Sean Peoples:
The TVD Interview

For as long as I have lived in DC, I have heard of the name, Sean Peoples. To most, Sean is known for running the community record label, Sockets Records, but did you know that he started off in a band and is also a well-known DJ in the city?  Talking to Sean, it was apparent that he does not see himself as a big deal, but to everyone else he has played a pivotal role in the DC music scene.

Sockets announced in November that it will be closing its doors this year.  It is the end of a pursuit that successfully accomplished what it sought to do. For the rest of us, that light in our city will shine on in the very successful bands Sockets nurtured, and in a host of physical records etched with the beloved SOCKETS name in the corner. For Sean, he will now listen to music and enjoy it for its simple listening pleasure, without worrying about how a random promoter will take it.

As Sean told TVD, “I did it. I made it work and I am so happy I did. I hate the idea of the emotion of regret. I am really proud of it, but I understand that there is only so much that you can do sometimes, and I have no regrets. The fact that I did it with the bands I did it with, is pretty awesome, and I’ll take that with me forever.” TVD wishes Sean well in his new endeavors, and we know this won’t be the last of the distinguished Mr. Peoples.

Sockets comes to an end after eight years, holding its last showcase on Saturday, February 2nd at the Black Cat  featuring Deleted Scenes, Hume, Imperial China and Buildings.

On a cozy evening last year, we took over Sean Peoples’ studio in DC to talk about Sockets, lessons learned, and his take on the DC music scene.  We started with the basics, asking Sean how long he’s been living in DC.

I have been in DC for 15 years now. I come from a small town in NJ that has one light and lots of cows and cornfields and I wanted to go to a city, urban area. I wanted to study political science, so I came here for college at American and graduated in 2003.

What attracted you to the DC music scene, coming from a political science background?

I was a huge fan of Teenbeat and Dischord Records. That was the center of my universe. I wanted to know who those people were. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and other things I listened to as a kid seemed so out of reach. The DC music scene was fiercely independent and seemed a little more in reach, both in terms of the why people were making the music and dispelling the myths around major label stuff.

How did you decide to go from being a fan of the music scene to helping form the needed direction for certain DC music with your label Sockets?

I first started with being a fan of the music. There were a lot of bands that started in 2002-2004 that were so important to me. I realized that not only was I a fan of this music, but that I was a part of the community that was making the music relevant.

Soon after, some of those bands started to break up, which was depressing for me because those were the pillars that made me want to be here. The community was fracturing. A couple of people from those bands, particularly Hugh McElroy from Black Eyes, and I started a band. I went from being a fan to being in a band with one of the people I looked up to as a pillar of the scene here in that time right after college. We did a tour and put out a couple of albums. I look back on a lot of it and see there were things we could have improved on, but it was just fun to be in spirit of creating.

Our band opened for Dan Deacon one time. After I saw Dan Deacon perform, I realized that I hadn’t given the same energy as him. I can’t do what he does. That’s good to know. He’s amazing. That show was literally the moment that I decided I shouldn’t be in a band. That is what Dan should be doing in his life, but I needed to learn what that was for me and shift gears a little bit. The cool thing is that you can figure this in your 20s just by doing stuff. You realize what you love and what you are actually good at. That’s when I decided to start a record label and give up the band dream.

I was first exposed to Hugh’s record label, Ruffian Records, and I started helping him out. I realized that is what I wanted to do; it was always a dream of mine as a kid in New Jersey. So then I just started to do my own stuff. I wanted to document the scene that was obliterated. All of these bands that were getting bigger all broke up. There was a lull in the DC music scene in 2004-2005, but I wanted to document what was happening, even while people thought there was a vacuum. There was some cool music, not necessarily melodic, but interesting. So I started a CD-R label where I would make 20-50 copies of the music that we were putting out. They were just minimal documents of what was going on. The amount that we did and the spirit we did it in mirrored what was going on during that time. It was small-scale and about not taking yourself too seriously. That’s how Sockets was born.

There are some unique and special bands in DC, but at the same time, seem to only be known in DC.

