Saddle Creek Records: Then and now

These two stories — only four years apart — show the evolution of Omaha-based indie rock label Saddle Creek Records in that short timespan. As music reporter, I covered the record label and its artists as they caught the attention of top music critics. As real estate reporter and then retail reporter, I continued to cover them, as they moved into the role of developers.

Riding high in the saddle

Saddle Creek Records started with friends and a dream: to share music by people close to them. Fifty albums later, the Omaha label ponders its future amid national recognition.

Omaha World-Herald (NE) – Sunday, April 20, 2003
Author: Christine Laue, WORLD – HERALD STAFF WRITER
The line of people trails into Sokol Auditorium’s entryway, up the stairs to Jason Kulbel and Robb Nansel, two of the faces behind one of the most talked – about record labels in the country.As the people inch inside, the two work in the lobby outside. They take money, make change, count people and answer questions. Kulbel, 29, and Nansel, 27, would rather get inside and watch their friends play on stage.As MTV, the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin and other national media have taken interest in Omaha – based Saddle Creek Records and the city’s bustling music scene, the label’s employees and 11 bands find themselves grappling with the reality of what they have built and wondering where they are going next.It comes at a milestone – the label’s 50th release. Earlier this month the label released “Saddle Creek 50,” a two – disc compilation of previously released and new tracks from each band.”I think it’s pretty cool that we’ve just done it from Omaha with no investors, no financial backing or major label support,” Nansel said. “We’ve been able to steer clear of that and achieve the level of success we strived for in the beginning.”

He pauses, contemplating his last sentence before correcting it. “I think we’ve surpassed all of our expectations.”

What started in 1993 as a group of friends pooling paper – route money and spare change to sell cassette tapes stored in a bedroom closet has grown into a five – employee company with an office in Omaha’s Benson business district, international distribution and a reputation for cutting – edge music – from new – wave and rock to folk – pop and “emo.”

Because of bands such as the Faint – which toured with hit act No Doubt last year – and Bright Eyes – whose lead singer, Conor Oberst, has been called independent music’s Bob Dylan by Rolling Stone – some people have dubbed Omaha “the next Seattle,” a city known for the’90s grunge – rock movement.

Omaha’s scene has been growing since the mid – ’90s, but the past year of media attention, including a recent Sunday New York Times article, finally is getting the word to mainstream audiences about Omaha’s underground bands – bands that for two or more years have been selling out clubs in New York City, Los Angeles and London.

They have done it with a mix of entrepreneurial spirit, artistic passion, Midwestern work ethic and deep friendships dating from childhood. Friendship is central to how the label runs as a collective, with Nansel officially called the owner but with everybody’s input.

The group of about 15 friends, some of whom attended St. Pius X Catholic School or grew up in the same neighborhoods along Blondo Street from 55th to 114th Streets, started Lumberjack Records as a way to share their bands’ music. Justin Oberst, the middle of three brothers, paid for 100 copies of Lumberjack’s first tape, “Water,” by the youngest Oberst, Conor, then 13.

As students at Creighton Prep and Westside High School and then at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and Creighton University, they played together in various bands, most notably Commander Venus, Slowdown Virginia and Norman Bailer, a group that would later become new – wave band the Faint.

Slowdown Virginia recorded the label’s first CD. Compact discs were more expensive, so about 15 people contributed $50, $100 or whatever they could afford, Nansel said.

That first CD also marked another change. After 12 releases, the musician friends had realized they wanted to take their collective to a new level, and Nansel, nearing the end of college, pondered a record label as a prospective business.

Nansel, who had switched UNL majors from architecture and actuarial science, finally had settled on business management. He spent the latter part of his five – year college career focusing on building the label and graduated in 1998. Lumberjack was renamed Saddle Creek Records to avoid confusion with a national record distributor, Lumberjack Distribution.

“Music was always my No. 1 thing, the thing I liked to do,” Nansel said. “It just doesn’t seem like a feasible career move, you know? I got a business degree as a backup plan, because music never works out. But I guess it’s worked out.”

One of the people who has helped it work out is Kulbel, a Sioux Falls, S.D., native who met Nansel in college when the two worked at a Blockbuster Music store. Kulbel, a marketing major, moved to Omaha after living in Los Angeles for two years and found himself helping with the label business. Six months later, Nansel hired him.

