Behind the Scenes: Daytrotter’s Sean Moeller on new LPs and never compromising your vision
For years, Daytrotter has been one of the best online sources for indie music, but I sometimes wonder if people realize just the size of their catalogue of American roots music. They’ve got it all; exclusive sessions with well-known roots artists like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Justin Townes Earle, Sarah Jarosz, Alejandro Escovedo, The Avett Brothers, The Lumineers, The Be Good Tanyas, Trampled by Turtles, PLUS they have many sessions with up-and-coming artists most familiar to No Depression readers: Lydia Loveless, Abigail Washburn, Joy Kills Sorrow, Ben Sollee & Daniel Martin Moore, and Frank Fairfield, just to name a few.
Each of these exclusive sessions follow a simple formula: they’re taped live in a recording studio, the artists are encouraged to cover new and favorite songs as well as their staple repertoire, then their posted with a long, introspective article and the whimsical artwork of in-house illustrator Johnnie Cluney. It used to be that all these sessions were then posted up to the internet for anyone to listen to AND download! Providing this much free music was a pretty gutsy move in our post-Napster world, but Daytrotter founder Sean Moeller had a reputation for working tirelessly to support artists, and most artists were glad to be associated with his work. Just last year, however, Daytrotter switched over to a membership model, so now their audience pays a yearly membership fee to access all the sessions.
It was a risky move, and a move that many people in the media world are trying to pull off, from major newspapers to TV networks. It also seemed to run counter to the original ethos of Daytrotter. But now that it’s been going successfully for about a year, it’s clear that the membership model has freed Sean and company up to greatly expand their operations. Now we get 5-7 new sessions in our inbox every day as members, plus we’re now able to listen in on sessions as they’re being taped, part of the new Live Session program. Also, Daytrotter’s taken the even riskier step of starting their own record label, of sorts. They’ve been releasing vinyl LPs of Daytrotter sessions and obscure live recordings from a wide swath of their interests. They only press as much vinyl as there is direct demand, and they offer the vinyl FREE to any new members of Daytrotter or any existing members who pay for a new membership for someone else. Previous vinyl releases have showcased new music from Doc Watson, John Denver, The Civil Wars, The Lumineers, Iron & Wine, The Low Anthem, and Delta Spirit
From now until October 3, Daytrotter’s offering an exclusive 12″ split vinyl LP of Justin Townes Earle and Dawes. You can click HERE to find out more about how to get your hands on this vinyl LP, but move fast, since these special LPs are NOT for sale after the fact.
With such a huge output of exclusive music, and such a strong vision for moving Daytrotter forward, I’ve been aching to interview Sean Moeller directly. So here we go:
Hearth Music: When did you start Daytrotter? Why the name?
Sean Moeller: We started the site in February 2006, back in the good old days. The name is mostly random, but was likely subconsciously drawn from an inexplicable urge I had around that time for writing songs about mentally unstable horses. Go figure.
What was your vision for Daytrotter at the time?
SM: It really hasn’t changed a bit. I was frustrated, at the time, that the bands/artists that I thought were really special weren’t getting the time of day. While it was foolish to think that I could do anything about it, I tried anyway. The idea was to try to provide a platform where everyone was treated absolutely equally. They’d come in, get the same situation — a room, four songs recorded live, straight to quarter-inch tape, an illustration and an essay — and people could decide for themselves. It was a general idea that the cream rises to the top when it’s a group of people performing live, but still for themselves, for the integrity of their art/craft. It’s sorta worked out.
How did that vision change as the site grew?
SM: I’ve never changed the vision.
How big is the site now? Like how many visits do you get per day or month? Do you think that as the site grows, a community of Daytrotters grows around it? How many people work on the site? Do you have other employees?
SM: There are between 25-30K people on the site every day — between free trial members and paid members. It’s a constantly fluctuating group of people. I think that there’s an incredible community of people who have really embraced what we do. I hope it’s always like that. There are four of us who work all day long on Daytrotter, every day.
