Sean Moeller loves what live music can do to you.
“Most people are moved when they see a band pull something off live,” says the 33-year-old. “They don’t have overdubs. They don’t have a second chance. They have to do it right there — right there in front of you.”
It’s an experience that Moeller loves so much that he’s made it his life. In February of 2006, the then 28-year-old wanted more than his job at the newspaper a few miles from the Mississippi River. So, he created an online space called Daytrotter, a place where bands could go and record music. The plan was simple: With the help of friends, they’d bring in a musician or band, tape some songs in their studio in Rock Island, Ill. (appropriately called “The Horseshack”), call it a Daytrotter Session and throw it up online for a free download. And now, almost six years later, the results are nothing short of astonishing; Daytrotter is known as one of the premiere sources for music today.
Not only does the website produce some of the highest quality audio recordings on the internet, but it boasts between three and four million page views a month — a number that Moeller notes could “fill arenas” — and its daily sessions average roughly 10,000 downloads each in their first week. Each year, almost 500 bands record a session (sometimes two or three a day, notes Moeller). And beyond that? Daytrotter has pressed outside of the digital world, as the website’s organizers are now preparing to launch their fifth Barnstormer tour on Aug. 26, a tour that takes a caravan of bands across the country, performing concerts in barns. Yes, like red-wooded, hay-filled, found in the middle-of-nowhere barns.
In other words, Moeller doesn’t write for the newspaper anymore. Instead, he’s pushing a grassroots movement to revitalize how we consume music on the internet — and he’s doing it exactly how he wants.
The operation is pretty simple, or as Moeller puts it, “the most honest way to record.” Run by Moeller and three other guys (illustrator Johnny Cluney, engineer Mike Gentry and administrator Phil Pracht), they use a minimalistic setup: a few mics and preamps record a band performing four or five songs straight to 1/4 inch analog tape. Aside from a conversion to MP3, there is no post-production — no overdubs, no fixes and the mistakes are left in. As the website says, “What you hear is what happened in the room that day.” Moeller then writes an essay about the band, Cluney creates a funky illustration and, boom, a Daytrotter Session is born.
Kembrew McLeod, Associate Professor of Communications at the University of Iowa and producer of the documentary Copyright Criminals, is quick to label Daytrotter as a success. He calls the website the current American equivalent of the John Peel Session, the famous BBC recordings done for years until his death in 2004. “John Peel had thousands and thousands of sessions with bands that people had never heard of,” he notes. “But yet, it was still prestigious. And it was still accessible to unknown bands.” And that might be what’s so attractive about Daytrotter — almost anybody can record a session. Moeller doesn’t rely on news pegs like album releases or tour updates to have an excuse to record a session. Rather, he just records the sessions, uploads them and, as he puts it, the results are “timeless.”
The high success may seem slightly strange — and Moeller himself is the first to admit that the idea behind the website isn’t the most original — but nobody’s ever done it “quite like Daytrotter,” as he says. “It’s an easy thing and it’s a hard thing. Pretty early on we got some really impressive people in our studio. Will Oldham. Of Montreal. Cold War Kids. We got some people in there that, in all actuality, should not have been in there. At the same time though, they latched on the ideal of it all. The feel of it. The essence of it. That was enough of it for them.” And perhaps it’s that connection with artists and bands that gives Daytrotter what it needs to set itself apart from the many other music websites on the internet. The website projects a certain personality — one that’s defined by a Midwestern attitude of community, hard work and, most importantly, a love for music. Deer Tick frontman John McCauley, whose band has recorded two sessions and will headline Barnstormer 5, enjoys “having a friend around when you’re recording.”
“It’s a good thing,” he says. “The first time I was in the studio, just recording with total strangers, it was bad, you know? And if it was just us, the guys from Deer Tick, we’d just be, like, throwing glow sticks at each other and screaming the whole time. Friends tend to know what you want and can help you out.”
Moeller’s relationship with the band members sometimes offers him more insight than the average music journalist, a privilege he calls “thrilling.” He learns the inner workings of musicians’ minds, “things they don’t even tell their family about,” and then writes about them. Ultimately, though? Moeller’s pride doesn’t stem from hanging out with Kris Kristofferson, or recording a session with Carly Simon, or even drinking a bottle of Hennessy with Naughty by Nature (although he still keeps that empty bottle in the studio). No, Moeller’s pride comes from his team’s hard work and dedication.
“It’s in our heads that we have to work this hard because people aren’t going to give us the time of day, and by us working hard and doing as much as we possibly can, we’re distancing ourselves from anybody out there who’s trying to do anything like this,” he emphasizes. “That’s the feather in our hat. Good luck. Good luck trying to do what we do. We’re gonna be Daytrotter and we’re gonna blow it out of the water.”
Catch Barnstormer 5’s Tour:
08.26 North Hampton, NH
08.27 Brooklyn, NY
08.28 Charlotte, VT
08.29 New York, NY
08.30 New Wilmington, PA
8/31 Akron, OH
09.01 Dexter, MI
09.02 Monticello, IL
09.03 Maquoketa, IA
Tickets available at Daytrotter.com.