By Eric Page
Hidden behind an inconspicuous door on 18th Street in downtown Rock Island, Ill., two dingy flights of stairs above The Original Huckleberry’s Great Pizza and Calzones, you’ll find the music studio of Daytrotter.com.
At the top of those stairs, down a dull, low-lit hall is a music box that has become a gateway to the mainstream, which some of the biggest bands in America have used as a springboard to stardom.
Inside an office at the opposite end of the hall, in a room littered with show posters and collectable oddities, sits Sean Moeller (BA, 2002), hunched over a laptop computer, very much the Once-ler tending his lerkim.
“It’s weird,” Moeller says, “almost seven years later, there are so many websites that do things like sessions and a lot of video stuff. So, it’s not a novel concept. But when we started, we were the only ones really doing things like that. So, there was a lot of explaining to do.” Moeller, a former track and cross country runner at the University of Iowa, truly has created a fine something that everyone needs—a website, where, for only $2 a month, you can download unlimited music, all recorded right there in Rock Island by up-and-coming bands who have yet to hit it big.
Founded in 2006, Daytrotter has become a destination. In the beginning, Moeller used connections he made working as a journalist, asking bands to take a quick tour stop off Interstate 80 to lay down a track he could share—at first for free—with the world. Today, it’s the bands asking Moeller, often rerouting tours so they can come to 18th Street, where music is made.
Some of the biggest names in the music industry recorded Daytrotter sessions early in their careers, including Vampire Weekend, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, and Bon Iver.
It turns outs the idea for Daytrotter formulated while Moeller was a student at Iowa, where he majored in journalism and mastered the local music scene. Often times, he found himself alone at Gabe’s Oasis, listening to obscure bands perform what he thought was quality live music.
“I wasn’t doing something to be different,” Moeller says, “but it was like, ‘Well, nobody else is here. How come nobody else knows about this stuff?’ Just that little idea has shaped a lot of what we’ve tried to do with Daytrotter. Why aren’t more people listening to these bands?”
Moeller graduated from Iowa in 2002 and went to work at the sports department at the Quad-City Times, where he had worked on and off since his junior year in high school. He progressed from part-time agate clerk to full-time reporter, adding an alternative flavor to feature stories, all the while nurturing the idea of Daytrotter in the back of his mind. Finally, a family friend convinced him to go for it.
In February 2006, Daytrotter recorded its first session, and the site was launched. The mission was simple: deliver “exclusive, re-worked, alternate versions of old songs and unreleased tracks by some of your favorite bands and by a lot of your next favorite bands.” They recorded the music, Moeller wrote an essay about the artist, and they produced a unique graphic illustration of the band.
In seven years, the model hasn’t changed, and another thing remains consistent: Moeller hand-selects every band that plays a Daytrotter session.
“I think having that singular sort of choosing power, as opposed to a whole staff of people, is important,” he says. “I like everything, but I also know what we can do well with. I know what will sound good in our studio. I think people believe in what we put up there. You might not always like it, but there is a really good chance that you will.”
Daytrotter quickly took off. Word spread. Bands came and played—among them Vampire Weekend, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, and Bon Iver, the 2012 Grammy Award winner for best new artist and best alternative album. It became apparent, Moeller says, that the music industry is highly interconnected, and Daytrotter had a good reputation. It’s to a point now where the graphic illustration they create is a sort of badge of honor for bands on their way up.
“We’ve had a lot of bands in before anyone else knows who they are,” Moeller says. “I don’t really get caught up in it too much. Nobody’s really found anyone first. It’s silly to try to think you’ve discovered some band. But we certainly provide a platform where, if we feature you on Daytrotter, there are going to be a lot more people who immediately know who you are.”
About two years in, Moeller gave up his career as a sportswriter. Daytrotter had evolved and become more than just a hobby. Today, it’s much more. On any given day, 25,000 to 30,000 people are active on the site, which registers around 4 million page views a month. Daytrotter sessions are recorded in studios in Austin, Texas; Ashville, N.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; San Francisco; and London, though 85 percent still originate from “The Horseshack,” which is what Moeller calls the Daytrotter studio in Rock Island.
That brings about the question of the name. Why Daytrotter?
“I’ve had a weird fascination with horses, and yet not really,” Moeller laughs. “It’s a play on the idea of a day trader. The whole idea was there was going to be somebody new every day. When I used to write songs, I wrote songs about horses. It’s just a weird…I don’t know what it is. I’ve got a problem.”
Moeller also has a fascination with barns, which led to the creation of Daytrotter Barnstormer Tours, live shows that have played at rustic barns in Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Vermont, New York, and Maine. This year, Counting Crows lead man Adam Duritz, a huge Daytrotter fan, broke away from a tour to play the Fourth of July show at Codfish Hollow Barn in Maquoketa, Iowa. In extreme heat, in front of some 600 people, Counting Crows played a three-hour set, which is available for download on Daytrotter.
“It has become one of those things where if you were at any of those shows, you kind of don’t want to see a show anywhere else because of the intimacy,” Moeller says. “You really start looking around like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening here.’ I got carried away with the whole concept.”
What will he think of next? How else will Daytrotter evolve? Moeller isn’t completely sure. Delivering good music, of course, remains at the heart of it all, and Moeller sees around him a music-crazed society obsessed with being first—people plugged into iPods, craving the next new sound.
He knows many of them have not yet discovered Daytrotter.com, and that’s what drives him.
“There are all these people who don’t know we exist,” Moeller says, “and there is something really thrilling about that. We see it every day on Twitter, people saying, ‘How did I not know about this before?’”