Saddle Creek at 25 — a look at the label’s past, present and future; Oquoa, Ojai tonight…

Category: Interviews — Tags: , , , — @ 12:38 pm June 11, 2018

The Saddle Creek staff circa 2003, from left, Matt Maginn, Jason Kulbel, Jadon Ulrich, Jeff Tafolla and Robb Nansel. Photo by Ryan Fox.

by Tim McMahan,

The June 2018 issue of The Reader — The Music Issue.

The June issue of The Reader — The Music Issue — is out. Or at it’s online. The cover story is a lengthy piece written by me about Saddle Creek Records on its 25th anniversary, and includes comments from label chief Robb Nansel, new A&R rep Amber Carew and recent label signee Stef Chura.

Titled Saddle Creek at 25 with a subtitle “The label that defined indie cool over a decade ago is suddenly cool again,” the story focuses not so much on the label’s early years (which you can read about here and here) as much as how they survived though the changes impacting the music industry, and how they’re positioned for the future.

As detailed in the story, I characterized (and Nansel generally agreed) Saddle Creek’s history in three eras — the time up to and including the label’s biggest successes, the awkward middle years right after their heyday when they began booking non-Omaha-connected acts, and the “New Era” they’re currently enjoying hallmarked by the success of roster acts Hop Along and Big Thief and a handful of other up-and-comers.

Nansel and Co. touch on the label’s history but also talk about adjusting to technology’s negative impacts, how the philosophy behind who they sign hasn’t changed and the future.

You can read the story online right here.

The interview with Nansel took two hours and was around 20,000 words of transcribed copy, so yeah, there’s out-takes, which I’ll likely post in the coming days, along with the full text of the story (for posterity’s sake, and to ensure that if The Reader ever goes belly-up there will be another copy online). Among those out-takes are Nansel’s self-proclaimed biggest success and biggest disappointment. You’ll have to wait to read the answers.

Anyway, give it it read, and pick up a copy of the printed version at your favorite news stand. Also included is The Reader‘s controversial list of Omaha’s Top 20 bands. More on that here in the very near future (including my own list)…

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Pageturner’s summer concert series continues tonight with Oquoa and Ojai. The fun starts at 9 p.m.

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2018 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.



Winter screwed my weekend; is vinyl a ‘fad’ or here to stay?; Pono sound challenge…

Category: Blog — Tags: , , , , — @ 2:36 pm February 2, 2015

recordsby Tim McMahan,

I spent all day yesterday cooped up in my house watching bad pre-Super Bowl television and playing Trivia Crack on my phone. That’s the extent of my weekend. It wasn’t a total loss. I did score some very fine original artwork created by Brian Tait, which I spent the daylight hours hanging. Tait’s the guy that runs Midtown Art Supply. He also makes great art, including the large, giant possum painting I’m looking at over my shoulder right now.

But what does any of this have to do with music? Maybe this:

Last Friday AV Club published this bit of click-bait called “Vinyl is just a fad, record executives say.” The piece compiled quotes from RCA Records president Tom Corson and Universal Music Distribution general manager Candace Berry pooh-poohing the recent jump in vinyl sales (up 52 percent last year, while digital sales dropped 12.5 percent).

Among the executives interviewed for the story was Saddle Creek Records exec Robb Nansel. Says Nansel about vinyl in the story, “It’s always going to be a niche…Not to be negative about it, but I feel like it’s going to peak, if it hasn’t already.

Turns out the AV Club story is merely a rehash of this more detailed Rolling Stone article, and the AV Club writer left out the rest of the Nansel’s quote, which was:  “From a label perspective, it’s expensive. You’ve got to ship it. There are environmental concerns. But we love vinyl. It’s our preferred format.

Robb’s “niche” comment sounded eerily like one of my 2015 predictions, which went something like: “The vinyl craze will slow, this after a year that saw 49 percent increase in U.S. vinyl sales vs. 2013 numbers. The growth will level off as younger music fans refuse to embrace a medium they see as an interesting but inconvenient gimmick that costs twice as much (or more) than what they pay to download the same album (if they pay at all).

