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Groove U Looks Back Celebrating Instaband’s 10th Anniversary

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A lot of things in the music industry don’t make it past their first year. Bands break up, venues fold, and radio stations go off the air… only to resurface a few months later at a new frequency. That might be a highly specific occasion, but an industry veteran once told me that the life-span of the average local band is just under one year, with many not even making it that long. And it would take me hours to name the countless venues I’ve seen pop up and disappear in my 17 years working Columbus. So any time I see something local hit a milestone, I get excited.

Groove U‘s Instaband contest is currently in its 10th year, and Director of Development Sarah Hudson couldn’t be more excited.

“Groove U started back in July of 2012. My first title was ‘Impression Igniter’,” she chuckled “that’s how you know how much of a start-up we were. I did a lot at the time – admissions, recruiting, I ran the front desk…”

“…at the time, our first class was only 5 students and we had 5 faculty. Things have changed a lot since then, but I still have my hands in a lot of the daily administrative duties.”

Groove U is a 2 year “Music Industry Entrepreneurship Program” located in Dublin. The college was founded by Dwight Heckelman, who had previously worked in a variety of roles throughout the music industry. After a stint at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, he realized that there was a huge disconnect between what the industry was asking for, and what the higher education programs were offering.

“After 20-years inside the music industry, I knew it was creatively engaged, apprenticeship-based and relationship-driven. Yet, the chasm between what the industry needs and what traditional higher education provides was immense.”

He spent the next few years collecting information from music professionals he had met over the years, and subsequently building the $1.2M campus, which features state-of-the-art equipment and multiple recording studios. Groove U’s website advertises the campus as “Not a recording studio inside a classroom, a classroom inside a world-class, multi-million dollar recording studio”.

Groove U

Groove U currently offers six specialties: audio production, music business, live sound and video, interactive, and independent; and features a 90+% placement rate in within the industry. You can tell that student success is at the forefront of everything they do.

As for Instaband, it was the first major project for that initial class of 5 that Hudson called “trailblazers”.

“They were the early adopters going into a school that literally didn’t exist the year before,” she mused. “We got lucky – they were very appropriate people for the job! They were all in on this being their career; like there was no plan B.”

Hudson says that everyone involved was a part of the street team – flyers were made and distributed, a partnership was formed with (then) CD102.5, and they ended up selling over 500 tickets to the first show, which she says is still one of her favorite memories.

“There was a huge snowstorm the day of the event, and we were sure that nobody was going to show up. We expected maybe 100, tops!” she recalls. “We only had a parking lot that could fit 50 cars, and people just kept showing up! All of the ticket sales were walk-ups, and there was a line wrapped around the building in the snow.”

“Eventually we had to start turning people away. The event was also sponsored by Dominos, and I remember by the end of the night the entire room was trashed with pizza boxes everywhere. I was like… this is so rock’n’roll!”

The original competition had 30 bands competing in 3 semifinal rounds. Hudson says that the format has adapted and changed over the years, culminating in a one-of-a-kind performance last year.

Previous Instaband Finals

“We got lucky in 2020 – we had our finals in February at Skully’s the week before things shut down,” she explained. “We had to push 2021 back a few months, and we held it outdoors at the Coffman Park Amphitheater. To help mitigate the COVID risks, we were just doing “Instaband Unplugged” with a bunch of solo artists.”

“It was super chilly and there weren’t even any seats, but I think people were craving live music so much that they came out and sat on the cold ground to watch the artists perform. We still had about 125 people show up.”

“These days we do it rubric style, with 80% of the judgment being on songwriting, technical skill and crowd energy. We have music industry judges that are at the final, almost like American Idol.”

The judges for 2022 include Caitie Thompson of Paradox Jukebox/Music on the Move Studios, rapper Ivan “Iyeball” Houpe from Fly Union, and Timothy Eddings of Celebrity Etc. An eclectic group, for sure.

Although the format is set up like a typical battle of the bands, Hudson says she almost hesitates to use the term because of all the camaraderie that forms between the participants.

