Daytrotter At 10: A Midwestern Rite Of Passage

Jan 3, 2016
Originally published on January 3, 2016 7:14 am

It started out as a place where musicians could take a break from the tedium of the road to record a few songs and post them online for fans. Over the course of a decade, Daytrotter has become home to an archive of thousands of recordings from such big-name musicians as Tori Amos, Alabama Shakes and Charley Pride. Daytrotter turns 10 next month, and is celebrating with a music festival in Davenport, Iowa.

On the surface, the old Daytrotter studio looks like a dump. It's a 1970s radio station, up three flights of stairs above a pizza shop in downtown Rock Island, Ill. So how did the site's founder, Sean Moeller, who at the time was working for the local newspaper, convince bands to stop by?

"I think I promised them pizza," Moeller says. "I think I was like, 'I'll buy you lunch,' and that was enough."

"It's just a place that was almost like a rite of passage for these various touring indie bands that are driving through Iowa anyway on their way to Chicago or wherever," says Marc Hogan, who writes for Pitchfork, Billboard and other music outlets, including NPR Music.

A lot of other websites started picking up on what Daytrotter was doing, but Hogan says the little studio on the edge of the Mississippi River makes musicians feel at home.

"Daytrotter has really stuck to its guns, and they have this unique concept of just, 'Stop by our place in the Quad Cities and we'll record you,'" Hogan says. "'You'll pick up some instruments that probably aren't even yours. You only have a couple hours and you play four songs — might be a cover, whatever you want.' And then that goes out there."

Daytrotter has recorded a ridiculously wide range of musicians, from Carly Simon and Glen Campbell to Bon Iver and Naughty By Nature, all despite the fact the studios didn't even have air conditioning.

"To ask a band to come in middle of July when it's 100 degrees outside and it's not much cooler in our studios," Moeller says, "it's not coo-- it's not nice, you know. It's like, it's kinda rude."

Nevertheless, Moeller and two sound engineers have recorded more than 5,000 Daytrotter sessions. But they were going broke doing it. The site was supported by ads, but that wasn't enough to pay the bills. So about seven years ago, Moeller partnered with the owner of Paste Magazine and Wolfgang's Vault and started charging for subscriptions. Moeller says some people complained, but enough signed up that Daytotter was able to move across the river and build a new state-of-the-art studio in downtown Davenport, Iowa.

In October, Texas singer-songwriter David Ramirez broke it in. Ramirez played the old Daytrotter studio a few years ago. He remembers that Sean Moeller's online write-up about those sessions was one of the best things he'd ever read about himself.

"And maybe that's really what was touching about it, is that he was the only one that was writing something from the heart," Ramirez says. "I knew the guy cared about music because of what he was doing."

On any given day, Daytrotter hosts as many as half a dozen bands. It's also gone out on the road to record the likes of Mumford & Sons and Wilco, but most of the musicians are far from household names. The members of Denver's Strawberry Runners practice their harmonies in the lobby as Ramirez and his band are packing up. The musicians are about to release their first record and hope that, once it's posted, their Daytrotter session will attract some new fans.

The new Daytrotter facility also has a club, and Moeller says he hopes some of the bands will stick around after their sessions to play for the hometown crowd. He also says he's not nostalgic for the old space — after all, it wasn't meant to be used 12 hours a day, every day.

And for those who worry that the pristine new facility lacks a certain vibe, Moeller says, "Hopefully, we'll dirty it up quickly and some things will get spilled and things will be made a little more rock 'n' roll, I suppose."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is a place for musicians can take a break from the tedium of the road to record songs and post them online for fans. It's called Daytrotter, and it turns 10 years old next month. The studio has an archive of thousands of recordings from such big-name musicians as Tori Amos and Alabama Shakes. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters has the story of the website's evolution from funky Midwest walk up to state-of-the-art studio.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: On the surface, the old Daytrotter studio looks like a dump. It's an old 1970s radio station, up three flights of stairs, above a pizza shop in downtown Rock Island, Ill.