Both my comments and Nansel’s raised the eyebrow of Homer’s general manager Mike Fratt. Fratt said (on his Facebook timeline) that the AV Club article caused him to spit out his drink in laughter. In response to my 2015 prediction, Fratt emailed me saying. “Vinyl is still on the way up and we don’t anticipate a peak until 2017 or 2018. 16 to 24 year olds make up 22 percent of the vinyl buying public. This means they will remain invested in the format for another 10 years until they start getting married and have babies which can curtail music/purchases/discretionary items.

Fratt went on: “Right now vinyl pressing plants cannot meet demand so as more come on line this year sales will continue to increase. Also, less than 100 indie stores report sales to Soundscan, so actual sales are WAY under-represented. Soundscan reports 6 million; (the) real number is over 10 million. This holiday season we sold more turntables than the last three years combined and reports are there is no stock to replenish stores as they sold so well everywhere this holiday season. I believe three or more vinyl titles sold over 100,000 units in 2014. Pretty amazing.

Amazing indeed. Only time will tell who’s right in predicting the future of vinyl. The only thing I have on my side of the argument is personal experience. The few 20-somethings I’ve spoken to who aren’t already vinyl collectors find the idea of acquiring a turntable amusing. They love listening to music, not collecting it. And believe me, there is a distinction.

As a 40-something guy, I grew up with vinyl, switched to CDs, bought a click-wheel iPod and now subscribe to Spotify. That said, when I buy music (and not rent it), I almost exclusively buy vinyl, and then download the album via a digital key that comes in the package. I doubt I’m alone. But then again, I’ve always been a collector, as evidenced by the bookshelves filled with comic books and albums, drawers filled with CDs and the local art hanging on my walls (like those amazing Taits). For many, collecting vinyl is like a fetishist activity — just ask the dudes standing in line outside of Homer’s on Record Store Day.

Where do I listen to the vast majority of my music? On my iPhone, while I’m running, shopping, working. I rarely listen to the vinyl copies of new albums more than a few times because I’m never sitting where my turntable is located very long (unless I’m writing, in which case, I don’t have music on at all). I think that could be the case for most people, especially those who work in an office or go to school. If you want to listen to music during the day, you probably have to take it with you. It’s that necessity that will limit vinyl to a collectors’ market.

I hope I’m wrong; I hope Fratt is right. I’d like nothing more than to see vinyl sales continue to grow, and believe me Nansel would like to see that, too.

* * *

Speaking of music portability, Yahoo! Tech shoots holes in Neil Young’s PonoPlayer High Definition music device, saying it lost in a blind taste test vs. a regular ol’ iPhone. A summary is here at 9-to-5 Mac, that says: “For the blind trial, Pogue assembled 15 people aged 17 to 55, asking them to flip between three songs on the iPhone and PonoPlayer, each song in the device’s best resolution. In separate tests using ‘standard Apple earbuds’ and Sony MDR-7506 headphones, more people preferred the iPhone to ‘Pono’ or ‘neither.’

Interesting. Reminds me of all the articles comparing vinyl to digital. In the end, can anyone but those with the most expensive audio equipment tell a difference in sound quality?

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2015 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.


Big Harp talks about music biz struggles on NPR’s Weekend Edition; no shows ’til Friday…

Category: Blog — Tags: , , , , , — @ 1:54 pm January 14, 2013

by Tim McMahan,

Big Harp, Chain Letters (Saddle Creek, 2013)

Big Harp, Chain Letters (Saddle Creek, 2013)

Clay Masters, who covers the Midwest for NPR, filed a story for Weekend Edition Sunday that features Saddle Creek band Big Harp, and uses the duo as an example of how indie bands face an uphill battle in the post-apocalyptic music industry. Listen to it here. The story also talks about the added pressure on Chris Senseney and Stef Drootin-Senseney who are trying to make a living from music while raising a family — an endeavor that means bringing the kids along on the road.