Therein lies as the added value that a record label can bring. There are two streams that are happening. One, there’s the need for a more highly curated kind of sound and points of contact, like a label that’s got a track record. The second is that at the same time, the walls have come down for bands to connect and make the money that they deserve from their fan base. So as a label, how are you going to bring value to the relationship that is happening with the band and their fans, but also maintain the resources needed to continue to be a place for curation? And that’s hard because in the face of all that, no one is buying music. Even fewer people are buying physical copies of it so you have to really know your market. You have to know the niche of the people who will buy the vinyl only record of a Cigarette single. How many people are those? 15 or 3, especially in a town like DC, where the amount of people consuming that kind of music are really not numerous. DC is more of a party town, which is fine. Actually, I’m a DJ, so I partake in that, and in some ways I have a lot of contradictory thoughts about it all.

Another thing is that you don’t have the post industrial space to take advantage of in DC. In Baltimore you have a ton of it. You have bands that can take over a space for really cheap and be really weird and cool and take the time to do that and no one is calling the cops on you. Everyone is just there to create. We don’t have that kind of space in DC. Whatever space is out there is really expensive. The creative class in DC doesn’t have a lot of money, and they shouldn’t, they are creative kids. Most of them are just getting out of college and want to do something cool and interesting. But if you don’t have the cheap areas to do that, how are you going to foster it? There are so many natural factors that are pushing people away from being creative. But there is also a class of people here who have money and can donate in order to help some of these creative efforts.  There are so many things happening every night of the week, and I think that what thins it out for me is the availability of the mental and physical space and the time to enjoy it all.

DC does have a lot going on but you have been successful in breaking through the noise and rising as a pillar for the DC music scene. It looks like your decision to pursue a record label ended up being a wise one, even while in its last days. You have done a lot in the past eight years and that should be commended.

Thank you. In the beginning, that wasn’t even the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal was to do really cool shit and to get bands to come together as a community. I think that happened. I’m also really sad, this is a huge part of my identity. A huge part of the last eight years of my life. It feels really weird to want to want to stop, but also I don’t have much of a choice if I want to do it in a financially sound way. Running a record label without more help, more finances, or somebody on the promotion angle that isn’t trying to gouge out your wallet is just impossible. It hits you pretty hard. It’s been awesome to be with these people and do these things, but it’s not sustainable the way I am doing it. I want to do it again later, but it will be completely different in the way I run it. I need four other people who can invest not only money, but time. Next time, I’ll start a label as a community effort if I do it at all.

Really successful bands started with Sockets, Deleted Scenes and Hume, to mention a couple. You started a record label as a first stop in someone’s music career, which is needed in DC—as a label that really curates anyway.

I was a part of it. I don’t want to overstate it, but yeah, there aren’t a lot of homes for that kind of thing. Dischord still puts out records, but they aren’t going to put out anything unless there is already a scene around something. I was trying to create a scene, but Dischord takes advantage of a scene that’s already there. That gives you a big base from which to build. For Sockets, we were building the base and it took a really long time. I could be doing a lot more to take advantage of that but I’m already at a loss. I think there are ways to let it live on whether it’s a show every year or something else. The Black Cat show is so much fun because I am able to see the actual manifestation of fans who have supported me over the years and the bands, all in one place. It’s like a pep rally. I can’t think of a more beautiful culmination of the hard work that goes into the label than seeing that show. I lose 20% of my hair each year that I put that show together because it is so stressful. When you are trying to fill a room with 800 people, holy shit, that’s really stressful. It happens each year but it’s not like you can out it on Twitter and everyone is going to come. It’s a lot of work, especially when I have a full time job on top of it.

True grassroots efforts is a lot of work, but still a needed process. When  someone is out in the streets handing out a flyer for a show, most people respond positively to that. Why do you think that doesn’t happen as often as it should?

