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An Interview with GetGo! Records' Mike Brannan

BJM Studios/GetGo! Records' Mike Brannan talks about how a Big Fish became a big player in the local music scene, and what it takes to make it in the big time.

by tim mcmahan






Lazyeye: Nov. 30, 2000.

Above, GetGo! recording artist
Pomeroy at K-Rockfest June 4, 2000.


"These are the bands that are in it to win it. We don't want to get involved with hobbyists; we want to see one or all of our bands get to the next level."

The bands in question -- Pomeroy, Clever, Lower Case i, Five Story Fall -- are represented by GetGo! Records, and the guy talking is Mike Brannan, the man at the label and behind the knobs at BJM Studios where the bands record.

Brannan always cuts to the chase. A very opinionated guy, he has the luxury of having the history and knowledge to back it up. As a guitarist in one of the area's renowned bands, a recording studio owner and now the operator of one of the top locally owned independent record labels, Brannan has seen all sides of the music business.

To be honest, this wasn't supposed to be Brannan's story. The interview with Brannan, conducted just before Labor Day, was merely supposed to be background for a profile of Omaha entertainment kingpin Matt Markel -- the owner of GetGo!, BJM, The Ranch Bowl, former owner of 93.3 FM KROCK, and one of the primary music promoters in the city. Getting the interview with Brannan was the easy part. Scheduling an interview with Markel, on the other hand, was a challenge because of his busy schedule. After a few months, it became obvious that Brannan's interview was a story on its own. While Markel might be Omaha's All Great and Powerful Oz, Brannan is most definitely the man behind the curtain, pulling the strings and levers that influence a large chunk of the local music scene.




BJM Studios, located in the southwest corner of The Ranch Bowl entertainment complex at 1600 So. 72nd St., is pretty much what you'd expect to find in any top-flight recording studio -- a glassed-in performance area tucked inside a high-tech control room with a massive sound board, recording equipment, computers and CDs stacked here and there. At home behind the gear is Brannan, a punk-ish, hipster-looking guy with smart glasses and a confident look to match. As head engineer of BJM, he's also top-dog at GetGo!, two enterprises that he says are "one and the same."

"The studio's been here for two years. Where we're sitting used to be a parking lot," Brannan said, kicked back in one of the cush control room chairs. "It's a long way from the first studio I had with my partner Dan Crowell, called Big Fish."

Big Fish recorded some of Omaha's heaviest hitters of its day, including The Kind, Snakey Billy, Grasshopper Takeover, and one of the biggest of them all, Blue Moon Ghetto, an alternative rock phenom that scored a ton of local air time with their hit, "Shine All the Time." 

Brannan and Crowell's relationship goes back even before the studio, to their full-time rock band Guerrilla Theater. Crowell played drums while Brannan handled lead guitar chores. Though the Guerrilla Theater had its share of regional touring, they never netted a big-time record deal and eventually parted ways. But before they did, Brannan and Crowell launched Big Fish.

"The studio business is a stupid business, but we did all right. We recorded a lot of records," Brannan said. "Blue Moon Ghetto's self-released CD was our biggest seller. Who knows how many they actually sold, but they say they got paid for 13,000, which is huge when you consider a band like Creed will sell between 10,000 and 12,000 units in this area. Unfortunately, that record wasn't very good. It wasn't as good as the band ended up being. From a record-label perspective, they probably garnered a little too much attention too early."

Big Fish made waves for three years, Brannan said, eventually recording a project for Matt Markel called The Big Fish KROCK Born in the Barn compilation that included tracks by The Kind, Ritual Device, Shed, Shovel Head, No Left Stone and others. It was a perfect introduction for Big Fish to Markel's world.

"Matt knew we were into it and got to know us over a long period of time, to the point where he was comfortable dealing with us," Brannan said. "The bottom line was he had just sold his radio station and was bored."

