“At this point, I kind of want it all to be over,” Sean Peoples confesses over the phone a few days ago. The tastemaker-cum-label owner is talking about Sockets Records, his all-consuming passion project for the past eight years, and possibly the most reliable single source for homegrown – and fearlessly off-kilter – music that DC has had over that stretch of time. And in less than 48 hours, he’ll get his wish.
When we speak, Peoples is exhausted from a rough week at his proper day job – a “constant stress factory” – but you have to assume that when Sockets holds its final showcase at the Black Cat this Saturday, he will be flushed with all sorts of conflicting emotions: While it was announced that he would stop operating the label back in mid-November, tomorrow night will be the epilogue to the label’s last chapter. It will be a sendoff for Sockets, an Irish wake of sorts, featuring the stable of bands that helped define its last few years, and, more generally, DC’s flourishing art and indie rock scene: Deleted Scenes, Hume, Imperial China, and Buildings.
BYT asked Peoples to expound on what Sockets meant to him, as well as what he’s learned about running a label, the music industry at large, and the city he calls home. As he explains below, the decision to discontinue Sockets was not an easy one.
For a brief history lesson in the label’s origins and triumphs, revisit Peter Heyneman’s BYT profile from a few years back, or check out the excellent retrospective in this week’s Washington City Paper. If you’re visually inclined, take a trip down the memory lane of Sockets’ uniformly stellar showcases in 2010 , 2011 , and 2012. There’s been no shortage of respect and affection for Sockets Records over the years on BYT, and while the imprint will be sorely missed, we couldn’t be more excited to see what Peoples does next.
I hope you’re not completely burnt-out on reflecting about Sockets’ legacy at this point.
No, not at all. Each time I speak with someone new, I get a little more articulate at describing both the bittersweet vagaries of the decision and the more straightforward reality of “this business needs to be shut down.” For a long time, I was thinking that I wasn’t going to have a final showcase. I was just going to shut the label down and try to sell the remaining the product, and then maybe give some of the other product to the bands and work out a deal there, but every year the showcase like a big group hug at the Black Cat. It’s the one place and time where I get to sell the most merch and have the most kinetic manifestation of the Sockets fanbase in one room, and so it’s been really fun just to think through one last hurrah. I don’t think everyone I want to be there is going to be there, but it’s so much better than going out with a whimper. It’s going to be fun, It’s going to be the bands that define the latter half of the label. I couldn’t ask for a better set of circumstances. I just have to get to Saturday. [Laughs] I keep on losing more hair and I don’t need to lose any more hair.
Sockets always seemed to be both a labor of love and frustration for you. Can you walk us through that decision to shut it down?
I never really knew how to run a business. Sockets became my education in how to run a small business. That was really valuable education, especially for whatever I do next. When you to look at [Sockets' trajectory], it started with burning CDRs in 2004, 2005 and ’06, limited run releases that documented really noisy, kind of weirdo, experimental music in the District, but, over time, each release started getting a little more high stakes, people started paying a little more attention, expectations started to get a little higher. You face a couple of things that you can do. You can meet those expectations and sort of build new goals into what you’re trying to do, i.e., manufacture a thousand CDs with somebody and not just burn them in your room. Or, you can try to meet the market for the niche music listeners that are probably a bit more vinyl savvy, so then you put out records that are documents and pieces of art in addition to being really good music, in a way that’s limited edition, and kind of work with the whole digital sales thing. You keep on improving the model.
At a certain point, you realize that you’ve been a chameleon for eight or nine years, and you’re not dealing with the fundamentals. You’re constantly dealing with just how you get music in people’s hands. The kind of back-end business side – the fundamental question of “how do you make the model work?” – was shifting every single year. Less people were buying music physically and more were buying it digitally. That has an effect on record labels like Columbia Records. It has effect on labels like Matador Records. And, it has an effect on really local shops like mine, who have a really small and local and pretty great following, but it’s not that big by any stretch of the imagination. Over the years, it’s been just meeting expectations and setting new goals, and, at some point, you kind of realize that you’re losing money on some releases and making money on others, and you have to take a cold, hard look at what it is that makes one release successful and one not so successful.