Of note in the story is the fact that Big Harp’s Saddle Creek debut, White Hat, sold fewer than 2,000 copies. In the old days (’round the turn of the century) that would have been considered a ginormous flop, but today, when no one’s buying music anymore, 2,000 ain’t half-bad, and probably better than a lot of 2012 indie releases. Still, do the math and that’s not a lot of cash. There’s tour income, but it’s not like the old days, Stef says in the report, when they could crash on someone’s floor while on the road. Not with the kids along.

Saddle Creek Grand Poobah Robb Nansel kinda/sorta acknowledges that poor sales are starting to hurt, but that Big Harp’s low numbers don’t concern him, that the label is helped by back-catalog sales and that the reason it exists primarily is to promote “art that we feel is important” and supporting friendships. Gone are the days of pressing 10,000 CDs and spending gobs on print advertising. Lower budgets mean doing more with less.

Clay implied in the piece that unless Big Harp’s new record sells better than the last one that it will be difficult for Saddle Creek to “stay with them.” But it’s hard to imagine Saddle Creek ever turning its back on any of their previous artists. Have they ever refused to release an alumnus’ record before?

Clay also implied that commercial pressures could be the reason for Big Harp’s shift to a heavier sound. Their debut is almost serene compared to Chain Letters, which comes out a week from Tuesday. To me, the new record doesn’t sound heavier as much as more cluttered than the debut. If there’s a criticism to be leveled it’s that added elements can get in the way, something that wasn’t a problem on the debut.

Or maybe I just prefer the kinder, gentler (and simpler) Big Harp. Their best features have always  been Chris’ insane guitar playing, his unique, croaking baritone, and Stef’s clean, simple accompaniment. I can’t imagine (as someone suggested to me over the weekend) that they actively changed their sound to attract a Black Keys audience. I hope they haven’t. To me it’s not so much a question of Big Harp actively reaching out to a larger audience as much as that audience finding Big Harp’s music, which by itself is irresistible.

* * *

Ain’t no shows tonight. In fact, there ain’t no shows until Friday. At least none that I know of. We are indeed in the depths of the winter lulls show-wise, and maybe that’s a good thing considering that everyone seems to be sick these days. While I didn’t have the flu, my allergies knocked me to my knees this past weekend, which is why I stayed away from the clubs.

* * *

Speaking of weekend shows, I said last Friday that Sun Settings’ show at House of Loom that night was their swan song (based on their Facebook page). Then yesterday I got an invitation via Facebook to a Sun Settings show Feb. 8 at O’Leaver’s. I’m told the band will change its name by then. We shall see.

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Lazy-i Best of 2012

Lazy-i Best of 2012

It’s coming down to the final days to enter enter to win a copy of the Lazy-i Best of 2012 compilation CD. The collection includes songs by The Intelligence, Simon Joyner, Ladyfinger, Twin Shadow, Ember Schrag, Tame Impala, Paul Banks, Cat Power and a ton more.  The full track listing is here (scroll to the bottom). To enter the drawing send an email with your name and mailing address to tim.mcmahan@gmail.comHurry! Deadline is tomorrow, Jan. 15.

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2013 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.


Strange Weekend Update: Nansel in Rolling Stone…

Category: Blog — Tags: , — @ 2:15 pm February 18, 2012

by Tim McMahan,

rolling stone

I blogged this because it’s too long to post in Facebook and the story isn’t online at

There’s an interesting interview with Saddle Creek’s Robb Nansel in the new Rolling Stone (with Paul McCartney on the cover). The article focuses on the inevitable death of the Compact Disc, and opens with Robb and Laura Burhenn trying to find a John Prine CD in Leesburg, Virginia, for Laura’s step father. They come back empty handed. Nansel then goes on to talk about how Saddle Creek always debates whether or not to press CDs when it comes to put out a new release.

