Smile Politely

Passing through town: Right Here Music brings artists to Champaign-Urbana

A man in a beard and a wide rim hat and overalls singing into a microphone and holding a guitar.
Willy Tea Taylor

It’s rare to find an organization with the vision to support local music that also first considers what the local scene actually needs (instead of just what they want to do). Right Here Music (RHM), a new local 501(c)(3) nonprofit, launched its first show in February 2023 and has committed itself to connecting musical artists, venues, and listeners to each other in Champaign-Urbana. 

Founders Mark and Jenn Aardsma seem unassuming at first: they are 40-something working parents whose kids are inching toward adulthood, re-visiting the things they loved when they were younger with a little nostalgia and the benefit of experience. As their kids have gotten older and they have begun to see the empty nest phase get closer, the Aardsmas wanted to get back into supporting local music. Under their collective surface is a potent mix of vision, experience, and a level of “give-a-shit” attitude that it’s probably impossible to teach to someone who isn’t invested in the local scene long-term. 

A closeup of a male and female standing close to each other staring into the camera.
Mark and Jenn Aardsma

Neither of them is a stranger to the music industry either, which only helps. Jenn majored in music in college and has both studied and taught piano; Mark’s enthusiasm lies in audio engineering and production. They were unwilling to allow their specialties to limit their imaginations, though, and have actively looked for a niche to fill as a first step to realizing their supportive vision. The more they searched for a niche in Champaign-Urbana’s music scene, the more they kept encountering the gaps between artists, venues, and listeners. As Mark described to Maaike Niekerk of the Daily Illini, “The town doesn’t need more venues, it doesn’t need more recording studios . . . but there are several people who said to us, ‘Touring musicians used to come to town more, and now they just drive by on their way to Chicago.’” There are plenty of services and infrastructure for live music in town, and there are plenty of artists—the challenge is connecting the right artists with the right spaces so that listeners can come to hear them. This challenge led to Jenn and Mark founding Right Here Music. 

Befitting a new organization, RHM is lean on personnel but punches above its weight. Fall of 2022 saw them assembling a volunteer board of directors, which includes Mark (President and Treasurer,) Jenn (board member-at-large and Artist Liaison), Keri Offenstein (Secretary), and Ken Kupferschmid and Rob Krumm (board members-at-large). Venus Walker and Cynthia Starns joined the team for administration and graphic design, respectively. Their paid staff, Cody Jensen and Charlie Harris, handle a lot of artist booking and nomination as well as consult about industry practices and logistics. Cody and Charlie are both active touring musicians as well as locals. Harris is part-owner of the Rose Bowl Tavern; Jensen is the director of the C-U Folk & Roots Festival, and both are members of Chicago Farmer. Krumm is also a member of the Folk & Roots Festival steering committee. 

A bass player and a drummer performing on an outdoor stage.
Derrick Philips

Though it’s connected to local institutions like the Rose Bowl and the Folk & Roots Festival, RHM strives to be an independent partner instead of staying under the umbrella of either institution. It distinguishes itself by the artists that it books—broadly, Harris and Jensen nominate artists and then Mark and Jenn select them. So far, they have favored singer-songwriters (though this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule), and gravitate toward artists who display a lot of personal authenticity—who are willing to take artistic risks in their music. 

Mark cites their most recent show, Kyshona w/ Emily Anne at the Channing Murray Chapel on May 15th, as an instance of the group’s total vision for a show coming together and of the artist digging deep into personal, authentic experiences and expressing them sincerely. “Meandering conversation is part of our process,” Harris described when I asked about what their artist selection is like. It’s intentionally unspecific and open, which they hope will invite diversity of artists, styles, and approaches. Chicago Farmer is a great example of the kind of depth they’re listening for: entertaining, goofy, or lighthearted without sanitizing or glossing over serious subjects. 

The Aardsmas described the musical content that grabs them as “something deeper than chasing a crush . . . not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Its pervasiveness as a theme in popular music has inspired them to listen for other, less often heard narratives. They’re understandably reluctant to reduce their decision-making to a list of criteria; the closest they come is “artistic quality,” “human impact,” and “sincerity.” Their booked artists so far have had elements of folk music and Americana in common—which, given their connections to the Folk & Roots Festival and the Rose Bowl isn’t surprising—but they don’t fit neatly into these genres. RHM’s genre-fluidness allows them to fit individual artists or groups to specific venues, sometimes in unconventional combinations. They seem to have a soft spot for local indie spaces looking to up their live music game as well as standby venues. Their less-conventional venues have so far had musical connections: Café & Co. is connected to See You CD & Vinyl in Downtown Urbana, and The Upper Bout is a guitar store. Sometimes (everyone agreed) the logistics determine the venue—you book the space that’s available and figure out how the show will go on. 

I was particularly intrigued by their choice to bring Willy Tea Taylor & the Turkey Buzzards to The Upper Bout, a guitar store in Downtown Champaign (7 p.m. July 14th). The Upper Boat has a very sharp, contemporary vibe—bright white walls against black floors, exposed brick accents, and vibrantly-colored guitars hang in neat, even rows or displayed on black stands. Taylor & the Buzzards have clear folk and classic country influences—possibly more than The Brother Brothers, who RHM has booked for the Rose Bowl in August—and at first, the space seems like an odd fit. But then, as I listen to more of his work, I can hear that he draws on much more than folk or country in his songwriting. He cites Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, KISS, and Weird Al Yankovic as classic influences, but also contemporary songwriters. A contemporary space with its sound-reflective surfaces will present their sound in a way that a more conventional venue couldn’t. I’ll have to wait until the show to find out, but I’m guessing that the gentle incongruity of the band’s homegrown aesthetic against the sleek, more industrial space will actually make some of the band’s influences easier to hear.    

It’s these instances of pleasantly-unexpected expression that make the job of pairing artists with venues and doing the work of RHM so interesting. When asked about the strangest or most unexpected parts of their jobs, all were ready to think of their work as something that made them grow. For Jenn, there’s almost no aspect of the job that she considers weird or unexpected because she’s always anticipating that the weird or unexpected will occur—a welcome quality in someone who liaises with artists and handles day-of-show logistics. Mark, as a producer and engineer, thought that he grew the most when he learned how to “roll with what you can’t control.” Their shows happen in real-time with no edits, which leaves plenty of potential for surprises. For Kyshona w/ Emily Anne’s show in May, their emcee was sick at the last minute, and an audience member volunteered to introduce the band. It turned out to be a great intro; this person was a fan with a lot of emotional investment in the artist’s work. 

In a lot of ways, the project itself is surprising. It’s unique to have people doing what Mark and Jenn are doing with the goal of enriching the community first. Because this is a nonprofit venture they can take some risks and set their own limits; because they have connections to the industry and the community, they get the best that it has to offer. Mark and Jenn were both effusive in their praise and thanks to Harris and Jensen for their expertise and their nominations of artists who are also fantastic people. They’ve met with enthusiasm on all sides, and their artists have all been very professional and had great attitudes — contra to so many anecdotes and stereotypes about the music industry. Both Aardsmas chalk this up to the expertise they sought. “If we’d had to do this on our own,” Mark described, “we probably would have had a way worse experience.” 

RHM’s two upcoming summer shows are:

Willy Tea Taylor & the Turkey Buzzards
The Upper Bout
723 S Neil St
F July 14th, 7 p.m.

The Brother Brothers
Rosebowl Tavern
106 N Race St
Su August 6th, time TBA

Follow RHM on Facebook and Instagram.  

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