As the two worked out of Nansel’s south Omaha townhouse, the bands’ profiles kept rising.

A steady flow of releases fed the media frenzy. Among them was Saddle Creek’s best – selling album, “Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground” by Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst’s folk – pop band. The album, which Rolling Stone called the best indie rock record of that year, has sold almost 75,000 copies, according to Soundscan.

The label needed more space and more employees. A year ago it moved to a narrow Benson office, its basement now crammed with CDs and band T – shirts. Nansel hired three more people in the last two years.

They arrive and leave when they want, their fierce work ethic disguised by T – shirt – and – jeans work attire, rock music playing overhead and discussions about the latest White Stripes album.

“It’s not like any other place I’ve worked,” Kulbel said. “It’s comfortable. Pretty much anyone in the office can handle a lot of things. If we were really separated and compartmentalized, it would be really hard to get stuff done.”

“Probably on a busier week, it ends up being something like 75 (hours),” Kulbel said of his work week. “I don’t like to keep track. I don’t think any of us do. … It’s not like it’s a grueling 80 hours. We all have fun here.”

Nansel said his college business courses helped him understand how other businesses worked. “For the most part, I did the opposite,” he said.

The label’s “communistic approach” involves a monthly meeting with the bands, although hectic touring schedules have prevented any lately. With Nansel at the helm, the conversations balance artistic goals with financial realities.

“Conor is way more artistic, and he doesn’t think about logic,” Nansel said with a laugh. “He took writing classes and English classes and writes poems. I took math classes and business classes, so it makes sense that I’m in this role.”

And the bands trust him in that role, said Todd Baechle, the Faint’s lead singer.

“I don’t think that he would do anything that would not benefit the label. I think that when money comes in, it’s disbursed the right way. The bands get plenty of money from royalties, and everybody is getting paid fairly.”

No one discloses how many albums they sell – that isn’t their focus, they say – and no one likes to talk about money.

“Robb isn’t personally getting rich from it,” Baechle said. “If he wanted to make a lot of money, it would be easy. Any of the bands could sell their rights to another label. He could sell Saddle Creek to any major (label) he wanted to and make a lot of money. … He just doesn’t believe in doing that. He is able to live comfortably, and so are the rest of us.”

They never have borrowed money, Nansel said.

“We just did things so minimalistically that they just built upon themselves, so that each release was releasing the next,” he said.

With that momentum continuing, they wonder what is next.

“It’s just a struggle to try to decide how far do you take it,” Nansel said. “It’s not like we, you know, don’t want to do better. But the label started out as a small group of friends, and as it gets bigger, you hire employees and get office space, and … I think you just get to a point where you define what you want it to be. I think that’s the point where we’re at – do we want to stick with the bands we have or do we want new bands?”

Baechle acknowledged the differing opinions among band members about the label’s future direction but said the label remains unified.

But busier than ever. The long days in the office have left the Saddle Creek crew delightfully exhausted, relishing success but leery of it at the same time.

“We don’t sit around and pat each other on the back because we sold this amount of records,” Kulbel said. “We never talk about it. It maybe has something to do with jinxing it. And it’s gotten so far beyond what anybody thought it would. It’s a little mind – boggling, maybe?”

It’s better to think of it as friends making music, Nansel said. To pretend there’s no responsibility or pressure, to get lost in the crowd and the music.

“The most rewarding moments for me are when I go see the bands in other cities. The bands are playing, and it’s fun. This is why we do what we do. The day – to – day stuff is boring. It’s business. I answer a bunch of e – mails. But I guess it has to be done,” Nansel said. “It’s just fun to go out of town and not have to work at the door.”


Saddle Creek’s latest record sales

The Faint, “Danse Macabre” (2001) – 42,054

Rilo Kiley, “The Execution of all Things” (2002) – 12,394

Bright Eyes, “Lifted or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground” (2002) – 74, 713

