Dereck Higgins has watched the Omaha music scene change dramatically over the years. Now he’s watching an infusion of new music venues, all promising to provide the next great live music experience.
“I can remember when there was no place to play, and how it was a major event to get a gig,” said Higgins, an active Omaha musician since the ’70s with 85 releases across a variety of genres on his Bandcamp alone.
From downtown to West Omaha, and from small stages to sprawling auditoriums, Omahans are about to have a plethora of new places to listen to music thanks to construction and revitalization. For some, the change is a breath of fresh air — an investment in the arts unlike anything the city’s seen in years, if ever, that could help it attract more touring acts. But the development has led others to wonder whether the demand is really there.
“Like most things in a free market, you’ll see overproduction, and some won’t make it,” said Manne Cook, urban development manager at Spark CDI and director of Fabric Lab, an urban design lab centering Black architects, planners, and entrepreneurs.
Though it had about average population growth over the last decade, the Omaha metro area has lost about 50,000 young people relative to total growth. But people still see the potential Omaha has to offer.
“I would like to think that Omaha and Nebraska have a rich history of music and art that goes back beyond our parents for many generations … I don’t see oversaturation as an issue unless people get caught up in competing rather than growing together,” Higgins said. “I still believe in humanity as opposed to the dollar.”
Twenty-five years ago, owners Marc Leibowitz and Jim Johnson started 1% Productions by booking folk artist Ani DiFranco at the 1,400-seat Sokol Auditorium just south of downtown on 13th Street. Over the years they’ve found success in Benson with The Waiting Room and Reverb Lounge, but now they’re returning to their roots. In 2021, the duo purchased the Sokol, built in 1926 as a Czech community center, and are reinventing the space as The Admiral.
Bringing their story full circle, Ani DiFranco returns to that stage on Aug. 11. The venue can accommodate a larger audience and provide better backstage amenities for artists. Currently, they have only one stage, with hopes to open the basement (formerly Sokol Underground) in the future.
The Admiral isn’t the only new venture from 1% Productions. They’re also gearing up to open The Astro, an outdoor venue in Papillion, within the next two years.
The demand for multi-faceted venues seems to be on the rise in West Omaha. Barnato opened in 2020 next to the Bentley dealership, which is visible through the glass windows of its front room.
Barnato’s membership-based speakeasy, The Green Room, offers a VIP space for concert attendees, including private tastings, rentals, and meet-and-greet experiences with national touring acts.
The space has evolved since opening, adding a kitchen, as well as a pool table and dartboard to meet audience members’ shifting needs.
Barrel & Vine, which opened in summer 2021, has a little bit of everything: Bar, grill, stage and a rooftop swimming pool.
“We wanted something that was kind of Arizona, Vegas style, here in Nebraska … that could bring pool-day club vibes,” said general manager Serene, who gave only her first name.
The live music space downstairs, with a capacity of 400, is all ages. The Mischief Rooftop Pool Club is 21+ and fits 200-250 people. Serene said it’s for guests who want to “enjoy their weekend, get away, not feel like they’re in Nebraska.”
The upstairs indoor space, which fits 120, can be rented in the winter and becomes a nightclub on the weekends. There is also a VIP space downstairs that fits 50 people and a ground-level patio that fits 75. And there is a full kitchen.
Right now, their primary genres for live music are country and cover bands. They will also be hosting an outdoor music festival, Heartland Music Fest, in their parking lot.
While many venues may be trending toward big, immersive experiences with eyes on national touring acts, other projects are putting community first.
The Berkley, which The Reader covered after its opening in late 2021, brings a welcoming and calm environment to the music scene. Its focus is squarely on giving opportunities to artists of all persuasions in a welcoming and inclusive space.
Perhaps the unique new venue is the Omaha Mobile Stage: A traveling box truck converted to host shows around the community.
The project launched in summer 2021 and is in the process of constructing a stage with a robust light and sound system designed by the Nebraska Innovation Studio in Lincoln, with pre-season events beginning in June and season one launching in late July.
Inspired by the Old Show Wagon that operated from 1952 to 2010, this venue will partner with neighborhoods in northeast and south Omaha to co-produce events. Its forerunner primarily hosted youth talent shows, drawing crowds of up to 5,000 at one point in Fontenelle Park.
This project is managed and supported by Partners for Livable Omaha. As a nonprofit initiative, it operates on contributions from the community. The executive director, Jessica Scheuerman, names the goals as arts access, community and workforce development, and public health.
Unlike other new venues coming to Omaha, the mobile venue is a truly philanthropic effort to reflect the arts and cultural hearts of the neighborhoods it visits.
“You think of North 24th Street, historically rooted as an arts and culture hub,” Scheuerman said, offering an example. “The audience is people working and living within walking distance of wherever we are. The artists onstage are from that neighborhood as well.”
The project does have the ability to be an economic boon. When people attend outdoor concerts, they buy food, drinks and merchandise, supporting local businesses. The project will also have an internship program, offering hands-on experience to those interested in entering the live music industry.
Events like these can alleviate the social isolation that has plagued the community, and the world, for the past two years.
“Public health impact isn’t just sickness,” Scheuerman said. “It’s dealing with how communities can pull themselves back together and reanimate these spaces.”
