Brain Drain or Brain Gain?

The names seemed to be piling up. One after another I kept hearing about young, talented musicians moving away from our great city — our great state — to find lives elsewhere. In most cases, “elsewhere” is Los Angeles.

The first two names that come to mind are Laura Burhenn and Jenna Morrison. Burhenn moved to Omaha four years ago from Washington, D.C., and formed the indie rock band The Mynabirds. The band released two dynamite albums on nationally respected record label Saddle Creek (based here in Omaha, its roster includes indie stars The Thermals and Cursive among others) and proceeded to make a name for themselves by touring around this great country of ours.

I found out last month that Laura moved to Los Angeles.

Jenna Morrison was the lead singer of indie band Conduits, who released an album in 2012 on East Coast label Team Love Records (a label founded by Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst). Conduits debut was a head-spinner, and the band seemed to be on the verge of getting to “the next level,” when out of nowhere they broke up.

I found out in December that Jenna also moved to Los Angeles.

They were not alone. A few years back, Chris Senseney and Stefanie Drootin of the band Big Harp, also on Saddle Creek Records, moved to LA. Then last year came word that Tim Kasher of the band Cursive was now living in Chicago. And last month you read an interview in this column about singer/songwriter now poet Kyle Harvey. Once a Benson fixture as indelible as the neon Louis sign, Harvey now lives in Fruita, Colorado.

There was a time in the early 2000s when Omaha and Nebraska in general was a magnet for musical talent, all driven to the Heartland like moths to a lightbulb by a burgeoning indie music scene driven by the international success of Saddle Creek Records. And while Saddle Creek is still pumping out albums (the new one by Nashville native PUJOL drops in May), the label’s fame has waned over the past few years, due in part to a flailing music industry and the exodus of its core artists like The Faint and Bright Eyes (who has “reportedly” called it quits, with frontman Oberst now signed to Nonesuch Records).

Surrounded by this dark, lonely news, I was ready to declare the beginning of the end. There had to be a way to slow down the “brain drain” happening right before our eyes. Part of the answer is Hear Nebraska, a nonprofit cultural organization whose mission is to cultivate the state's vibrant, fertile music and arts community. Through its website (hearnebraska.org), HN provides resources and a voice for musicians and members of Nebraska’s creative class and the people and businesses that support them.

Full disclosure: I’m a founding board members of Hear Nebraska. As I was contemplating writing this column (and in the depths of my despair), I reached out to Hear Nebraska Executive Directory Andy Norman to get his take on this perceived brain drain epidemic. It was Norman who talked me off the ledge by pointing out that he believed none of the recent flights from Nebraska reflected any sort of trend.

“When I look at who has left, all are still really connected to Omaha,” Norman said. “I think that honestly the bright side is that they’re telling the story of Nebraska music wherever they’re at. I see them more as ambassadors. All have positive things to say about the city and its music scene.”

Wise ol’ Norman explained that young people need to see other places and take on new challenges. “Obviously we want everyone to move here and stay here forever, but that doesn’t always happen,” he said. “I don’t think these people leaving are a reflection of Omaha or the scene. They all had individual reasons (to leave). For some, it was time to get out of town. It just happens.”

Meanwhile, new talent continues to move to Omaha, talent like Dan Scheuerman, frontman of indie rock band Deleted Scenes. He and his wife, Jessica, moved to Omaha from Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2012.

“My wife is from here and we wanted to start a family, and both our parents are from the Midwest,” Scheuerman said, adding that he stayed in D.C. for a long time only because of his band. Now at age 31 and with a son, he said it was time to make the move. “Our lives are getting bigger than being in a band.”

No, Scheuerman hasn’t given up music. In fact, Deleted Scenes has an amazing new album called Lithium Burn coming out April 15 on Park The Van Records. He said Omaha’s music scene played a role in his relationship from the start.

“Funny enough, it’s kind of how Jessica and I bonded,” he said. “She was in D.C. doing an internship, and we met talking about Omaha; we talked about Saddle Creek all night. She said the city was a great place to raise a family and a great place to live. It had a romantic appeal to me.”

And besides, living in D.C. wasn't easy. “D.C. doesn’t have a culture that supports music,” Scheuerman said. “I don’t feel like it’s a part of the city’s identity the way it is in Omaha.”

Also a freelance writer, Scheuerman is involved in both Hear Nebraska and music website Omahype. “You can do cool shit in Omaha,” he said. “Maybe brain drain is OK, because there’s a little bit more room to do cool things. If everyone was coming here to show off their creativity, it would be a higher barrier for entry.”

Norman agrees with the cool shit part. He pointed out that though Kasher and Oberst have flown the coop, both are involved in local businesses -- Kasher co-owns O'Leaver's and Oberst co-owns Pageturners. “Isa Moskovitz (who is big in the culinary world) is opening a restaurant next to O’Leaver’s,” Norman added. “(Music venue) Vega opened in Lincoln. These are pretty awesome trends.

“Bands can come and go, but as long as the infrastructure continues to develop, I’m not worried at all,” Norman said.

Now that you mention it, neither am I.
 

Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 03:48 pm
on Tuesday, March 04th, 2014

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