Brannan said Markel in effect bought out Big Fish and took a year and a half creating BJM Studios. "When our old studio's lease was up, we got out of there and had about one month of down time before we cranked up BJM," he said. These days Crowell, who has a full-time job elsewhere, plays a limited role at BJM as a fill-in drummer or as a writer/arranger. He and Brannan still play together in a techno project called Pillo.










"Blue Moon Ghetto's self-released CD was our biggest seller. Who knows how many they actually sold, but they say they got paid for 13,000, which is huge when you consider a band like Creed will sell between 10,000 and 12,000 units in this area."



"With Test Fest, Matt lost his ass, but he wasn't going to sit around and see someone hit by lightning. He said it wasn't worth it. All those bands got paid and left.."


That leaves Brannan as the key person behind the studio and label, with the occasional input by owner Markel. Brannan describes him as someone with a short attention span and a strong work ethic, but ultimately a hands-off owner. "We don't see much of him," he said. "He's off doing his thing, promoting concerts like crazy. That guy has to sit and talk to agents and managers all day long. Markel is definitely bringing a lot of music to this city. And Omaha is not a great music town."

Brannan said though there's a good local band scene, the Council Bluffs casinos have put a drag on the local economy. In terms of venues, the Omaha music scene hasn't expanded in the last 15 years. On the other hand, there are more bands than ever because of population growth. 

"There are no new places to play and no money to go around," he said. "When I was in Guerrilla Theater, we went all over the Midwest and made money. The club scene from '92 to '94 was healthy and we could go to Lawrence, Kansas City or Ames and come back to Omaha and make good money at every stop, enough so we didn't have to work day jobs."

Today, Brannan said most local bands on the road are paying to play because touring costs are so high while money netted from venues and the merchandise table is meager. "Grasshopper Takeover is the one band that's managed to go on the road and stay on the road," he said, "but they're still not getting paid."

Brannan said Markel has found a way to parlay minor projects into larger ones. His work with The Ranch Bowl and exclusive deals at Westfair and Sokol Auditorium has allowed him to take shows from smaller artists to get to bigger artists handled by the same agents.

"Matt is the kind of guy who'll take a hit to put on a show or put out a record," Brannan said. "He'll do stuff that isn't going to make money. I'll hear hilarious stories -- bereft with inaccuracies -- that the bands don't make money while Matt does. Fact is, the promoter's profits are limited to 10 percent, and big bands walk out of here with big paychecks that promoters have to guarantee."

That makes for a risky proposition, such as last summer's Markel-promoted Test Fest -- a multi-band, all-day festival at Westfair Amphitheater that ended midway through the day because a vicious thunderstorm blew through the complex, carrying high winds, rain and dangerous lightning.

"With Test Fest, Matt lost his ass, but he wasn't going to sit around and see someone get hit by lightning. He said it wasn't worth it. I saw a bolt hit the corner of the stage that somehow managed to dissipate. He was down by the stage when it struck, and that was it. All those bands got paid and left.

"You hope you make more money than you lose, that's what it ultimately comes down to for a local promoter. Guys like Markel keep the big national outfits like SFX (the world's leading promoter, producer and presenter of diversified live entertainment) out because they have the market locked up. He does this because it's fun and he enjoys working with those people. At the end of the year, he's shrewd enough that he's had more winning than losing shows. I'm always surprised that the economics work out. The same is true with record labels; you're trying to get records out that break even and hope one or two will do well."


Brannan said GetGo! Records was part of the original plan when BJM was started two years ago. The first GetGo! release was The Pat and Scott Project, a joke record made on a Sunday night for the old Edge DJs, Pat and Scott. "We did a couple parody tunes, I played bass and Dan played drums, and we put it out for Edgefest," Brannan said.

Since then, GetGo! has taken a rather reserved approach, signing a number of bands but only putting out a few CDs. The first release from the label's current roster was Five Story Fall's Look and See last February. 

"We're feeling our way into this now," Brannan said. "For us, it's been predicated on what sort of talent we can find. Most of the bands that we have aren't ready for the national spotlight. We know that and they know that. We try to help them through that transition. If we feel someone is really doing an amazing job and is going to have an impact, we'll throw everything behind them."

