For our latest edition of Different Cities Different Voices, a series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the United States through the voices of local creators and innovators, we are putting the spotlight on Omaha, Nebraska. The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the USA, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.
First, an introduction from our New Music USA program council member Amanda DeBoer.
Growing up in Omaha, my first memories of live performance include a touring Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar and the annual Omaha Community Playhouse production of The Christmas Carol (legendary around these parts). I performed in my first community theatre production when I was 13 (Brigadoon at the Ralston Community Theater), and the Dundee Dinner Theater production of Fiddler on the Roof when I was 14. After that, I lived and breathed high school show choir and theater until I moved to Chicago to study at DePaul University when I turned 18.
I moved back to Omaha for love in May 2012, and hadn’t been involved in the local music scene at all after leaving, so I didn’t have much context for what to expect. I was energized and ready build something of value in a community of artists and appreciators that often feel invisible. I was convinced (and remain convinced) that outsider art belongs everywhere and to everyone, and felt driven to dedicate my life-force to experimental performance in the middle of a very conservative part of the world. With a little luck and a badass team (much love to the originals, Stacey, Kate, and Aubrey), Omaha Under the Radar pulled off our first annual festival in 2014 with a budget of less than $8,000. For nearly 10 years, often by the skin of our teeth, we continued to showcase local and national artists at our annual festival, concert series, and educational workshops. And now, I’m both excited and heartbroken to announce that my husband and I will be moving our family to Chicago in 2023 and passing on the organization, in a new form, to my co-founder and co-organizer Stacey Barelos.
When I moved home, I quickly realized that I had much to learn. Omaha Under the Radar was curated through a free application process, and we always received a fascinating mix of applications. Since there wasn’t a big local community for contemporary classical music, we connected with theatre folks, jazz musicians, electronic artists, indie rock kids, and all sorts of people that we never would have connected with if we’d stayed siloed in one niche genre. Our goal was to feature 50% local and 50% non-local artists at every festival, to encourage a cross-pollination of individuals, to carve pathways for local artists to build connections outside Nebraska, and to put a spotlight on the artists doing beautiful, high-level work in the region.
Aside from steak and Warren Buffett, Omaha is often recognized for its indie rock scene including artists like Conor Oberst and the folks at Saddle Creek Records. There has historically been a robust jazz scene in North Omaha, where there has been an arts resurgence thanks to folks like Brigitte McQueen at the Union for Contemporary Art, Marcey Yates at Culxr House, Dana Murray at North Omaha Music and Arts, Michelle Troxclair and the folks at Benson Theater, and others. There is a small but mighty experimental music scene comprised of curious minds and musical omnivores that you will also find sitting in with rock bands and popping up at singer-songwriter open mics (shout out to Aly Peeler, the queen of Omaha open mics). It all feels loose and fluid in the way that small communities often do. Everyone borrowing and sharing and popping up in lots of projects.
Omaha artists and organizations have an outsized impact when evaluated against the resources available locally. Thankfully, some of the larger organizations like KANEKO, Nebraska Arts Council, Amplify Arts, and a handful of others have dedicated their resources to uplifting the local community. Without them, I’m not sure Omaha Under the Radar, and many other small organizations, would exist. We’re lucky to have some fantastic music and art venues like The Slowdown, The Jewell, The Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Waiting Room, Reverb Lounge, Project Project, Pet Shop Gallery, and more. The independent artist community is exceptionally intrepid and inventive, finding inspiration and ways forward where there seem to be none. Starting venues in old car washes and all sorts of unlikely (and possibly ill-advised) places. Pulling events together out of thin air. Building community and growing the audience one person at a time.
As happy as I am to enter the next chapter of my life, I am also gutted to be moving on from this community. It sometimes feels like “us against the world” around here, and I’ll miss the comradery that comes with pooling our resources and building something progressive in a decidedly unprogressive place. Cities like Omaha, and the local artists that make the community vibrant, deserve to not only be seen, but celebrated and supported. The folks in this article are all artists, organizers, curators, and educators who show up for the community and build new pathways. They breathe life into any project or collaboration they are part of and make connections between people and ideas where they didn’t exist before. All cities need people like them, especially these smaller scenes which can thrive and grow based on the presence of a single person.
Outsider art belongs everywhere and to everyone.
Omaha to me has a lot of room to grow and a lot of room for everyone to try out their ideas. There are many creative corners that have yet to be filled.
