Smile Politely

Meet the crew behind CU Bands and Fans

C-U Bands and Fans (CUBAF) has been visually documenting the Champaign-Urbana music scene since 2012. This organization moves and operates in a nondescript way — looking more like just another member or members of an audience. Yet, in reality, these people have become nearly as important to the local milieus as the performers themselves. CUBAF both generates and maintains its host organism.

In the past, “about town” sections of papers and magazines mainly provided a sort of menu to the public. Photographer Terry Miller-Brown immediately saw the viability and interactive nature of social media as a means to expand the dimensions of the media/performer relationship. By initially launching a Facebook page and depositing her photos of band performances, she fostered a growing virtual community — it’s one in which audiences and performers communicate with each other in hitherto impersonal ways.

It wasn’t long before Miller-Brown would need like-minded colleagues to help her run the organization. She was aware of another local photographer’s reputation and soon brought him into the bridge — Zach Widup. Two more photographers then followed as the page grew: Eric Frahm and Scott Hammann. 

CUBAF’s Facebook page now has over 9,000 followers, and the group’s Instagram and Twitter accounts are similarly rich in membership.

Curiously, these dedicated, skillful, and generous people have avoided their own version of the spotlight — toiling in obscurity, as it were. No one has reported on the reporters, until now, I communicated with Terry Miller-Brown and Zach Widup on the details of their organization and plans for its future.

Terry Miller-Brown and Zack Widup, photo from CU Bands and Fans’ Facebook page

Smile Politely: Was there some progenitor the two of you followed? Was there someone from your past, that documented the music and its fans in much the same way as you do now — only without the help of social media?   

Terry Miller-Brown: No, the thought never crossed my mind when opening the page. I merely opened it and named it after taking photos of Crazy Johnny Band upon request, I hadn’t ever taken photos of live bands before, but I certainly enjoyed live bands since the time I was 16 through 25. I would go where the live bands were playing and dance. After taking the photos, I didn’t want to load them to my personal page or to a regular photography page, so I opened a Facebook account and named it CU Bands and Fans.

May 28th, 2012: I remember thinking “let’s add fans of live music”. Once I opened it loaded the photos, it instantly struck me — now you need to go out and find the bands and fans and get photos… and the rest is history.

It was, and it was a big hit. In 2013, I realized I needed an assist a second admin and a fellow photographer, I met Zack and I watched him for quite sometime before asking him to be a partner on the page. Zack was very trusted, knew a lot about the history of the live music scene in C-U, and people embraced him and loved him. Also, I was jumping in the parking lot of Boomerang’s and dancing to 90’s Daughter in September 2013 at the Boom Fest. All of the sudden, Zack was right beside me jumping and dancing too, my decision was made he was my guy. He has proved to be a perfect choice.

Zack Widup: We didn’t really follow a progenitor, it just sorta happened. There are a few people who did some documentation. Most notably the John Philip Sousa Archives at the U of I, and John Isberg’s documentary Where It Begins: CU Music Documentary 1977-2000. Probably the most comprehensive background of the early days at the Hollywood Hangover website. But none of those really doing anything like what we do and to the extent we do it. 

SP: Do you feel that CUBAF and local music itself carry on a symbiotic relationship? Does one hand wash the other, in reality?

Miller-Brown: It truly began that way and the support is amazing both ways — we get the word out in a more expanded way on social media. Our reach is an extension to their reach,  — we have a one-stop shop for live music and events via the event list which we pin to the top of the page daily, and it is posted every night just after midnight. We provide services via photography, videography, promotion, and sponsorship that are fee-based. Everything else is free to keep that momentum and passion for keeping live music alive. Support is mutual and tremendous both ways, we have so much love for this music scene.

Widup: Yeah, definitely I think we know a significant percentage of the musicians in the area and we love to support and promote them. They support us by becoming sponsors and keeping us up to date on what we are doing.

SPHow has the scene changed since you began this?

Miller-Brown: We began in 2012 and as we are halfway into 2019, I have pondered this very question and considered the changes from when we first began to capture it.

One of the biggest changes I feel is the music has grown, the amount of music and musicians vs. venues that host live music is becoming somewhat drastic. We hope more venues will host live music, whether it’s bands, acoustic shows, or individual artists. The face of Champaign-Urbana is changing to more apartments and less nostaligic places like Red Lion, Panama Red’s, Prairie Lands, White Horse Inn, and Mabel’s — all of which were foundational in C-U live music. The Embers use to have Pork & The Havanna Ducks every weekend — you better beleive I was there as often as I could be!

But that was all years ago, and current changes include being on social media, and downloading your music for your cell phone listening pleasure. This is because an entire generation was raised with this — they have no idea what live music is like. and we are all about getting them there and seeing them experience it. Once that happens, you belong to a family like none other. Music brings us together, and being divisive is not an option when the music starts.

Widup: We’ve seen alot of bands and venues come and go. It seems when one venue dissapears, another one takes it palce. Many bands members move on and to other projects. Most of the ones who were arond when we started are still around somewhere.

SP: Are there unacknowledged editorial biases toward certain genres of music, or is it completely objective with all producers receiving equal attention?

Miller-Brown: Although I have been accused of favoring certain bands (what some do not understand is our sponsor bands get attention immediately, but we do not favor bands and we try to stay objective as we represent the C-U music scene it includes every genre, every musician and every style, we try  to maintain an unbiased view, I have been asked  several times  who is my favorite band? I simply have no answer nor would I ever disregard any band or musician even if they disregard us. We try hard not to slight any band sometimes simply due to being busy we may have a slow response to someone or miss a share of an event but trust me it is only due to being out in the scene and capturing the events not due to ignoring or disregarding.