There again is where Markel plays an important role. "Matt's very hooked up," Brannan said. "We haven't gone out and shopped any of these bands yet to major labels or managers, but we will. It's grooming. You want them to develop naturally and stay out of their way. It's organic. At the same time, we want to help them with some of the business aspects."

For Look and See, a CD Brannan produced, Five Story Fall's momentum was hampered by the band's inability to tour. "Our philosophy is simple: We will promote the band as far as they are able to tour," Brannan said, "and they weren't able to tour very far. They have families and day jobs. We got plenty of returns on that one from the regional distributor, but the record did well locally -- in the 5,000-unit area -- thanks to the fact that they got out and played a lot of good shows."

Is touring outside the Midwest crucial? Brannan says for bands to get to the next level, they need to conquer markets, but they don't need to play CBGB's or The Knitting Factory. "They need to develop a fan base in multiple areas," he said. "The record labels are just banks now. They're a lot less artist-driven and there's a lot more public money in play. The emphasis toward consolidation makes it tougher and tougher for bands because the labels need solid returns, just like fund managers in the stock market."

What's that mean for your run-of-the-mill local band trying to make its mark and grab the attention of the Sonys, Warners and Atlantics of the music world? They better be very good, very professional and very ready to make the move to the next level. Major labels are looking for the band that will give them the best return on their investment almost immediately.

"I talked to an A & R guy from Geffen who said the process of signing a band takes a year to a year and a half from when they first see them to when they offer a deal," Brannan said. "They want to become comfortable with them as people as well as musicians. It's a different business than being a sports star or an actor, which are both better paying, easier professions in which to become rich."

The music industry is unique in the entertainment world because rock bands are the only ones who don't get paid up front and only for what they produce. "Kobe Bryant was a millionaire before he stepped on the court," Brannan said. "The same goes with acting. That kid from Millard North (Chris Klein of Election and American Pie fame) made $250,000 on his second movie out of the box. I'm happy for those people, but the music business is much tougher than that because even if you're a fairly well-respected group, you can have a bad period of productivity or sales and be out on the street overnight."

Brannan said bands have to do a better job bringing people into their musical realm, and that demands a more professional, intense and disciplined approach. "It's a brutal business where a band like Slipknot can record with a label like Roadrunner, sell a decent number of units and still not make any money because of their management structure. On the other hand, there's 311, who has done well apparently managing their money. Those guys are all well-off financially, they make big bucks on the road and are on the cutting edge of merchandising. They've had business heads on their shoulders since before they were signed."

"The record labels are just banks now. They're a lot less artist-driven and there's a lot more public money in play."


"I've never been a big 311 fan, but I always understood why they do so well, and Clever has that same ingredient."


So what kind of artists is GetGo! looking for? Brannan said their stable -- Pomeroy, Clever, Five Story Fall and Lower Case i -- are all bands that both he and Markel believe have the right stuff to make it to the next level. "We watch all the tapes sent in from regional bands for gigs and talk to bands that play the circuit to find out who's doing what where. From that point on, it's all about the music," Brannan said. "It's kind of a conspiracy between Matt and I."

On the money side, Brannan said, the label advances different bands different things depending on what they need. "Obviously I have to make it add up to zero at the end of the day to keep Matt off my ass," he said. "Matt doesn't seem interested in who's profitable and who isn't, as long as we can break even."

Each GetGo! act, however, has two common traits -- a commercially viable sound and a reputation for putting on a good live performance.

Those were the calling cards for Clever, a power pop, funk-rock, 4-piece band formed in late '97 out of the ashes of two well-respected local bands. Vocalist/guitarist Bruce Coddington, formerly of Blue Moon Ghetto, matched up with former Secret Skin bassist Clint Thomas. Clint recently left the band, replaced by Kevin Wagner. Rounding out the current line-up is Clint's brother, Kevin, on guitar, and former stage manager for The Urge, Ben Maxwell, on drums.

