RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Like the classical music industry, pop and rock have also seen tremendous turmoil over the past decade. The number of major labels is down to three. And a lot of musicians who were signed to labels are now working as independents; booking their own tours, coming up with money to record, tweeting with fans, promoting their albums online.
The problems for a band like Big Harp, which still has a label deal, are compounded by the fact that the two musicians at the center of the group are married, and tour with their toddlers. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters caught up with them on the road.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION IN AUTO)
CHRIS SENSENY: I don't know - left or right?
STEFANIE DROOTIN-SENSENY: Oh - let's go left.
SENSENY: All right.
CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Big Harp guitarist and lead singer Chris Senseny pulls his minivan into a gas station off Interstate 80, near the small town of Walnut, Iowa. His wife and the band's bassist, Stefanie Drootin-Senseny, jostles through children's books and toys scattered on the floor. Their kids do what kids do on long car trips.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN LAUGHING, TALKING SING-SONG)
MASTERS: This is a quick pit stop between shows in Minneapolis and Omaha.
SENSENY: Do I have some cash?
HANK: I don't want you to get me out, though.
DROOTIN-SENSENY: You have to pee, honey.
MASTERS: As Chris fills up the family Truckster that doubles as a tour bus, he says this wasn't how he pictured his music career.
SENSENY: Because I didn't really start touring, playing music, until I was probably 25; and Hank was born when I was 26. So I only had like, a year of kind of doing it the other way. And it was really fun, but this way feels a lot healthier. I mean, we wake up early in the morning, don't stay out that late.
MASTERS: Stefanie and Chris are from pretty different backgrounds. She grew up in the sprawling Los Angeles valley, playing bass in punk bands; and went on to play backup for the likes of Bright Eyes and The Good Life.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE GOOD LIFE SONG, "HEARTBROKE")
MASTERS: Her husband, Chris, learned guitar and piano from his father in the tiny cow-town of Valentine, tucked in the sand hills of central Nebraska. He went on to play in a couple of indie bands in Omaha. They met in 2007. And in a whirlwind of three years, they had their son, Hank; got married; and had their daughter, Twila. And music took a back seat.
SENSENY: At that point, it'd been - two years?
SENSENY: Two years that we'd hardly done any music. And I think it just seemed like, we have to do this now if we're going to do it.
DROOTIN-SENSENY: We thought, time's a-ticking.
MASTERS: So they got down to recording Big Harp's debut album, "White Hat."
(SOUNDBITE OF BIG HARP SONG, "WHITE HAT")
MASTERS: To date, the album's only sold less than 2,000 copies. Properly promoting the record becomes difficult with a family.
DROOTIN-SENSENY: We can't really do what we used to do; like, we can't do super-low-budget tours, where we just drive out, because we can't stay on people's floors with the kids, you know. So it's kind of hard. We would tour all the time, if we could, but...
MASTERS: The album was released by Saddle Creek Records, an indie label heavy-hitter that's home to bands like Cursive, The Faint and Bright Eyes; groups that in the early 2000s, turned the heads of many music critics who dubbed Omaha the new Seattle. Owner Robb Nansel says Big Harp's low numbers don't concern him.
ROBB NANSEL: We are a business, and so we have to make money to continue to exist. But our primary driver is really just promoting art that we feel is important, and supporting those friendships.
MASTERS: Nansel said Saddle Creek can afford to put out records from bands like Big Harp because a lot of the label's back catalog still sells well and it's just a matter of planning for each record.
NANSEL: Gone are the days of pressing 10,000 CDs and spending a ton of money on print advertisements, you know, so you go into it with more realistic expectations and lower budgets and you just try to do more with less.
MASTERS: This month, the label puts out Big Harp's sophomore album, "Chain Letters."
(SOUNDBITE OF BIG HARP SONG, "CHAIN LETTERS")
MASTERS: They started recording the album in a proper studio in Omaha, but wound up re-recording a lot of it in their Los Angeles garage. They wanted to get it right because this new record? It's a bit of a test. If it doesn't launch them to bigger sales, it might be difficult for Saddle Creek to stick with them. And with the kids starting kindergarten in a few years, that makes it even more difficult to hit the road. That urgency may have influenced the sound of "Chain Letters." It's a much heavier album.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIG HARP SONG)
MASTERS: Or maybe they're just getting out the aggression that comes from touring with toddlers.
DROOTIN-SENSENY: The music is slightly more complicated, maybe; and a little bit more aggressive; but not over the top - I don't think.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD CRYING)
MASTERS: For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIG HARP SONG)
MARTIN: And this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Rachel Martin.
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