When I met last week with the people now running Daytrotter, Ben Crabb – who books the recording sessions for the 11-year-old Quad Cities-based Web site – let this nugget drop: “I just booked George Winston in for a session.”
Yes, that George Winston, the artist best known for platinum-selling, seasonally titled solo-piano records from the early 1980s on the Windham Hill label. For a site that always prided itself on highlighting the new and the next, the pianist seems an odd choice.
But Crabb and his Daytrotter co-workers made no apologies for booking Winston. In their view, Daytrotter will thrive by being surprising and omnivorous in what is now its second phase.
“It’s interesting to me,” Crabb said. “George Winston is something that would not normally come up on an indie-rock site. ... George Winston is a kind of performer that does new-age music but also does very avant-garde things. He played slat-key guitar the last time he played in town. ... He’s a dynamic, interesting performer.”
He added that he likes “the idea of George Winston and then something like the local band Closet Witch being on the same page – where one’s doing thrash metal, the other guy’s playing solo piano, jazz compositions ... .”
“Bottom line is it’s good music,” said Johnnie Cluney, the illustrator whose drawings have given Daytrotter its distinctive look from the outset.
“My wife’s freaking out” about Winston, said Patrick Stolley, the recording engineer whose live-mixing-to-tape method has given Daytrotter its distinctive sound from the outset.
And Ian Harris, a sound engineer who’s done contract work for Daytrotter for several years and is now on the staff, said Winston is an example of Daytrotter’s broadening palette: “The average person’s musical taste is more eclectic than Daytrotter’s, or as eclectic. If you center in and only do certain genres and certain groups, you’re excluding people ... .”
One emphasis of Daytrotter’s new leadership, Cluney said, is “branching out the genre list. We’re just paying attention to the corners of indie rock that were ... ignored for the last 10 years [on Daytrotter]. Finally we get to highlight the weirdest of the weird.” And, one of his co-workers said, the poppiest of the pop.
Another focus can be seen at Daytrotter Downs, the March 3 and 4 festival featuring nearly four-dozen acts at six downtown-Davenport sites – with the vast majority of performances at Daytrotter’s concert venue (324 Brady Street) and the Redstone Room (129 Main Street). Alongside nationally known acts such as Pieta Brown and Joan of Arc are a bunch of local bands – a recognition of what’s happening in the Quad Cities.
“There are a lot of really good local bands around here right now,” Stolley said. “Part of the reason is Daytrotter, because it’s been a success story, and ... people who were starting bands – a lot of these bands were literally kids when we started – have grown up with the idea of something big and musical happening in their town. They know that it’s there and that it can happen. And they’ve also seen a lot of really good bands that we’ve brought through, so they ... feel like they’re a part of that.”
“Everything that I’ve ever wanted to be a part of is community-oriented,” Crabb added. “I don’t feel like we’re ... going too far out of our way to make sure that we include local bands.”
Life After Moeller
What’s missing from the above discussion will be obvious to anybody with a passing familiarity with Daytrotter: its founder and architect, Sean Moeller.
Moeller departed Daytrotter last summer, raising questions about how successfully the site would continue. Daytrotter was never a one-man venture, but it was always a reflection of Moeller’s tastes and instincts – and he had developed loads of connections and contacts that largely left with him.
Wolfgang’s Vault purchased a majority stake in Daytrotter in 2008, and the company faced substantial challenges when Moeller left. It had a recording studio and live-music venue on Brady Street that had only been open half a year. More crucially, it had to fill Moeller’s shoes in relatively short order, with 15 weekly slots at Daytrotter.com and only a few-dozen sessions booked over the subsequent two months.
Three employees remained: illustrator Cluney, live engineer Andrew Barkau, and chief session engineer Mike Gentry.
“Sean left in July, and a few months later [he was followed by] Mike – our previous head engineer, who’d been with us for eight years ... ,” said Barkau, who’s done live sound for Daytrotter for three years and has been an employee for one year. “So we’ve basically had a big reset button this year in terms of the staff. For better or for worse, all of that stuff happened.”
Barkau said that he and Cluney were “active and adamant” about hiring Crabb to book sessions for Daytrotter: “It was unanimous that we bring Ben in to handle what is the most-obvious aspect of what Sean was doing, which was curating the bands for the Web site and the venue.”
Said Cluney: “If I asked anybody in town ‘Who’s the local music guy? Who loves music more than anybody? Who knows more about music than anybody?,’ it’s Ben Crabb. Everybody would tell you that. ... He is the guy. He was the only person that was strongly considered for the job.” He said that if the right person hadn’t already been in town, Daytrotter would have likely looked outside the Quad Cities.
