Vinyl revival | PLANT
RIP-V resuscitates LP manufacturing.
Apparently the vinyl LP is not dead. These days most music is enjoyed digitally, downloaded onto an iPod-like device, as CDs edge closer to the endangered list. Yet vinyl, boomers’ media of record, is enjoying a resurgence thanks to audio purists who prefer an LP’s warm sound and unique cover artwork to MP3s or other digital formats.
According to 2012 figures from music industry sales tracker Nielsen SoundScan, vinyl record sales jumped in the US by 17.7% to 4.5 million units, and the analytics firm expects 2013 to be the eighth consecutive year sales reach record levels since it started tracking data in 1991.
That represents just 1.44% of overall US album sales. Digital downloads continue to grow at a healthy rate and now represent 37.2% of all music sales. (Download stores, such as iTunes, have overtaken brick-and-mortar retail stores in sales, accounting for 111.7 million units.) But not bad for a medium that was given up for lost with the introduction of CDs.
As vinyl lovers drive up the price of old LPs there is one company in Montreal pressing new music onto the old format.
Interestingly, it’s the digitization of music that’s leading a renewal of vinyl, according to Phillipe Dubuc, president and co-owner of RIP-V, Canada’s only vinyl record maker. He, like vinyl aficionados, is adamant the cheap ear-bud headphones included with your iPod just can’t deliver the warm, rich sounds of a freshly pressed LP. And vinyl lovers aren’t restricted to nostalgic boomers. There’s a 15 to 25 year-old “hipster” demographic, which Dubuc says was a key factor in his decision to get into the record pressing business.
“Music is about the physical experience of listening – the quality of a recording, the artwork, the liner notes – that stuff just can’t be translated effectively on an iPod,” says Dubuc, 43, who has seen the company’s production grow five-fold since the doors opened in 2009 when 12,000 copies of the Tragically Hip’s “We Are the Same” album were pressed. “It also allows musicians to sell their music as a complete package.”
RIP-V is now pressing 2,000 LPs a day for music heavyweights including Montreal’s Grammy winning Arcade Fire, American blues singer Tom Waits, indie rock duo She and Him (led by actress Zooey Deschanel) and legendary punk-rock band Rancid.
It all started in 2007 when Dubuc, a former National Bank Financial investment banker, lost his job and traded his suit and tie for jeans and sneakers, jumping into the resurging world of vinyl after considering a business proposition from friend and neighbour, Ian Walker, who owns an independent music distribution company headquartered on Montreal’s south shore. Dubuc was offered the opportunity to co-own and manage record manufacturing in the same facility where Walker and his wife Renee run FAB Distribution.
(RIP-V actually stands for Renee, Iain and Phillipe; the V for vinyl. RIP is also a feeble jab at the LP’s supposed demise.)
“A lot of record labels were struggling to manufacture music in time and in large-enough quantities,” says Dubuc. “So [Walker] figured it would be a good time to get into the music manufacturing business to compliment his distribution operation.”
Dubuc took six months to let the offer ruminate, spending some time to research the business’s prospects. He says the LP industry is growing by about 25% a year.
Most of his clients are Canadian indie-labels such as Dare to Care and Montreal’s Secret City Records, but about 80% of his production is shipped to three customers in the US that include the famed Epitaph Records, the punk-rock label founded by Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz, and Merge Records.
He and the Walkers put up their own money to get things going, a sum a ballpark Dubuc describes as $500,000 to $1 million.
Walker had purchased 14 antique presses from a former vinyl record manufacturing plant in New Jersey for $100,000. The company is now using six of them, while the others wait in storage, but those are often pillaged for spare parts when one of the machines goes down.
“There are not many vinyl presses anymore – all the companies that made them went out of business, so supply is a bit of an issue and that’s why a lot of my time is spent maintaining them,” says Dubuc. Little wonder, after going to a German specialty manufacturer that quoted a single vinyl press for the same price RIP-V purchased its 14 antique models.
The plant manager in New Jersey agreed to travel to Montreal and help the vinyl greenhorns set up the plant and provided Dubuc with a crash-course on machine maintenance.
“I still called him almost everyday for a year when he left,” he jokes. “It’s a steep learning curve and coming from a completely different background, when something broke it took a long time to fix and that’s not good for production – pretty much everything has broken once, so I’ve done it all now.”
Simple manufacturing process
The 2,000-square foot manufacturing facility employs eight people. Dubuc and his technician Richard Quiron work the pressing machines and perform quality control, while the other employees handle inspection, and the intricate packaging that often includes posters, download coupons and boxing.
The manufacturing process is simple (as Dubuc says, they’re just melting and pressing plastic), but it’s very detail oriented, especially the heating and cooling of the vinyl after it’s pressed.
Dubuc and Quiron start out with tiny black PVC pellets fed into a funnel, then to a stream-heated extruder that melts the plastic at 150 degrees C into a black disk called a biscuit. The biscuit is brought forward to the press where it’s sandwiched between the A- and B-side labels and pressed to form the 12-inch, 180-gram record. The music is now on the vinyl, and the record is cooled for 10 to 15 seconds while it’s still in the stampers.
Excess vinyl is squeezed out of the press and removed by an automated blade.
The finished records are then stacked on a spindle, ready to play, but the RIP-V team lets them cool for 24 hours before they’re sent to the packaging team, a factor that ensures the LP has the purest sound possible.
“The trick to a nice sounding record is the heating and cooling. If you cool them too much when the press opens, there’s going to be too much pressure on the material and you will be left with a record that makes a lot of unwanted noise,” he says.
The time of day and temperature of the water used, which is kept in a rooftop tank, are variables that he must keep an eye on.
“It took me a year to get everything how I want it,” he says.
As the resurgence of LPs grows, Dubuc notes there’s another reason behind vinyl’s popularity: “It’s a lot more interesting to have a collection of vinyl records than it is to have a huge collection on iTunes.”
And it’s sure to drive up sales of the plastic milk crates that were the storage medium of choice when vinyl ruled.
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This article appears in the Oct. 2013 issue of PLANT.