Mary Lawson a.k.a. Mesonjixx
There isn’t much of a “music industry” here to maintain a large creative population, but if you are an individual who works in larger markets, you can make Omaha a home-base and navigate the country with ease.
Because of its too-big-to-be-small and too-small-to-be-big size, the scene gets a little more porous than perhaps other (bigger) cities and I love that.
Without the weight of a storied experimental music scene, Omaha is delightfully game for anything and everyone.
If anything, the small town atmosphere led to my developing into a composer as well as musician, free to pursue my interests in a non-competitive setting.
What keeps me in Omaha is a sense of home, community, affordability, fun, and the possibly-hard-to-understand endless opportunities that abound in Omaha.
Mary Lawson a.k.a. Mesonjixx
Omaha seemed like a natural progression from Lincoln. I was considering living expenses and it was the best option for me at that time. Not only financially was I considering Omaha, but being close to family. Most of my family live and work in Lincoln.
Omaha’s music scene is different from other scenes I’ve experienced in other places because of the room that there is for growth. Omaha to me has a lot of room to grow and a lot of room for everyone to try out their ideas. There are many creative corners that have yet to be filled. Working for The Union for Contemporary Art and Hi-Fi House were such gifts when I first moved to Omaha in 2018. It was in these spaces that I was able to get to know the working artists in music and visual art. Having the opportunity to professionally develop my DIY grassroots-curatorial style at The Union has really illuminated for me how important my work as an artist/arts administrator and advocate is to me. Hi-Fi House was a safe space for me to share ideas and to speak openly about the injustices that I observed, been witness to and in ways experienced as a Black femme in music, in Nebraska. I hold both organizations and their leadership with deep gratitude and respect. Omaha needs to continue to honor these creative spaces by supporting the work and the artists that show up for them.
The challenges in the last two years have been finding how to integrate all that we learned about accessibility challenges in music and art/culture, oppressive systems at play in all of the spaces and places we want to share and enjoy art/artistic expression, humanity and our need to fight for equality for all…public school education and historical truth/FACTS!
It seems like there has been quite the dip in interest when it comes to being responsible for each other in the ways that we were being introduced to, during the first two years of the pandemic. There is no pursuit anymore to repair, reckon and confront oppressive systems that keep us in a cycle of failing each other. We need to be reminded of how necessary we all are, and how no oppression or struggle of one group of people is superior to another and that the only way to change that which does not serve us all, is to work slowly, thoughtfully and with unwavering care.
Mesonjixx: “August Manchester”
BXTH: “Dear Little Brother”
I was born and raised in Omaha. Right when I was ready to move to NYC, I heard of some great individuals working on a building a recording studio, the place I was trying to find full-time work in. I stayed and helped them grow what is now known as Make Believe Studios.
I think the biggest advantage of Omaha’s music scene is that we can manifest (literally) anything more affordably. The climate and opportunities allow entrepreneurs to build businesses efficiently. There isn’t much of a “music industry” here to maintain a large creative population, but if you are an individual who works in larger markets, you can make Omaha a home-base and navigate the country with ease. There is still a ton of room for the city to grow, and that comes with establishing more businesses that focus on the music industry specifically.
Couple of examples: Bemis Center was able to acquire funding to build and operate a venue called LOW END which focuses on showcasing talent based in the experimental sound art and music realm. We’ve been able to bring artists from all around the world. This is very new to the Midwest coming from a city of our size. Bemis also does a great job taking care of the artists that come through. Midwest hospitality is a very real thing.
Make Believe Studios recently launched a software division and has teamed up with Sontec and Metric Halo to develop game changing software for audio engineers. People have been copying Sontec’s work for years but never got the official endorsement until Make Believe stepped in. They are the first and only to accomplish this.
Omaha had a very unique rollercoaster ride the past two/three years. I can say that this year was one of the busiest I’ve had in a very long time. I’ve had to say “no” more than “yes” and I think that was a reaction of businesses and projects that were paused in 20-21 then resumed this year. We didn’t come out of the situation unscathed, but having a smaller population made it much less stressful to navigate for the creative community than a major market.
We The People: “Misunderstood”
We The People is a group I worked very closely these past few years as an engineer and performer. Eddie Moore is one of the kings of KC. Tracks from this album ended up on the TV show “Bel Air”.
Dinner Party: “Freeze Tag”
Dinner Party is comprised of Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder, and Kamasi Washington. Terrace is an Omaha native and drives a ton of influences from our jazz scene. This album was mastered at Make Believe Studios. Had a great time listening to this one being worked on.
