The Man Behind Middle of the Mitten

When Michigan State University senior Joel Heckaman came up with the idea for a showcase for local bands in Lansing, he never thought the show would get off of the ground.

Luckily, he was wrong.

Now in its third year, Middle of the Mitten is now an annual rock music event that, thanks to Heckaman, has carved a unique niche in the Lansing cultural ecosystem.

Held each year in January at a local Lansing venue—this year it’ll be Jan. 29 at The Loft in Downtown Lansing—the Middle of the Mitten showcase brings together the best bands and solo artists from Lansing and around Michigan.

Over the years, the event has boasted a Who’s Who lineup of hot Michigan rock bands, including Lansing’s The Break-Ups and Mr. Denton on Doomsday, Saginaw’s Your Best Friend and Mt. Pleasant’s Life Size Ghost.

Built on support from local businesses, national music distributors and music lovers from all over Michigan, the show is the culmination of years of hard work and unique collaborations.

It's also a testament to Heckaman’s passion for local music.

Setting up Shop

Heckaman re-enrolled at MSU in 2007 after taking two years off from school. At the same time, he also resumed performing with his band and met some exceptional Michigan bands—many of whom would later help lay the groundwork for Middle of the Mitten.

Soon after, in early 2008, a new record shop called The Record Lounge opened in East Lansing with aspirations to be the community’s knowledgeable, friendly all-vinyl record shop.

Heckaman quickly became a regular patron. When one of the original co-owners left the operation, he started looking for a job at the store. Heather Frarey, the store’s owner, needed the help but told Heckaman to wait until fall, when students would return and sales would pick up.

He came on board at the end of that summer and soon decided that expanding the shop’s selection of local music could set it apart from its competitors. He and Frarey came up with his job title—local music director—and Heckaman’s influence on the shop became pivotal to its success. That fall, as Heckaman became more familiar with The Record Lounge, he started representing the shop in the local community.

Jerome White, the booking agent for The Small Planet, a popular East Lansing music venue, came in to introduce himself to The Record Lounge’s staff. As an afterthought, he suggested that The Record Lounge put together a music showcase for the new shop.

It was Heckaman’s moment of epiphany.

“I [had] wanted to do a show with an all-local lineup with my own band for about a year, but that never panned out,” he says. “As soon as Jerome suggested it, it occurred to Heather and I that we should put together a show to celebrate the anniversary of The Record Lounge opening.”

And with that, Middle of the Mitten was born.

The First Big Show

The first Middle of the Mitten showcase was scheduled for Jan. 2009, timed to commemorate the first anniversary of The Record Lounge. The showcase brought in 300 people and six bands from all around Michigan.

“I made sure to set the lineup so that people coming for one band might be unfamiliar with—but really enjoy—the following act,” Heckaman recalls. “It worked like a charm.”

In the following months they added in-store performances at The Record Lounge, and “the success of the first Middle of the Mitten allowed us to bring in some bands with more recognition,” Heckaman says. “This built our rapport with a lot of bands, several of which played in the second Middle of the Mitten,” he says.

For the show’s second year, in Jan. 2010, the lineup was expanded to ten bands and attendance grew to nearly 500 people.

“People came to see the bands, but because we had been so active [in the Lansing community], a lot of people came just to support Heather, the employees and the shop,” says Heckaman.

He predicts an even larger turnout for this year’s Middle of the Mitten showcase.
But he also knew that to keep it growing, he’d need some more help.

Integration Point

Currently, Heckaman is nearing the end of his degree program—MSU’s fairly new but immensely successful professional writing major.

The unique flexibility of the program allows and encourages students to create their own independent studies where they get real-world experience by creating something that will leave a mark on their community.  

During a meeting for a recent class project, Heckaman mentioned the Middle of the Mitten music showcase to Professor Jonathon Ritz. The two came up with an idea to create an independent study in which Heckaman and two of his classmates would use Middle of the Mitten to “field test” their professional writing skills in planning, designing and publicizing.

“Each year, I have spent a lot of time writing to bands and businesses, designing promotional materials and meeting with people about the show,” says Heckaman, who values the help of his professional writing classmates.

“This year, I feel like we can really make Middle of the Mitten something special because I know what [my classmates] are capable of, and they allow me to focus even more on the big picture.”

You can head to the Facebook page or Twitter for more information and updates on the show, or follow the program’s designer on Twitter here.

Only in Lansing

Heckaman also appreciates that Lansing is the kind of place where things like Middle of the Mitten can take root and grow.  “Middle of the Mitten is only in existence because we have had so much support from the Lansing music and business communities,” he says.

“I knew all of these great Michigan bands that played similar styles of music, but none of them knew each other. My goal was to bring them together, with all of their fans, to support music from across the state. ”

The third annual Middle of the Mitten rock music showcase will take place on January 29th at The Loft in Downtown Lansing. The show is open to all ages from 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m., and from 9:00 p.m. – 2:00 a.m. for ages 18 and up.

Michigan native Dan Nufer is a professional writing major with a specialization in environmental studies at MSU. He also writes for and does freelance writing in the Lansing area.

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Some of the musicians, directors, promoters, designers, videographers and supporters that are part of the Middle of the Mitten event, all gathered at The Record Lounge in East Lansing

Jordan Hahn and CJ Kjolhede of Elliot Street Lunatic, solo performers John Watrous and Adam Dahl, and Erik Ryden of Life Size Ghost are among the performers

Middle of the Mitten, Jan. 29

Joel Heckaman and MSU professor Jonathon Ritz

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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