By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Nansel was the odd man out. He wore a brown shirt, black jacket and jeans — working-class chic. His demeanor was laconic, his hair fanned over his face, and he looked less like the assembled record moguls than like a gracious, perennially underemployed college pal. Nansel quit his graphic-design job only in 1999 and operated Saddle Creek out of the backroom of his Omaha townhouse until 2002.
The first question: “How do you find talent?”
“I watch to see if they levitate,” said Cohen. “I look for the performer whose feet don’t touch the ground.” Goldberg emphasized the rational side — musicians with decent sales, a local following and the single-mindedness to make it through the exhaustion of touring. Flom, seemingly vexed, began to complain about the capriciousness of the market. “Music is the dog whistle and consumers are dogs. We’re not dogs,” he said, gesturing to his fellow panelists. It was an unfortunate image considering the grave controversies that have faced the music industry of late. The audience groaned as their focus turned to Nansel.
“We all grew up in the same neighborhood and high school,” he said. “I guess I haven’t used the standard mode for finding talent. Our A&R staff is mainly the bands themselves. For me it’s just, if you get along. On a personal level.” No talk of dog whistles, sales or stars. Until 2001, in fact, every band on Saddle Creek’s roster lived in Omaha.
During the Q&A session that followed, a man in the audience, wearing a T-shirt that said “Free Durwood Pickle,” stood up to make a comment. Pickle is the 71-year-old Texas grandfather the RIAA sued last fall after his grandson used his computer to download pirated MP3s. The man went into a long rant, scolding the industry for how they’ve dealt with file sharing.
“We didn’t sue anyone,” said Goldberg, pointing at Nansel with a pained “We’re all in this together” look. He then turned to Cohen and Flom. “They sued people,” he said. As if to emphasize the fact that a new order is coming to the music industry, Nansel took a more conciliatory tone.
“You know, I want Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy in Love’ too, but I just want that one song, and I could care about the rest. Still, I’ll ‰ pay my 99 cents.” He was making reference to iTunes Music Store and the way an emerging slate of digital music options allows for affordable access to numerous kinds of music.
Cohen tried to get the audience to see his high-concept corporate vision: He no longer represented a music company, he said, but rather a lifestyle-marketing company that used music as a means to sell the public on new styles, new clothes and new brands of alcoholic beverages. It’s safe to say the audience’s sympathies had been exhausted.
Later on, I asked Nansel what he thought of those guys. “I talked to Danny Goldberg a little, and I talked to Lyor, but really they just came up to me and said nice things. We didn’t get into it too much, because I’m ignorant in terms of industry names, so when I was introduced to them, it could have been anybody. My dad probably knows more about them than I do.” As Nansel explained, Saddle Creek still exists in an alternate universe, parallel to the corporate record biz.
“We never function as a business,” he said. “I took management and entrepreneurship classes at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, but basically we’re an outlet for music and don’t make decisions based on financial judgments. At one point we all threw some money into a pot, pressed some records and thought maybe it’d pay itself off. One day we woke up and were, like, ‘We have some extra money, we could put out another record.’
“Now we’re in a weird situation. It’s sustainable. We can pay the five people that work here, and put out the records we want. But do we want to work with some new bands? Staffwise, do we want 15 people working here? We don’t really know. I’m not sure if it would be fun to be that large. We’re pretty happy now, because we can exist in our town, do what we want, and nobody bugs us. And you know what? It’s rock & roll, so I’m sure it won’t last forever.”
Nebraska! The state slogan is “The Good Life,” and I believed it until I stopped to catch the view at 3 a.m. in a town named Sutherland, “a thriving community of 1,129 people located in West-Central Nebraska.” Apparently, the local economy consisted of a railroad track and a high school football team.
The next day — after a brief stopover in Gothenburg to see the Sod House Museum — I crossed the Omaha city limits. The first two pieces of signage were an ad for 88.9 FM (“For God’s Sake, Try It! Tunes 4 Christ”) and a bumper sticker that read, “Give Satan an Inch and He Will Be Your Ruler.” The town bled sincerity or, more correctly, a twisted normality, like the google-eyed children of a Margaret Keane painting. The honor roll of distinguished persons with ties to the city is perplexing. On one hand, it is the birthplace of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Malcolm X and Wynonie Harris, the last-named a man whose R&B music is generally acknowledged as a direct forerunner of rock & roll. On the other, it is former home to Lawrence Welk, Johnny Carson and Letitia Baldrige (a.k.a. Ms. Manners), and current home to superinvestor Warren Buffett. Reel off the names, and you’d think Omaha was a wellspring of icons — the source of both prim American etiquette and its rebellious underside.