The Real Zebos: “Indie Girls”
The Real Zebos is an Omaha based band that has really taken off. They have proven to have a strong work ethic and very creative drive to make songs that are fun to listen to. I think they will be the next to rise from the city. I had the pleasure of working on their first record. The follow up titled “no style” is where this single lives.
I chose to move back to Omaha following living in the suburbs of Philadelphia during high school because college was cheaper, I was dating someone living in Iowa, and had played bass in a band in Omaha (where my mother and grandparents live) over winter break – so, to put it simply, it made sense. I continued to live here through undergraduate and graduate school and now have built friendships and a community that feel supportive and encouraging. It is comfortable and familiar.
I think Omaha is different, particularly pre-pandemic, in that a rapper and a punk band and outsider folk artist and a singer-songwriter could be on the same bill and folks are generally like “sweet”. Because of its too-big-to-be-small and too-small-to-be-big size, the scene gets a little more porous than perhaps other (bigger) cities and I love that. I feel like I’ve been pretty privileged in this regard but, in general, I also think getting a show booked is a lot easier in Omaha than in other major cities – the barrier to entry seems less restrictive. This has been true for my solo project Little Ripple, which can be midi guitar or sampler or acoustic guitar or electric guitar depending on the set, the diminished 7th freaky pop trio I’m in called Sgt. Leisure, and the “rock music band” Thick Paint I play guitar in which is currently split between here and Atlanta. Lastly, the experimental music scene in Omaha has strong support despite what can otherwise be a consumerist and dull city culture in general, largely due to the work of Amanda DeBoer-Bartlett and Stacey Barelos in hosting Omaha Under The Radar which has hosted folks from all over the country (world?) for many years.
I think there are a lot of pros and cons to how the pandemic hit the Omaha music scene – I feel that change was necessary but I also feel that folks are still trying to make sense of it, at least myself. To be real, I was really living it up during the pandemic: sleeping 9 hours a day, running, focusing on art, and not really working. The biggest challenge for me, both before, during, after (?) the pandemic is finding an artistic community that feels authentic and cohesive, again – pros and cons. I think there are definitely strong “scenes” here but never have felt I really fit into any of them. I think, as a result of the past 2 years, folks have begun to be more intentional about building community, having lost it in some ways, and I see the little ways in which those seeds are manifesting now, which is nice. An example of this that comes to my mind is Mary Lawson (aka Mesonjixx) who is hosting shows in every day spaces around big topics, like housing justice, and partnering with the organizations and artists around these things, super inspiring.
I had entered into my career as a psychotherapist within the past 2 years so there has been some reidentification and soul-searching about who I am as an artist/therapist/person. I don’t know if I’ve really overcome these challenges yet – the more questions I ask the more questions I find. If anything, I think the work I’m doing is to be more comfortable in these challenges, in the not knowing, than any particular solution itself.
My recommendation is “Crybaby” by S1SW:
My shared track for myself is “see what you say” by Sgt. Leisure:
or, for a solo track, “You See” by Little Ripple:
I grew up in Omaha but moved away for a number of years, never imagining that my future would be in Nebraska. After recent visits home, I discovered that Omaha was much more vibrant than the city I had left. I decided to give it another try and was ecstatic that I did. Omaha continues to be a place that surprises. Luckily for me, I arrived at the same time as the launching of the Omaha Under the Radar festival and am so thankful to Amanda DeBoer Bartlett for the opportunity to be involved. Then in the second year of the festival, I launched Soundry, an adult education workshop that introduces people to the world of experimental music. Now in its eighth year, the program has since expanded to workshops throughout the city and region.
What’s great about Omaha is that it’s open to experimentation and discovery. Without the weight of a storied experimental music scene, Omaha is delightfully game for anything and everyone. Unique venues
that help facilitate this discovery include Kaneko, an interdisciplinary cultural center in the heart of downtown, or smaller multipurpose cultural venues such as Project, Project and the Union.
Ironically, the key to the COVID experience was and has been collaboration. While so much of my previous compositional output was created in a solitary way, I have discovered the joy of working and
creating new works with others. While this seems antithetical to the months of isolation, Omaha creatives really came together in new ways, particularly by being innovative with technology. I find now that there’s a special bond with any and all of these people and that the relationships
from that time were solidified through the struggle we shared.
“Joan Gets Covid” – A collaboration between myself and Jay Kreimer, a multidisciplinary artist based out of Lincoln, Nebraska.
