By Kate Drozynski
The PennRock Scholarship is not a battle of the bands. Sure, it might have all of the basic components of a battle of the bands – several lesser-known local acts competing for a grand prize in front of a panel of judges – but don’t call it one. In fact, Chris Groblewski, organizer of the event and owner of Supermonkey Recording Company, hates those things.
“I really couldn’t stand those battle of the bands,” he said. “I think they do a lot more damage to artists than actually helping them. The contest never seems to really be able to help the bands. I figured the only way to beat them, the only way to get rid of them, was to join them and do a better job.”
That’s how, four years ago, Groblewski and his mentor Pittsurgh legend Pat DiCesare decided to start the PennRock Scholarship. Rather than pitting musicians against one another for a meager monetary prize package, Penn Rock aims to foster relationships between bands, the music industry and the Pittsburgh music community.
Over four nights in September and October, local and regional bands will play for the chance to win a prize package designed to give them a leg up in the industry.
“This contest isn’t just about this contest,” Groblewski said. “It’s about finding great musicians to work with, great musicians in the Pittsburgh area, and help build them up. It’s about giving them an opportunity to align themselves with a good team of people that have a vested interest in their success – at no expense to them.”
The PennRock winner will get a record agreement for a four-song EP from Supermonkey, vinyl pressing, digital distribution, studio time, interviews, a photoshoot, gift cards and, of course, beer. And that’s just what’s lined up so far. Groblewski says he’s always hustling to get more prizes.
“It’s about creating opportunities and taking your band to the next level.”
To get there, though, the bands that enter the competition need to be the “total package,” according to Groblewski. The winner needs to have a tight live show, of course, with no weak links and room for antics or divas. In order to win the Penn Rock Scholarship, you have to be more than just a rock star.
“Are you easy to work with? Are you a good person?” Groblewski said. “Nobody wants to work with Axel Rose.”
And, yes. You are going to have to sell some tickets. But unlike other contests, you’re not going to be judged on the number of heads you bring to the show. What matters is that you hustle, that you have something to offer, that you put in the work. Groblewski has no time for artists unwilling to work as hard as he does to promote their shows.
“If you’re lazy and you think you’re great,” he said, “you’re not going to make it anywhere. It doesn’t matter how good you are. No magical fairy is just going to show up and tap you on the shoulder and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re such a genius. Can you please show the world your light?’ It’s not going to happen. You have to work hard. You have to hustle. You have to go out there and work harder than the next guy.”
That hard work can get you a long way, though, according to Groblewski. Last year’s winner, Stone Wicked Souls, is wrapping up their record with Supermonkey. They tour all over the region and will be hosting the PennRock Scholarship finals on Oct. 7 at the Hard Rock Cafe. He’s continued to work with the Dirty Charms after they won in 2015. He’s even gone on to work with some of the acts that didn’t make the cut.
“Even if you don’t win, there’s stuff that comes out of it that’s really positive.”
Groblewski wants the PennRock experience to be a positive one for bands and audience alike. He started including cover songs in the acts’ short sets to bring a sense of unity and creativity to the shows. The audience loved it. They’ve covered the Beatles and Prince in past years, and this year each band will play a cover to honor Chris Cornell, who passed away in May.
Each act gets just 20 short minutes to perform the cover and three original songs to impress the judges.
“No fluff. No filler. Give me your best stuff,” Groblweski said. “Here’s your opportunity to shine.”
The competition is taking submissions via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) until Aug. 15, so send over your best work, Groblewski said. From there, he and DiCesare will narrow down the best bands and get the fourth annual PennRock Scholarship started.
“I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”