"Leave the F-Bombs In": An Interview With Daytrotter's Sean Moeller
You may not know his name. You may not even know Daytrotter. But Sean Moeller has played an indispensable role in snatching many of your favorite groups from the clutches of obscurity.
You might not know Sean Moeller by name. You certainly couldn’t pick his face out of a crowd. However, if you have even a passing interest in modern pop music, then you’re doubtlessly the benefactor of his life’s work. As the founder and head of the immensely popular Daytrotter Sessions, where he earned the moniker "Mr. Daytrotter", he has played an indispensable role in snatching many of your favorite groups from the clutches of obscurity.
For nearly a decade now, the incredibly popular Daytrotter sessions have been recorded from the Horseshack Recording Studio, located along the banks of the Mississippi in Rock Island, Illinois. Like some sort of latter day Sun Studios, Horseshack has played host to nearly every up and coming working man's group since its shoe string incorporation. From hip-hop to disco, from indie to country, touring acts have found safe haven and a national platform for exposure in an outlet far removed from the big city scenes of Nashville, Brooklyn, Austin, and Los Angeles.
It should come as no surprise that most are likely unfamiliar with Moeller as a person. Despite the flash and fizzle of the pop market, he could only be described as reserved. Unlike the ubiquitous photo-shopped full spreads of collaborators like Vampire Weekend, St. Vincent, Spoon, El-P, or the Lumineers, the mysterious Mr. Moeller doesn’t go in for publicity much at all. The great and powerful Google doesn't reveal much about him personally, nor does the thinking man’s site, Wikipedia, contain an interview with Moeller from anywhere this side of the '00s.
One wonders why. When we meet at the Great River Brewery in Davenport, Iowa, I can't even place his face from the few photos I had previously found on the internet. When he approaches me clad in a denim-on-denim Canadian tuxedo, complete with trucker’s hat, I'm suspicious. How does an unassuming reporter from the depths of nowhere establish a multi-national company that consistently hosts top-tier touring acts long before they break into the mainstream? With the success of such an operation, why not move headquarters to somewhere more illustrious, better suited to the hipper-than-thou tastes of the indie music market?
We sit down over fine in-house craft beers. In low tones complemented by a self-effacing, dry humor, Moeller explains the unlikely path that took him from slave wage labor to his current position as inside man to next year’s trends.
“I worked at the Quad City Times for 12 years," he tells me. "I started in high-school, just answering the phones and stuff like that. I went off to college, and then came back and started writing. I was lazy and didn't want to look for another job. It was OK; I just wanted to be a writer. I think that if you work long enough at a newspaper, you realize there's more out there. I got bored, I guess.
"Y'know, anytime it sort of dawns on you that you wanna do more, something different..." He gets lost in his thought for a moment, and then then snaps to: "Most people are in a place where they can't just up and change what they do. But I had an idea, so we rounded up some buddies and said, 'Do you wanna do this?' They said yes. We started taping sessions in late 2005, and Daytrotter went live in February 2006. At that time, nobody else was doing anything like it. You look around now and there's a billion of 'em. You go to any city in America and there's someone with a camera wants to do a session with your band, someone with an audio rig wants to record. That didn't exist back then.
"It's weird to think about it now, but it was an easy sell with publicists, managers and bands. At the time [the bands] were bored, they didn't have anything to do during the day -- maybe a radio show, but here we're only talking major cities, and a very small number at that.”
It’s interesting he should bring that up: the boredom, poverty, and listless burden inherent for the musician in the perpetuity of one night stands. But it's easy to get trapped in these thoughts, and one must bring themselves back to the idea that passion and beauty are what define music as artistry, not industry.
With all of that said, it must also be understood that despite long-shot odds and pauper paydays, now more than ever the musician has the best possible odds of actually being heard. The old A &R industry gatekeepers have, for better or worse, been replaced by the direct democracy of social media. While major print publications like SPIN and Blender have withered away in the face of so much digital competition, it's also very likely those competing blogs and music publications have also already seen their heyday. Yet in spite of these various sea changes, Daytrotter's popularity has only grown over the years.
“I think there are a lot more opportunities now," Moeller posits. "If you're a songwriter and you form a band, you go out on the road and tour. You can either be a success or failure based on your own terms at this point. If your idea is to get exposed to as many people as possible, the sky's the limit. You probably have the best chance of any time in history of at least giving it that college try. You're going to find out real quick whether or not people give a shit."
