This Saturday, Washington DC label Sockets Records is celebrating its sixth anniversary with a showcase at the Black Cat that’ll include a few of the label’s excellent local bands.We got the chance to talk with Sockets founder/president/guy that does everything Sean Peoples about the label, the showcase, and the eleventy billion releases he’s got planned for 2011.
American Noise: Are you a DC native? What drew you to the music scene?
Sean Peoples: I grew up in New Jersey, but I went to school in DC starting in ’98. I go back for Christmas, but I’ve been in DC since ’98. The music scene in DC just has tons of rich history to it. I was a Dischord fanboy when I was younger. I had a friend in high school who listened to a lot of Fugazi, Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, and Snakes and all those other Dischord bands. The summer before I was going to go to school, we sort of followed Fugazi up and down the East Coast. Some kids go listen to Phish or the Grateful Dead or whatever, but no, we did the Fugazi hippie tour.
AN: What inspired you to start your own label?
SP: I always wanted to get free music, and in college I was the music editor of the school paper. I always wanted to have a label ever since I knew what labels were and shunned ones that were, like Columbia Records or something. You start to realize that [indie labels] are just people who want to share music, rather than big conglomerates. In 2003, right after college, I felt that a lot of small pockets of weird noise folks were doing really interesting, small-run CD-R stuff. And I was around when a lot of DC bands that were pretty awesome broke up, like Black Eyes, Q and Not U, Antelope; it was kind of depressing, and I felt like those people making that weird noise had to be documented, because it wasn’t going to be documented by Dischord or some of those other labels in DC.
I would only do, like, 50 copies of things. No one really bought them, but it was a way to build a community around folks who were interested in being creative and having a scene of DC musicians. So it took off from there. I did a CD-R label for the first two years and released about 40 things, which was a lot. But when you have power over all of the manufacturing, you can pump things out; you don’t have to wait on anybody else. I had a CD burner and put things in DVD cases so that the art was streamlined, and then I got more and more serious as the bands got more and more serious. Now I send a lot of stuff out; I don’t do any CD-Rs anymore. It’s a lot more serious.
AN: What were some of the difficulties involved in getting the label off the ground and then sustaining it, especially in this economy?
SP: My income is the main thing. Unfortunately I don’t come necessarily from a big pot of money, and I don’t know where the money tree is; the jobs I’ve had in international development and certain nonprofit stuff in DC have been a way to fuel the label in terms of money. It’s pretty good now, because there’s some money coming in that can actually sustain what’s going on. Resources are always tough, and it’s hard to do it all by yourself.
A lot of musicians will move on, [and] go to New York or something. It’s a funny town because it’s so transient. Sometimes it’s a struggle to have an identity. I think back in the ‘80s and ‘90s there was an identity in the music and people identified that music with DC. Now it’s completely changed; it’s a lot more open. There are a lot of types of different music being created by different bands here. I think for the first time, there are a lot of folks who are sticking around, and that’s always been a challenge for the label. You’d put a CD out for a band, manufacture 1000 copies, and then two months later they break up. That’s happened to me more than I’d like to admit.
Because it’s just me, sometimes life happens. You’ve gotta do other stuff. Sometime I want to be more on top of keeping the blog up to date, and it’s tough. I took about a year off just to figure out how to make [Sockets] sustainable, because record labels aren’t sustainable. People don’t buy CDs anymore, people don’t really buy records unless they’re part of a small group who are really vinyl enthusiasts, so it’s hard to figure out what the [preferred] medium is for folks, and it’s constantly changing, it seems.
AN: With the music industry in the state it’s in, what role do you see labels like Sockets playing in the future?
SP: I feel like there’s not much value added in terms of me saying, “Okay, band, I’m going to put this out for you.” Honestly, it’s just monetary sort of value, because a band can go have a bandcamp website and release the music themselves with no middleman to get in the way of making the money needed to keep going. It’s tough to have a value added in some ways, but that’s where I think the community aspect comes in. If we’re doing it together—you know that whole ethic of DIY, I feel it’s much better to think of it as a collective, DIT—Do It Together—kind of thing.
The [artists] on the label are really complimentary of each other and push each other, too: there’s criticism involved that is constructive. I just heard some new Buildings recordings that are ridiculously amazing. The band has just grown by leaps and bounds, and I know it’s because of some of the folks that Colin and the other band members have been hanging out with. They want to push their [boundaries] because they see other bands pushing themselves. The community aspect is really important in terms of small labels having any sort of longevity. I also think that smaller labels have more currency in terms of picking out whatever’s next. I don’t think the big labels have any hand in that whatsoever. They manufacture what’s next, but I think the small labels organically have access to what’s next.
AN: So tell me a little about the label showcase this weekend.
SP: It’s the label’s six-year anniversary. We’ve got four amazing bands. One isn’t local—Skeletons—they’re from New York. They make really complicated pop music; for musicians and non-musicians alike, they’re one of those bands that just plays really good music, experimental pop stuff. Hume is coming off their last record, Penumbra, which is sort of an amazing little art piece to look at, and it got really good reviews. Buildings started to record their next album; I heard some of their stuff and I cannot wait to hear it live. Laughing Man are a DC band who came from Philly a couple years ago. They just released a new record that will be available for the first time on Saturday.
AN: Looking ahead, what’s in store for Sockets Records in 2011?
SP: 2010 was pretty huge; we put out like five or six records. I’m going to be having a lot more sleepless nights [this year], but in a good way. Buildings is coming out with a new record, Cornel West Theory is coming out with a new record, Macaw—which is the solo project of Hume’s drummer, Wilson Kemp—is about to come out. There’s a True Womanhood 7″, an America Hearts/Cotton Candy split 7″ (Cotton Candy is Mark Robinson from Unrest’s new band). There is a tape club, so there’s a bunch of cassette tapes that are going to come out from folks like Edie Sedgwick who released their last album on Dischord…it’s gonna be a big year.