What the story forgets to mention is that Nansel and Saddle Creek just opened a new record store that focuses on vinyl (the Shop at Saddle Creek). That would have made for a clever twist on what turned out to be a rather dire article that predicts the end of the CD within five years.

Anyway, look for it in the news section of the new Rolling Stone. And look for a full  review of last nights Malkmus show at Slowdown right here on Monday, with a couple photos. (Spoiler alert: It was a great show).

I’m still debating whether to go to The Brothers or The Sydney  tonight…

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2012 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.


Some final words on Dave Sink; The Lemonheads, Lonely Estates tonight…

Category: Blog,Column — Tags: , , , , , — @ 1:43 pm January 26, 2012
Dave Sink

Dave Sink in better days...

by Tim McMahan,

This week’s issue of The Reader features a cover story that compiles remembrances of Dave Sink from the musicians and friends who knew him best. And while portions of the article have appeared on other websites over the past day or so, none collect more comments from the people who made a mark during the era in which Sink was most influential. The contributors: Brian Byrd, Simon Joyner, Craig Crawford, Pat Buchanan, Bernie McGinn, Conor Oberst, Robb Nansel, Gary Dean Davis, Tim Moss, Matt Whipkey, Jake Bellows, Patrick Kinney, Adam J. Fogarty, Gus Rodino and Brad Smith. You can read the article online right here, or find a printed copy around town.

The issue also includes my remembrance of Dave, which I’ve posted below:

Remembering Dave

It began in November 1992. I was a few years out of college at UNO, already working full time at Union Pacific, but still writing about underground music, something that I’d begun doing as the editor of the college paper and as a freelance writer for The Metropolitan and The Note, a Lawrence, Kansas, regional music paper that had expanded its coverage to Omaha and Lincoln.

One of my first assignments for The Note was writing a piece on Dave Sink, his record store in the basement of The Antiquarium, and his record label, One-Hour Records. By the time of our interview, One-Hour already had released singles by Culture Fire (Release), Frontier Trust (Highway Miles) and Mousetrap (“Supercool” b/w “Fubar”), as well as Simon Joyner’s landmark full-length cassette, Umbilical Chords. One-Hour was a big deal both to the editors down in Lawrence and to me.

The audience for indie and punk music in Omaha was microscopic. At this point in its history, Omaha’s live music scene was dominated by top-40 cover bands that played a circuit of local meat-market bars along 72nd St. College music was heard mostly in college towns — something that Omaha certainly wasn’t. But Dave didn’t care. He had no aspirations of getting rich off One-Hour.

From that article:

“It’s fun empowering people,” said the 43-year-old entrepreneur who used to prefer classic rock to punk. “These are good people with good ideas and lots of energy. I knew these guys as really cool people long before I knew them as musicians.”

The advantage to being on One-Hour? “Possibly nothing,” Sink said. “We’re in an infant stage. But this is how Sub Pop got started and a lot of other quality punk labels. Any band we press is going to get 200 promotional copies of their single shipped to radio stations and ‘zines across the U.S. and Europe. The bottom line is we’re a medium for a band to reach a broader audience.”

Sink said Omaha had never had as many good original bands as it does now, whether the city knows it or not. “Unfortunately, most of the time they’re playing shows for each other. Omaha has a very talented music scene that is woefully underappreciated.”

Funny how, despite the success of Saddle Creek Records, little has changed.

After that story ran, I continued to drop into Dave’s store. He would pick out an armful of albums and singles for me to buy, and that’s how I discovered a lot of the bands that I would end up writing about in The Note (and later, in The Reader). He was always willing to give me the inside scoop on something that was going on musicwise. And much to my surprise, he read a lot of my stories, and was always willing to tell me when he thought I got it right, or got it wrong. A former editor at the old Benson Sun Newspaper, Dave’s perspective on my writing went beyond his music knowledge. As a result, he was always in the back of my mind whenever I wrote anything about music (and still is). I guess I didn’t want to disappoint Dave. Actually, no one did.