Bands are playing a lot more than they should. For example, Imperial China plays a lot. They are really organized, so for them it works. But at the same time, if you saturate a scene, it’s really hard to get people to come out. Also, I’m 32 now. I started this when I was 24 and at that time I was much more willing to going out on a weekday. There’s a whole demographic that is getting older and doesn’t want to go out on a weekday to see a band that plays all the time. On top of that, there are so many fractured communities in DC. A lot of people don’t know that certain clubs exist or that we have a thriving house show scene. Promotion is changing so much that people are becoming lazy about it. They will just put it up on Facebook or send an email, but even email is becoming passé. So the way to promote a show is just to put it up on Facebook and maybe Twitter.

There isn’t as much of a DIY scene, or as I like to say, DIT, Do it Together. I hate saying DIY because it’s really not doing it yourself. You get your friends together and you flyer. You make a really cool looking flyer, and a really cool poster and you put it all over the city. There’s energy behind getting people to that show. But if you do it every month it’s hard to come up with that same energy all the time. There’s a balance you have to strike.

I feel like I know less now than I did before, but I am a very positive person. If you just have that PMA, the positive mental attitude Bad Brains talked about, I do believe good things will come of that.

A band doesn’t want to play so much in their own city that they begin to build negative buzz in the community, however if one doesn’t play a ton of shows, how does a band get in the scene otherwise—can you give examples of some bands that you feel have succeeded in DC?

There is work that goes into creating something. There are some bands that work really hard, or have something really special, like Cigarette for example. If you enjoy slow brooding pop music, but pop pitched down by 50%, it’s beautiful. It’s chambery, subtle, with a lot of different instrumentation. It’s one of the more special musical experiences you can have in this city. Buildings are another band for which there are no words, it’s just instrumental post-rock. And I really hate post rock, except for Buildings. They are actually creating melodies that are hopeful and not sad and depressing like most post rock. There is a possibility in their melodies, unlike, say, Explosions in the Sky. You have Imperial China, who are strumming the shit out of these instruments and make it really weird and cool. Hume is on a journey to expand the idea of what they think is a pop song. It’s so far from what you think of a pop song, still using the same integral parts, but exploding them every minute. Those bands are so special.

Deleted Scenes is the hardest working band I’ve ever met and some of the best dudes you’ll ever meet. They are making music that is really thoughtful and the lyrics are amazing. They have an idea of how to turn the screw on what we think is a conventional pop song, too, but in a way that it’s still digestible. Deleted Scenes is now a nationally known band, so it has succeeded out of the local band arena. Still, for the most part, community labels don’t have the money to tell it nationally. I mean, if you aren’t on Pitchfork, are you relevant? That’s a valid question right now.

Speaking of being relevant, we see conversations happen between “indie celebrities” on Twitter that has created a new layer of indie royalty in the internet age. When they Tweet about the new amazing record they are listening to, it’s a Grimes record, or someone else at their level. The conversation does a great job of connecting the well known indie artist with each other, but seems to make it harder for lesser known bands to break through in the same world. The loudest voice is heard and if you aren’t making any noise, you tend to get lost. Do you feel that has made it harder for smaller labels like Sockets, and local or true DIY bands to branch out?

Yes. The problem is that their publicists, promoters, and the people booking their tours are the folks that are controlling that conversation. Dirty Projectors were touring for years before anyone knew who they were. Longstreth had some crazy ideas and he kept doing them and all of a sudden people caught up. Or someone paid someone a lot of money to get people to catch up.
The music industry at our level, that’s what it is about. No one cares about major labels anymore. We will always have Beyoncé and we will always get that music. So this creative commodity space has opened up in the Indie world. There’s a lot more space for people doing interesting things because people are more accepting to that music now. But that also means that all the terrible disgusting elements of making the major label industry run has brought that to the smaller label. They are creating an industry and then you can’t compete at a certain level anymore.

That narrative is where they are reinforcing each other. It is kind of impenetrable; it doesn’t necessarily go and pluck downward, unless the label thinks you should. It’s a decision by the label. I think you can blame a lot of them, but it’s also how it is. You fall into a pattern where you are talking with yourself and others on your level and don’t let anyone else in. But at the same time, every day there is a new song by a new band. Ten years ago you didn’t go to a blog to read about a new band. That band has a day or two of holy shit, and then you move on to the next new song. It’s sensory overload. I had to pull back because I’m very much consume, consume, consume. I’m a lifelong discoverer of music, but even I’m tired. There are so many places to access.