Widup: I think we have our favorites, as everyone doe. But, we try to be objective in our range of coverage and daily band listings (with Sponsors getting the top of the list and tagged) we put anything on the daily event list and we share as much as possible.

Dustin Lynch, photo by Terry Miller-Brown

SP: You’re both obviously fans of music. Does either of you have any academic training in music fundamentals? 

Miller-Brown: No, not at all.

Widup: In high school, I was in choir, but haven’t had any formal training beyond that.

SP: How hectic of an enterprise is CUBAF? I would imagine that most of the work happens outside of the venues themselves. Would you say that the accessibility of social media has enhanced your work?

Miller-Brown: It has become hectic, but it is a good hectic. There is a tremendous amount of daily correspondence via email, messages, texts and phone calls. There is promoting that needs to be done daily and monthly — the website has to remain updated and we send out a monthly newsletter. We can be booked for gigs, bands, or venues wanting photos/video for certain gigs and along with that comes promoting of the event, We also spend a lot of time networking people and answering questions about upcoming events. We are beginning a few projects as well that will be time-consuming but well worth it. We like to keep things in motion because the music/art/entertainment scene is always in motion. We are always looking for new ways to bring coverage to anyone who wants to know and we still have to be actively present at events. Zack has a full-time job and this has become my full-time job. Zack has that event list dialed in pretty good, and it takes a lot of time, but he has a process and he does the most amazing job with it.

Widup: Yes, I rely almost entirely on the web and Facebook pages for the band listings each day. Some musicians and venues send us info of their upcoming shows but that is nowhere near as extensive as what we post each day.

SP: You’ve been around long enough to see at least a few musical projects begin, live and end. How influential — if at all — is CUBAF to this cycle?    

Miller-Brown: We are definitely not influential as far as how a band comes together or decides to disengage and change things up. Musicians are ever-changing, growing, and/or making decisions as to where they are in their lifecycle. Some get married, then have children, and decide that the music scene is not for them during that time span. Some get huge support from their spouse and family and can manage to do it all… the reasons vary from band to band, musician to musician — the reasons for changes are numerous.

We, however, may have been slightly influential with original music and musicians — and by that, I mean we began to build a platform in C-U for original music which has brought out several musicians that realized they will be heard, and there is an audience for original music — C-U is developing a taste for just such music, and we want to shout out to Corson Music for being our number one sponsor of this and supporting it all the way, as well as Boomerang’s Bar & Grill for being our host venue.

I don’t know, I have had several people tell me they listen to what we say and if we recommend a band they take that recommendation. That is too much responsibility so we are pretty impartial and hold no favorites. All in all, we do not influence whether a band is successful or not — the musicians determine that.

Widup: I don’t think we influence what bands do at all. Musicians get together and then separate due to creative differences or band members moving out of the area. I don’t think we influence that at all.

SP: The annual fundraising events are beautifully photographed — as is everything else. Is there a certain type of performance that’s more fun than working with others?

Miller-Brown: We love them all, the beauty of our team (Eric Frahm, Zack Widup and myself) is we are diversified with many genres and we all cover several shows, i.e. Eric will cover a lot of singer-songwriter shows, Zack will cover several blues shows and events as he is involved with the Praire Crossroads Blues Society, and I cover almost all of The City Center shows as I am their house photographer (for meet & greets), and several festivals, fairs and patio plays. I cover Red Hot Winter every year with Eric Frahm, and Zack has covered every Great Cover Up and he loves it. He really thrives with the Great Cover Up. All of us love First Gig Rock N Roll Camp For Kids, and every year we go, and all three of us cover that and enjoy every minute of those kids performing. We just work well as a team and we get along famously.

Widup: I personally like lively energetic bands where there is a lot of chemistry between band members. They are all great but those seem to produce photographs that I like the most.

Photo by Terry Miller-Brown

SP: Do certain bands work with you at all in terms of how they’re photographed and presented? Musicians lean towards being micromanagers,

Miller-Brown: Yes and no, some bands do — it really depends on if we are being paid for the shoot, whether that’s live or still shots, but more than not, they rely on our skills and creativity to bring them the images they want to use for their content  of promoting/social media, etc.     We are also tapping into more video of bands, we have a high quality video camera and they use the video to promote themselves, most venues want to hear what the band sounds like as well as see high-quality images of the band when considering booking them.

Widup: Only when getting paid to do so, otherwise, they just let us do our thing, in my early days I wasn’t as discerning about what was good enough to post and I posted a few photos that musicians here and there did not like. But, I have since learned a tremendous amount since then and it rarely happens for me to post a photo that is not the best light for the band.

Miller-Brown: Side note here: If at any time anyone dislikes or does not care for an image we post of them, we will remove it immediately, no questions asked. We want them happy with the images.

SP: Do you see any changes, be they in the near or distant future, in the ways in which CUBAF operates?

Miller-Brown: Oh yes, there is no way to cover the live local music scene without being prepared to change and grow. We have changes coming and some goals set for a few of those changes by fall of 2019. We are having an app built that will take people directly to the event list. We want to raise awareness with the younger generation that is missing out on what live music is and the experience of listening to a live show as well as reaching those that simply do not have social media accounts. We also have some exciting projects underway and we are super stoked about it. We are also expanding locations but keeping our groundwork in C-U.

Our plan is to keep people in the know about live shows and other art/photo events, the music in C-U is outstanding, and I am not being biased —I am being honest! “We Like Our Music Live” and #CUThere are our tag lines. We hope more people will like and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, the web, and in real life, as we are out and about getting to know those that love the live music scene. We are in love with this music scene and I think the feeling is mutual. We enjoy what we do.

Top photo by Terry Miller Brown

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