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By Jill Stewart
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Some might say Commander Venus missed their chance, but they were after a different kind of success. The band turned into a methodically plotted family tree — Oberst went on to the folk-pop of Bright Eyes; guitarist Tim Kasher founded Cursive, today’s most influential emo-punk band; bassist Todd Baechle started the Faint, one of the first groups to reinvigorate out-of-fashion new wave and goth aesthetics; and guitarist Robb Nansel became the entrepreneurial mind behind Saddle Creek, the label that would be home to them all.
The imprint is named after Saddle Creek Road, a street that cuts through the center of Omaha and leads to North 55th Street, the location of several houses where the four practiced with various bands. The homey collectivism is a notable departure from the way things are done in L.A.’s typical music-industry business model. In the major-label world, individual talents are not so much nurtured as they are bet upon, and success is as strategic as throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks. Early on, Saddle Creek chose to subscribe to a model best described as “no man left behind.” That each flagship band opted to work within a different genre is testament to this ethos; it was a semiconscious decision made among friends who wanted to minimize interband competition. Oberst chose to play folk because Cursive already had punk covered; the Faint tried their hand at new-wave kitsch because there were no other genres left.
The fact that the bands on Saddle Creek represent a tight-knit group is not what makes the label important. Groups of like-minded musicians have long assembled in geographic clusters, and signed to record labels that act as organizing principles. This is true of both majors and indies. In the late ’60s, Reprise had a lock on the soft rock being made in Laurel Canyon by Neil Young, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. In the ’70s, New York City’s downtown scene was represented almost exclusively by Seymour Stein’s Sire. (Its reign began with CBGB bands such as the Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie, and culminated with the signing of Madonna.) In the ’80s, Washington, D.C.’s Dischord label released records by a series of bands — Dag Nasty, Rites of Spring, Nation of Ulysses, Jawbox — who essentially invented emo and many other progressive-punk-rock styles; Chicago’s Touch and Go cultivated a brand of harsh Midwestern post-punk; and Seattle’s Sub Pop incubated the Pacific Northwest’s grunge scene.
The oft-studied commonalities between these scenes have always been idealism, celebration and community; rarely considered, however, has been their relation to Das Kapital. Usually the musicians who had any degree of success aligned with labels that had corporate backers; by contrast, the indie artists — on Dischord, Sub Pop, Touch and Go — often struggled to sell more than a few thousand records, and all but the flagship bands had a hard time making a living from their work.
In the ’90s, this began to change. Indie-rock labels like Matador actually began to sell enough records to support their artists. Odd new success stories sprang up. Chicago’s Drag City crafted an outsider art aesthetic around the work of Chicago and Louisville musicians Gastr del Sol (Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs), Palace Brothers (a.k.a. Will Oldham) and Smog (a.k.a. Bill Callahan); another Chicago label, Thrill Jockey, birthed post-rock — soft rock meets jazz fusion meets electronics — via local groups Tortoise and the Sea and Cake. Each of these labels was able to maintain a level of heretofore unheard-of self-sufficiency apart from the major-label system, both artistically and economically.
Saddle Creek is the apex of this trend. Though Bright Eyes has received most of the press attention, Cursive’s and the Faint’s recent albums have each sold more than 60,000 copies. The label’s second-tier bands — groups like Azure Ray and Rilo Kiley — sell in the tens of thousands. Some are beginning to take on other trappings of success. In 2002, Azure Ray went on tour with Moby, and the Faint maneuvered their way into an opening slot with No Doubt. In the aftermath, the Faint turned down half a dozen major-label offers, some of them worth millions.
Never has a small group of friends achieved such widespread commercial success without the aid of a major label. Can an attack on the mainstream music business be far behind? Or, under newfound pressures, might this group of friends fall apart?
At the time of my Omaha visit, Robb Nansel, 28, had traveled to London to supervise the opening of Saddle Creek’s European office, so fast-forward a month to New York, where we first met. He was speaking on a panel at the New Yorker festival of books called “The Music Machine: How To Find, Produce and Market Talent.” It was held in a modern television studio in Times Square that looked like the set of a morning show — wraparound windows, bright lights, a cozy stage.
Nansel sat at the end of a row of well-coifed, 40-ish music-industry execs — Lyor Cohen, then Island Def Jam president, recently anointed Warner Music Group CEO; Jason Flom, president of the Atlantic imprint Lava Records; and Danny Goldberg, CEO of one of the world’s largest indies, Artemis Records, and former CEO of Mercury and Warner Bros. Cohen, Flom and Goldberg had gray hairs as evidence of several decades in the industry.