When Sean Peoples first started Sockets Records in late 2004, it was a small label that operated out of his bedroom, where he spent countless hours burning CD-Rs of short-lived experimental bands before selling them on the cheap to any interested parties he could find. Just over five years later, Peoples still operates out of his bedroom—but at least he's paying someone else to manufacture proper CDs and packaging for the handful of up-and-coming local acts on his label. Prior to the Sockets Records Five-Year Anniversary Showcase Friday night at The Black Cat, Peoples spoke with The A.V. Club about the perils of the CD-R format, how D.C.'s music scene has changed in the last five years, and the concept of do-it-togetherness.
The A.V. Club: Congratulations on Sockets Records' five-year anniversary. What prompted you to start the label?
SP: Honestly, D.C. music wasn’t really thriving back then. A lot of the bigger bands were breaking up. I was just documenting some smaller stuff that was a little bit more experimental and out there—which wasn’t much, but you know, I had a couple friends doing some stuff. So I started doing these zines—“audio zines,” I called them—that were basically just compilations.
AVC: Those early releases came in slim DVD cases, right?
SP: Yeah that was the easiest way to make them look good but also keep it cheap. [Laughs.]
AVC: Your label was originally called Sockets CD-R. How many records did you put out under that name?
SP: I think I did 45 or so? It was a lot. And then I took a break. I was just like, “Oh my God, this is way too much.” I was doing it all by myself and it was a lot of work. I think I sometimes have a problem saying “no.” So I kept saying “yes,” and I had to make it work somehow. And it was cheap, so I could continue to do it. But at a certain point it was just like, “Well, there are no distributors that are going to take this. It’s just an experiment in documentation." …People don’t know what CD-Rs are and don’t trust it in terms of distribution… so around 2007 I decided to rethink things, maybe do more quality over quantity. Try to do CDs and get distribution.
AVC: When did you officially switch from Sockets CD-R to Sockets Records?
SP: The end of 2008 was when I really thought about what I did and didn’t want to do. I learned a lot in the first iteration of the label. I wanted to change the direction of what I was putting out. I wanted to sell some more records. I mean I have a love of experimental music—but I also like stuff that I can actually have my mom and dad listen to as well. So it was a conscious decision to say, “Alright I want to put out some experimental pop music—and that’s a very wide frame in my mind—but I also want to put out stuff that I think people will buy.” It wasn’t, at the time, to make the label seem more legit… I just wanted to have a voice in D.C. You know, there are a lot of bands here of varying quality to be sure. It moves in cycles this town. So sometimes there’s a lot of stuff going on and other times it’s sort of bland.
AVC: It’s a very ebb-and-flow town when it comes to music.
SP: I feel like there’s some stuff brewing. I don’t think it’s at the tipping point yet, but I think we’re getting there. It’s cool. And you know, this town was known for one thing for a while. And I loved that thing, which was Dischord Records. Everybody knows the legacy of that label. There’s a Dischord sound, from the bands to the recordings. You can tell where they were recorded: They were recorded with Don [Zientara at Inner Ear Studios]…. I went to school at American University, and one of the big reasons I came to this town was, like, four of my favorite bands were here. I had to be here…. But this town has changed a lot and it’s time to figure out what’s going on now.
AVC: How has running the label changed since you made the switch?
SP: I don’t know. Doing a little CD-R label, trying to document what no one was necessarily enamored with a couple of years ago—it’s different. It was a hobby before. And now it’s a more of a time investment. I have a full-time job, I DJ almost every weekend, and I do this. It’s definitely something I want to continue to do and see where it goes. Like, I have an intern now. I can’t get it all done. I need to either grow two more hands or get some more help. But obviously I like doing it.
AVC: How many CDs have you released since switching to Sockets Records?
SP: I think, by February, it’s going to be 12. The stuff I’m putting out is all over the place. I’ve put out free jazz, I’ve put out youth hip-hop. I don’t know what you want to call The Cornel West Theory—it’s hip-hop and other stuff. And then Buildings, which is a really great instrumental psyche-prog, indie-rock band.
AVC: The Little Women Teeth CD is the first album listed on the label’s website, but it’s listed as “SCKTS002.” Was there another record before that one?
SP: You know, there was a Caution Curves CD. That was my first real CD. [Laughs.] The band sort of broke up right when I put that out, which was frustrating. They kept on going, but it wasn’t with the same people that were on the record I put out. So yeah, Rebecca [Mills] has all of those records. I mean, I thought it was a great record. I just don’t advertise it as much now as I did a while ago.
AVC: That’s every label owner’s nightmare: You record an album and the band breaks up just as you’re about to release it.
SP: Tell me about it. That has happened, like, twice already. Luckily, I’m only doing 1,000 copies of each record. I’m still running this thing out of my bedroom. [Laughs.] I’m surround by boxes, man. It’s just fucking boxes all over the place. But, whatever.
AVC: You’ve got a new Imperial China record coming out in 2010, right?
SP: Yeah, which is funny, because that’s like the most Dischord-sounding thing that I’ve put out so far. But I really like the record. It’s got some of that Dischord sound, but they also get a little experimental.
AVC: What else do you have lined up for 2010?
SP: Big Gold Belt, which is [a trio] that has homemade beats on a drum machine and guitar. It’s not necessarily disco; it’s definitely beat-heavy, sensual, lo-fi weirdness. They’re much more spectacle then I ever could have imagined. It’s definitely off the beaten path in terms of what I’ve put out before. That’s going to be a 12-inch. I’m doing a CD for Aaron Thompson, who is a singer-songwriter, and he’s got some sonic soundscape stuff, but he also does a lot of straight-ahead folk stuff. I’ve also got this youth hip-hop series that we’re going to be putting out. I’m doing a split release with The Social Registry label up in New York for this group is called 9/11 Thesaurus. It’s a bunch of kids in their late teens and early ’20s that are part of this high-school program who work with Sam Hillmer from the band Zs. I put out the first one of the series, The Fly Girlz; this is the second one.
AVC: How has the D.C. music scene changed over the past five years?
SP: I’m really happy that hip-hop in this city is finally getting its due. It’s taken forever. XO, the Diamond District stuff, and obviously Wale is getting a lot of press. I think Cornel West Theory has a stake in D.C. hip-hop right now as well. I’m working with the Latin American Youth Center on this youth hip-hop mix-tape. So that stuff is good. It’s not, like, whack hip-hop.
AVC: And how have making music and releasing in D.C. changed?
SP: I feel like there’s a lot more risk right now. I know a lot of folks who are interested in making music. But D.C.’s not an easy town to play music in and also live in. It’s an expensive place to live. So you have to have a job or you have to be really creative in terms of coming up with an income. So the risk involved is both on my end and the folks who are thinking that I can help them get their music out and heard. So we help each other. I think that is a model that builds on all of the collective abilities of the folks on the label. For instance, Imperial China is going to be putting out that record. But it’s not just me and the band doing the promo—everybody on the label is going to help get the word out. It’s a community effort. We’re trying to manage the risk by engaging in do-it-togetherness rather than do-it-yourselfness.