When I went to my first DIY show in Champaign-Urbana I was instantly drawn in by the intimacy of it all. I was at the front of the crowd facing the band, and it felt as if they were close enough for them to blow on me. The music was loud, and when a song would end it felt as if you were rising up from the water, and everything and everyone around was soaked in comfortable silence.
At most sets, the lead singer usually tells a joke or two or talks about the songs they are about to perform as the band catches their breath and tune their instruments. Band members might banter between themselves or between a member or two of the audience.
No one is made to feel excluded, and the diversity of the room suggests acceptance, even when it is not directly acknowledged. The DIY scene of Champaign-Urbana is one of the town’s shining gems, but it takes spending some time in the community to realize all it has to offer.
For the past few years, Blips and Chitz was a DIY venue located in the basement of Veronica Mullen’s house in Champaign. In 2013 Mullen began working as an intern for Error Records, a record store in the community that has since closed. She regularly attended the shows held there, and in 2016, after having gained experience in hosting DIY events in spaces across the community, she decided to move into a house where she could host her own shows. In 2019 Mullen moved out of that house in Champaign, and Blips and Chitz hosted its final show on April 3.
Mullen insists that although she’s moved out of the venue it’s not dead and that she’s not done booking shows.
“The house will be taken over by a new group of people, under a new name,” she said. “And I will be starting my journey of booking shows at other venues around CU.”
Outside of her own venue, Mullen believes the entire scene is in good shape.
“I think the DIY scene in CU has the potential to have a bright future,” she said. “In my experience, and from what I’ve heard – the DIY scene in CU has ebbed and flowed over the years. I think that’s pretty natural for a college town, as people come and go every few years.”
Ted Loewenthal is one of the students who run The Source, a relatively new DIY venue in Urbana.
Loewenthal describes The Source as “a creative, open-minded, and collaborative space.” The venue has hosted everything from “from punk to acoustic folk to battle rap.” Loewenthal, who himself is new to the DIY scene in Champaign, became involved almost immediately after moving into the area.
He described his interest as coming from, “how intimate [DIY shows] were, how it felt like a conversation between the band and the audience.”
He decided to start The Source in the fall of 2018, almost as soon as he and his friends could sign their lease.
Loewenthal expressed a more optimistic view of the future of DIY in Champaign.
“There’s a great mix of C-U locals who have been involved in this scene for decades, and a constant crop of new students who are excited to play music, or run their own venue, or just come watch,” he said. “It’s a great alternative to the bar and frat culture that seems so prevalent on campus. The other day, I walked to a house show that was three blocks away and ran into a second house show on my way home. Including mine, that’s three venues in three blocks. That’s an excellent sign for the future of the scene.”
“The DIY scene definitely seems to have grown. When I came to campus, the shows seemed less frequent and less well-attended.” Loewenthal also added. “Now, people are having the problem of too many
people showing up, which is kind of a great problem to have.”
Although Lowenthal’s views on the scene are largely positive, organizing shows do come with some frustrations.
“DIY culture tends to have a degree of drama, and that’s definitely true down here too,” he said. “Because it’s so informal, it’s really hard to enforce anything, but there are a lot of great people doing work behind the scenes.”
Mullen shared a few familiar feelings about her experience in the scene.
“I think the most frustrating thing about DIY is trying to convey the purpose of the shows to all attendees,” she said. “My personal mission was primarily to host shows for touring artists, which means putting on a show with solid attendance of people who are there to enjoy music, not party, making enough money through donations to pay the touring band, and making sure everything runs smoothly. Doing this all by myself is not always easy, but it is definitely rewarding to be able to help a touring band out while they are on the road.”
When it comes to facing frustration, DIY music is no exception. It typically isn’t done for the money or for any semblance of wide recognition. It takes a lot of patience and trust to open your doors to the community and to host bands that need recognition. DIY venues often serve as the first place bands go to get their music out and receive criticism for their work.
In the age of Spotify and YouTube, in which almost every song available at a listeners fingertips, smaller artists are finding it harder to compete. Not only is listening to music from people who deserve to be heard and sharing it with the people around you a deeply rewarding experience, but it’s also one of the best ways to support the musicians that deserve much more attention than they get. These might even be the same artists you’d one day get to brag you saw when they were just a small band performing every at house they could. There isn’t anything comparable to the intimacy of listening to small bands in the living room or basement of someone gracious enough to open their doors to create an inclusive space for music.
“DIY is for everyone,” Mullen said. “If you’ve ever thought about booking a show or playing in a band–just do it. It will be worth it and people will support you.”
Loewenthal expressed a similar sentiment.
“I wish people knew how easy and fun it is to throw your own show,” he said. “It takes some work, but if you really want to see someone live, all you need is a space, some gear and a bunch of flyers.”