Toward the latter days of his involvement in the record store, Dave became more and more disillusioned with modern music. I’d go down there ask him what was good and he’d start off by saying, “Nothing, it’s all shit,” but eventually would find a few things for me to buy. He was more into jazz by then, and (of course) baseball, which we’d talk about at great length, along with his perspective on art and literature and film.

Funny thing, it didn’t matter that Dave was 20 or 30 years older than the kids buying the records. They all respected and sought out his opinion, and Dave was always happy to give it. My favorite Dave line when he didn’t like something: “It’s not my cup of tea.” It was that simple.

As the years went on, Dave quit showing up at the store, and then eventually it changed hands and moved out of the basement. Meanwhile, Saddle Creek Records bloomed, Omaha became nationally recognized as the new indie music “ground zero,” and I slowly lost touch with Dave.

And then along came Facebook. And there was Dave again. Over the last couple years we reconnected online, but mostly about baseball. Dave, a long-time Royals rooter, hated the fact that I’m a Yankees fan, a team he said was ruining baseball. I would argue that, in a market like Omaha, being a Yankees fan was downright punk – people hated you for it, that it was a lonely existence not unlike being a punk fan in the ‘90s. He never bought that argument.

I tried and I tried to get Dave to do that all-encompassing interview about the glory days of One-Hour and The Antiquarium. I told him how much he influenced everything that Omaha’s music scene had become, that I wanted to tell his story and put him on the cover of The Reader. Of course he would have none of it. He would kindly turn down the requests, saying he didn’t do anything, that he was only a record store owner and that the focus should be on the bands, not him.

Despite that, I think he knew how important he was to everything that’s happened here. He certainly was important to me.

* * *

If I had to venture a guess, I’d bet that Dave wasn’t a Lemonheads fan.

Not coincidentally, neither am I. But that shouldn’t stop you from going to see The Lemonheads tonight at The Waiting Room, where the band will be performing It’s a Shame About Ray in its entirety. I’m told that Evan Dando was a bit fussy the last time he came to Omaha. What will he do this time? Opening is Meredith Sheldon. $15, 9 p.m.

Also tonight, power pop in the form of Lonely Estates and the Beat Seekers at The Sydney. 9 p.m., $5.

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2012 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.


Column 334: Saddle Creek talks Spotify and its possible impact; So-So Sailors, Digital Leather tonight…

Category: Blog,Column,Interviews — Tags: , , — @ 11:39 am July 28, 2011

Column 334: Every new record at your fingertips? Meet Spotify

by Tim McMahan,

SpotifyAs I write this I’m sitting in a lodge in Breckenridge, Colorado, with no Internet access and I’m listening to the latest by Death Cab for Cutie using red-hot music streaming service Spotify.

Spotify is the latest import from the Sweden that is promising to revolutionize how we listen to new music. It became available in the United States a couple weeks ago after thriving in Europe since 2008. Now with 10 million “subscribers,” the service lets you stream music via the web from a selection of 15 million songs, including most new indie releases, all for free (20-hour limit per month with advertising). For a mere $4.99 a month you can get unlimited access with no ads; and for $9.99 per month you get all the above plus access on your cell phone and “off line” (how I’m listening to Death Cab right now).

Sure, there have always been other on-demand music services that offer similar content — Grooveshark, Rdio, Slacker, good ol’ Rhapsody — but none offer as many songs along with an iPhone app. Spotify’s promise of being able to listen to any song at any time was too enticing to pass up, so I bought a premium subscriptions, downloaded the app and got started.