I’ve learned a lot. Touring is going to make a band’s release moderately more successful than a band who has a release, but doesn’t tour at least the Eastern Seaboard. There’s promotional stuff that you need to do, because if you’re not doing it, then you’re not going to go beyond local press. There’s a whole new model around crowd sourced funding on releases that is a really good idea and if I start a label again then I’m probably going to think about that as one of the primary models for sharing or getting music out there. But, it gets to point where you’ve been a chameleon for so long that you need to take a lot more of a fundamental approach to what works and what doesn’t work. One release would do really well and one release wouldn’t do well at all, and the risks started becoming more of an intense undertaking for me. I had to make a tough decision that fed into frustration about not only currents in music consumption, but also fundamental things, like bands not touring. You can’t keep a record label running on toothpicks, floss, and a dream.
What surprised you most in operating the label?
Running a small business is one thing. Running a record label about a small business is a little bit of another. When you invest in the physical copies of music – whether it be CDs, vinyl or otherwise – the amount of time that it takes to see a return on investment is really scary and eye-opening. It’s something that I didn’t really know going in. The earliest you’re going to see money coming back to just recoup costs – let’s not even talk about profits – is nine months. You have a distributor, they send out to a record store, you gotta wait for people to buy it, then they either report what they sold and give that money to the distributor, or they say, “Hey we sold some, but not a lot, so send them back.” That whole process takes a long time. Nine months is the minimum. There were a lot of other surprises, but if anyone asks about running a record label, they gotta understand what they’re getting into in terms of investment, return on investment, and that timeline. It’s scary.
You mention the cost of promotion, and I’d read a statement where you acknowledged competition among boutique labels and the major indies. Are the odds stacked overwhelmingly against small, homegrown labels that don’t have major backing?
I don’t think small labels are going away, because there different models now that are really interesting. Cassette labels are burgeoning right now in a way that I think is really awesome. I really believe in the physical product. I like having something in my hand. But, also, there’s some stuff I only want to have on my iPod – I don’t care to have it in the physical form. I have a hybrid approach, and I think a lot of people are like that. They want to have a representation, some ephemera, of the stuff they really hold dear.
Local labels are clamoring for attention for the music that they put out, and a lot of competition for that attention has moved from major labels – or at least larger labels – down to middle or medium sized labels and fledgling labels. You’re just clamoring for Pitchfork to cover you. Rolling Stone and Spin aren’t relevant anymore. There are a ton of websites that are much more relevant to how we think about music and listen to it and consume it. Smaller labels are clamoring within that environment. Major label stuff like Kanye or Beyonce or terrible alt rock stuff – Nickleback and shit like that – have their own thing going on. There’s not a lot new and innovative going on in that strata. But, there’s a ton of stuff going on below that. There’s so much more competition at the lower levels, because the tools of manufacturing and production are more egalitarian now. In some ways, that’s great. You have bands that are closer to their audiences. Some bands are eliminating the middleman.
I think that labels still have a place, but it’s much more curatorial. You know the kind of music that a label is going to put out. You can rely on it. If you’re the kind of the label that’s all over the map, putting out political hip-hop or drone or experimental pop, like Sockets, then people are like, “Oh, it’s all over the map. I don’t know what this is.” It’s harder for people to grasp and then stay tuned in. If they really like political hip-hop, well, I don’t really put out much of that, but I did put out the Cornell West Theory. Sometimes narrow vision can be helpful. Unfortunately, that’s not how my brain works. But, in terms of the capitalist system, narrow vision just makes it easier. It’s a little more neat and tidy. Sockets is indeed more a labor of love than a functioning, well-oiled, net profit business. I was, however, trying to run it as such by the time 2007 rolled around, so that there was some legitimacy around not only getting distribution, but also in getting people to buy into the fact that our music wasn’t just dudes sitting around and farting into a delay pedal and putting out a thirty minute fart-delay. It was actually about doing something that’s contributing to opening up people’s minds to experimental – but also accessible – music.
What kind of changes have you observed in DC over the label’s eight years?
