Spin cycle: Resurgence of vinyl records means new business up their sleeve
The print shop at the Record Jacket Corp. is dim, loud and hot. A single fan pushes the humid air around, and concrete walls and corrugated metal ceiling do their best to trap it inside.
The Wade Ave. workshop near Bloor St. and Lansdowne Ave., all 2,000 square feet of it, looks like an industrial relic, but it just opened in the spring.
A Winkler und Dünnebier record sleeve fabricating machine, 31 feet long and 2 tonnes of steel, takes up a third of the space. Manually operated, it can cut, fold and glue up to 10,000 12-inch record jackets per hour. The machine was made in the 1970s and fell out of use, but just like vinyl sales, has been resuscitated.
Co-owners Paul Miller and Alex Durlak, both 30, and sole employee Jason Cousineau, have tattoos and facial hair. Giant Mac screens sit on the office desks. Close friends, Miller and Durlak bonded over a mutual love of art, music and record collecting.
In 2010, a chance to buy the machine arose, and they decided to combine talents and clients to tap into a vinyl production market that, in Canada, had all but disappeared.
The new venture is one of only two record jacket companies in the country. There are just five vinyl manufacturing plants in North America. Record Jacket sells to music distributors and record labels as well as to individual independent bands. They’ve sold 15,000 sleeves since April.
Miller, from Thornhill, also runs Samo Media, a music brokering firm. Durlak, from Markham, owns Standard Form, a small press and bindery.
“The thing about vinyl is that it’s fundamentally an artifact,” Durlak says. “It’s an artifact that has a desire to be collected in a way no other format does.”
He doesn’t believe in a vinyl revival.
“I think it’s a steady niche that’s always been there and it’s not going anywhere,” Durlak says. Some genres, such as punk, hip-hop, electronica and indie rock, always produced LPs, regardless of mainstream sales. But now those mainstream sales are increasing.
Miller says his brokering business has “absolutely flipped” from CDs to vinyl.
“Although we still do CD production and we have a few in the system now, it’s at least 85- to 90 per cent vinyl. That’s really what carried us,” Miller says.
According to Nielsen SoundScan, Canadian CD sales have dropped precipitously over the last decade but the reverse is true for vinyl. Though record sales are nowhere near CDs, overall there’s an upward trend in vinyl across North America. In 2009, 2.8 million LPs were sold in the U.S., up from a low of 857,000 in 2005.
“There are people who feel that there is actually a better and more organic sound quality that comes from vinyl, as opposed to digital and there are more artists who want to have that option available to listeners,” says Paul Tuch at Nielsen SoundScan, which monitors the sales activity of 14,000 North American retailers.
When vinyl sales slumped over the ’80s and ’90s, many companies sold off their equipment and got out of the business. When the last Canadian pressing plant in Pickering, closed in 2008, many sounded a death knell for the medium. But just a year later, when record sales were at their peak, a new plant opened outside of Montreal. The company, RIP-V, is pressing new material from bands like Arcade Fire, and reissues of older music like Nirvana and Tom Waits.
Brad Davis, 35, has worked at Bloor St. record store Sonic Boom since it opened 10 years ago. Business is so good, the store is opening a second location focusing strictly on vinyl.
Davis says there is no one type of buyer. The demographic is eclectic, just like musical tastes.
“People of all ages are buying LPs. There are the people who never stopped buying it and the people who are just getting into it and are really excited about it,” Davis says. Though the store has a huge stock of older and second-hand titles, more and more new releases sell on vinyl.
“There are some titles we will sell more on LP than CD, which in the past hadn’t been the case,” he said.
Some customers are even buying records to replace the CDs they bought to replace their records.
“It’s a strange cycle,” said Davis. Some of the increase in sales and interest may come from major labels catching onto the trend.
“The fact that the new Adele record is selling hand over fist on LP, you can’t really call that a hipster thing, if it’s the biggest record in the country and No.1 on Billboard,” he says.
At the Record Jacket Corp., an upward tick in vinyl sales is no hipster fad but the spread of collector culture to the mainstream. And maybe a backlash against the intangible quality of digital music.
“I don’t know when I downloaded anything. But I do remember when I found every rare 7-inch of a band that I loved,” Cousineau says.
“The history of the music is contained in vinyl. That’s what makes me go buy those records,” Miller says.