An idea that is changing Omaha music was born on a winter's night 700 miles from here, inside a dive bar named the Unicorn Tavern, scratched onto the back of a cocktail napkin by a grad student who needed a thesis and a future.
Today, that cocktail napkin has become a nonprofit that brings Nebraska bands to Benson bars and downtown Lincoln street corners and to the banks of the Niobrara River. A nonprofit that has hitched its let's-do-it-ourselves ethos to the power of the Internet and now shows local music, local music news and local music videos to a worldwide audience.
A scrappy little nonprofit named Hear Nebraska that next month will bring three scruffy bands to the shiny Holland Center for the Performing Arts to perform for a statewide television audience.
A nonprofit that is looking for your help today, just like a bunch of other nonprofits are.
Hear Nebraska was born in the Unicorn Tavern in Lansing, Mich. But it's growing to adulthood in Omaha, and that growth proves something to Cornhusker State cynics like me: Unicorns are real.
“We think Nebraskans can love Nebraska music in the way we love Nebraska football,” says Andy Norman, the Imperial native and Omaha resident who co-founded and runs Hear Nebraska with his wife, Angie. “We love to cheer for each other. Nebraskans will cheer for this as soon as they know that it's here.”
Today is the first “Omaha Gives!” — a 24-hour sprint put on by the Omaha Community Foundation in which local nonprofits raise as much as possible in one day and compete for matching grants and prizes. The event is packed with organizations that deserve a bit of our hard-earned dough. Peruse the list of participating nonprofits at www.omahagives24.org.
It seems like the perfect day to highlight Hear Nebraska, which crusades for local music with the fervor of true believers.
The idea that Andy and Angie scratched onto the back of the cocktail napkin was this: What if we build and run a website that uses writing, video and audio to show everyone that this state's music is so much more than Conor Oberst?
I first heard this idea when I ran into Andy, an old college newspaper co-worker, at a concert three years ago. He told me about this nonprofit he and Angie were calling Hear Nebraska.
Great idea, I thought. Great name. But it will never happen.
Here is what has happened: Andy and Angie taught themselves web design. They made a list of musicians and writers and photographers they knew and explained the concept over and over.
And they began showing up at every local music venue in Lincoln and Omaha, armed with Hear Nebraska stickers that began appearing on backpacks and car bumpers all over both cities.
The website launched on Jan. 24, 2011, with an exclusive video of a famed Omaha band, Cursive, performing live.
Since then, Hear Nebraska has featured hundreds of videos, many of them directed by an Omaha videographer named Django Greenblatt-Seay who runs a sister project called Love Drunk.
Its writers, including a rotating cast of five interns, recap nearly every show in Lincoln and Omaha. Musicians write first-person essays about their introduction to music and life on tour.
Andy and Angie began to organize and sponsor live music, sometimes to raise money and sometimes when it cost them money out of their own pockets.
The biggest names in Omaha music have played under the Hear Nebraska banner: Cursive, Laura Burhenn of the Mynabirds and Simon Joyner, the godfather of the city's indie music scene.
Many other bands were featured on a compilation album, “Hear Nebraska: Volume 1,” composed entirely of local music.
The Normans planned what's become an annual retreat to the Niobrara. Nebraska musicians meet, collaborate on new projects and record videos.
They partnered with the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce to put on a weekly concert, where local bands play free music for the downtown Lincoln lunch crowd.
They partnered with Omaha's Maha Music Festival to pick Omaha and Lincoln bands for Maha's local music stage.
Last year they raised enough to hire a full-time managing director — the Normans both have day jobs and don't make a dime off Hear Nebraska, Andy says.
Now in the works: an Internet radio station devoted to Nebraska music, to be paid for with a grant from an Omaha young professionals group. A project to identify and highlight a band from every county of Nebraska. A tour of county fairs. A second compilation album.
And that most delicious of partnerships: On June 7, three bands will set up amps inside the Holland and blast their music to every border of the Cornhusker State through Nebraska's PBS affiliate.
Omaha Performing Arts and Nebraska Educational Television, co-sponsoring the event, can provide something that Hear Nebraska doesn't have much of. Money. But Hear Nebraska is giving the Holland and NET something else that's valuable. Cool.
Andy Norman hopes people forget about the dollars and the street cred and concentrate on the sound of Kill County, one of the bands playing “Hear Nebraska: Live at the 1200 Club” on June 7.
“Kill County is to me the quintessential Nebraska band,” Norman says. “They feel like they just came straight from the dirt. They deserve a wider audience.”
So does Hear Nebraska. The music nonprofit raised a scant $4,000 in 2011. It brought in $36,000 in 2012.
The goal this year: $75,000. They hope to raise a chunk of that today.
Andy Norman's pitch is this: Nebraska is losing too many of its talented teenagers to the East and West Coasts. And Nebraska has that nagging image problem, one profoundly frustrating to Omahans who are both proud of our agricultural roots and also know we're so much more than just cattle and corn.
Hear Nebraska's mission is to keep young musicians and music lovers here, and broadcast the resulting sound to anyone willing to listen.
“There is amazing artistic talent right here,” says Andy Norman. “This is our music, our sound. I want everyone to hear that.”
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