Music fans know the joys of crate-digging, flipping through containers of LPs and CDs, looking for rare gems. Typically, crate-digging entailed hopping from record stores to pawnshops to garage sales, then going home to enjoy the spoils. It's a great way to spend a day—but the Internet made it even better.
"I really enjoy digging for music," says Davin Abegg, proprietor of Swoody Records, an independent record label based in Layton. "With the magic of the Internet and websites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud and YouTube, it's really a never-ending treasure hunt."
Sometimes that treasure fills a hole in your collection. Those are great, but the best finds are the unexpected discoveries. Anyone who's ever hit YouTube for a quick search and then fallen down the recommendation rabbit hole knows what Abegg means. You start by wanting to hear that one song from the one band, then YouTube reminds you of another song by that band, or a song by a related—or unrelated—band. You click and click, and then it's 3 a.m. You've traded sleep for expanded musical horizons, but you feel pretty good about the exchange.
"I would find and become friends with these incredible artists that were buried within this giant electronic world," says Abegg, "and I wanted to share these great finds with everyone."
Abegg's discoveries ranged from lo-fi bedroom-warrior bands to outsider musicians. It can be hard to differentiate between the lo-fi artists and the outsiders, since they're all oddballs working with low-to-no budgets. Outsider music is like outsider art; its creators are earnest but often untalented, or at least untrained. Sometimes they're talented, but they suffer from mental illness. That's the case with one of outsider music's most recognizable names: Daniel Johnston, a schizophrenic but remarkably talented singer-songwriter.
Johnston became an obsession for Abegg. Around the same time, he discovered Seattle indie label K Records, leading to another infatuation. He befriended Mr. Snowman, a Brit who takes a cue from Wesley Willis and sings over preprogrammed music on his keyboard, and Florida-via-Boston pseudo-R&B goofball Timothy Mathis, aka Butt-Out. Abegg's very good friend B.C. Sterrett, curator of the Lost Media Archive, turned him on to outsider artists like Mar-Tie (The "avant-garde grandpa" of one-time City Weekly scribe, Phil Jacobsen), rockabilly weirdo Hasil Adkins and Shooby Taylor, the Human Horn. "He really opened the floodgates to loads and loads of outsider wisdom."
The urge to share these discoveries led to Abegg forming Swoody in 2013. The idea was to give an outlet to these artists, to "help [them] organize their scattered, copious amounts of songs into more accessible albums." Abegg began by curating The Song Poem Project, Vo1. 1, inspired by the song poems generated by magazine ads enticing amateur poets to pay a fee to have their verses set to music. The release featured song-poem collaborations between Mr. Snowman, Butt-Out, Sterrett and local artists Adam Sherlock, SubRosa, Daniel Fischer/Fisch Loops and others. The compilation came out in May 2013. Since then, Swoody's catalog has expanded to include 19 releases. Among these are more compilations, like Let's Get Awkward: The Sounds of Off-step Sincerity (released in June) and The Swoody Spooky Halloween Party Mix (released October). Most Swoody releases, however, focus on individual artists like Mr. Snowman, Butt-Out, Mar-Tie, Fisch Loops, Thompson Owen, Canadians Among Us and Valerie Rose Sterrett. Oh, and Abegg's own band, Secret Abilities.
Abegg says Swoody is "more of a service project than a business," so many Swoody releases are digital-only and available via the label's Bandcamp page (SwoodyRecords.Bandcamp.com) at pay-what-you-want pricing, which, in most cases, means free. "[Swoody] was never [created] to make money—at least for now. It's for introducing these awesome artists to the world ... and making their music even more accessible. Any donations we get go toward promotion or future releases."
So far, it seems to be working, at least outside of Utah. "We are much more popular outside [the state]. Swoody is very much an 'outsider,' locally," says Abegg. "I find that same thing happens with my bands. It's weird, but OK, I guess."
Abegg says he's still working on his promoting skills for Swoody bands because his main goal remains sharing the music. "[I want] to really help give these awesome homemade artists a strong fan base/cult following. I want to release a lot more tangible albums and cassettes and 7-inch singles."
New discoveries, of course, continue to drive Abegg. He enlists his new musical friends in helping him search for new Swoody artists. "I find a lot of great artists that way, and I still actively search out and invite artists myself.
"[I want] to find and release tons more awkward, interesting, bizarre and homemade music. There's so much more than just boring bands like Radiohead."