The renascent vinyl LP is cresting at the moment, and true believer Chad Kassem is effortlessly surfing the rising tide.
Vinyl, an industry-mandated white elephant in the compact disc era, is now bouncing back as CD sales plummet. LP sales were up 14% in 2010, and the format grew a staggering 41% during the first six months of 2011, according to Nielsen SoundScan data.
While last year’s sales of 2.8 million LPs were not immense, rapid growth has taxed meager existing manufacturing facilities. With major U.S. pressing plants shuttered since the ’90s, fewer than 20 American companies currently press LPs.
Earlier this year Kassem filled the void by opening his own plant, Quality Record Pressings, in Salina, Kan.
“I’ve been swimming against the grain since the day the CD was made,” the malapropism-prone Kassem says. “I trusted my ears, man. It’s all based on a love of vinyl that started as a hobby.”
The Louisiana-born Kassem began selling and trading LPs out of his two-bedroom Salina apartment in 1986. In the last 25 years, he has built a small vinyl-based empire of his own.
He founded Acoustic Sounds, a mail order and Web retailer of audiophile LPs and high-end audio equipment; a vinyl reissue label, Analogue Production; a subsidiary label, Analogue Production Originals, which markets Kassem’s own blues recordings; an LP mastering facility (since sold); and Blue Heaven Studios, a recording facility and performance space built from the ground up in an old church.
Pressing was missing from the mix. “A lot of our customers said, ‘C’mon, dude, start your own press, man,'” Kassem says. “I knew it was a lot to bite off. But every time someone mentioned it, I’d get that much closer.”
Push came to shove when increasing vinyl sales and a surge in LP production by the major labels forced Kassem’s labels to the rear of the queue at Record Technology Inc. (RTI), the Camarillo, Calif.-based pressing plant that handled most of his business.
“When Warner Bros. and all these big dogs started calling, we were kicked to the curb, kinda,” Kassem says. “Not on purpose, but they were catering to those guys — they were doing a lot bigger numbers than us. … All of a sudden it’s taking me and everybody else six to eight weeks to get our records. That got me thinking.”
Kassem began buying up presses two years ago. “I didn’t have any immediate plans,” he says. “There was an email going around about this guy in England selling some (presses). So I contacted him and I bought ’em. I sat on ’em for a year … I bought (Hollywood-based audiophile vinyl label) Classic Records, and I bought their presses. Now I’ve got all these presses.”
In spring, Quality Record Pressings finally opened its 21,000-square-foot plant, part of a three-building, 70,000-square-foot facility that also houses offices and record warehouses. QRP’s first job was Analogue Production’s 180-gram vinyl reissue of Cat Stevens’ 1971 album “Tea for the Tillerman”; QRP-pressed Analogue albums by Muddy Waters, Freddy King and Ben Webster will follow this year.
Other labels have come calling: Kassem notes, “We’re already pressing Jimi Hendrix’s ‘In the West’ for Sony and a Randy Travis album for Warner Bros. and 100 Blue Note albums for EMI Japan.”
He expects to have 10 presses operating at full blast eight to 10 hours a day by year’s end, making 1,000-2,000 LPs a day.
However, he says the endeavor was not spurred by economic opportunity but rather by a simple belief in the format he has always adored.
“It isn’t like I was doing that because I’m looking to make a lot of money in pressing other peoples’ records, because I see this resurgence of vinyl. That’s not how I’m looking at it. I want the most badass records on the planet for my own label.”