Boutique Vinyl for the Musical Masses
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because what else are you going to play on your turntable?
By Eugene S. Robinson
The old saw says it best: It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good. In the immediate aftermath of the first compact discs and then their inevitable digital format, MP3s, delivering super-portable, clean-sounding music untethered from any need to store them on shelves or in milk crates, clarion cries rang forth: Vinyl was dead, cassettes were dead. And, ultimately, the music industry as we knew it was dead, or would be soon.
Of course, bands on the road knew differently. People were still showing up; if you were a really enterprising band, they were showing up at your shows all over the world. David Freel, 58-year-old co-founder of San Francisco pop-post-punk outfit Swell, who had a pretty major brush with fame — over a dozen records, multiple tours and festivals, shows with Mazzy Star, Garbage and the Beastie Boys, for Chrissakes — knew something that wasn’t commonly copped to in all of the stories screaming about industry death. “People, especially in Europe, were still buying vinyl,” says Freel from his new place in space in Oregon.
In 2015, more than 12 million vinyl records were sold in the U.S. alone, according to the RIAA, making 2015 the 10th consecutive year that vinyl sales have climbed.
But in the afterglow of all the bad news, stranger things started to happen: Businesses that had serviced the old formats were closing and off-loading their equipment at fire-sale prices. Where this mattered to Freel? When he got his hands on a lathe. Without getting too techy on you, having a lathe would let you take any sound and cut it into a slab of vinyl. A slab of vinyl that you could then play on a turntable, if you happened to have one sitting around.
The companies that used to print up thousands of records at a time found their equipment in the hands of someone who had very different plans. “I was making one-offs for fans in Europe,” Freel says. But to even get there, he had to figure out how to use the lathe to cut the grooves. Really loud music has bigger and more complex cuts than quiet music, and then, maybe one of the things that led to people moving to other formats, as you approach 20 minutes of music per side the total volume drops.
The challenge didn’t stop Freel. And in a special bit of right time, right place magic, when the smoke cleared and it had been determined that file sharing wasn’t going to continue slaughtering the music business, people who had planned ahead were prepared. Which brings us to the fact that in 2015, more than 12 million vinyl records were sold in the U.S. alone, according to the RIAA, making 2015 the 10th consecutive year that vinyl sales have climbed. Crosley Radio, a maker of portable turntables, sold 1 million of its desktop models, a doubling of sales since 2008.
Which is notable because even if Freel was there first, the heat and light have attracted monied interests. Having sold record players for years, says Crosley CEO Bo LeMastus, getting in the record-pressing business “is a natural extension of what we’ve already been doing.” There isn’t a lot of record-pressing equipment out there, he adds, “so we’re buying some.” Going forward, Crosley will be able to take a recording, make a stamp, press out a vinyl record and package it to completion.
A fact not helped by the fact that, according to Hydra Head Records CEO Aaron Turner, there’s a seven-month wait time at their vinyl pressing plant. But the biz math dictates that as the bigger guys get back into the game, all of that capacity to fill their orders has dropped off, so wait times will get even longer. Not so much the case for Freel, who typically turns around orders in five days. Freel’s print runs range from a single one-off lathe-cut record to as many as 20, with prices from $12 for one 7-inch record to $490 for 20 identical 12-inch records.
”Before I got so deeply into it I would have probably, and possibly did, poo-poo the idea of vinyl being the absolute zenith of recorded media but goddamn it I think that that might truly be the case,” says Freel. “But the vinyl lathe is another analog instrument in the ear chain adding its own harmonics and resonances to the music in a pretty brilliant way.”
And in a you-heard-it-here-first blast: Freel and Swell are reuniting for a short 2017 tour, “something,” Monte Vallier, Swell bass player says, “that it’s absolutely perfect having the lathe for.”