By contrast, he notes, "It's not like when you used to make an album in obscurity. Now you take a half a year, put the work in, take advantage of every opportunity thrown your way, and your music will be put before a lot of people. You might not make any money yet, but you can judge whether it’s worth continuing. For most artists, that's all they really want. 'Can I really do this? Can I keep doing this? Can I sustain myself this way?'
"That being said, there's a lot more opportunities for bands, even if they haven't put in the work. If you write a great handful of songs right now, you can have gates open. One day after you post something on a website, you can see if the door's just banging down. You can see if people want to work with you, and maybe if labels want to sign you. In one day,your whole life can change. That didn't exist before. That wasn't possible. You had to really do the time; that's kind of how the landscape has changed. There are a lot of really great opportunities for bands, and we like being one of those outlets.”
To highlight the point, that Daytrotter is arguably the best known "session site" makes Moeller visibly uncomfortable. It isn’t the praise, though; in bringing up notable corollaries like the Lagunitas sponsored platform "Jam in the Van" or La Blogotheque’s "Take Away Shows", Moeller doesn’t shy away so much as shudder at the comparison. Here, he’s right: the platforms are fundamentally different. While either of the aforementioned sessions are widely available for free on YouTube or at their individual websites, fans are still willing to pay for Daytrotter.
“It's because we're grandfathers. For example: who really gives a shit about Rolling Stone anymore? They’re grandfathers, too. But, at the same time, Rolling Stone is never gonna go away. I still look at Rolling Stone... everybody does. If you get a cover story with them or they say something nice about your band, it's a big deal. As far as publishing and magazines go, it's hard to argue with Rolling Stone; I like to think we're something like that.”
That’s all well and good, but it still doesn’t really get at the heart of the question. The music of past empires died the moment it was born, making the physical musician a necessity. These days, however, why pay for something that can be had for free? More than any time before, the musician is seeing diminished returns monetarily. The prevalence of digital mediums has curbed the stunning advance, and song popularity alone doesn't necessarily equate to royalties.
It could be argued there’s a great equalizer happening in this moment in which David Lowery, Taylor Swift, and the average listener are all at odds. Given the miserly Spotify royalties for Pharrell's ubiquitous “Happy”, compounded by the fact that no one believes in divine providence as much as the Almighty Dollar (just ask Scott Stapp), it seems that we’re in a collective free fall from the branches of a tree whose roots reach back to our ancestors. Can a pay-for-play site expect to hold on, let alone grow in the rapidly changing media atmosphere?
“I feel completely fine where I am," Moeller says, not too worried. "This is just a thing called Daytrotter; ultimately, it’s built around relationships. Most people that I’ve done things with over the years, we’ve met through this thing. But they could give a shit about Daytrotter. They know who I am, what I stand for, and what my intentions are. They know what I wanna do and what I wanna do for them. I think it’s definitely sustainable for another nine years. I bet everything on the idea of introducing people to great music they might not have been able to find otherwise. I want to produce artists, especially artists people won’t know, and I want to introduce people to good music. There’s so much music these days; I don’t think it’s ever going to change that the average person doesn’t have the time to find it all. I continue to look at Daytrotter as something where we still after nine years haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s out there.
But what does one do with the likes of Sean Moeller in the larger context of the music industry? Far from guarded, he’s a man who repeatedly during the interview says, “I don’t give a shit. Go ahead, ask the question and leave the f-bombs in.” He isn’t necessarily cavalier, but rather comfortable in his own skin, and with the role he plays. He’s the type of man to nick a tooth on the Pop Music Machine’s pistol sight.
One must not forget: as goes Iowa, the nation follows. Though his name may not be widely known in the sense of celebrity, Moeller plays an important behind-the-scenes role that gives bands both famous and up-and-coming a unique chance to spotlight their music. In this impersonal world of social media influence and instant gratification, one can rest assured there are some few brave souls left dividing the wheat from the chaff.
“Every artist we’ve worked with over the last nine years and every artist we will work with from here on out deserves the audience of people who come to the site specifically for them," says Moeller. "I can’t even imagine how mind-blowing it would be for someone to discover it now. [Laughter] Maybe we should spend more money on marketing? Then again, I can’t imagine how blown away people are going to be to discover this site on their own. I also don’t want to put too much effort into finding those people because I would rather they found us. If we spent money telling people to follow us, then what would then separate us from big radio? Nobody wants music pounded over their head. 'Oh yeah, there’s Arianna Grande again. I hear it every 20 minutes.' Nobody likes that.”
Splash image: artist's impression of Sean Moeller, from Daytrotter website.