Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Music -

ou don’t hear this very of­ten any­more in Salina, Kan., but busi­ness is boom­ing—for one com­pany at least. Amid the blue-col­lar town’s shut­tered fac­to­ries and empty grain el­e­va­tors sits the squat brick ware­house that’s home to Qual­ity Record Press­ings, which does ex­actly what its name says. QRP’S ser­vices are so much in de­mand, it had to stop tak­ing or­ders tem­po­rar­ily last Au­gust; for much of last year, Chad Kassem, founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, had to run the plant 24 hours a day to work through a back­log of some half a mil­lion al­bums over­due to be pressed. QRP man­u­fac­tures about 1.6 mil­lion records a year—from artists rang­ing from Miles Davis to Nir­vana— mak­ing it one of the largest such plants in the country. And de­mand won’t quit. “No­body wants to hear you belly­ach­ing about how you’re so busy,” says Kassem, 53. “But who wants to turn away work be­cause you don’t have time to do it?”

Dudes like Kassem have helped keep vinyl alive for the last, oh, four decades, ever since the for­mat started los­ing ground to tech­no­log­i­cal marvels such as the eight­track and cas­sette tape. For a long time, the core cus­tomer was a mid­dle-aged man who sifted through dusty crates to round out his Steely Dan col­lec­tion. This is more or less the mar­ket QRP still serves. But now a sig­nif­i­cant and grow­ing num­ber of vinyl heads are mil­len­ni­als— or even younger. They buy new records rather than used, and many are women, which ex­plains why last year’s best-sell­ing artists on vinyl were Adele and Tay­lor Swift, and why Whole Foods Mar­ket, Ur­ban Out­fit­ters, and Barnes & No­ble have all gone old-school. The av­er­age price th­ese kids pay is about $20, though limited edi­tions made for April’s Record Store Day, the shop­ping hol­i­day cre­ated in 2007 to boost vinyl sales at in­de­pen­dent record stores, can run well north of $50. That’s a lot of money for mu­sic that’s prac­ti­cally free in dig­i­tal for­mats. Last year, 12 mil­lion records were sold in the U.S., ac­cord­ing to Nielsen Sounds­can, twice as many as in 2013 and 13 times the num­ber from a decade ago. That trans­lates to $416 mil­lion in rev­enue for the record la­bels, more than all of the mil­lions and mil­lions of frac­tions of cents earned from streams on Spo­tify, Sound­cloud, and Youtube com­bined.

But here’s the thing. To make a record, you need a ma­chine to press it, and the last new vinyl press was man­u­fac­tured in 1982, when the No. 1 song was Phys­i­cal by Olivia Newton-john.

This is about when Kassem be­gan to get into the busi­ness, how­ever cir­cuitously. The fol­low­ing year, 1983, he moved to Salina from Lafayette, La. He was 21, ad­dicted to “just about every­thing,” as he puts it, and look­ing for a quiet town where he could ful­fill a court or­der to get sober. (It worked.) To keep oc­cu­pied, he started col­lect­ing vin­tage jazz and blues records from es­tate sales and used record stores and then—be­cause what else was there to do in Salina?—sell­ing them out of his bed­room.

Kassem launched a mail-or­der record busi­ness, Acous­tic Sounds, in 1986; in two years, he says, he was do­ing about $100,000 in sales a month, and he had to move the busi­ness out of his home be­cause neigh­bors were com­plain­ing about the de­liv­ery trucks rum­bling up and down their street. He rented of­fice space, and then he rented more. He be­gan sell­ing turnta­bles and other au­dio equip­ment. “Then I thought, What’s bet­ter than sell­ing old records? Mak­ing new ones,” he says.

