In the age of the iPod, it's harder and harder to get exposed to new, interesting music. In this three-part series, we'll look at websites that showcase artists and songs you don't already know by heart—but you'd probably like. Today, Joe Fassler on Daytrotter.
During April's 140 Conference, a summit on Twitter's influence on culture, Village Voice music critic Christopher Weingarten lamented that the Web is slowly, painfully killing music journalism. Our slipshod musical culture, he argued, is driven by Twitter firsties, blog aggregation, play counts, and SEO—seldom by musical or editorial talent. Gone, he suggested, are the old-fashioned virtues of taste and critical insight, as well as editorial willingness to go out on a limb for a strange or beloved band.
In Weingarten's view, the conversation about music is dominated by what will generate Web traffic; as a result, the Gagas and Biebers always win, even in once-venerable magazines. "Internet: I give up," he said. "You can have music writing, because you've sucked all the fun out of it. In 2010, writing about music, reading about music, and learning about music are about math." He spent the next 30 minutes of his presentation icily demonstrating the deep subservience of most music sites to the twin gods of social networking platforms and the great Google search algorithm. It's a reality.
MORE IN THIS SERIES:
Yesterday: Alex Eichler on The Hype Machine
Tomorrow: Sam Machkovech on BitTorrent sites
To understand Weingarten's complaint is also to understand the appeal of Daytrotter, a website that's become a preeminent way to find new music on the Internet. Almost every day of the year, at least one touring band will take some time off from the road to stop by The Horseshack, Daytrotter's recording studio in Rock Island, Illinois. Each act records four or five songs live to analog tape—no overdubs allowed, mistakes left in—and hits the road again. The sessions are released on Daytrotter.com at a rate of one a day, where they're available for free stream or download.
For Sean Moeller and the four other people who work with him, the site's uniting value is to be everything that the traffic-oriented, flash-in-the-pan music website—in Weingarten's shorthand, QuickDraw McBlog—is not. Instead of catering coverage to the bands that will garner the most hits, Moeller's conversation begins by speaking with musicians directly. "It's one of my easiest, favorite questions for musicians," said Moeller. "'what have you been listening to in your tour van?'" That's the band Moeller's most likely to bring to his recording studio—not just the one who's had a recent killer single or well-acclaimed release. This is what makes Daytrotter fundamentally different from most music sites, which must evaluate and respond to a vast amount of pre-approved content. Moeller is willing to recognize talented musicians just for being out there in the world, sometimes even before they have a recorded oeuvre to criticize.
The shift away from cheap, shoddy, and digital is apparent beyond Moeller's choice of bands. Daytrotter embraces analog technologies sitewide, so viewing the site for the first time is like stepping into a "Take On Me" alternate web universe. There's not a single digital press still on the site, for instance: instead, resident Daytrotter artist Johnnie Cluney draws eyepopping pen-and-marker portraits of each artist. Moeller's writings have the meditative, yarning bent of Kerouac novels—they're deliciously anti-SEO. And the recordings themselves are anomalous among today's commercial releases. Recorded live on an Otari MX 5050 analog tape machine, a hunky, reel-to-reel relic that most likely first spun its gears in the 1970s, Daytrotter tracks have a warm, spontaneous sound. The environment lends itself well to reworking and experimentation—bands often use their sessions to try on a new approach. Hard rockers The Walkmen, for instance, used a trip to Rock Island to work through reverb-laden covers of Leonard Cohen tunes.
Four years after the site launched, it's difficult to underestimate Daytrotter's importance to American rock music: just ask a musician. Brooklyn-based ARMS bassist Matty Fasano told me that the website is "a point of arrival" for up-and-comers. "Every band," he said, "especially in New York nowadays, knows about Daytrotter and wants to do a session. When they do get to do one, it's a big deal that they announce to absolutely everybody. I take it as the moment when you start taking a band seriously—when they've done a Daytrotter." Local Natives keyboardist/singer Kelcey Ayer agrees. "Sean's recorded artists over the years who have gone on to do amazing things," he said. "It can definitely be one of those amazing starting moments for a band."