"Clever have a unique take on a genre that isn't all that unique," Brannan said. "Bruce has an interesting viewpoint, and they have the ability to be very competent. They're a good live band. I've never been a big 311 fan, but I always understood why they do so well, and Clever has that same ingredient."

GetGo! put out Clever's latest CD, M39, last fall. It currently sits at No. 6 on Homer's Records' top-20 local music chart.


Lower Case i has been around for five years, playing heavy metal alternative and opening for the likes of Powerman 5000, Static X, GWAR and Our Lady Peace. The band recorded a 4-song EP last summer at BJM. Frontman Dereck Courtney said Markel saw the band play at K-Rockfest two years ago and approached them about doing a record.

"They have a couple talented guitarists with a unique voice and something to say," Brannan said. "The EP we recorded will be part of a full-length out this year before the band hits the road. We like them as people and their work ethic, and I think they have a standout drummer with Dave Collins (formerly of Row 8 Plot 30). He's really made a difference."

Five Story Fall's relationship with GetGo! began when they contacted Brannan about recording a demo. "Stan Tribble, their bass player, was in Guerrilla Theater with me, and I like (vocalist/guitarist) Pat Gehrman, who used to be in Shovelhead. They had a collection of tunes that were obviously good pop songs, which is not my normal fare," Brannan said. (Incidentally, Brannan says his taste in music runs all over the board, from Miles Davis to Joe Strummer to Nine Inch Nails. "I'm primarily a musician, but enjoy some of the sound-designing aspects of new records," he said.) Five Story Fall recently underwent a line-up change, rounding out the four-piece with former Ritual Device/Ravine drummer Eric Ebers, and Bryan Elder on lead guitar.



"(Five Story Fall) had a collection of tunes that were obviously good pop songs, which is not my normal fare."


"With Pomeroy, I had heard their single on the radio and then saw them play and thought their recording didn't represent how good they were going to be."



Which brings us to Pomeroy, GetGo!'s most recent acquisition. The 5-piece was formed in Manhattan, Kansas, in Spring 1998. After releasing their debut album, Inside the Shine, in April 1999, the band went on to tour 11 states regionally and distribute more than 5,000 copies of the album. They moved to Omaha in October, and have been working on their first GetGo! CD, slated for an early 2001 release. Like Clever, Pomeroy has a lot in common, sound- and performance-wise, with 311, sporting a commercial-friendly, radio-ready, aggro-rap style and a strong stage presence.

Brannan said since Pomeroy signed with them, GetGo! has only "put out a few things for radio. We're saving up for the full-length, which will be a much more intense recording than its other release.

"With Pomeroy, I had heard their single on the radio and then saw them play and thought their recording didn't represent how good they were going to be," he said. "Pomeroy will be a national band. I will lay even money that the band -- or parts of it -- will get national exposure."

Of the label's entire stable, Brannan sounds most confident of Pomeroy's chances to make the big time. Why? Because Pomeroy has the drive and the music to do it, though nothing is written in stone, Brannan said.

"The commercial realities are so stupid that you're naive if you don't know what you're up against," he said. "It's a crap shoot based on trends and all kinds of things a band can't control. The one thing they can control is the music. If you want to throw a disc out there and be successful next to major label discs, you have to be aware of what it took to put out those other discs.

"I meet a lot of bands that have a couple mediocre players because they are formed out of friendships," he said. "Once you get past the hobbyist phase and become professional, that means being good at all positions. A lot of bands out there aren't going to get to that level because they're not completely devoted to it. The bottom line, though: If you're going to have to live and play together full-time, you want to enjoy whom you're with. That's what it comes down to."

The same rule appears to apply to GetGo! and BJM Studios, two projects that seem to value their love of music over money. "We're more of a project than a commercial studio," Brannan said. "I have no desire to be in the commercial studio business at all. It's got nothing to do with putting out great music on a day-to-day basis. That's where we want to take this. We want to get to where we can put a few acts on a roster who are significant and take them to a national level, then secure more funding for the studio and grow from there. I think we're off to a good start."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly Nov. 29, 2000. Copyright 2000 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.