The iPod age hasn't been kind to record labels big and small. But the Madison-based co-op label Sector Five Records (sectorfiverecords.com) has found a way to thrive on its own terms.
Since its founding in 2003, Sector Five has been home to 11 area acts. Clearly, savvy resource-sharing between acts has helped its albums do well in a musical marketplace overflowing with options. But the label's continued success may have more to do with friendship.
"We all like each other's stuff," says Jordon Read of Colony of Watts, one of the label's founding acts. "And we like each other as people, too."
In fact, even when Sector Five acts move on to greener pastures, they often stick with the label. The personal bonds are that strong. New York's Cummies and Chicago's Driftless Pony Club have both stayed on despite having departed Madison's local music scene.
Although it was formed in a college town, Sector Five doesn't orient itself toward today's college students. In part, that's because it's made up of bands whose members have either graduated from the university or didn't go there in the first place. Read is a UW undergrad, and Hat Party keyboard player Cindy Au is a graduate student, but the two label mainstays are exceptions. Au notes that many of the students she teaches express a preference for Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews and other jam- and college-rock acts, but no Sector Five band dips into that musical territory.
Read and Au say there is no overarching Sector Five sound, but most acts deviate from the mainstream. Many also look back at musical trends that pre-date indie-rock. The Hat Party favor European post-punk, while Colony of Watts and the Suit owe something to American noise-rock of the '80s and '90s. The Cummies, on the other hand, play dirty, straightforward proto-punk that mainlines Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, while Driftless Pony Club cleave to pop melodies and danceable beats.
Thanks to their collective sense of musical history, the bands' shows often draw an older crowd. "A lot of our fans are over 30," says Au. "There are also some high school students who are interested in that kind of music. But not many college students. That's still sort of the gap in our audience."
Sector Five's old-school way of doing things is also expressed in the way it does business. There are no contracts, and the album-making process is strictly DIY. Early on, each of the bands involved with Sector Five's first compilation album put $300 into a communal fund to finance the CD, and those dollars keep being recycled back into the label's CDs.
"Since then we've always had that amount of money in the bank," says Read. "We've loaned money out to various bands [to make albums], and then they pay it back with no interest. Our comps always do a little better than break even, and with the little bit of extra money we're gaining every year, we add to the fund or spend it on publicity. That's what I think we're going to do this year - spend it on one specific album and do it nationwide."
Both Read and Au say it's gratifying to see the label's albums reach a wider public. (Au notes that Sector Five albums often gain more notice in Europe than in this country.) But the label isn't about "breaking" acts or hitting on the next big thing and never will be. "All of us want to make albums," says Read, "but I think we're pretty grounded to the extent that we aren't trying to make it as musicians."
Sector Five celebrates the release of its annual compilation CD at the High Noon Saloon on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 18 and 19, with multi-band bills that include the Hat Party, Colony of Watts, Driftless Pony Club, the Suit and a half-dozen other acts. Read and Au are hoping to distribute a lot of the 1,000 CDs pressed at the performances.
"Everyone who comes gets a copy," says Au, noting that none of the tracks are available on other albums. "And this comp is probably the most diverse one we've done. The showcases are really diverse this year, too, in terms of the bands you can see."