbus is a great music town and that we should be super proud of our awesome talent.”
With the Columbus Musicians' Assistance Program CMC is able to help musicians with financial assistance for health-related issues. “Healthy musicians mean a healthy music community!” said Moore.
CMC has a youth-led youth committee that sets up open-mic events and concerts specifically geared towards the under 21 musician or music lover. CMC also offers free workshops about legal and business issues for musicians, how to get involved in Columbus music, how to put on benefit shows, etc.
“We're also exploring expanding our grants programming in 2012 and doing even more with young people,” said Moore. “We are still an all-volunteer organization, so we have to be careful not to bite off more than we can chew, but we're always brainstorming ways we can support Columbus music.”
“I don't play music, but I'm a music fanatic and I'm also a Columbus cheerleader and very community oriented,” said Moore. “So the CMC is a way for me to support and be a part of the music community."
Moore cites great venues, diversity and the cluster of colleges and universities in the area as big contributors to the music scene’s success.
“With OSU, especially, there’s always fresh blood coming into town which means more artists and musicians,” said Moore. “And Columbus is small enough so it's easy to network and get to know lots of people who are into what you're into.”
We asked Moore to mention some people and organizations who she feels make an impact on the music community with their efforts.
“Jacob Wooten at KOBO is ‘Mr. Columbus Music Supporter,’” said Moore. “He goes out of his way to treat musicians well at KOBO and is supportive in working with Independents' Day. I'm also in love with TRANSIT ARTS...I love, love, love when I get to see their students perform. Behind the scenes, there are people like Mike Brown who works at Experience Columbus— he is a giant music supporter and he has local music for sale in the Experience Columbus stores (including our local music compilation).
For anyone interested in the hottest music that’s happening in the city right now, Moore suggests checking out The Hot 17, a promotional company that specializes in local artists of Columbus. Hot 17 website features a show calendar, reviews of local shows and album releases and news specifically about the local arts scene. They produce a monthly showcase of local music at KOBO, and each year they publish a beautiful 50-page book that puts the spotlight on 17 of the best musical artists that year. The Hot 17 has donated some of the proceeds from the sales of the book to CMC to help support their mission.
Events coming up for CMC:
March 2—CMC will host a high-school student open mic at Cornerstone Deli in Clintonville. “I’m really excited about it,” said Moore. “Our youth committee organized one last year and tons of young people showed up.”
March 25—CMC will present a free workshop “So You Want to Make Music in Columbus" at the Jazz Academy that’s geared toward the young musician. For more info or to register for the workshop, visit the Jazz Academy's website.
Columbus has tremendous support for local music from our local radio stations. Not only do WCBE and CD102.5 The Alternative Station constantly play local music on air, both organizations are highly active in the community, working tirelessly to keep the scene alive and to raise awareness. We asked Jim Coe, who works as an underwriter and sponsorship manager at WCBE, to talk about some projects that WCBE is involved in to support local music.
“The Dick & Jane Project is very impressive and has had a great impact so far,” said Coe.
The Dick & Jane Project is a non-profit group that that presents young students an opportunity to engage in a unique creative writing process. During workshops, students collaborate with local musicians to create their own original song, creating musical arrangements and vocal melodies and eventually recording it to share with the community.
In February, WCBE started sharing these songs on a weekly program on Fridays called “The Dick & Jane Song of the Week.”
Coe said WCBE recently hosted two Columbus middle schools for the program, which he says has exceeded all of his expectations.
“One of the middles schools—Champion—was graded last year as one of the most failing middle schools in the state of Ohio,” said Coe. “Obviously many of these kids are underprivileged. It was so moving to see these kids at the station today, to hear and support their peers’ original songs. The process in creating these songs was hard work, and it was wonderful to see them able to accomplish something to be truly proud of and to have the chance to experience something that they will always remember.”
Representing WCBE on the Celebrate Columbus in Song committee and working with the 200Columbus partnerships with the community has also been a rewarding experience for Coe and the station. Celebrate Columbus in Song is a 200Columbus initiative that has invited Columbus musicians to submit original songs inspired by Columbus. The musicians/bands selected will receive a cash prize of $500 and an opportunity for professional recording and production time at the WCBE-FM or Jazz Academy studios. To learn more and to listen and vote on your favorite songs, click here. The deadline is March 23.
“We want our listeners to be aware of cool non-profit things, like middle-schoolers writing songs, like a contest for local musicians to write a song that celebrates our city,” said Coe. “We want to get people listening with excellent programming. But we want people to be able to experience the mission of NPR, even if they don’t listen to the radio."
Another cool thing happening in Columbus music that Coe said people should check out is Groove U , a revolutionary two-year music industry career college opening this spring where students learn studio production, including: signal flow, acoustics, pre-production, microphones and recording techniques, tracking, mixing, mastering and post-production.
Coming up for WCBE is their big Spring Fundraiser from March 15-21. Be sure to tune in and find out how you can help support this fine local station.
CD102.5 The Alternative Station (formerly CD101) has also recognized the power of the airwaves in connecting with the community and raising awareness of local music talent.
GCAC recently asked CD102.5’s program director, Lesley James, about her strong ties to local music and the wonderful things that the station is able to do to help support it.
An Akron native and a 2003 graduate of OSU, James says she fell in love with CD101 (now CD102.5) while in high school. “I loved the eclectic mix of music that the station played, especially British bands like Oasis, mixed in with prime local talent (Watershed and Howlin’ Maggie)."
Back in ’04, James had the opportunity to serve as a Guest DJ on the station, a program that’s been running for about 10 years now. “This is where listeners take over the airwaves for one hour and play their favorite tunes,” said James. “I don’t think there’s another station in the country that offers an opportunity like that for their supporters!”
Though the experience was exciting, James says she didn’t expect to end up on the radio as a career. James caught the attention of the late Andyman, who was the station’s beloved DJ and station manager at the time.
“Andyman thought I had a solid radio voice and I was training weeks later. I’ve been with the station for over 7 years now and am living the dream!”
To support and promote local music, James mentions several efforts of the station.
“Frontstage has been a long running program where we showcase a few songs from one local act weeknights at 9 p.m. with DJ Tom Butler,” said James. “Since the scene is so talented, last year we decided to open up one new music slot and dedicate it solely to local artists. Now listeners can hear local musicians mixed in with national acts all day, every day!”
For the past several years, the station has put on major local band showcases, where local musicians have a chance to join one of two annual “thank you for your continued support of independent radio” concerts—CD101 Day in April and Summerfest in August. This year’s CD101 Day will be two shows at The LC, Side A featuring Kasabian on March 31 and Side B featuring The Naked & Famous on April 7. James said that both shows sold out in record time—in just six hours.
More than 60 local musicians submitted songs to be considered for the two shows. James and the music team at the station will select the 10 acts that will compete for a chance to join either bill and then turn voting over to the listeners.
“It’s a chance for local acts to perform on one of the biggest stages in Columbus!” said James.
Columbus is well-known for its outdoor festivals featuring live music. Below are a handful of the many festivals taking place in the coming months:
Image from 2011 Here Comes Your Parking Lot Blowout featuring The Pinkertones, photo credit goes to Erika Flugge.