Added Barkau: “There are exactly two people in the Quad Cities who are so deeply entrenched with having their finger on the pulse of who’s who, how they’re connected, and what’s next musically. Those people are Sean and Ben. ... Ben has a slightly different taste set ... than Sean does, and that’s been a really cool thing.”
Crabb said his wide-ranging tastes come from “my experience at Ragged [Records] and doing community radio for 13 years at KALA. When I was 17, I found out that you could go get a radio show. So I started doing it. The day I walked in there, there were 15,000 CDs at my disposal.” He said he developed a philosophy of “discovering as much as I could possibly find. And I really think being an active listener is probably at the root of where I am and how I think about music. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t walk by a radio playing music, wherever I’m at, and it doesn’t make me curious to find out what it is. I have to ask; I have to find out; I have to know more about it.”
After bringing in Crabb, Barkau said, Daytrotter hired Paige Underwood as director of social media and marketing. Then Gentry left in December, which led to the hiring of Stolley and Harris. (Stolley left the company as an employee in 2008 but has continued to record sessions throughout its life.)
“There was no time for us to stop working,” Cluney said. “We just made move after move after move, day after day, to get our team real tight. And we did it really quick. ...
“I think the staff is ... well-rounded, and we’re moving forward. We had no time to think about what happened. ‘Well, our engineer just quit. Who do we know that’s an engineer in town?’ It was just a phone call.”
Six People Driving the Train
Although Moeller’s departure was, for obvious reasons, a major change for Daytrotter, the current staff casts it as a natural and largely expected part of the organization’s evolution – from an idiosyncratic expression of its chief founder’s vision to something that’s admittedly more corporate but with room for more voices and personalities.
“A reset button is something that needs to happen at a sort of legacy point in every business,” Barkau said.
“I don’t see anything abnormal with this scenario,” Harris said.
And the transition has been as smooth as could be hoped for. Stolley and Cluney have been there from day one; Harris and Barkau had years of previous experience with Daytrotter; Crabb said he’s always been tangentially involved with it; and Underwood was a longtime patron of the site’s local live shows.
“All of us that joined the team were somehow already deeply involved in Daytrotter,” Crabb said.
Despite the new faces, Daytrotter remains much like it’s always been, with 90 to 100 sessions presently booked in the Quad Cities and – in March alone – another 40 (with corporate sibling Paste) at SXSW and 20 to 25 at the Treefort Music Fest in Boise, Idaho.
But there are differences.
Daytrotter is more collaborative now, and there’s a palpable enthusiasm in the room with these six people – a tonal contrast to Moeller’s low-key, deadpan demeanor.
“Before, it was kind of one guy driving the train,” Crabb said. “Now we’ve got six people doing it.”
“We had a solid team at one point in the first four years,” Cluney said, “but it kind of just fell off, and Sean ran the company. So we had zero input. But now we have all the input. ... The energy is totally different in here now.”
“The brainstorm is constant,” Underwood said.
“There’s just more communication across the board,” Stolley said, and that includes Wolfgang’s Vault head Bill Sagan.
“The relationship between Sean and Bill did not work,” Barkau said. “Not having that toxicity is fantastic.”
The staff has a weekly Thursday conference call with Sagan, and Crabb said that “Bill asks a lot of questions ... . Any good businessman has to ask a lot of questions.”
“We have a lot to think about every week [and] up until Thursday to figure it out,” Cluney said. “Yeah, sometimes you’ll get your ass handed to you. [But] anytime he’s had an issue, I understand why he’s had an issue.”
Stolley said the improved relationship with Sagan has allowed the staff to concentrate on its mission: “What the company needs to be doing is finding and recording great music and doing shows and being part of this community, and now we can focus completely on that.”
Going Back to the Roots
Daytrotter patrons probably don’t know or care about those behind-the-scenes changes. But new leadership has resulted in some changes in the Daytrotter product.
Instead of posting three new sessions each weekday, the site is posting two new sessions and curating two additional sessions from the archives. Live shows at the Daytrotter venue have been cut back, with Barkau saying the goal is a show a week.
Then there’s a focus on branching out musically. Crabb said that “there’s an element of what Sean did that we still do. Sean’s brilliant, ... and the stuff that he books is great. [But] it tended to lean more toward indie pop and singer/songwriter stuff. ...
