Dayton City Paper
June 20, 2017
Innovate Into the Music Industry at Groove U
by Gary Spencer
There seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to post-high school education: your traditional four-year university and shorter-term educational institutions that focus on a specific field or trade (ITT for example). One field of study that’s often debated is the music industry—not necessarily aspiring musicians, but sound techs, music venue operators, videomakers, and the like. The types of people that densely populate a STEM hub like Dayton, Ohio.
One entrepreneurial mind decided there was a better way to prepare students for work in the music biz, in less time than four years, and the end result was GROOVE U, a music college currently in Columbus, Ohio.
Groove U is the brainchild of Dwight D. Heckelman, whose business card reads “primary catalyst” but whose official title is founder and director of the institute. He also performs duties as an instructor. He has a rich background working in the industry, with 20 years of experience in a variety of roles at major and independent labels, music publishing, recording studios, and industry trade magazines before he moved into music education. He founded and chaired the music industry program at Hocking College before the internationally renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston recruited him in 2008. There, Heckelman experienced a “light bulb moment.”
“I was at a music educator’s conference in 2009 [when] the problem with music education became clear: educators were still using the wrong vocabulary,” Heckelman explains. “For instance, ‘The music industry is changing.’ The music industry wasn’t changing. It had changed way back in 1998 with Napster. I believed that this reactive mindset was the lens through which most music industry educators were teaching students.”
Heckelman viewed the role and purpose of higher education differently than most of his colleagues, and he began living up to his current title of “primary catalyst.”
“I believe the job of higher education is not to prepare students for the job that is, but for the jobs that will be,” Heckelman says. “As a construct, higher ed is akin to the Titanic—it doesn’t see the icebergs until they are right in front of the ship, then they can’t turn in time. This is due to its disconnect with employers and layers upon layers of siloed bureaucracies. The market was prime for positive disruption so I decided to try my hand at doing so.”
Heckelman left Berklee and returned to Ohio—a decision most people called crazy.
“I put together an advisory board made up of music industry professionals, and I asked them one very simple question: ‘If you are hiring someone to work in your business, who do you hire and why?’” Heckelman says. “No matter who I asked, I got the same responses.”
From there, Heckelman researched hundreds of music education programs from all over the country, comparing their ability to answer that key question with the responses he’d been receiving from his advisory board. Only 13 of 238 music programs even came close to meeting the criteria that Heckelman and his industry colleagues had in mind.
Once he had decided to act on the idea, it was time to secure loans, investors, approvals from the state, and find a location for the institution and staff. Heckelman’s criteria for instructors held a benchmark of qualification much different than those at most music education programs.
“With very few exceptions, the instructors at GROOVE U possess two credentials: they have a bachelor’s degree in-field, and they have either owned or been senior management at a small business,” Heckelman says. “It’s not difficult to meet the first [criterion]. The second proves harder, but it is essential because it means that my instructors aren’t career educators, they are career professionals. Thus, when they say, ‘Doing it that way will get you fired,’ they know of what they speak because they would be the ones doing the firing.”
With the logistics and staff in place GROOVE U opened its doors in the fall of 2012, enrolling five students, all of whom went on to graduate. These students had, as their successors have, a choice of six different majors or paths: music production, music business, music live, music video, music interactive, and music independent, all of which take two full years to complete. In its nearly five years of existence, Groove U has a staggering 100 percent success rate in graduates finding work in the field within six months of graduation. Heckelman attributes this statistic to a variety of reasons.
“Our ‘secret sauce’ isn’t a secret at all,” he says. “We give our students countless opportunities to create relationships both locally and globally.”
Students complete a professional project in the local community every month and finish two internships during their time at school. They run stages at events like Columbus Arts Fest and Independents’ Day, work with employers like Live! Tech, and record musicians live in the studio.
“We start with the career first and work backwards,” Heckelman says. “There’s no invisible, mythical line that separates ‘college’ from the ‘real world,’ because from day one of classes our students are working in the ‘real world.’”
The GROOVE U ethos appealed to rising second-year student Austin Finley, whose experiences reinforce Heckelman’s concept of no boundary between school and practical knowledge in the field.
“At GROOVE U I knew I would be working towards my actual career from day one,” Finley explains. “My time wouldn’t be spent doing math problems or studying the War of 1812—I would be developing my own personal brand and expanding my portfolio.”
At Finley’s internship, he has helped an artist/engineer, who’s made a living doing freelance production work, produce his debut solo album, build a social media presence, and learn tactics to record and promote independent artists when he’s in the field himself.
Additionally, the school boasts a 1:4 or better instructor to student ratio, making it easier for the mentor to connect with the budding apprentice. And unlike most traditional four-year universities, many accessories necessary to do the work are already figured into the price of tuition, like laptops, hardware and software, web hosting, textbooks, private lessons, internships, and industry seminars—including an annual trip to South by Southwest (SxSW) in Austin, Texas, one of the largest music festivals and conferences in the United States, where they can network with more than 15,000 professionals.
“They warned us that our first year [at SxSW] would be a bit overwhelming, and to basically just try to get a feel for the festival so that as second-year [students], we could really make the most out of the connections that you will build there,” Finley says. “It’s difficult to get to all of the panels, presentations, and meet-ups that you want to get to. Next year I believe I’ll be able to come away with more connections and potentially even job and internship opportunities.”
Of course, the opportunity to simultaneously gain such firsthand experience, make music business connections, secure state of the art gear, and learn directly applicable education isn’t going to be cheap. GROOVE U’s website claims that tuition at remotely similar music industry education programs elsewhere average at about $36,000 annually. GROOVE U’s tuition and fees cost $28,999 per year, not counting room and board. By comparison, tuition per year at the neighboring Ohio State University averages just over $26,000 per year, according to Money.CNN.com. For a closer comparison, in terms of being a specialty school, the esteemed film and art institution Full Sail University in Florida carries an average price of over $43,000 per year for tuition, fees, books, and other expenses, according to a USA Today report.
Although the institution earned national accreditation in music industry entrepreneurship last year, that does not guarantee federal financial aid for students. However, the institution’s administration and many of its students believe their education is cost-effective given the connections and top-tier equipment included in the price tag.
“On average, four-year colleges only graduate 53 percent of their students within four years,” Heckelman says. “Meanwhile, the media arts industry has an average income of about $47,000. So why should a student spend $135,000 average cost of a four-year education to only earn 40 percent of that annually, especially because 60 percent of those working in the media arts cite a two-year vocation award and on-the-job [experience]?”
“When you look at them side by side, it makes absolutely no sense to waste your money on a four-year degree as long as you want a career in music,” Finley says. “The connections you can make here are invaluable when it comes to finding a job.”
With the recent announcement that Groove U is about to “level up” by moving its campus into a multimillion dollar recording studio in Dublin this fall, it seems that the institution is offering plenty bang for the buck for anyone who wants to get a leg up in the music industry by not just getting education but practical, real world experience.
“At the end of the day, a degree does not equate to a job, but experience, knowledge, and networking will,” Finley says. “If you want an actual career in the music industry, no one gives a damn about your degree—they care about the last record you produced, or the last song you wrote, or the last track you mixed. They want to see your portfolio and they want to see who you’ve worked with in the past six months. At GROOVE U, you start working on your portfolio and honing your skills from day one of class. When you come to GROOVE U, you aren’t just furthering your education, you’re actually starting your music career.”