Archive for Saturday, August 16, 2003

Label makers

Lawrence record companies strive to gain prominence

August 16, 2003


Crack open the July issue of Spin magazine and you'll find a curious picture on the inside: a collection of 34 young adults from Omaha assembled in a family-reunion-esque portrait. The picture looks like an outtake from some long-forgotten summer camp, only the campers have a particular affection for ratted black hair and thrift-store sweaters.

The picture in question accompanies a story on Omaha's Saddle-Creek Records, the little-label-that-could (and now does) litter the pages of Spin, Rolling Stone, The New York Times and countless other trend-setting publications. Generally regarded as a model for small-label success, Saddle-Creek has helped turn well-kept indie secrets like Bright Eyes and Cursive into nationally known acts that sell tens of thousands of records and pack high-profile venues like the Bowery Ballroom in New York City.

Though Lawrence has never spawned a hometown label with the widespread success and visibility of Saddle-Creek, it's not for the lack of trying. Since the early '80s, a plethora of labels -- Fresh Sounds, Mercy, Lotuspool, Barber's Itch, Manic and Noisome, to name a few -- have served as breeding grounds for some of the freshest local and regional talent on the scene.

But even for the people who recall them most fondly, these labels are a relic of the past -- a fond reminder of a time and place when Lawrence seemed like it might just live up to its billing as the "next Seattle." Sure, they might collect a random royalty check now and again, but none of the aforementioned labels (with the exception of Noisome) are still actively involved in releasing music.

In their place, a new generation of glory seekers -- Archer Avenue and Datura -- are seeking to put Lawrence on the map. Though these labels' bank accounts would barely cover the cost of printing a thousand CDs, both believe that with enough patience and hard work, they can achieve goals of quitting their day jobs and supporting themselves through the label.

Hopefully, they won't look to Nick Gordon for advice.

"You have to be a little crazy to start a label right now," said Gordon, who steered Mercy Records through the mid-'90s and released the "Soundtrack for Moments" local compilation on his own Braintree Foundation label before bolting Lawrence for a job that "actually turns a profit" with Caroline Distribution in New York.

"It's a hard time for the music industry, which is sad because there's so much good music to put out."

A house on Archer Ave.

The headquarters of Archer Ave. is in fact on Indiana Street, in a little brown house tucked away by some overgrown shrubbery. On this summer day, the house is quiet. Getaway Driver's amps, guitars and drums are scattered across the living room floor, the aftermath of new demos the group has been recording. The four band members -- Stephen Wolfe, Nate Harold, David Newton and Thomas Brantman -- represent the brain trust of Archer Ave., a network of musicians that has expanded to include local act Kelpie and two bands from Texas: Little Compass and Tiebreaker.

The boys are excited about Archer Ave.'s second release, an eight-song sampler of its bands. The label's first release -- Getaway Driver's "Cliches with Harmonies" EP -- came out in February.

"We wanted to show people that we're not just talk," Brantman said.

Approaching success

Perhaps Lawrence's most visible scene is hip-hop.

From multi-performer shows to collaborative recording projects, local hip-hop artists check their egos at the door in the spirit of teamwork.

Though it's not the only hip-hop label in Lawrence, Datura Records probably has hit the ground running faster than any of its peers. The label has sold more than 500 copies of Approach's "Ultraproteus: The Funk Reaction" EP and plans to release full-length albums from Kansas City's Deep Thingkers and Mac Lethal this fall.

"It's not an eight-hour day yet, but I think it's on the horizon," said co-owner and Kansas City native Brent Lippincott.

Lippincott, who earned a music business degree from Middle Tennessee State University, was inspired to start Datura after attending the 2001 Winter Music Conference in Miami.

"I basically ran into a bunch of busters who had no idea what they were doing and were incredibly egotistical," Lippincott recalled. "The whole drive back up to Tennessee I was like, 'You know, I could do this better than all these people.'"

So, with little money but lots of determination, Lippincott started Datura while still attending college. He released a compilation CD titled "Datcomp 1" in January 2002, featuring a variety of East Coast talent. Ultimately, however, it was an old friend from Kansas City -- Sean Hunt aka Approach -- who led him back to the Midwest to pursue his dream.

The two agreed to be co-owners of Datura and moved to Lawrence last summer to be close to what they felt was a burgeoning hip-hop scene. The move paid off. In less than a year, Approach has grown from a relatively unknown MC to a leader in the local hip-hop scene who packs local clubs with the backing of his live band. He's currently touring the East Coast with Deep Thingkers.

Omaha wasn't built in a day

If there's any lesson to be learned from Saddle-Creek, it's that patience pays off.

"It took many years of constant touring and recording before anybody began to take notice," said label owner Robb Nansel. "It probably took five years before we turned a profit."

But, as Nick Gordon can attest, patience coupled with a briefcase full of cash pays off quicker.

"If by 'successful' you mean profitable, and if by 'profitable' you mean being able to support at least one person and put out full-length records that you can afford to work and nurture, it means having a bunch of money, a lot of energy and two good ears," he said.

It's a sentiment that's not lost on Archer Ave.'s Wolfe.

"We all went into this knowing that it's going to take a lot of time, a lot of work and a lot of money," Wolfe said. "If it ever came to a point where we could do this for a job, I'd gladly put in 60 hours a week."

-- Online entertainment writer Richard Gintowt can be reached at 838-7913.

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