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Sharp Darts: A Gift Horse

Daytrotter.com records top-shelf indie bands live in the studio--and gives away the MP3s for free.

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It's a three-hour drive to the Quad Cities from Chicago, and by the time you get there you're deep in darkest Wal-Mart Land and the radio is swamped with lite country and Christian rock. Rock Island, Illinois, doesn't seem like a prime destination for a band starting the promo push for their first album on Matador, but it's where the Ponys are headed. They're one of about 90 acts--locals like the M's, Bound Stems, and the Changes as well as bigger names like Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Sunset Rubdown, and the Cold War Kids--that have stopped here over the past year to play not for the presumably show-starved indie kids of Rock Island but for two guys upstairs from a pizza place. Those two guys have a Web site called Daytrotter.com, and the studio they run has turned out a remarkable series of live recordings that are becoming the Peel Sessions of the Stereogum set.

Daytrotter sessions go quick. I was only a little over an hour behind the Ponys on the highway, but by the time I walk into Futureappletree Studio 1, they're done. Sean Moeller, the site's mastermind, is bringing up a pizza and engineer Pat Stolley is packing up a reel of quarter-inch tape. Their process is pretty streamlined: Each act plays four songs, with no overdubs and no punch-ins. Stolley uses several mikes but mixes down on the fly to just two stereo tracks, so that the recording is nearly finished when he stops the tape.

The Ponys set (which will go up in two or three weeks) isn't as revelatory as many in the Daytrotter archive, since they've never been a buckets-of-overdubs studio band. But their four songs--all from Turn the Lights Out, due March 20--sound like a living-room concert, more intimate than their records or their club shows. On "Poser Psychotic" the band locks into a familiar high-speed art-punk stomp, but Jered Gummere's vocals are more relaxed than his usual Richard Hell yelp--and with the help of some great mixing by Stolley, a chiming, delay-inflected guitar arpeggio reveals an uncharacteristically nuanced control of dynamics.

Moeller has his own ideas about why bands sound different in their Daytrotter sessions. "They don't have to impress that person in the front row or the person in the back row that they're hoping will come buy their T-shirt or CD," he says. "They're on the road for a month, two months, whatever, and they're playing the same set every night. This gives them an outlet to be creative." Stolley says the Peel Sessions inspired him personally, because the energy they captured was often so different from what bands put across elsewhere. (I'll second that: I love the up-tempo version of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" that Joy Division recorded in the BBC studios.) Moeller says a lot of bands show up specifically intending to stretch out and fuck around: David Vandervelde broke out a cover of "Cocksucker Blues," Bonnie "Prince" Billy radically reworked a couple old Palace tracks, and Dr. Dog recorded four songs even newer than their imminent album.

This fun, no-frills approach is half the reason Daytrotter has such good luck booking bands. There's a drum kit in the studio, and Stolley has an impressive collection of amps, keyboards, and effects--most bands don't need to load in anything but their guitars and cymbals. This often means they can bust out four songs in not much more time than it takes to make a pit stop at Taco Bell. Plus Rock Island is right off Interstate 80, and as Moeller says, "If you're playing somewhere in the midwest, you're probably driving on 80 to get to a show."

Daytrotter was born out of the frustrations Moeller, 28, encountered as a music writer. For years he's been freelancing for newspapers and for zines like Skyscraper and Punk Planet, but that work has never given him enough opportunities to be creative. In 2002 he took a job as a sports reporter for the Quad-City Times, but that hardly scratched his music itch. He couldn't see the point in starting his own printed zine in a rapidly digitizing world, and as for blogs, he says, "Everyone and their sister has a fucking blog." He'd been considering opening a record store that would host short live sets from touring bands, and soon started thinking about adapting that idea for an online audience. To set things up with the first few acts, he got in touch with some publicists and label reps he knew. Then he called Stolley, a 36-year-old engineer (and house painter) who'd been recording since he was 17. They started running sessions last February and launched the site in March.

Moeller and Stolley used to have to siphon money from their day jobs to keep Daytrotter running, but they recently began selling a few ads (as well as the occasional Daytrotter T-shirt). These just barely cover operating costs, which are fortunately pretty low. The major expense is bandwidth--other than that Moeller and Stolley just have to buy tape and cover their bills, and their sympathetic landlord charges them a mere $150 a month for the studio. The bands aren't paid to appear, and every one of the finished MP3s is free to stream or download. None of the illustrators or writers who contribute to the site (which does include reviews, band features, and interviews, including some of Moeller's) gets paid either.

Moeller says there are no plans to change those arrangements. He sees the Daytrotter recordings as potential moneymakers for small bands and labels, but he's not asking for a piece of the action. Daytrotter tries to post sessions to coincide with an album release or a tour. "Record labels are telling me when somebody goes up on our site they see a noticeable difference," Moeller says. A song moving 700 downloads a week at first is "kind of average," and the top five tunes on the site have all racked up more than 10,000; recently Daytrotter broke its own traffic record by attracting 25,000 unique visitors in one day. The artists retain the rights to their recordings, including the right to sell them--Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Nina Nastasia, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, and Maritime are just a few of the acts that have released their Daytrotter tracks on disc or plan to soon.

Moeller says Daytrotter isn't getting into the record business in part because he doesn't have the experience to compete with the labels already out there--anyway, as things stand the site offers something few labels can. And he and Stolley have good reasons to keep their part in any project modest: they both have young children.

As hard as it is to believe, all that the Daytrotter guys are getting out of the site is the satisfaction of capturing artists they love in the immediacy of the moment. You can hear that satisfaction when Moeller talks about a still-unreleased session with folky chanteuse Jolie Holland, who was visibly bummed out when she stopped by in October. "Her songs need that," he says. "Maybe there's times where she's working on a new record and she's happy. We want her to be happy, obviously, but the fact that she was in a bad mood that day, that touring was really beating her down and she wasn't happy, for that day, for those two hours, it was awesome."

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrea Bauer.

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