Isaac Arms came to Champaign-Urbana without a plan in 2005.
The move came fresh off dropping out of college, a migration of about 150 miles from Evansville, Indiana, after gradually losing confidence in the music scene there and wanting to be closer to someone they were seeing romantically.
Earlier this fall, Arms moved to Madison, Wisconsin — once again, without a plan.
In thirteen years in Champaign-Urbana, Arms put on dozens and dozens of shows, founded and operated their own record label Heirship Records, and released projects with many of their favorite bands, forging relationships set to last on through life.
In September, Arms announced the end of their label, Heirship Records, which they launched in 2011.
The decision came after years of financial losses, but to Arms, it was a likelihood that they had come to terms with over time. Heirship Records was never about money, and Arms wasn’t and isn’t hung up about not making money — it was all about passion. Passion for aiding emerging and growing artists, and for being a part of the process of making music with those they care about and have formed strong relationships with.
“My goal for the business was never business,” Arms said. “People say that, but quite literally, my goal was to help musicians put out the best music as possible, keep prices low and affordable so that wouldn't be a barrier to people getting music. Also, [to] make everything available for free, streaming in full, and have the highest quality recording so the music sounded the best technically. And [I did] presses on vinyl because I thought that was just the highest quality audio file way to do it.”
Arms dove into music in C-U — digging to be further entrenched than in Evansville — getting involved personally early on after arriving, starting the label Pop Monster Records in their bedroom.
“I was friends with several people that had small labels, mostly internet friends,” Arms said. “It seemed possible and I kind of understood how to do it, so I did it. It was when Myspace was really, really active and vibrant.”
In the mid-to-late 2000s, Myspace was sort of a revelation for Arms, who used it to establish contacts from region to region, in addition to the connections he was making steadily in Champaign and Urbana’s respective corners of the music scene.
By combing tons of Myspace pages, searching by genre from city to city, Arms built a network that spanned the region.
Arms' band Withershins released its first project in 2009.
Titled The Bowers Are Buried, Arms handled the promotion and release of the project and each ensuing project from the group.
As time went on and the group continued to make music together, Arms began to feel like the skills they had developed could be used to make a greater difference than in the work with Withershins.
“Not to disparage my own bandmates' abilities or what the band was outside of me, but it just felt like, 'OK, I'm pretty good at promotion. I'm pretty good at all this organization stuff that goes into putting these albums out. However, there's better stuff out there,’” Arms said. “Wouldn't it be nice if these other bands, if I took care of that for them, so they could be them, better? So they could put their efforts toward that. That was kind of the impetus.”
Arms performing in Withershins, photo by David Cubberly
With that evolution from within Arms’ mind, the mission of Heirship Records began to take shape.
Arms wanted to be to local acts what other labels are to larger acts: the instrument through which their work is packaged, magnified and able to be appreciated in a larger sense as a result.
“I'll help promote their live shows here in town or help them put together tours, whatever I have the resources to do,” Arms said. “I ended up doing album art for bands, I helped fund some of their recordings, I helped produce some of their recordings. I sat in. I'm not much of a recording engineer, but I would sit in on some of the recordings and give production notes, things like that. Performed on several of the albums actually as a guitarist mostly, sometimes keys, piano, maybe vocals.”
By 2011, when Heirship was officially conceived, Arms was a booker at Downtown Champaign’s Mike ‘N Molly’s. Through his work there and as he continued to further cement himself as a figure of the area’s music scene, Arms developed a strong sense of what it took to put on successful underground, DIY events.
Arms began signing acts to Heirship and working to release projects for what now amounts to nearly 20 acts. Heirship, to Arms, was a representation of those in music taking ownership of the scene’s well-being and essence, and becoming its caretakers.
"Everything that was there was inherited from the past, “ Arms said. “And the hope is that it's kind of Montessori concept of 'leave the room nicer than it was when you came in.' My hope with the label was that we could document music specifically from Champaign-Urbana, only signing people associated with that scene, in order to do my best, the hope was to kind of leave a positive impact on the scene and to pave the way for others as it had been done for us."
Ask Arms about the logistics and technicalities of signing artists to a small, local label, and the answer is simple.
“I don't want to say I've signed anybody [actually],” Arms said. “I’ve never had a lawyer, I've never understood copyright law or anything like that. It's all just agreements and it's all just trying to do fun and good stuff.” The model took its toll, of course, but not before Arms made a significant impact on music in C-U.
The decision to leave and start anew in Madison will have an impact on music here, too. Arms believes it’s time for someone else to pick up where Heirship is leaving off.
"I got the mic for a little while, that was fun. I should pass it along,” Arms said. “So I just tried to disappear a little bit, I think everybody's had enough of me. I certainly had.”
Madison is home now, and Arms’ future is admittedly ambiguous, but after seven years operating Heirship, it’s only fitting to have a sendoff show.
This weekend, Arms has orchestrated two ceremonial shows: the self-titled album release of Take Care as Heirship’s last official release at IMC on Friday night and the Heirship Records Farewell Fest at Canopy Club on Saturday.
Take Care’s project is a personal milestone for Arms — it’s years in the making — and each of the eight bands playing at Canopy have strong Heirship ties: Withershins, Evil Tents and Hot Cops! are all reuniting to perform for the occasion, while Heirship’s Motes, Terminus Victor, Windmills, Grandkids, and Mother Nature round out the lineup.
For Arms, it’s all come full-circle.
Thrilling highs and somber lows will be relived on each night, commemorating essentially a decade’s worth of Arms’ work and beneficiaries, bookended by traveling from and back to Madison.
"I don't know how I'm going to feel,” Arms said. “I'm going to feel sad, I'm going to feel accomplished. It's going to be very bittersweet, I'm sure.”
Check out Heirship's Farewell Festival on Saturday, December 15th at Canopy Club, and in addition, check out Take Care's record release show at the IMC on Friday, December 14th. Both even pages are linked above.
Top photo by Veronica Mullen