Ralph Damman

How Canadian Vinyl Pressing Plants Made a Comeback

Here's why the rise of homegrown manufacturing companies is good news for artists, labels, and music fans everywhere.

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Aug 22 2016, 1:43pm

Ralph Damman

This article originally appeared on THUMP Canada.

Bottlenecked production. Delayed deliveries. Worn-out machinery with impossible-to-replace parts and a dearth of qualified workers to maintain them. Lost revenues. Rising prices. Empty store racks and frustrated consumers. For the music industry in 2016, this is what counts as a success story.

As revenue from music sales has plummeted over the past 15 years, vinyl has come to represent the industry's Jon Snow—the tenacious little bugger that just won't die, and has actually emerged from the digital age bloodbath with renewed vigor. Last year, vinyl sales reached their highest level since the late-80s as the format continues to be re-embraced as a tangible retort to the clouding of our collections. While still comprising a sliver of the overall music industry pie, the sector has experienced steady growth since 2007, and increasingly, is one of the few figures on a record company balance sheet that isn't itemized in parentheses.

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However, while the natural response to surging demand is to boost production, with vinyl that's nigh impossible. Few pressing plants survived the industry's shift to CD manufacturing in the mid-80s, and the dozen or so that did are mostly reliant on aged, combustible machinery running at capacity. What's more, vinyl's growing popularity—and the lucrative national holidays it's spawned—has lured the major labels back into waxworks, emboldened by the realization they can get people to buy Dark Side of the Moon yet again. This has effectively crowded out the small independent labels who were responsible for keeping the medium alive during the CD era, and for whom vinyl comprises a far greater proportion of revenue.

At this point, we haven't just reached peak vinyl; we've reached peak articles about peak vinyl. But the pressing-plant bottlenecks aren't just an annoying inconvenience. Here in Canada, they're actually killing labels, not to mention the overburdened, understaffed pressing plants themselves.

Because there are now releases that typically wouldn't have been pressed to vinyl a few years back, labels like ours—who do a good amount of business in vinyl—are feeling it. - Cameron Reed, Arts & Crafts

Taylor Smith, label manager at Montreal art-pop imprint Arbutus Records, outlines the new norm. "When I started at Arbutus in 2012, the turnaround time for vinyl orders was a month," he says. "Now, some manufacturers are at a 22 to 26-week turn times. And the consistency is all over the map. You've got manufacturers who tell you they can do it in eight weeks and turns out to be 14. That's when it gets really frustrating."

For a small label like Arbutus, the effects can be crippling. Not only do the delays often necessitate pushing back release dates, they also prevent timely restocking of in-demand titles. And often, that demand has dissipated by the time those records finally make it back onto record store shelves.

"Last year, we put out a record by Braids, Deep in the Iris," says Smith, who also plays bass in the band. "It sold very well off the bat, exceeding our expectations. We ran out of copies about six months ago, and the repress just finished last week. That's a solid chunk of possible sales thrown out the window right there."

Photo courtesy of Record Store Day

Even larger labels are feeling the squeeze. Over at Toronto-based Arts & Crafts, label manager Cameron Reed has seen turnaround times jump from seven weeks in 2013 to 12-plus weeks today. "Whether Justin Bieber is deserving of having a full run of vinyl, that's not for me to decide," Reed says with a laugh. "But because there are now releases that typically wouldn't have been pressed to vinyl a few years back, labels like ours—who do a good amount of business in vinyl—are feeling it."

Increasingly, labels have been forced to take matters into their own hands, with boutique operations like Fat Possum in Mississippi and Third Man Records in Nashville launching their own in-house pressing plants. And last fall, Epitaph Records general manager Dave Hansen and Secretly Canadian co-founder Darius Van Arman opened Independent Record Pressing, a facility in New Jersey that acquired Quebec plant RIP-V's old presses to service independent labels who've been usurped at other facilities by major-label product.

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But for Canadian independent labels, press availability is just one factor affecting the process of bringing vinyl to market. For the likes of Arbutus and Arts & Crafts, sourcing manufacturers involves a complex weighing of variables. Ordering vinyl from plants in the US or Europe means taking a hit on the exchange rate, due to a weak Canadian dollar. At the same time, these labels do the bulk of their business outside of the country, so shipping costs are a crucial consideration too. (Some domestic imprints, like Montreal's Turbo Recordings, do all their manufacturing in Europe for this very reason.)

"That's something that people rarely discuss," says Reed. "You're shipping a very awkward, very heavy product when you're working in mass numbers. All of a sudden, when we're talking about a manufacturing cost of $5-$6 per LP, you could be working with $1.50 to $2 per unit in shipping just it to get it back to the label, before you're shipping it out again to the consumer."

