When you talk with Kate Dussault, it’s obvious how important music is to her.
“I can’t imagine a life without music,” Dussault says. “It’s where I learned a lot. It’s the focus of so many memories. It invades every part of every one of my senses. You can’t eat music, but if you could, I would.”
Her musical passion isn’t merely a personal preoccupation. Dussault wants to share her passion with others and help grow the Omaha music community. That passion is what led her to found the Hi-Fi House.
Dussault, who was raised in Omaha and attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, grew up in a music-loving family. Her father worked in radio and frequently brought records home, and she and each of her six siblings owned a turntable. She then spent a great deal of her career working in music. She worked in radio—for studios on both coasts—and for venture capitalist firms, performing due diligence whenever they sought to acquire the rights to music and evaluating marketing plans and budgets.
But the idea for the Hi-Fi House came about when Dussault, who was living in Los Angeles at the time, learned that the famous Capitol Records Building in Los Angeles was being converted into condominiums. The city landmark is a round building that resembles a stack of music records. Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney, and the Beach Boys are among the many famous artists who have recorded music in its famous echo chambers.
“It was always to me the most iconic music building in America,” Dussault says. “And the fact that they were turning it into condos was just heartbreaking, and I thought that building should be something else.”
As Dussault sat in front of the Capitol Records Building for around four hours, she began to develop a new idea for the building, one where each floor was devoted to a specific type of music. Instead of apartments around the edges of the building, there would be “listening rooms” where people could listen to the music together.
You can see that idea at work in the Hi-Fi House, “a social listening room” located at 38th and Farnam streets in the building that used to house Joseph’s College of Barbering. From the outside, you may think it appears abandoned, but inside is what looks like a giant, carpeted living room with rings of couches and armchairs. Listeners can listen to everything from digital music to cassette tapes. Pictures of famous musicians hang on the walls, and the building hosts a massive collection of vinyl records.
“I think this place’s mission is a very unique one,” says Jon Ochsner, an employee at the Hi-Fi House who catalogues records and helps host shows and programs. “To me, it’s a dream. It’s like a dream come true that I never knew I had.”
During the day, the Hi-Fi House is a musicology lab, hosting events for children and high school students, providing services like music therapy to the elderly and other programs. Dussault says that the daytime mission of the space is also to help grow and improve Omaha’s music community.
For instance, the house hosts the “Curly Martin Jazz Lab.”
“Curly Martin came to us and said there was no place in Omaha for a guy like him to play,” Dussault says.
Martin is from Omaha and an acclaimed drummer who, along with son Terrace, was nominated for the 2017 Grammy for Best R&B Album. His jazz lab is an ongoing project designed to introduce people to multiple forms of jazz and to teach them about the prolific history of jazz in Omaha.
At night, the venue is a private club that occasionally hosts live shows and album release parties. Dussault says it has also become a popular stop for bands coming through Omaha who just want to unwind before shows.
True to her mission of being an asset to the music scene, as well as a place that is welcome to people of creative and artistic bents, Dussault says it was important to provide something new. The Hi-Fi House isn’t a library or a record store or a coffee shop precisely because Dussault wanted it to be fresh.
“I think the hardest thing in developing a new business is finding out how you can live in a community and not cannibalize what’s already there,” Dussault says. “It’s easy to do what everybody else did and do it a little better, or invest a little bit more money in it, but to me that’s not helping. We want to support the venues in town, not compete with the venues in town.”
Dussault and Ochsner both say they’d like to see Hi-Fi Houses in other cities.
“The last 20 years we had this sort of personal revolution in music,” Ochsner says. “It was my iPod with my music, my headphones, my playlist. I think the mission of bringing people a social listening experience, bringing that back to people…I just think it’s very necessary.”
Dussault says it’s a challenge to not be seen as “elitist,” or to give the impression that people who don’t know a lot about music aren’t welcome.
“We built this place so that it was comfortable for people from age 5 to 99,” she says. “We believe in sharing music with everybody.”
Visit hifi.house for more information.
This article appears in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.