by Kyle McCormick
Saddle Creek Records is an independent record label based in Omaha, Nebraska. Founded in 1993 as Lumberjack Records by brothers Justin and Conor Oberst, the label started simply as a means to release cassettes by friends within the small Omaha music scene. Today Saddle Creek is home to 26 artists including Tokyo Police Club, Two Gallants, Cursive, and most notably, Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes.
Lumberjack Records was created when Ted Stevens (Polecat/Cursive) encouraged 13-year-old Conor Oberst to record a cassette of his music and distribute it within the community. The cassette was titled “Water”, and Oberst’s talent was the catalyst for the rest of the community to start releasing cassettes under the newly formed label. From 1993-95 Lumberjack Records put out cassettes by several Omaha bands featuring many of the same grade school friends.
Lumberjack Records became Saddle Creek Records as the result of a homework assignment. Robb Nansel and Mike Mogis took an entrepreneurship class together at UNL and decided to start a label as their class project, since they were already familiar with the fundamental processes involved in recording and releasing music. They set up the label as a 50/50 partnership and legalized it as a business.
Mogis found himself stretched too thin trying to manage the label as well as helm most of the engineering and production duties for Saddle Creek releases, and consequently turned over all managerial duties to Nansel in order to focus on his studio work. Mogis made several Saddle Creek records in the basement of his parents’ house in Lincoln before eventually purchasing a space in downtown Lincoln to build what is now Presto! Recording Studios.
Saddle Creek artists began to receive attention at a national level around 1999 when Mogis was able to dedicate his vision and skills to artists like the Faint, Cursive, and Bright Eyes. All of the aforementioned acts garnered major-label interest, yet Saddle Creek’s most successful artists continued to release albums on their Omaha label. As label owner, Robb Nansel even accompanied the Faint to meetings with major label executives in order to help them make the best decision based on their interests. Ultimately the Faint decided they enjoyed working with Saddle Creek too much to abandon their home label. It was this kind of dedication and community support that continues to make Saddle Creek thrive today.
According to Nansel, “the point was never to get anyone onto a major. The point was to see how far this thing could go on our own terms.”
Saddle Creek bands adopted a trend of forming core groups of musicians for touring but bringing in as much help as possible when recording at Presto! Recording Studios. Mogis himself is a member of Bright Eyes and several other Saddle Creek acts, and several musicians within the community have contributed their talents to most Saddle Creek releases. Bright Eyes’s Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground features 25 different musicians, included several members of the Faint, Cursive, Rilo Kiley and many others. However, these artists do not act as session players, but rather as close friends.
Bright Eyes remains Saddle Creek’s most successful act to date. Bright Eyes’ latest full-length, Cassadaga, debuted at #4 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and sold 58,000 copies in its first week. This is an impressive sales figure for such a small label, considering that most indie record releases that break 10,000 total sold are considered successful. Oberst even started a label of his own in 2003 called Team Love in order to release albums by artists he had discovered that Saddle Creek could not handle on their own.
“There are significant ties between Saddle Creek and Team Love,” Nansel says. “We handle all of the manufacturing and distribution for Team Love, however they are responsible for their own marketing. It really doesn’t feel like a separation at all.”
Between Saddle Creek and Team Love, Nansel and his small crew keep their hands full working with old friends and taking on new artists each year. Saddle Creek has become a prominent figure in American indie rock that demonstrates the importance of forming real, human relationships with artists rather than treating them as cash machines. Where many labels are struggling to survive in the rapidly evolving climate of the music industry, Saddle Creek relies on community support to stay afloat.