“The Trip” by Dereck Higgins
Dereck is an Omaha legend and an inspiration for all artists in the city. His style is eclectic or as Omaha magazine states, Dereck is “Omaha’s own post-punk Prometheus”. This track is from his album Psychedelic Sound.
I’m a native of Omaha and that has a lot to do with why I stayed. It’s home turf. Omaha is not widely known for anything musical but it has quite a rich history. My parents were musicians so I grew up around the likes of Buddy Miles, Preston Love and Wynonie Harris. We had guests in our home like John Coltrane (yes) and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Being exposed to a wide variety of music through my parents set me up for a long journey of listening, playing, learning and growing.
I’ve been active in the music scene since the 70’s firstly as a bass player and notably a black man playing rock music. This was newsworthy, the state is very red. I have not allowed this to deter me and as a result I have played everything from jazz to blues to rock to metal to punk to electronic to total improvisation. If anything, the small town atmosphere led to my developing into a composer as well as musician, free to pursue my interests in a non-competitive setting.
During COVID I focused on completing a new album which was released in 2021 (Future Still). The lack of gigs was noticable and I augmented my composing and recording with some commissions for dance that were performed the following year.
Excerpt B from AM 2: The “C” Sessions
Dereck Higgins: “Ramped”
James Schroeder: “Mesa Boy”
I am an Omaha, NE based photographer, community organizer, and gallery operator. I am the Co-Founder and Director of BFF Omaha (formerly known as “Benson First Friday”), and have also had a hand in establishing and operating the Benson Creative District, Petshop Gallery & Studios, the MaMO Gallery,
the BFF Gallery, Trudy’s artist studios, the New American Arts Festival, PETFEST, and have been involved with Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards and Benson Out Back.
I was born and bred in Omaha, attending Omaha Public Schools and then graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Although I call Omaha home, I have traveled extensively and lived part-time in many places around the world including New York City and Cadiz, Spain. What keeps me in Omaha is a sense of home, community, affordability, fun, and the possibly-hard-to-understand endless opportunities that abound in Omaha. Omaha is a very supportive community for entrepreneurs and anyone with a passion project, which has definitely played a role in my residency here.
Omaha has always had a thriving music scene, and it was definitely one of the reasons I chose to call Benson my home for many years. When I moved back to Omaha from NYC in 2009, Benson had 4 or 5 music venues and a tight-knit community that welcomed me into its arms. Seeing live music and interacting with musicians and creatives on a day to day basis was a blast – and inspired me to directly support the music scene myself and to begin supporting Omaha’s visual artists too. In 2012 I co-founded Benson First Friday, now called BFF Omaha, along with two DIY artist-run spaces: Petshop and Sweatshop. Sweatshop took off as a popular underground live music space, hosting local and traveling shows almost nightly. Sweatshop taught me everything there was to know about live music, working with musicians (if you know, you know), and overall operating a venue. To fund the space, we hosted “SWEATFEST” in 2013 and 2014, which were all-day music festivals encompassing local and national musicians, and other oddball fundraising tactics like spaghetti wrestling. The vibe was very gritty and very DIY. Sweatshop ended its run in 2015, but BFF took over the space, expanding Petshop Gallery next door, and reviving the original music festival fundraisers (in 2017 I think?) as what they are known as today: PETFEST.
PETFEST has lived on as BFF’s largest fundraiser since then, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. In August 2020, PETFEST was Omaha’s (maybe Nebraska’s?) first live music festival since the pandemic had begun. To avoid a super-spreader we limited entry to 50 tickets, required masks, moved to an all outdoor set up, encouraged social distancing, doused everyone in hand sanny, and used those contactless thermometers at the gate. Although it was a pain in the ass, it ended up being a beautiful gathering of community members and instilled hope for a revival of live music beyond the pandemic. We were determined to be present, persistent, innovative, and alleviate ourselves from the then sad solitary zoom-confined world that it was. We’ve continued to remain innovative with all of our programming over the past two years, allowing PETFEST to develop into a program beast of its own. For more on PETFEST and BFF Omaha, I encourage you to listen to an interview with myself and Zach Schmieder, PETFEST’s music booker, on Riverside Chats.
A Sweatshop staple from back in the day – Plack Blague: “Queer Nation”
A newer act that we’re hosting at our annual Ball – Specter Poetics: “Meet Halfway”
A band that currently practices at Petshop – Bug Heaven: “Quitter”