That would explain why your basic, single-LP new release can sell for upwards of $30 in your local record store. And as unit costs rise, stores become extra-selective about how much stock they order, since standard industry practice dictates that they can't return unsold vinyl to distributors. This all has the effect of depressing label bottom lines further.

Reed's experiences at Arts & Crafts help explain why he's been so reluctant to issue vinyl on his own electronic-focussed imprint Slow Release. To date, the label has released music by his own Babe Rainbow project, Toronto avant-R&B enigma LA timpa, and Calgary chamber-pop maestro Aleem Khan, but the upcoming 12-inch from L.A. synth-pop experimentalist dd elle will be his first foray into vinyl. And that conservative approach has as much to with musical aesthetics as market forces.

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"From my perspective, bankrolling it out of my own pocket, there are some releases that are really great, but I don't necessarily think they're the kind of album that someone would want to purchase on vinyl," Reed says. "I do believe there are formats that are particular to a sound and style. And you have to draw that line in the sand and say: 'You know what, I don't think you're ready for a release that is going to cost $5,000 to manufacture.' Or, 'I don't think that this music is super-conducive to a "listen to it for 20 minutes, get up, flip it over" experience.' And I think that's a decision that managers, artists, and label people have to make on a case-by-case basis."

However, given the sustained growth in the vinyl sector, and the undying perceived prestige of the format, it's unlikely pressing plant pressures will be alleviated by that sort of common sense logic. For many up-and-coming acts, holding your first album on vinyl instills the idea that you're a proper band now, even if it results in thousands of dollars in credit card debt and boxes of unsold records doubling as furniture in your apartment. But some major new developments in the vinyl industry carry the promise that, some day, this whole conversation could be moot. What's more, these potential solutions won't require Canadian labels to constantly bust out their currency conversion calculators and shipping rate charts.

Photo courtesy of Canada Boy Vinyl

At this time last year, Canada didn't have a single active vinyl pressing plant. With its aging machines unable to keep up with surging demand, Montreal's reliable RIP-V went RIP in late 2014, hitting the proverbial red button on the country's last remaining operational presses.

Last September, Calgary's Canada Boy Vinyl facility opened for business with three aged manual presses procured from a mothballed UK plant. And this fall, their operation will be bolstered by three new automated machines designed by Toronto firm Viryl Technologies. According to Canada Boy founder and commanding officer Dean Reid, his plant can pump out "3,000 records a day [or 1.1 million per year]—when the presses are behaving, that is! When we first started, our turnaround time was six to eight weeks after art approval, but with sales growth and equipment breakdowns, we are now 10 to 12 weeks. With the addition of the new presses, I could see us getting to the 8-9,000 records-a-day range [or 3.3 million per year], that that should get us back in the six to eight week turnaround zone."

If you think of the current vinyl shortage as sort of like the musical equivalent of a degenerative bone disease, then the company's figured it required some hospital-honed expertise. Headed by the former owner of Vaughan, Ontario's defunct Acme vinyl pressing plant—which shuttered in 2008 before it could capitalize on the craze—Viryl's team of engineers previously worked in the medical equipment industry. The company has produced a fully automated vinyl press that can be yours for the price of a tiny studio condo in Toronto—$245,000 Canadian or roughly $190,000 US. (The price tag includes a one-year warranty on parts and servicing, but no parking spot or swimming pool.)

Photo courtesy of Viryl Technologies

"From extrusion, all the way to trimming and stacking, the whole process is automated," says Viryl's Alex DesRoches of the machines, which are designed to run 24/7. Using 140-gram vinyl, they can produce 180 records per hour, or over 1.5 million per year. "One operator can comfortably man four machines at one time—that person is pretty much just responsible for loading materials and taking the vinyl off of the machines as it produces it runs," he continues. "We've implemented a platform called Adapt, which monitors all the points of the press and collects data from the system. So the pressing plant can have full control over the nozzle pressure, how many records they're making per minute, how a certain PVC blend is reacting to the extruder... and you have full control through your PC and smartphone."

While that's great news for plant managers playing Candy Crush in the loo realizing they need to fire off another 500 copies of that Blood Orange record, DesRoches also sees Viryl as a boon to labels who want to take control of their means of production. In addition to Canada Boy, Viryl has recently sold presses to Dallas-based indie Hand Drawn Records, who are launching their own manufacturing facility this fall.