SEAN MOELLER: There've been a lot of great people in this room, but it's just a room, you know? I mean, you could say that about Stax. You could say that about Motown. You could say that about Mussel Shoals and - it was just a room until you started doing something in it, you know?

MASTERS: So how did the site's founder Sean Moeller, who at the time was working for the local newspaper, convince bands to stop by?

MOELLER: I think I promised them pizza. I think I was like, I'll buy you lunch, and that was, like, enough.

MASTERS: It was, says Marc Hogan, who writes for Pitchfork, Billboard and other music outlets.

MARC HOGAN: Just a place that was kind of - seems like almost a rite of passage for these various touring indie bands that are driving through Iowa anyway on the way to Chicago or wherever.

MASTERS: A lot of other websites started picking up what Daytrotter was doing, but Hogan says the little studio on the edge of the Mississippi River makes musicians feel at home.

HOGAN: Daytrotter has really stuck to its guns, and they have this unique concept of just stop by our place in the Quad Cities, and we'll record you. You'll pick up some instruments that probably aren't even yours, and you only have a couple hours. And you play usually four songs, and that goes out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL ME FLOW")

NAUGHTY BY NATURE: Rock Island, Ill. Daytrotter Studios, y'all.

MASTERS: Daytrotter has recorded a ridiculously wide range of musicians from Carly Simon, Glen Campbell to Bon Iver and Naughty by Nature.

NAUGHTY BY NATURE: And it goes a little something like this. You about to feel the chronicles of a bionical lyric, lyrically splitting, dismissing. I'm on a mission of just hitting.

MASTERS: All of this despite the studios didn't even have AC.

MOELLER: To ask a band to come in in middle of July, when it's a hundred degrees outside, and it's not much cooler in our studio - that's just not nice, you know. It's, like - it's kind of rude.

MASTERS: Nevertheless, Moeller and two sound engineers have recorded more than 5,000 Daytrotter sessions, but they were going broke doing it. The site was supported by ads, but that wasn't enough to pay the bills. So about seven years ago, Moeller partnered with the owner of Paste Magazine and Wolfgang's Vault. They decided to start charging subscriptions. Moeller says some people complained, but enough signed up that Daytrotter was able to move across the river and build a new state-of-the-art studio in downtown Davenport, Iowa.

DAVID RAMIREZ: Check, check, one, two.

MASTERS: In October, Austin, Texas, singer and songwriter David Ramirez broke it in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARDER TO DIE")

RAMIREZ: (Singing) The first impression is what I've always been best at. You'd never question me or my intentions. I could be your best friend the minute you shake my hand.

MASTERS: Ramirez played the old Daytrotter studio a few years ago. He remembers that Sean Moeller's online write-up about those sessions was one of the best things he'd ever read about himself.

RAMIREZ: And maybe that's what was really touching about it - is because he was the only one that really was writing something from the heart, very intentional. I mean, I knew the guy cared about music because of what he was doing.

MASTERS: On any given day, Daytrotter hosts as many as a half-dozen bands. It's also gone on the road to record the likes of Mumford and Sons and Wilco, but most of the musicians are far from household names. Denver-based Strawberry Runners practiced their harmonies in the lobby as Ramirez and his band were packing up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HATCHER CREEK")

STRAWBERRY RUNNERS: (Singing) I would have run, would have run away, but I couldn't leave you.

MASTERS: The musicians are about to release their first record, and they hope that once it's posted, their Daytrotter session will attract some new fans.

STRAWBERRY RUNNERS: (Singing) This is where can do what I want. This - this is where - this is where nobody cares. This is my log. I sit on top. There's moss underneath. You can look if you want. Yeah.

MASTERS: The new Daytrotter facility also has a club, and Sean Moeller hopes some of the bands will stick around after their sessions to play for the hometown crowd. He's not nostalgic for the old space. After all, he says, it wasn't meant to be used 12 hours a day, every day. And for those who worry that the pristine new facility lacks a certain vibe...

MOELLER: You know, hopefully, we'll dirty it up quickly, and, you know, some things will get spilled and some things will be made a little more rock and roll, I suppose.

MASTERS: For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.