That could be said for bands as well. Some bands release a record and are automatically working on a new one. Do you think they are put in a position where they have to keep up for fear of being forgotten?

Yes, totally. You have to keep up or you’re always behind. Deleted Scenes is a great example. They released the record I put out and toured on that new release with their new label and are now coming out of the gate with new record. They have to put out new content for people to remember that they are a band. I remember when we first put out Young People’s and people were surprised that they are a band again, just because they hadn’t put out a new record.

You treat a band like a brand now. You have to employ the tools of the internet to create the best experience. Bands are run like a business. You have to squeeze the most out of what you have. Records aren’t making money anymore, unless you really have a street team of people or a Pitchfork at your sails. So how does a band make money anymore? Well, licensing your music for commercials is a big one. Touring. It’s a weird effect, but people buy stuff at live shows because people want a memento from that experience. So you really have to take that experience and cultivate it. Squeeze as much juice from that lemon as you can. Then at the same time, knowing that if you play more, you might be playing too much! We have to write a book on this, we have all the questions but need more answers.

What advice do you have for bands trying to make it?

I think there has to be a sense of community among them no matter what; you naturally do that when you play together. You need it to get shows from different venues. If there is a way to institutionalize that and make it even more formal, there’s more of a community feel among bands that are like minded. That creates an instant network. That is the best part of any kind of successful display of talent, that you are all pulling for each other. But there also needs to be competition involved too, you can’t just be pals with everybody, especially if you are trying to get people to come to your show. How are you both pushing each other to become better musicians and make strange, lovely beautiful music, but at the same time helping each other to get outside of the borders of DC by touring together? You also need to become ambassadors to the music scene here, not just by talking about your band, but by talking about your band and the bands around you as a movement. You should get together each month as a community and build that formal force.

Lastly, because this is The Vinyl District, what was your first vinyl experience?

Finding in my father’s chest of drawers a whole series of records from Donna Summer (who I love) to Iron Butterfly’s 17-minute version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” He had 3 copies because he wore out the first two. There was also ZZ Top, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the Mamas and the Papas. I’d sit and stare at these things because we didn’t have a record player at the time and wonder when I was going to listen to this stuff! Then I realized my grandmother had a record player across the way. So whenever I knew she wasn’t home, I’d carry these little stacks across the street. They looked so beautiful.

The most amazing thing about records is that there is this huge pallet for art, people got really creative with that. For me, that filtered over into the Sockets label. The art had to be 50% of the experience. You are listening to the record, but for me, I’m reading everything the artist has. Anything you can get your hands on about the band. I think there is a real love affair when you discover that early on. It’s more of a deliberate act. You have to pick up the record and put the needle on. There are 20-30 minutes on each side, so you have to flip the record over. That’s an intimate relationship that we don’t have now. With vinyl, you have to slow down. It’s an atmosphere of experience because it sounds warmer. The compression isn’t as much. It’s also technically different from what we listen to now. With records you are craving it into something, so the wave forms have a lot more room to go up and down—there’s more range. The way it hits our ears gives it more of a full audio experience. With the iPod, we are hearing clips of compressed sound, so that as you can make it louder, you hear more. I don’t want it get louder. I want to hear the spaces that are lower that you can’t normally hear, or spaces that are higher. People don’t think about it that way anymore. It’s much different from the way we listen to music today.

Anyway, I’d sneak into my grandmother’s, play those records, and tape them so that I could have them to listen to in my regular stereo. Everything from the Beatles and Cream. I loved Cream when I was a kid. I can close my eyes and remember everything about that cover art, it was beautiful and psychedelic. I was really enamored by that. Once I got my record player it was on. I’ve been collecting records ever since I was 18.

If you haven’t already bought tickets for the Sockets Showcase, buy them now, as more than likely it will sell out. Bid farewell to eight grand years of Sockets Records, a special night no one should miss out on. 

And remember it isn’t DIY, it’s DIT!

Photos: Richie Downs

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