Erik Urycki of The Speedbumps bolsters Northeast Ohio’s singer-songwriter community

Erik Urycki is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist with the Akron-based indie folk band The Speedbumps. That’s his “day job,” at least; when he’s not writing for, playing or recording with the band, he is actively working to bolster Northeast Ohio’s singer-songwriter community.

“[As a musician], I fell in love with art of writing songs the older I got,” says Urycki. “I’m trying to give every opportunity to younger up-and-coming songwriters to have a chance to perform and work on their craft.”

This love for the craft and his desire to create a strong local network of musicians led him to working with a variety of music venues and arts organizations in and around Akron, hosting open mic nights and booking talent for music showcases and festivals. “I could play out six nights a week and make a living that way as an artist, or be a part of bigger community, share a stage with people, and get connected with other songwriters.”

Though Urycki didn’t start formally organizing open mics as a sort of second job until relatively recently, he really got his start hosting open mics while in college at Kent State University. “I hosted open mics to meet and network with other songwriters who went to Kent,” he says. “I did that for free back then purely just for the love of it. It was some of the best times ever.” He remembers that even the first time he ever got on stage and performed an original song, it was at an open mic – so he knows first-hand just how crucial these kinds of opportunities are in the development of burgeoning musicians.

Currently Urycki hosts open mic Mondays at Baxter’s Bar in Akron, where any songwriter can go up and perform on an open stage. “Anyone who wants to perform, this gives them the opportunity.” He says they always have about 12 to 15 players who are mostly original songwriters. Wednesdays at Venice Café in Kent are similar, and Urycki also hosts “Ten on Tuesdays” every third Tuesday at the historic GAR building in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a songwriter showcase presented in partnership with the Peninsula Foundation.

Urycki is also a member of the Crooked River Fine Arts Council, organizing a different music festival in partnership with the organization every quarter and booking all the artists for those festivals. “I kind of started getting involved with these little nonprofit organizations and doing my own things to the point that I have a full-time job of connecting with other artists and community members.”

The Kent ‘Round Town festival in September is more of a freeform music festival, spilling out of venues all around downtown Kent, from sandwich shops to record stores to bars to boutiques. There is also the Kent Blues Fest, a two-day festival in July with a mix of free shows at venues all around downtown Kent and a ticketed performance at The Kent Stage venue. The Reggae Meltdown is held annually in November, and this coming February the Kent BeatleFest will return for its second year, featuring local songwriters and bands that will play Beatles-inspired music (not just covers – but also covers!). For Urycki, these festivals are all about connecting the musicians of Northeast Ohio to the community of Northeast Ohio.

“Lots of community members share the same passion I do,” he says. “[We ask the question], ‘How do we identify as people with our area or with each other?’ The culture we live in is how we do that. We all kind of make up this ecosystem that is our culture. When the arts are missing, the community can feel it.

He jokes that when he was younger just playing music he didn’t think about any of these issues at all – about art and community, and creating a strong community of artists who are supported by the greater community overall. “But as you grow older you realize this is important. Growing up in Ohio, it was all about leaving Ohio. ‘This place sucks; I’ve gotta get out.’ As you get older you start to realize, ‘Does this place suck or does my attitude suck?’ [I realized] I’m starting to identify with all these things around me and I realize I care about them, so why don’t I take that negative energy and do something good with it?”

That was about five years ago, when he did a complete turnaround. He started hosting open mics and singer-songwriter showcases. “Many times they’re better than I am!” he jokes. “I see them start to network with each other, they start doing things together. Northeast Ohio has the most kick-ass songwriters around. At some point you can’t deny it. They’re really talented, both young and old. I’ll do a showcase of 60-year-olds that will blow me away, as well as teens and early 20s, and they’re all from our area, from this depressed region.”

Urycki doesn’t only want to foster a network of local musicians, but he wants to showcase those musicians for a larger regional, even national audience and instill pride in being a Northeast Ohio musician while also creating a culture of recognition for musicians from this area. “[The perception of] Northeast Ohio is this Rust Belt, decrepit, dirty, left-in-the-dust kind of place, but this young generation of people growing up here, I don’t know if they see it that way. I was there in the beginning of the ‘dirtiness,’ but now there’s been a rebirth going on in Cleveland, Akron, and Canton, and it’s exciting. I hope that people will take notice.”

The Speedbumps are a locally well-known indie folk band that tours nationally, and Urycki says he has to constantly explain why he and the band, all natives of the area, continue to stay in Akron. “[People ask], ‘Why don’t you move to Nashville? Your manager is there, anybody who’s anybody is there.’ Look, I’m seven hours from New York, six from Chicago, eight from Nashville, and I live in the cheapest place in the country. This could be the reason why there’s this really strong [musician] presence in the area – because we’re all poor!” he laughs. “We’re not going anywhere. Artists have everything they need in the Great Lakes region. Artists don’t need to go anywhere else. Just the area in general is totally appealing to artists – Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, those Rust Belt/Great Lake cities; I feel there’s going to be renaissance.”

Furthermore, he says, the band has access to talented session musicians right there in their own backyard. “We have a lot of local musicians sit in with us. There are tons of talented musicians, not just songwriters, in the area. We have never had an issue with getting a really top player; where in some cities you have to go to Nashville to get session musicians, we have them all right here.”

As both a business and a full-time job, The Speedbumps do well and are growing beyond their local and regional audience. But, Urycki says, “If day ever comes with The Speedbumps that it’s time to move on, I fully intend on finding a way to [continue being] a part of the music community. If it means running nonprofit, I’m totally all about it and will find a way to do it. I feel like I’m a songwriter; that’s what I am. These community interactions are incredibly important [for songwriters like me].”