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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Column 127 -- Spotlight Fades; No Blood Orphan's Robertson Park, Artsy Golfer tonight...

The comments from Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel in the column below came from the same interview that spawned the Slowdown feature story. About two thirds into the interview, when I began asking questions about Saddle Creek, Nansel said, "Waitaminit. Is this story going to be about Slowdown or is it a label update?" Why, it's both, Robb. But in the end, the feature stayed focused on Slowdown and the label comments ended up in this column. A couple things that didn't make it in: How did the Polydor deal (Cassadaga was released on Saddle Creek Records in North America and Polydor everywhere else) impact Saddle Creek? "It didn't impact us at all," Kulbel said. "It certainly had an impact on the London operations. It was a lot less work for them this summer and spring. We certainly had a very long advanced warning (about the move to Polydor). They had been looking around for something for months."

"We would have preferred to release it ourselves," Nansel said.

"It was a bummer, but I was never bummed," Kulbel added. As hard as I tried, I wanted to include that golden quote in either story, but it just didn't work out. We also talked about working with Target on Saddle Creek releases. "We've dealt with them on three record cycles," Nansel said. "Wide Awake, Digital Ash and Cursive's Happy Hollow, and now the new Bright Eyes record. Only a select number of records are accepted in their stores. I would say it does pay off, on average. It typically pays off more times than not."

"If the band involved begins with the letter B," Kulbel added. There were a few other things, but the bulk of it is below.

Column 127: Out of the Spotlight
Omaha's 'New Seattle' days are gone

Who remembers the good ol' days when Omaha's music scene glowed white-hot in the spotlight of the national media?

Back then, just a few years ago actually, you couldn't scan a newsstand without seeing an article -- complete with glossy color photos -- stating that Omaha was ground zero for the national indie music scene. Time, Rolling Stone, SPIN, The New York Times, The Associated Press, the list goes on and on. I mean, you couldn't go to The Brothers lounge without bumping into a reporter from Filter or Heckler sharing a table with Saddle Creek label executives Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel and a handful of loaded local musicians.

Well, those days are gone, it seems. The last time I remember seeing Omaha lifted on the shoulders of a national publication was the recent Kurt Andersen story in New York Times magazine, but even then, the focus was more on the city's art scene and the new Film Streams theater than on music. Could this shift in attention be hurting Saddle Creek Records?

Certainly the label's biggest releases aren't moving off the shelves the way they used to. Cursive's Happy Hollow, arguably the band's best release since Domestica, has suffered disappointing sales. Bright Eyes' Cassadaga -- the label's most anticipated release of '07 -- jumped out of the gate at No. 4 on the Billboard charts, and then seemed to drop off the map.

Kulbel isn't complaining. "Cassadaga has done very well," he said. "I don't know if it's done as well as I expected it to do, but I'm not bummed about it. It's probably sold around 140,000 copies or so."

Meanwhile, the label's smaller bands -- such as Ladyfinger, Criteria, Eric Bachmann -- seem to be selling fewer CDs than new bands did just a few years ago. This hasn't discouraged Kulbel and Nansel, who say they'll continue to release those bands' CDs regardless.

"People just don't buy as much music anymore," Kulbel said. "That's become more apparent all the time."

He said the old tried-and-true methods of getting records into consumers' hands no longer apply. "You have to get involved in this new media bullshit -- blogs, MySpace, YouTube. It's so hard for me not to just dismiss it entirely and say that we just need to keep doing the things we've always done -- traditional retail and bands on the road. But I have yet to totally denounce MySpace. I don't have a MySpace page. I'm the last person in the world who doesn't have one."

Nansel, on the other hand, has a MySpace page (though I couldn't find it online). "I did it as an experiment to see how easy it was to use," he said. "I only have one MySpace friend -- Tom."

Kulbel said a band's MySpace "friends" could equate to the people who go to their shows. "There are a lot of people that pay attention to that," he said, wearily. "It's really a new form of a mailing list."

