Around the start of the new millennium, the eyes of the nation turned to Omaha, Neb., and bands like Bright Eyes and its label Saddle Creek Records. As it often does, the spotlight has flickered elsewhere in the search of what's next. But Omaha's music scene is still going strong: there are a number of new albums coming out this year with ties to the Midwestern city.
On a recent afternoon, Omaha rapper Brenton Gomez (aka Conchance) stops by Make Believe studios just outside of downtown. The studio is still under construction, but CEO Rick Carson shows off some of the progress. Carson moved to Omaha a few years ago — he's lived in Detroit, Chicago and Colorado, but settled on making records here.
"It's all market research," says Carson. "Omaha's the best. We have one of the best economies in the world. We have one of the lowest unemployment rates, which means that people can pay [a] lower rate and they can still have a job — y'know, someplace in Chicago, in Detroit for sure, that's not exactly how it goes down."
That low cost of living was one of the reasons The Mynabirds' Laura Burhenn moved to Omaha. When she left Washington, D.C., six years ago, making music was a second full-time job.
"When I moved out to Omaha it was really nice," Burhenn says. "I actually was able to find myself in an environment where I could make music full time. That's what's nice about a low cost of living."
In addition to finding time to write her debut album as The Mynabirds, Burhenn also found a thriving artistic community.
"There are all of these really incredible activists and artists who live in this town in the middle of a very conservative space in the Midwest. When you live there you realize really how much the rest of the world sees it as flyover territory," Burhenn says. "But then you get in there and you realize how many great things are happening all around you."
Burhenn now calls LA home, but her upcoming album, Lovers Know, features an ode to Omaha: "Omaha, will you still call me darling? / Omaha, will I still be your girl? / When I come home from the thrill of hunting lions, mining ruby-throated riches from the world."
"In the end, Omaha's Omaha and that's the thing I love about it — it's like we welcome everybody in here, but we're not necessarily changing for anybody and that's a real incredible thing," Burhenn says. "Those are the people you want to be friends with, right?"
One of her friends is Simon Joyner, who's released music from the city since the 1990s. In 2002, the national media descended on Omaha thanks largely to Saddle Creek Records and its handful of bands. Joyner says that brief flurry of attention still haunts musicians in the city, but says Omaha is probably like any town with a music scene.
"The train stopped here for a minute and then moved on," says Joyner. "There are great scenes in all these cities. They need some breakout band for the world to look and say, 'Oh, I wonder what's going on in Des Moines.' ... I guarantee you there's exciting scenes going on all over the place that we don't know about."
But a lot of musicians feel to really get attention you've got to be in New York or LA. Omaha native Conchance says he feels like he has to leave. For now, he and his friends collaborate for M34N STR33T, one of his three musical projects he's working on while in Omaha.
"It's really important for us not to necessarily stay here — because I can't deal with too many more winters," says Conchance. "But to be the artist that did our city justice, like many people before us. Because there's not a huge community of hip-hop here in Omaha settin' a standard for it. So, like, that's what I'm trying to leave with the help of my friends."
For his part, Simon Joyner says he's thought about leaving, but he likes the speed of Omaha. He has a family and runs an antique business as well. He says while Omaha might be more conservative than other cities where a lot of creative people are working, that tension sparks a kind of positive struggle.
"And struggle usually adds to creativity, whereas the easier things are the lazier I think people can be ... so Omaha's good for keeping it just hard enough, I think," Joyner says, laughing.
It's just hard enough to keep the music scene thriving, with or without the spotlight.