Music: Columbus, Amplified

TC Brown
Amber Knicole and George Barrie perform at Upper Arlington High School.

Students tapped their feet and bobbed their heads on a Friday afternoon as George Barrie's right hand swept across guitar strings, while Amber Knicole's orotund voice filled Upper Arlington High School's Little Theatre.

This mini jam session by members of Columbus' popular MojoFlo band was the opening act for a different sort of curriculum, called Building a Life with Music. The Columbus Music Commission presented the lesson as part of the school's inaugural Idea Day, a multidisciplinary conference of panelists, workshops and interactive experiences meant to encourage creativity and innovation.

One of the session's eight speakers, Dwight Heckelman—a CMC board member, along with Knicole—discussed music's integral role in everyone's lives. The speakers aimed to spur a new generation of talent as part of CMC's mission to promote, energize and connect all segments of the local music industry.

“Certainly Columbus already is a music city with a unique identity, and we want to get everyone rolling in the same direction,” says Heckelman, director of Groove U, a two-year, music-industry entrepreneurship school in Dublin. “We have such a cool ethos here, with more collaboration than competition. So how can we take what everyone is doing and amplify it?”

While about 90 communities around the world have similar commissions, Columbus joined just eight other U.S. cities when CMC founders established the nonprofit in October 2016. One notable example comes from Austin, where its commission has published economic studies on growing music and tourism and informed the city's approach to the local scene, like including loading sites near venues and supporting programming for South by Southwest, according to CMC board member Jami Goldstein, also the Greater Columbus Arts Council's vice president of marketing.

CMC consulted with other cities' boards, embracing some ideas and discarding others, says Joey Hendrickson, one of the commission's co-founders. “A lot of other models are government-down, but we adopted a community-up model,” says Hendrickson, who also founded the Columbus Songwriters Association.

The commission is a grassroots, all-volunteer organization for now, but its leaders aim to establish a public-private partnership. The city of Columbus provided $50,000 in seed money in 2017 and committed an additional $25,000 in 2018. Last year, CMC used some of those funds to host five free music-industry workshops, pay musicians for event performances and organize a citywide day of musical celebration in June, dubbed Make Music Day.

Meanwhile, the group seeks local business support too, says Tom Krouse, a CMC co-founder and the president and CEO of Donatos Pizza. “There is broad interest, and we are not asking the city to fully fund us,” Krouse says. “We have a tremendous amount of talent in Columbus, and if it is unsupported, it goes elsewhere. Having vibrant cultural assets attracts people, which has an economic impact that could be in the millions.”

In 2018, CMC is developing an upgraded website (, searching for an executive director and initiating a benchmark study to establish goals and metrics.

No genre of music will be excluded from its work, says commissioner Charlie Jackson, co-owner of Natalie's Coal-Fired Pizza. “The commission wants to be inclusive,” he says. “Music enriches lives and, these days, is more important than ever to help us come together as a community.”

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