But with literally hundreds of thousands (or millions?) of bands crowding MySpace, getting people's attention in a world of information overload can be difficult. It's a problem that didn't exist when Saddle Creek Records opened for business more than a decade ago.

Kulbel said he wouldn't start a record label today. "I would know how; I just wouldn't consider it. It takes so much time to build. When we started Saddle Creek it seemed like there was nothing stacked against us. There are so many things stacked against a new label."

Still, starting a new label might make sense for someone who has a killer band or group of bands to build around, Kulbel said, but... "Doing all those new media things take so much man power. You can have someone sift through blogs 80 hours a week. I don't know if it's worth it."

Nansel is less pessimistic. "A band like Coyote Bones, who are doing their own marketing, are acting as their own record label. They've hired people to do press and radio."

"I could see a band doing that," Kulbel replied, "but not a couple people and a computer starting a label."

With little or no fanfare, Saddle Creek announced last month that it will be releasing debuts by two new artists -- Washington D.C.'s Georgie James and Orenda Fink's new band, Art in Manila. The rest of the '07 Saddle Creek release schedule includes a Two Gallants EP and LP and a new Good Life CD. Neva Dinova's Saddle Creek debut will have to wait until '08.

Nansel said for years the label was sensitive in its decisions as to which new bands to add to their roster. "We felt like the public perception would be weird for a new signing. They would expect it to be the next Bright Eyes or Cursive," he said. "The last couple of years we got more comfortable not feeling that pressure. Lately, we're more into putting out records that we like that aren't necessarily going to be these huge things.

"The public perception of our next signing isn't what it was three years ago," he added. "The Omaha press blitz -- the media blitz -- is over. We were putting people in the spotlight. I feel that the spotlight is off us now."

Tonight at The Waiting Room it's the CD release party for the latest release by No Blood Orphan, Robertson Park. On the new collection, Mike Saklar and Co. have taken their songcraft to new levels. I know that statement sounds like so much bullshit, but you know what? It's true. Take "Streets Shine of This" fer instance. With its simple backbeat melody, lush organ tones and Saklar's usual killer guitar solos, it sounds like a modernized version of an early Rolling Stones song. Saklar's voice even sports a bit of a Mick Jaggar sneer when he spits out lines like "I can see that you're drinking / I can see that you're drunk." The entire disc has a swelling ensemble appeal, very reminiscent of some of the Saddle Creek recordings, specifically Bright Eyes records. Yeah, yeah, I know. Why bother making the comparison? Believe me, it's only in the arrangements. "Heart-less Days Sun-less Nights" is a good example, especially early in the track when the bell-tone keyboards dance above the thrumbing rhythm section. Again, it's Saklar's and Bartolomei's guitars that set it apart. The guitar tone is rougher, grittier, especially when Saklar and keyboard player Chris Esterbrooks share the counter melody midway through a song that runs for nearly eight minutes without becoming boring. How long will this song go on when they're on stage tonight? I generally prefer the rockers more than the solemn ballads, like the soothing, summer-y "Apples," which reminds me of early American Music Club. Those songs do the job of breaking up the recording, adding some needed dynamics and variety, though I know the crowd may be impatient waiting for the next rock tune during their set. Underlying a number of melodies ("Streets Shine...", "Queen") is a sharp tonal quality that gives the music an almost Soviet-flavored feel, certainly a foreign edge that is both familiar and alien to typical rock music, at least from this era. At the end of the day, Robertson Park is a showcase for Saklar, his stunning guitarwork and a cast of A-list local talent drawn together behind a shared vision. Playing with No Blood Orphan, Creek-flavored supergroup Artsy Golfer (Roger Lewis, Ryan Fox, Steph Drootin and Alan Tanner), Landing on the Moon and Outlaw Con Bandana. $7, 9 p.m.

--Got comments? Post 'em here.--


posted by Tim at 5:34 AM

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