Did you have trouble convincing artists or labels to let you put up the songs for download? It seems like the music industry is finally coming around to this for publicity, but they’ve been pretty behind the times and stonewalled a lot of people early on.
SM: We didn’t. It seems like our approach to helping these bands and labels, in promoting their music, was something they could get behind. We’ve never posted anything on Daytrotter that we didn’t spend the time and money to personally record. Everything that we’ve ever done has been with a love and passion for these artists — in creating something new in a different environment — which will hopefully lead people to go out and buy their records and pay to see them play a show. We have always wanted to be that trusted curator — that gateway to these wonderful artists.
SM: We call it membership and it was an absolute necessity as we were swimming in monthly costs/debt. We were months away from going belly-up — as our expenses are quite large in pulling all of this together — and now, nearly a year after the switch to the membership model, we’re able to pay our bills. It’s been a great feeling, seeing all of the Daytrotter supporters coming to our side and helping us keep doing what we do for all of the amazing artists out there who take the time to visit us and who just want to keep making their art. We like to think that we can give them some great opportunities to help them make it — by providing a large and receptive listening audience. We have more people active on the site today than we ever have in our seven years.
Do you have a vision for what kind of music fits best with Daytrotter? Is there any kind of music you haven’t featured but would really like to?
SM: I think we’ve gotten to a place where we can do good things with everyone who wants to stop by. Heavier rock and roll still is a bit problematic, just because we tape everything in one room. Open microphones don’t play well with that sort of situation.
Who are some of your favorite recent discoveries on Daytrotter? Like which bands did you fall in love with recently that you hadn’t known much about before they came to the session? Do you have bucket list artists? Like artists you’d really want to work with but haven’t been able to book yet?
SM: People don’t get invited to Daytrotter unless I think they’re great so I can’t really answer the first question because it doesn’t really apply. I’ve always wanted to work with Willie Nelson. I think that would be the ultimate. We’ll see if that can ever come to be.
I love the illustrations! How did you hook up with artist Johnnie Cluney? Do you think his illustrations have really branded the site?
SM: Oh, Johnnie. We’ve been living here [Rock Island, IL] our entire lives and in the music community for the same amount of time. I’d always loved his flyers for shows, etc. and when I was thinking about what I wanted the site to be, I knew I didn’t want photography. I wanted illustrations. Johnnie was the first person I thought of. Now, he’s the only person I think of. I think it’s an absolutely essential part of the site. His illustrations are iconic I think.
Tell me more about the Daytrotter vinyl series? And why and how did you choose Doc Watson for the last vinyl? Did it sell well? What’s next in the series?
SM: We’ve dabbled sparingly with vinyl a couple of times over the years — largely letting other people do the heavy lifting. We decided we really wanted to have a series that we could keep adding to, that could be a bit of a history of the site. It’s a way for us to pair up some of our favorite sessions and give them a limited physical birth. We did the Delta Spirit/Doc Watson split because we had the ability to. We love Doc and the Delta Spirit guys were well into it so we went for it. It did fairly well. The next vinyl — which is available only until Oct. 3 and free to new annual members — is a split with Dawes and Justin Townes Earle. We’re very excited about it and we have some other really cool potential collaborations coming up, we think.
Tell me more about your new “Horsepower” feature. It’s a really cool button that lets Daytrotter users share sessions with friends or over the ‘net, and in turn rewards them with prizes or cool gifts if their sharing helps bring in new members.
SM: Horsepower is just our way of encouraging people to spread links of their favorite sessions, telling their friends who have never heard about Daytrotter what it is — and in turn giving them incentives for being persuasive and hopefully getting those newcomers to become members themselves.
What’s next for Daytrotter? Where do you see it moving in the future?
SM:We’re just going to try and keep doing what we’re doing. We think our present is our future, in a way, and it always has been.
Check out Daytrotter at daytrotter.com and be sure to get yourself on the list for the exclusive Justin Townes Earle/Dawes split LP by singing up for a membership.