Cursive, “Ugly Organ” (March 4, 2003) – 15, 732

Source: Soundscan


Who’s talking

  • The Boston Globe: “Omaha isn’t a city of lofts and raves. Social clubs and veterans halls are a typical evening’s destination. But that hasn’t stopped this city from becoming the new hot spot for cutting – edge rock.”
  • Time magazine: “The Faint and Oberst both have moving, hummable songs…. They’ve already proved that the best up – and – coming rock groups don’t always germinate in big coastal cities and college towns and seep into the heartland. Sometimes it goes the other way around.”
  • Rolling Stone: The April 17 issue reviews “The Ugly Organ,” the new album by Saddle Creek band Cursive.
Caption: Color Photo Illustration/3 The World – Herald/1 Color Photo/1 RICH JANDA/1 The people who make Saddle Creek Records run, near the company’s office near 60th and Maple Streets: From left, Jason Kulbel, who handles much of the label’s touring and press; Jadon Ulrich, who manages the Web site; owner Robb Nansel; Jeff Tafolla, who fills orders; and Matt Maginn, who plays bass in the rock band Cursive and handles retail promotions. B&W Photo/1 RICH JANDA/1 The Faint, which drew a big crowd to an April 11 concert at Sokol Hall, is one of the hot bands on Omaha – based Saddle Creek Records’ roster.
Edition: Sunrise
Section: Arts & Travel
Page: 1at
Index Terms: Record;Statistics;Concert
Record Number: 1256396
Copyright (c) 2003 Omaha World Herald

Indie label lures national retailer downtown – What’s happening on 14th Street

Omaha World-Herald (NE) – Friday, April 13, 2007
Urban Outfitters will open a store this fall in the Saddle Creek Records complex at 14th and Cuming Streets, marking the first time in two decades that a major national clothing retailer will operate in Omaha’s downtown area.The Philadelphia-based company: known for selling hip clothes, shoes, accessories, gifts and home decor in college towns and major cities: will occupy an 8,500-square-foot, two-story space between the locally owned Blue Line Coffee and an unleased restaurant space in the independent record label’s north building.Landing an established national retailer in the developing area is a major coup for both Saddle Creek Records and the city, label executives and the mayor’s office said.”As we redevelop north downtown, we’re hoping for a lot of mixed-use projects that will include retail, office and living spaces,” said Paul Landow, chief of staff to Mayor Mike Fahey, who was traveling Thursday and unavailable for comment. “That’s what makes the Urban Outfitters’ move so important: they’re a major national retailer who will serve as an anchor for future development.”Two national retail analysts say the decision by a company with a successful track record shows that Urban Outfitters sees promise in the developing urban area.

“I’m sure they’re going to Omaha planning on being wildly successful,” said Doug Fleener, president of the Lexington, Mass.,-based Dynamic Experiences Group, a retail consulting firm. “It sounds to me like they could revitalize that area.”

Urban Outfitters, which signed a lease in January, will open its Omaha store sometime this fall, said Saddle Creek Records President Robb Nansel and label manager Jason Kulbel.

An Urban Outfitters spokeswoman confirmed that the store will be in the Saddle Creek complex but was unable Thursday to provide further details.

Kulbel and Nansel said Urban Outfitters gives the complex a national presence and a stamp of approval for people like west Omaha parents who might have worried about dropping off their kids in a part of town with unfamiliar businesses.

“They could’ve gone elsewhere, to Village Pointe,” Nansel said. “But they came to this area.”

Urban Outfitters operates 106 Urban Outfitters stores in the United States, Canada and Europe, according to the company’s Web site. It also has 93 Anthropologie stores. Free People, its wholesale segment, sells to about 1,500 specialty and department stores and eight Free People stores. Each brand also sells its products through a catalog and Web site.

The company plans to open at least 38 new stores in the coming year, the Web site says.

“It’s clear that to expand, that Urban Outfitters is choosing to go to some nontraditional metropolitan areas,” said Fleener, the retail analyst. “I could see where a lot of people say ‘Geez, can that market support an Urban Outfitters?’ And I’m saying that some of those markets have been underserved for that type of fashion.”

George Whalin of San Marcos, Calif.-based Retail Management Consultants, said Urban Outfitters’ move to a developing area with no other major retailers was highly unusual for a retailer of its size.

“I can tell you that they are not going in there alone,” Whalin said. “There are other retailers looking or that are committed to that area.”

Landow of the Mayor’s Office said, “There’s nothing specific” planned with other retailers. The city hopes Urban Outfitters will be the catalyst to draw others in the next several years, he said.

Both retail analysts called Urban Outfitters a smart retailer that isn’t typical by any means.

“When you are Urban Outfitters, you’re going to go against the grain a bit,” Whalin said. “They’re not necessarily looking for the most affluent part of the community. They’re going to go for areas that will have their customer.”