“We’ve been adding a lot of people to the site through highlighting more DIY, underground music, punk, the kind of bands that play basement shows.” Crabb also has an interest in hip hop and jazz, and said his favorite among the sessions he’s booked so far was Donny McCaslin, the jazz saxophonist whose ensemble backed David Bowie on his Blackstar album.
Crabb said that he and Moeller are “different people, so we have different tastes” – and the new Daytrotter will reflect that.
“We’re tending to the site a little more than we have been,” he added. “We’re bringing more context to what’s happening.”
And that includes the marketing of live shows.
Stolley said that in the past, the attitude was “Come see this thing, because it’s going to be huge.” But “we’re not really doing that and talking about that now. We don’t think that way.”
Underwood added: “We’re continuously trying to add context to the bands that are coming in ... , and trying to tell people why they should come see this band. ... Not that they’re the best of what’s next, but they’re amazing right now.”
Barkau also promised that “there are some big changes coming ... regarding the Web site ... . What the user experience is like is going to be changing a ton over this year.”
He said Daytrotter subscriptions and traffic have been stable since Moeller left: “Right now, the water has not raised or decreased. We’re doing just fine, but we need to be doing better. And there’s a lot of big, long-game stuff.”
Highlighting the Quad Cities
Everybody now involved in Daytrotter also talks about how important the Quad Cities are to Daytrotter.
“Every single person here was born in the Quad Cities,” Harris said, and four of the six employees are also musicians. “Only one of us [Barkau] moved away from the Quad Cities. ... So to me, Daytrotter more than ever [is] and always has been a Quad Cities company.”
“I’m a musician ... deeply invested in the local scene,” Crabb said. “That was a huge thing for me.”
And that’s one reason why Daytrotter Downs has such an emphasis on local bands, and why local openers will be the norm for other Daytrotter shows.
Stolley noted, correctly, that “Daytrotter never started out a local thing. It wasn’t about local music; it was about music in general that was passing through.”
But Crabb said that from the outset, Moeller tried to capitalize on the Quad Cities’ location – the fact that many bands who weren’t playing shows here were still passing through on their tours.
“We are not doing [as many] sessions all over the country the way Sean was doing at different studios,” he said. “We’re focusing in on right here. The purpose of Daytrotter was to get bands to come here originally. That’s what we got back to. ...
“Daytrotter exists because of the Quad Cities. It’s not despite the Quad Cities.”
And that, Crabb said, will mean opportunities for local bands: “I want to see bands from here break out ... . But I want them to work at it.” Sessions are still reserved for bands making good music, recording and promoting albums, and touring, he said. “You don’t get it by being a friend.”
However, he said that for live shows, it makes sense to include the best area bands: “Local bands can draw really well around here. What Daytrotter has always been and what Daytrotter continues to be is introducing people to a lot of new, up-and-coming music. We’ve made an effort to bring in some new cult bands and some more well-known groups ... [for Daytrotter Downs], but for most people, ... it’s a name on a piece of paper unless you do the research. But local bands have a presence; people will come out to see them.”
It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, Crabb said: “Daytrotter is a step up for a local band. ... There’s one company in town that is a direct step to the next level, and it’s Daytrotter.”
“Daytrotter’s the first thing like this ever” in the Quad Cities, Cluney said. “Before, it was ‘I hope we get on a cool college radio station.’ ... [Now,] there’s actually a reason to keep a band going.”
And the Daytrotter staffers said the Quad Cities are on the cusp of a musical renaissance.
“I want to highlight local music in a way that hasn’t been done,” Crabb said. “I don’t think people give the Quad Cities scene enough credit for the creativeness and the lack of ... trendiness. They don’t follow trends. ... People do what they do, and I think that’s really fresh. ...
“This era right now is kind of the beginning of the Quad Cities being considered a music town – like a real music town.”
“We’re all responsible for this music-town thing,” Barkau said, listing off Moeller, RIBCO, the River Music Experience, Rozz-Tox, and Ragged Records.
“There’s ... not really a bad venue in town,” Harris said.
“And they’re all different,” Cluney added.
Crabb noted a growing hip-hop scene in East Moline and Davenport, “and we’re in this great position to be able to capture this as it’s happening.”
And while some people might view Moeller’s departure from Daytrotter as a negative, it has resulted in two entities working separately for the greater good of the Quad Cities music scene. Two weeks apart, we get Moeller’s Gas Feed & Seed Festival and Daytrotter Downs.
“It’s a mitosis, and I see it really positively,” Barkau said. “The cell’s splitting.”
“I think this is great for everyone,” Harris added. “I think it’s only going to mean good things for the Quad Cities.”