DC has changed a lot. I’ve been here for fifteen years. Within the last eight to ten years, not only has there been investment in the city in terms of urban planning and a retention of young people, but there’s also this cultivation and curation of those people. Sites like BYT and All Our Noise and All Things Go have created an online culture that is feeding into a nightlife culture. There’s more DC pride. You’re not just coming here for your year or two on the Hill and then just leaving, like, “I put my time in, now I want to go where I want to go.” There’s a sense of camaraderie now. There’s a creative class that we’re all trying to cultivate. Whether that’s successful or not really isn’t my place to say. There’s still a lot of room for growth.
At the same time, there’s an awesome base for that. There’s this mentality: “We are the people we’ve been waiting for and we need to make cool shit, because not enough cool shit is happening, because everyone is leaving to go to someplace that’s really cool. This place is cool too. We just need to make it cool.” That’s been an attitude that’s solidified over the past eight or ten years. It’s been the result of various things. A lot of it has to do with the Obama administration. A lot of it has to do with sites like BYT. A lot of it has to do with the dynamic of people here who get along and want to make cool shit. It’s been fun to watch that. I think there’s so much more to be done to be based on the growth that’s already happened, that’s been shepherded through with these different dynamics, but it’s such a better city to live in now than it was ten years ago.
What stands out as Sockets’ biggest milestones or accomplishments?
One of the biggest accomplishments, which put the label on the map, was the youth hip-hop record, The Fly Girlz. That was done not only with a label that I really respected, True Panther, but it was also a record that did what I wanted to do, which is feature community. It was looking at artists who were gentrifying a neighborhood – Brownsville, Brooklyn – but weren’t just saying, “Ok, let’s just live here and be artists.” They were saying, “Let’s make some music and bring the kids who live here into it, so that there’s some sort of interaction between these two worlds, rather than letting gentrification happen and just staring at it.” I’m not saying that it’s the solution to gentrification, but it’s kind of taking it on. It’s looking at through an artistic lens. Stuff that was really weird came out of that record. It was used for a New York Fashion Week Proenza Schouler show. Colette in France used a track on their compilation that they did for 2010 or whenever it was.
Another big accomplishment was when we started doing showcases at the Black Cat mainstage. That was huge, and it wasn’t just one year. Every year, it’s just one big, awesome, good vibe. People come and they’re like, “This is great. This is what DC music – or at least a portion of it – is supposed to be: supportive and kind of edgy.” Those shows were like pep rallies.
Hume’s Penumbra EP is one of my favorite records from the label over the past eight years. I got to work with Skeletons up in Brooklyn, which is one of my favorite bands of all time. Buildings completely surprised me with Everything in Parallel – that record is just a fucking force. Working with the Imperial China dudes made me realize that bands can actually be organized and also be fun and good.
There are so many aspects of the different friendships I’ve created over the years with label. For me, it was much more a community than “how can this record make the most money ever?” That’s important to me. Not knowing a lot of the bands [before working with them] towards the end of the label, like Imperial China and Deleted Scenes, and then going through the process of putting out records, we became really good friends and began to feel that we were all in it together, and that it’s not just me and it’s not just them. There’s a camaraderie that’s built. That’s some shit that you can’t just erase. Those friendships aren’t going away. They’re going to stay intact.
Sockets is coming to a close. Fatback is coming to a close. What are you going to do with this free time? Have you thought about new creative outlets?
It’s been a rough couple of months knowing that two of the things that are part of my identity are coming to an end. It’s not been easy to sit back and let that happen. I’m ruminating way too much. That’s my personality. When those two events happen, I’ll enjoy it, because I will have already worried up until that point. They’ll come and I won’t worry so much, because it’s happening.
What’s going on afterwards? I’m moving to the next stage of my life, where I’m taking the passions that I have during my non-day job hours and the skills that I’ve gained during my seven years at the Wilson Center and trying to connect those things into something that doesn’t take up three different time-frames of my life every week. I want to combine them into one thing that I can both be passionate about and feel like I’m bringing skills to bear. I have a couple ideas. It’s just a matter of giving myself time to think and not just do. I’m excited to think through that stuff.
Additional contributions to this piece were made by Joshua Phelps