“A lot of our alums have gotten together to form projects with other members – there’s Instaband offshoots all over the place right now,” she smiled. “A few years ago, a student texted me that all of the kids who had participated decided to get together and have a reunion of sorts, where they all went bowling! I was amazed.”

Previous Instaband Finals

Cousin Simple, RADATTACK, Max Beal, and Forever Unknown are a few of the bands who got their start through Instaband. Last year’s winner, Sadie Storts, said that even though she had never performed in anything like that before, the process and experience was a wonderful one for her.

“One of the students at the school reached out encouraging me to try out for the competition,” she explained. “I sent in my audition videos and was told I made it to the semi-finals! I was super nervous going into it, as it was my first interaction with the school and it’s faculty, but it was very professional and everyone was so kind.”

“This was my first competition I had tried for and competed in. Being crowned winner was such an honor!” she continued. “There was a lot of talent at the competition! My favorite part of the finals was watching all the others perform and hearing their creations.”

Winning the competition afforded Storts the opportunity to record her first EP at Groove U’s studio, and release it through their Elementary Records label, which is also ran by the students. Every winner is given a 1 year recording contract which includes the recording, mixing and production of their EP as well as a professional music video. Storts says the entire process was a great learning experience.

One of Groove U’s recording studios

“I brought 8 original songs to the Groove U team to explore and look through. We went and produced almost all of them, and at the end of the day we chose 5 songs to include on the EP. It was really fun to work with a team that was so dedicated and invested in my own work!”

“Instaband was a great experience overall and something I am so glad I was able to do. The school was so kind and helpful towards me and my goals as an artist.”

Hudson says that, music competition aside, the main point of Instaband has always been the way it benefits the community.

“All of the proceeds benefit the Groove U scholarship fund, and we’ve given over $15k to local music charities. Our beneficiary this year is Transit Arts, which is an arts program for at-risk youth. We’ve previously worked with WCBE, We Amplify Voices, Music Loves Ohio, and others.”

The sign-up process is online, and Hudson says the initial round is vetted before choosing semi-finalists. The contest is meant to help give underage performers experience in the music business.

Students learning at Groove U’s campus

“One of the biggest complaints we’ve found over the years is that it’s difficult for people under 18 to find places to perform,” she described. “So we decided to make the age parameters between 13 and 19, with at least 50% of your band in high school. Sometimes we’ll bend the rules for younger students, but we don’t want anyone to be intimidated by older participants.”

This year’s final competition will be held at A+R Music Bar on Thursday, February 24th, beginning at 6pm. Sponsors include Sony Music Publishing, Harold Larue Mastering, Sweetwater Music, City Barbecue and Music-Go-Round. You can buy tickets here. The event is expected to sell out.

Finalists include pop-rocker Callan Foster, folk singer/guitarist James Gross, indie/post-punk trio Paper Notes, singer Payton Ramirez, and Cleveland-based psychedelic rockers Psychofuzz. You can learn a little more about them and watch their semi-final performances through those links.

After a decade of doing Groove U and Instaband, Hudson says that her favorite part of the entire process is watching the students grow and the relationships blossom.

“There are many other technical programs that are similar to Groove U in other parts of the country, but this industry isn’t about the technical requirements. It’s much more about the relationships and the apprenticeship; it’s not what but who you know.”

Students learning at Groove U’s campus

“Any school can teach you how to work the board, but we can help you get connected and help teach you the temperament you need. We hear from employers all the time that it’s not so much about the software they learn how to use. It’s about being on time and being tolerable – to me it’s about not blowing all of your first impressions! Instaband is all about that connection: a lot of them are going to continue be members of the music scene, be it performing or behind the scenes. Even though the event is happening now, everyone there is a potential future client.”

After meeting with Hudson, some of the staff and several students, I can safely say that the future of local music apprenticeship is in good hands. And this year’s final is shaping up to be another classic. Music in Motion will be on hand to do exclusive interviews and provide coverage of the event. Hope to see you there!

The Instaband Finals will be held at A+R Bar February 24th, beginning at 6pm. The show also features four Instaband alums: Forever Unknown (2019 winner), Ink (2019 runner up), Sadie Storts (2021 winner) and Gabe Elliott (2021 runner up). You can purchase tickets here.


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