In 1990, Kassem started reis­su­ing ob­scure, out- of-print al­bums un­der the la­bel Ana­logue Pro­duc­tions. “I had $10,000 in cash in an en­ve­lope, and I went to Van­guard Records”—in New York—“and said, ‘I want this ti­tle and this ti­tle.’ The guy looked at me and was like, ‘Woah, woah, woah, what is this?’ But no one else was do­ing it, so they let me,” Kassem says. He made a sim­i­lar deal with jazz la­bels such as Verve Records and Blue Note Records. For each reis­sue, he’d place or­ders for a few hundred copies with Record Tech­nol­ogy Inc., a plant in Ca­mar­illo, Calif. “We’d press any­thing back then,” says Gary Sal­strom, 57, who worked at RTI at the time. “We used to be ex­cited to sell 1,000 records a year.” Things car­ried on that way for about 20 years, un­til vinyl took off in the mid-2000s among the Pitch­fork crowd. Th­ese peo­ple wanted a tan­gi­ble way to show ap­pre­ci­a­tion for mu­sic, be­yond star­ring

4tracks on itunes, a sen­ti­ment adopted by kids raised on the Jonas Broth­ers and Justin Bieber. Sud­denly, RTI didn’t have time for Kassem’s or­ders. “Even if they wanted to help me out, I was plac­ing 1,000-al­bum or­ders for an old blues record, and here comes Warner Bros., who wants 40,000 of some­thing,” Kassem says. “So I said, ‘Enough of this, I’ll press my own.’ ”

He bought six presses on­line; he’s now up to 10 (he won’t say how much he paid, but they usu­ally run about $150,000 each). Kassem moved them into a 23,000-square-foot for­mer food­stor­age fa­cil­ity, and in 2011 launched Qual­ity Record Press­ings. He then called up for­mer vinyl en­gi­neers, in­clud­ing Sal­strom, and asked them to work for him. “They are will­ingly and un­will­ingly be­ing dragged out of re­tire­ment,” says Sal­strom, who now runs Kassem’s plant. “This was an in­dus­try that, un­til a few years ago, was all but dead. There just isn’t any­one else out there who knows how to make a record any­more.”

It wasn’t al­ways this way. Dur­ing vinyl’s hey­day in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, mu­sic la­bels owned their own plants, which they packed with hun­dreds of presses. “Sony had plants. EMI had plants. Warner had three or four of its own press­ing plants in the U.S. alone,” says Billy Fields, vice pres­i­dent of sales and ac­count man­age­ment at Warner Mu­sic Group, which uses QRP to press al­bums by the Talk­ing Heads, Bon­nie Raitt, and other artists. When CDS came along, the la­bels sold the plants, junked most of the presses, and out­sourced or­ders to the few sur­viv­ing in­de­pen­dent com­pa­nies. Now they need those presses again, but there are only so many in work­ing con­di­tion—and most of them are owned by a hand­ful of com­pa­nies that, like QRP, are al­ready run­ning at full ca­pac­ity. Two com­pa­nies, one in Canada and one in Ger­many, are try­ing to man­u­fac­ture ma­chines, but none has gone to mar­ket yet. “It takes about 18 weeks be­tween when I or­der some­thing and when I can ac­tu­ally get it to my cus­tomers,” says Nick Alt, founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of VNYL, a Columbia House- style sub­scrip­tion ser­vice.

Through Acous­tic Sounds, his mail-or­der busi­ness, Kassem was known in the mu­sic in­dus­try well be­fore he started press­ing records, so QRP picked up big­name clients right away. Jimi Hen­drix’s es­tate asked him to han­dle its reis­sues be­fore Kassem’s presses were even up and run­ning. “I knew Chad through sev­eral blues projects he did, and I knew he does qual­ity work, which you need if you’re ask­ing some­one to pay that much for a record,” says John Mcder­mott, Hen­drix’s cat­a­log di­rec­tor, who es­ti­mates he’s sold 100,000 copies of Hen­drix’s 1967 de­but Are You Ex­pe­ri­enced since switch­ing to QRP in 2011. “But we also need vol­ume. Hen­drix has three al­bums on vinyl for sale at Wal­mart.” Warner’s Fields says: “We need Chad and his presses. He’s not the big­gest out there, but he’s a ma­niac about qual­ity.”

Un­der Sal­strom’s eye, QRP dotes on ev­ery step of the record­mak­ing process. He ob­sesses over things like the type of nickel

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