The proximity of Creighton University, the TipTop Apartments, and InPlay restaurant and entertainment complex probably played a role in the decision, as well as catalog sales in the area, Whalin said.

He and Fleener agreed that the combination of a coffeehouse, an independent film theater and an internationally known indie-rock record label was unique and probably played a role because it creates a central hub for the typical Urban Outfitters customer.

“It sounds like it’s perfect for an Urban Outfitters,” Fleener said. “Nobody is doing a whole store buildout without it being a well-calculated risk. A good retailer sees an up-and-coming area, too. And somebody has to go first.”

It wasn’t an easy road, however, Nansel and Kulbel said.

The label, which showed its hometown loyalty by turning down lucrative buyout offers from major record labels, sought a local or regional clothing retailer for the complex, but Nansel and Kulbel also wanted Urban Outfitters because it serves the same customer: teens and young adults with an affinity for edgier music and fashion than what’s offered in mainstream outlets.

And Urban Outfitters had been playing Saddle Creek bands such as Bright Eyes, the Faint and Cursive in its stores long before the New York Times, Rolling Stone and other mainstream outlets took notice.

Dryw Scully, Urban Outfitters’ music promotions director, had become friends with Nansel, so Nansel asked Scully to put him in touch with an executive.

Scully obliged and even made a pitch to Urban Outfitters President Tedford Marlow.

“I really like Robb as a person, and I love the label,” Scully said. “I think it’s really important to be part of what they’re doing and be a part of what Omaha is doing.”

In May 2005, Marlow flew to Omaha. But later that summer, company executives turned down Saddle Creek’s invitation.

“In their minds, they needed something more down there,” Kulbel said, explaining that at the time, the area northwest of the Qwest Center Omaha had none of the construction going on today.

Local and regional retailers that Nansel and Kulbel thought fit the Saddle Creek aesthetic and would draw customers weren’t returning calls or working out. Nansel said his e-mail pleas to Urban Outfitters “got pretty desperate and pathetic: to the point we were almost begging and not taking no for an answer.”

And to the point that Marlow politely, but firmly, told Nansel to never bring it up again, Nansel said. Still, Marlow’s final e-mail ended with an invitation to call him if Nansel ever was in Philadelphia.

Nansel did call, months later, when in town for a music industry meeting. Over a beer at a bar, the two chatted, but Nansel didn’t make another plea for a store.

“At the end, (Marlow) said, ‘All right, we’ll do it,'” Nansel said, recalling his shock.

“I asked him why he changed (his mind). He basically said it’s the fact that you actually came to Philadelphia, that you were persistent.”

What’s happening on 14th Street

Plans are shaping up for the Saddle Creek Records complex south of 14th and Cuming Streets. Here’s a rundown:

South building, 14th and Webster Streets

  • Saddle Creek Records offices and warehouse: opening late May. The independent record label’s headquarters will have enough room for its eight employees and future expansion.
  • Slowdown: opening late May. The music venue will feature concerts accommodating several hundred people.
  • Ruth Sokolof Theater at Film Streams: opening late July. The nonprofit group Film Streams will operate two screens: one showing first-run independent, foreign and art-house films, the second showing retrospectives of older and classic films.
  • Live-work spaces: unleased, available starting in late May. Two two-story bays offer flexible uses for potential tenants such as an artist operating a studio or gallery downstairs while living upstairs.

North building (14th Street, south of Cuming)

  • Blue Line Coffee: opening late July or early August. The Dundee coffee shop’s second location will serve coffee, cafe fare and alcohol, and plans to be open after-hours.
  • Urban Outfitters: opening fall 2007. The Philadelphia-based company will sell clothes, shoes, accessories, gifts and home decor in a two-story space.
  • Restaurant: unleased, opening late summer or fall. A 3,700-square-foot space will house a restaurant.
  • Apartments: unleased, available in September. Of the seven apartments, five are one-story apartments above Urban Outfitters, and two are two-story apartments above the restaurant.
Caption: Locator Map/1
Edition: Sunrise
Section: News
Page: 01A
Index Terms: Downtown;Opening;Retail Store
Record Number: 8745030
Copyright (c) 2007 Omaha World Herald
Articles are copyright of the Omaha World-Herald and used with permission. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, displayed or redistributed for any purpose without permission from the Omaha World-Herald.

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