A new record pressing plant out of North Texas, Hand Drawn Pressing is just getting started, but have plans to churn out almost two million records by the end of the year. Here two of the company's top executives weigh in on the logic of opening a vinyl company in the digital age.
Guest Post by Shawn Setaro on Forbes
Hand Drawn Pressing is a brand-new record pressing plant in North Texas, just outside of Dallas. It's an outgrowth of Hand Drawn Records, an independent record label. The label owners found themselves already serving as brokers with vinyl pressing plants for a bunch of their peers, so they decided to take the next step and open a plant themselves.
Using brand-new machines from Viryl Technologies, Hand Drawn Pressing is just starting out, but plans to be pumping out nearly 2 million pieces of vinyl by the end of next year. I spoke to company founder Dustin Blocker and VP of Business Development John Snodgrass to get the skinny on why they're opening a vinyl plant in a digital world. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Photo courtesy Viryl Technologies.
Shawn Setaro: Why open a vinyl pressing plant in 2016?
Dustin Blocker: Hand Drawn Records started about five and a half years ago as an independent record label. Two years ago, to make ordering easier on our local indie artists, we decided to get into vinyl record brokering. So we were brokering with the plants and learning all the ins and outs with vendors and mastering guys. About a year ago, we kept seeing the need grow, and we said, okay, let’s see if we can get into the manufacturing space. That led us down the rabbit hole into a full year of working and planning to have our own plant at the end of 2016.
Setaro: What is the relationship between the record label and the plant?
Blocker: We do service some of our own jobs, and of course we’ll be re-pressing our back catalog. But on top of that, it’s championing the small guy and the independent artists we work with.
Setaro: I know you guys are buying all new equipment. Can you tell me about that?
Blocker: The plant is finished, finally. When you’re building out a record pressing plant, it’s two-fold. One is going to be the actual presses themselves.
All that exists today is the old presses, from the ’60s through the ’80s. All the record presses that exist in the world today were made during that time period. I found a company up in Toronto called Viryl Technologies that was advertising that they were going to make the first new fully automated presses. We flew up there, saw the prototypes—this is a little over a year ago—and started working with them. They’re pretty much an r&d company, so just really making a better mousetrap, if you will, for record pressing. They’re making this fantastic press with these things that other industries use: computer chips versus relay systems and temperature control valves versus somebody pulling knobs down. It’s a really cool company, and we’ve been able to partner with them on the record-pressing side for the actual presses.
Photo courtesy of Viryl Technologies.
The other part that makes a record plant work is all the water systems. We went above and beyond and found some great people in the water systems space that make everything from steam manufacturing. We worked separately with them to put all our water systems in place.
Setaro: Are there other existing plants that are using this new equipment?
Blocker: Not yet. We are the first in the world to acquire these machines. There’s been a lot of interest in the new presses. I think everybody is really excited to see ours in action. We get to be the first with them, and we’re super-excited about that. The production model is made, and it’s in a plant in Toronto now. We have our facility in Addison, Texas. We’re just letting them run all the tests, and then we’re going to disassemble and move them down here to us.
Setaro: Your turnaround time is going to be significantly less than a lot of the current plants. Why?
Snodgrass: That’s part of the reason we got into the business, frankly. It’s the choke point. People are having to wait a long time, especially if you’re an independent artist and you don’t have the power of a giant label.
We should be in the 6-8 week turnaround time frame. The average out there right now is around 3-6 months, pushing more towards the six, so that’s a significant difference. Where we get quicker is that it’s fewer mistakes and quicker cycle times. These machines actually have brains. Prior to this, there weren’t any computer interface pieces of the machines.
The records are still made by humans—we always want to point that out—but there’s less room for error. A lot of that has to do with the systems that are built behind the machines, which is the way the water is delivered. That’s what Viryl Tech up in Canada has been working out.
We love it. I guess you’d call it a symbiotic relationship. They were looking for a partner, we were looking for state-of-the-art machines. Going back to what Dustin said, I think we found each other at the right time.
Photo courtesy Viryl Technologies.
Blocker: The cycle times are faster. But the big gain is going to be on efficiency. This is anecdotal, but most of the older big machines out there are running about 30-40% loss. So if you did a 1,000 unit run, you're recycling 400 of them. Our rate is under 1%. So you can see, not only are our machines 3-4 times faster than the old ones in cycle time, but on the efficiency side, if you’re not throwing away 40% of your product, that’s going to make your times much faster as well.
Setaro: Can you see yourselves working only with independent labels? Will you work with majors? What’s your customer base?
Blocker: We were founded with the idea of putting the artist first. So we want to make sure we set aside enough room in our capacity for the small guys. We’re trying to target about 40% of our capacity, keep it back for independent artists. Beyond that, what we’re working on currently has been working with labels that are much, much larger than us, but they’re not what you would consider the big three. But they do have quite a bit of projects and artists who are well known and tour. So those make up the bulk of our client base.
What we love about that is it feeds back into what we started, which was Hand Drawn Records. So as we open up more opportunities with pressing, we then can in turn get our artists doing things with some of these bigger labels with shows and things of that nature. So it’s really good for the goose, good for the gander on the client side.
Setaro: What is the cost per unit, and what is an average run?
Snodgrass: An average run for an indie is typically 500 units and under. That will hit you about $6-$8 a unit with all packaging and everything included. When you get up to 1,000-plus units, you start dropping down to about $4 per. And I think the lowest you might get to—and again, this is with all packaging, as if you saw it on a shelf—is about $3.50 if you really go in the 10,000 unit-plus range, which will get you some great margins if you’re selling them. Nobody’s really scoffing at 25, even 30 bucks on a vinyl record these days. So we’re definitely competitive in the space. We’re not the least expensive, and we’re not the most expensive. We try to target right in the middle. Our big value prop is on the quality side, and on the speed, which ties into efficiencies.
On the quality side, what we’re getting out of the machines right now is some of the flattest and quietest discs, which are the indicators of really great quality. Flattest meaning it’s not warped, it didn’t get bowed in the manufacturing process. And of course, quiet just means all the surface noise is gone. We’re getting some really great feedback from our customers already, just on the quality of the records.
Setaro: I read you plan on pressing 1.8 million records a year. How long will it take you to ramp up to that number?
Blocker: We’re at soft opening right now. We started taking orders. We went right from brokering into manufacturing seamlessly. The hard target is January-February for really beginning to crack down on it.
Snodgrass: Right now we’re running a lot of jobs. We’re running a soft capacity for this fourth quarter, easing ourselves into it. We’re trying to hit the numbers you mentioned in 2017.
Setaro: What else should people know about Hand Drawn Pressing?
Blocker: The big thing we tout is North Texas. It’s not a bunch of manufacturing guys who saw dollar signs and decided to get together. It’s music-first, artist-first, how do we take care of our brethren in the communal space and do something bigger and fulfill a need that we’ve seen get crazy these past few years and will grow another 55 plus percent all the way through 2020. It’s this insane growth, which is really great for the artists themselves. People not just needing to make singles, but finally going back and really making albums again. It's something really great for the artist community, and we love that we get to be a part of it. That’s our big excitement.
Snodgrass: Definitely music first, artist first. We know we want to hold back capacity for independent artists. Obviously we’re in business, we’d love to fill our capacity, and we’ll do that with labels and artists and other people from around the world. But we want to make sure that there’s room for the independent guy that doesn’t have all that purchasing power to get their job done. They can get it done quickly, and they can get it done with some of the best-sounding records in the world.