My first Spotify selection: The new one by Low, C’Mon, on Sub Pop. I’ve been itching to hear it. Unfortunately, when I tried to play it, the only thing I got was a “licensing not available” message. Strike one, Spotify. Instead, I tried the new one by YACHT, and The Antlers, and Cults, Ride’s Nowhere, Jesus & Mary Chain’s Stoned & Dethroned and KISS Alive. All were there. All sounded fantastic. But later, when I tried to listen to Led Zeppelin I or anything by Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, I came up empty. Strike 2, sort of (I already have everything by Zeppelin and Floyd, on vinyl).

There has yet to be a Strike 3. For someone who thrives on new music, Spotify is a dream come true. And for just $9.99 a month, imagine how many bad record purchases I will now avoid. Which brings up the next question: If I don’t need to buy records anymore, won’t labels and artist hate this service?

“Well, I think it’s pretty sweet,” said Robb Nansel, one of the guys who runs Saddle Creek Records. He’s had a trial version of Spotify for a few months.  “I like it. I think there can be some improvements, like how you find music. You have to know exactly what you’re looking for, there aren’t a lot of discovery tools built into it. But just having access to anything whenever you want is pretty great from a user point of view.”

Nansel said Saddle Creek worked its deal with Spotify though Merlin, a trade organization that represents a lot of indie labels around the world. Think of it as a collective bargaining organization that levels the playing field between majors and indies. “They’ve been working with Spotify overseas the last few years,” Nansel said. “They brought a deal with the states that we could take.”

He said Saddle Creek and its artists get a cut of Spotify’s ad revenue based on the number of their songs listened to by service subscribers each month. “At this point, the amount is minimal within the United States,” Nansel said. “But it’s starting to be something worth considering in the U.K., because they’re subscriber base is getting so big. It starts to make even more sense when it has 50 million subscribers.”

While ad revenue is fine, Nansel said the big money comes from paid subscribers. “Spotify wants to take this to a cable television analogy,” he said. “If you can get that mass population to subscribe to this model, than the dollars for labels and artists are superior to what they were in the heyday of CD sales. At least that’s the pitch they give to labels.”

But could Spotify ever get that big? Nansel’s not so sure. “Most people in the U.S. don’t spend $9.99 a month on music,” he said. But who remembers when television was free? “Cable TV has succeeded in that people pay for cable. If you can get those sorts of numbers, the music industry looks a whole lot better, but I don’t know if you can.”

Nansel said Spotify also tries to sell itself as a “discovery tool,” not a replacement for music sales. “I definitely use it that way,” he said. “I’ll check stuff out that I wouldn’t check out otherwise, and if I like something I buy it on vinyl. But I’m older, so maybe it’s not the same logic for someone who’s younger.”

Nansel also wasn’t sure how Spotify could impact Saddle Creek’s future. “We’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “If ad and subscriber revenues are bad, we won’t be talking about Spotify in two years.”

So what does Spotify mean for the future of the ailing compact disc? “I don’t think it’s a huge nail in the coffin, but another baby step along the way,” he said. “I can’t see the compact disc being around in how many years. Vinyl will have a place, a niche. Most people consume (music) digitally and a smaller subset consume physically. More elaborate packaging fits vinyl nicely. The convenience of the CD is what made it attractive.”

Mike Fratt, who runs Homer’s Records, called the idea of CDs going away “more tech hype bullshit. A relentless drum pounding of ‘CDs are going away’ for the last 11 years has resulted in what? CDs still representing half the business.”

On the other hand, Fratt said services like Spotify could be a threat to terrestrial radio, but that’s another story…

* * *

Two more things. First, that Low album did become available about a week after I tried to find it on Spotify. Second, I initially thought I could find a ton of local artists on Spotify, artists that you’d never expect to find on a service like this. Until I realized that Spotify looks into your computer’s music library for search results. Once I figured this out, I realized that local acts were extremely limited in Spotify, if non-existent.

* * *

Tonight is the MAHA Music Festival Showcase at The Slowdown curated by So-So Sailors. The line-up: Digital Leather, Fortnight and Millions Of Boys. The show starts at 9 p.m. and is absolutely free.

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2011 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.