A half hour west of the company's Toronto headquarters, another upstart operation is hoping to make a major dent in the industry's order backlog. While the sprawling suburb of Burlington, Ontario is nobody's idea of a musical hotbed, it will soon be home to the second largest vinyl-pressing plant in all of North America. And it, too, will be running brand new, automated machines—however, it had to look east of the city to find them. Way east.

Acquiring vinyl presses in the 2010s involves a globe-trotting Raiders of the Last Ark-style quest guided by opportune, word-of-mouth tips and fuelled by fierce competition.

Gerry McGhee's career in the music industry dates back to the era when people actually bought vinyl LPs and listened to them, instead of just hanging them on their wall in Urban Outfitters frames. He was the frontman for Brighton Rock, one of those slick, big-haired, post-Jovi rock bands that MuchMusic stopped playing once grunge blew up. But after he quit making records, he found even greater success wholesaling them—Isotope Music, the company he launched in 1996, touts itself as Canada's largest music distributor, with an inventory of over 60,000 titles.

Around four years ago, McGhee started to notice a sustained uptick in the amount of vinyl orders he was receiving—and nowhere near enough stock from his label clients to fulfill them. "When all the Led Zeppelin reissues came out, Canada got zero vinyl," McGhee recounts. The labels came to me and said, 'If you put a plant together, we will support you, because we're not getting enough product.'"

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However, as he quickly learned, acquiring vinyl presses in the 2010s involves a globe-trotting Raiders of the Lost Ark-style quest guided by opportune, word-of-mouth tips and fueled by fierce competition. "I've been to plants in Canada, the UK, and Japan, trying to find machines, thinking I found machines, losing machines... One guy would call and say, 'Okay, I've got a machine for you for $53,000.' 'Alright, I'll take it!' 'Sorry, too late—it's gone now.' I was at a conference once in Portugal and met with a guy from Cargo Records and I said, "'I heard you have a plant—do you know where I can get machines?' And his response was: 'If I did, I wouldn't tell you.'"

McGhee's scavenger hunt eventually led him to the Czech Republic, home of GZ—the unlikely epicenter of the modern vinyl boom. The company is a multi-faceted manufacturing facility that cranks out everything from CDs to packaging materials for the likes of IKEA. And since opening in 1951, it's also pressed vinyl—and never stopped, even at the height of the CD's dominance. As a result, GZ was in an advantageous position to capitalize on the current vogue for vinyl and, today, the company is the top producer of platters in the world. (Arbutus' Smith says their product is "the best quality we've had.")

GZ also has the deep resources to invest in the prohibitively expensive process of building new vinyl presses. McGhee initially approached the company to see if he could buy some from them; the company declined. Instead, they've decided to partner up.

Photo courtesy of Viryl Technologies

When it launches this fall, the Precision Vinyl Press in Burlington will be operating ten new automated presses with a collective capacity to produce four million records per year off the bat,and a phase two goal of 11 million records annually. McGhee has already brought long-time Isotope partners Universal Music Canada and Sony Music Canada on board, but he insists his plant is there to service boutique labels as well. "The great thing about these machines is they can handle the big runs, but they're also great for doing little 200-unit runs. After test pressings are complete, we're hoping to offer a six-week delivery."

And to ensure a locked-in roster of indie labels right out of the gate, Precision has teamed up with the popular, Toronto-based vinyl-broker service SAMO, whose clients include Arbutus and Arts & Crafts. Previously, labels would consult the company to source the most cost- and time-effective pressing options available internationally on a release-by-release basis. And to expedite the turnaround process, a label like Arts & Crafts might have their album packaging printed at one facility, ship it to SAMO, who then combine it with the vinyl they've concurrently sourced from another plant, and send the final product directly to distributors.

Photo courtesy of Viryl Technologies

Under the new partnership, they will essentially function as Precision's frontline sales office, forgoing their traditional broker service to serve as the liaison between the labels and the new plant. They're also now offering on-site printing and packaging, effectively making Precision a one-stop shop. McGhee was hoping the plant's test runs would be underway by now, but delays in securing city permits and evaluating different contractor bids have pushed back their opening from September to October. For Arbutus' Smith, that moment can't come soon enough.

"When you're manufacturing through Canadian companies, your expenses are in Canadian dollars. But most of your revenues ends up in American dollars, so the profit margins expand as a result. And it means I can drive seven hours to see our pressing plant. I'm pretty psyched!"

Reed, however, is taking a more cautiously optimistic outlook.

"You hear about new plants popping up saying they'll have a five to seven week turnaround. But I'll be interested to see if that lasts—because if you're advertising that, and everyone rushes to you, that advantage is gone almost immediately!"

Stuart Berman is on Twitter.