All Omaha Mobile Stage events will be free.
For Justin Strawstone and Corey Church, the heads of the promotion and touring company Nice Enough Entertainment in Omaha, these new venues don’t seem like a gamble. In 2019, their company booked nearly 100 concerts in the 14 markets they work with across the Midwest. This year, they’re on track for about 250.
“Now is kind of the perfect time for something like this,” Church said. “We’ve seen exponential growth of every single genre of music in the Midwest, specifically in Omaha … We’ve seen shows that would typically be maybe 100 people grow into a 300-, 400-person event. We’ve seen some of our artists get signed and kind of blow up over this same period of time. And that doesn’t speak of one genre as much as it does our music community as a whole.”
These new venues also aren’t necessarily oversaturating the market, Strawstone and Church said. Many of them offer different concert experiences — The Admiral and Steelhouse Omaha, for example, offer space for national touring acts that would not quite fill the CHI Health Center.
Strawstone and Church said cities like Omaha, Sioux Falls, Des Moines, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and Tulsa are getting more demand. When bigger cities are inundated with shows rescheduled from the pandemic, it means more eyes drift to the plains. And while that might mean more competition, Strawstone and Church said there are enough shows to go around as well as camaraderie and communication among Midwest promoters and venue owners.
Since the mid-20th century, Omaha’s city leaders have understood that its economic success and national relevance depend on a healthy downtown. But over the decades, plans have come and gone to fortify the declining urban core.
Among the new projects coming to downtown is the RiverFront Revitalization Project, which started with the reopening of the Gene Leahy Mall on July 1. Katie Bassett, vice president of parks at Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority (MECA), envisions the riverfront as a space for everyone.
In August, the Gene Leahy Mall will be hosting part of the In the Market for Blues festival in its performance pavilion, which holds about 5,000 people. In the Heartland of America Park, there will be a small amphitheater along the lake edge, as well as temporary stages for festivals. They also have the infrastructure for small acoustic sets for local musicians.
As much as possible, they intend to make all programming in the park free, from music and culture festivals to symphony concerts to opera simulcasts. Many of these events involve partnerships with businesses and organizations.
Kristyna Engdahl, director of communications for MECA, said the space will offer something unlike any other venue in the city.
“You’re suddenly in the city’s heart, taking in a performance, with the skyline over your shoulder,” she said.
OJB Landscape Architecture was the lead designer on this project. They looked at the Omaha landscape and considered comparable parks — Kerry Park in Seattle, Discovery Green in Austin, Texas, and others throughout the country — to see what has been successful.
The $325 million project was funded through a public-private partnership, with over 75% of the funding coming from the philanthropic community. The Gene Leahy Mall broke ground in early 2019 and will be the first of three parks to open. Heartland of America Park and Lewis & Clark Landing are scheduled to reopen in summer 2023.
Not far away, a large local nonprofit and music industry giant are combining forces for another large venue geared toward national acts. Steelhouse Omaha, opening in 2023, is a project by Omaha Performing Arts with construction and design partners Kiewit Building Group, Holland Basham Architects, and Ennead Architects of New York City. The $104.1-million venue has been funded with private philanthropic support and $1.1 million from the City of Omaha.
Their hope is to bring in touring bands that have historically bypassed Omaha in collaboration with Live Nation. Their target demographic is the 18-45 crowd with a standing capacity of 1,500-3,000, depending on how the space is set up.
Live Nation, the national venue operator and booking company running Steelhouse Omaha, has been accused of monopolizing new markets and pushing out longtime local businesses.
“Live Nation is not necessarily the big corporate overlord,” Strawstone of Nice Enough Entertainment said. “Live Nation venues can be a good thing when they work in conjunction with everyone in the community.”
According to an economic impact study conducted through UNL, this venue will bring $13 million in economic impact and attract 155,000 people annually to downtown Omaha.
“This was part of the OPA master plan for campus expansion,” said Joan Squires, executive director of Omaha Performing Arts. “We wanted to look at the needs of the community.”
This project has been in development for over five years. OPA wanted to take time for conversations with local organizations in developing the Steelhouse Omaha plan.
It is different from current OPA facilities, filling the need for a space without fixed seats. It will also provide local arts groups the ability to host innovative performances, as it can be set up in many configurations, such as performances in the round.
Additionally, OPA will be resuming regular outdoor performances such as Jazz on the Green, Music in Miller Park, and Summer Sounds at Highlander as a partnership with 75 North.
Musician Dereck Higgins, meanwhile, welcomes new spaces for live music. When he thinks about the ideal music venue, he prefers those where music is the focus, and the audience is engaged throughout the performance.
“I go out into the audience. I want you to listen to the music, and I’m going to try and get your attention,” he said. “I always challenge the audience.”
The new challenge will be for these new venues to engage audiences by listening to their needs, and to fit within the broader Omaha music scene.
The primary challenge Higgins sees for the music community to grow is the separation of genres.
“I work across genres and always have. I’m involved in the punk scene,” Higgins said. “I know metallers, I know electronicers, I know jazzers … I’m playing with other groups and these people won’t talk to each other. I’m always hoping that those barriers, those mental attitudes, continue to melt away.”
Additional reporting by Chris Bowling.