This past Saturday marked the 10th anniversary of Record Store Day, a unique 21st century phenomenon that’s notable, in part, for the pivotal role it plays in the lives of middle-aged parents.
Faced with their own rapidly approaching hipster mortality, they force their shivering children to spend an early spring Saturday morning queued up outside independent record stores in hopes of securing that coveted “special release” vinyl. Scurrying home to play them on their new “vintage style” turntables, they’re greeted by a tragic recognition of self at the first flip to B-side, as the kids ultimately and impatiently retreat to their iPads.
Then again, Record Store Day, in its short tenure, has become a bona fide international celebration, marking a startling and undeniable resurgence of vinyl, a format swimming upstream against an increasingly digital current. In fact, vinyl record sales are at a 28-year high, an impressive stat — at least until it sinks in that 28 years ago was a not-so-distant 1989.
Nevertheless, vinyl sales have surged from less than a million in 2005 to more than 13 million in 2016. Sales shot up 18 percent in 2012, 32 percent in 2013 and 51 percent in 2014. Vinyl makers are projected to sell 40 million units in 2017, surpassing the billion-dollar mark for the first time in this millennium.
The reasons for this unexpected craze are varied. One can easily point to oft-cited “high fidelity,” along with increasingly malleable notions of “purist” sound quality. Others note the tactile experience of thumbing through bins and holding a record, reading the liner notes, admiring the cover art — even the one-of-a-kind smell of both new and second-hand records.
To be fair, the sensory-immersive experience that accompanies that drop of the needle on the disc simply doesn’t happen within the sterile push-button technology of a laptop or smartphone. It was Jack White himself, upon opening a Third Man record pressing plant in Detroit, who observed: “People are tiring of the disposable nature of music for the last 10 to 15 years...it’s reverential.”
But while nostalgia certainly plays a role, it does little to explain the droves of millennials currently flocking to vinyl, when, if anything, they should be re-discovering the wonders of their own childhood CDs — that is, of course, those plastic jewel boxes and discs that managed to escape destruction after years spent forgotten in car trunks and desk drawers.
Vinyl’s enduring allure outpaces supply
It’s not as though records ever really went away, particularly in indie and punk circles. Even when records were considered “dead,” there were always small bands putting out 45s and LPs through a surprisingly scalable, DIY process of contract recording, mastering and pressing that works for small groups and mega-multinational corporate rock bands alike.
But the reality is that the current record-pressing industry, which essentially began to atrophy in the late 1980s, has far more demand than capacity. When records began to die out, a lot of the machinery was simply scrapped. Refurbishing old presses is extremely expensive — and that’s if you can find them.
Rainbo Records in Los Angeles is the oldest record manufacturer in the United States and the third largest in the world. Its daily production dwindled to under 6,000 during the “dark days” of vinyl, and has climbed back to around 25,000 today. Yet of its 14 operational presses, the newest is 40 years old.
Jack White encountered the same scarcity while globetrotting from Mexico to the Czech Republic in search of pressing machines, ultimately resorting to purchasing eight old presses from a German manufacturer — the only ones he could find built within the last 35 years — at a cost of $225,000 each.
Cincinnati’s place in the national craze
Hoping to put a local spin on the Record Store Day brouhaha, Soapbox photographer Scott Beseler and I set out on something of a recording pilgrimage, following a vinyl record’s journey from cradle to, well, not grave, but rather, its ultimate destination: the neighborhood record store.
While Cincinnati no longer has a full-scale production plant — after all, there are only 14 or so in the entire country — our local ability to capture and reproduce music never left us.
A diverse mix of old and new sound professionals at local studios like Sofaburn, The Monastery, Ultrasuede, Sound Images, Cappel Recording, Mount Saturn, Candyland, The Lodge KY and Marble Garden all stand ready and willing to preserve your music for posterity. But there’s much more to the process of making a record than simply recording music, as I would soon learn.
QCA Replication and Duplication in Camp Washington started in the 1950s as a full-service recording and production facility. While the company no longer provides packaging and audio mastering, it recognized a demand several years ago for plating — a complex process that is detailed in the right-hand sidebar — and has renewed that portion of its business to great success.
Standing outside QCA’s nondescript yellow-brick headquarters on Spring Grove Avenue, serenaded by the squeals of the neighboring railyard, I peered into the front door’s peephole, spying an ancient, still-in-use punch clock with four lonely time cards slotted above.
Unfortunately, this was all that my initial visit yielded.
QCA employee Bryan Dilsizian was inside, but as he would later explain, he was literally knee-deep in an intensive, chemical-soaked plating process that prevented him from answering the door.
When Dilsizian arrived at QCA almost four years ago, the company hadn’t been in the business of plating and pressing records since 1991. But while the presses had been sold, most of the plating equipment was still in basement storage. Dilsizian came on board with a goal of dusting off the machines and, alongside owner Jim Bosken, getting the whole system up and running again.
Shortly after, QCA got to work manufacturing stampers for Cleveland’s Gotta Groove Records and, due to growing demand, hired Dan Hostiuck to join Dilsizian in the electroplating lab.
The vinyl-paved road back to King Records
Cincinnati’s most famous record label, King Records, was founded in 1943, a pioneer of the soup-to-nuts philosophy of vinyl production — one that Gotta Groove in Cleveland emulates today.
Led by the mercurial impresario Syd Nathan, King truly embraced the “vertical integration” theory of record production, recording, plating, stamping, packaging and shipping records all from its production facility on Brewster Avenue in Evanston. The only thing they didn’t do there was create the sleeves and shipping cartons; those were manufactured in Miamisburg.
But King’s production process wasn’t the only thing that was fully integrated; the operation embraced a level of racial diversity never before seen in the industry.
While I would like to believe King’s legacy in the evolution of modern music is well known, it is surprising how many people, locally and nationally, remain unaware. King Records in Cincinnati should be revered with the level of prominence that Detroiters place on Motown — which actually owes much to King and the music it produced. King is, both literally and figuratively, the roots of American rock and roll.
Syd Nathan initially launched King with novelty, bluegrass and hillbilly music acts, but in the post-war years, the company saw value in delving into what they termed “race records,” which featured blues and doo-wop groups.
King was one of the first to enlist a stable of professional session musicians, drawing on deep talent within their country and blues labels and cross-pollinating the genres by having the country musicians perform R&B songs and vice versa.
What occurred in that modest Brewster Avenue facility was an innovative musical synthesis of bluegrass, country and R&B — essentially the essence of American “roots” music, which in turn formed the basis for modern rock.
The original King facility still exists in a denuded, albeit endangered, form along I-71 in Evanston, a stone’s throw from the Xavier campus. The property’s owner has long sought permission to bulldoze and make way for future development. Opponents of demolition, including the situational preservationist Mayor John Cranley, seek to preserve the facility as a site for music heritage, education and possibly recording and performance. Cincinnati’s Historic Conservation Board has essentially punted the issue until Aug. 27 in order to allow parties to come up with a solution.
As it currently stands, a number of parties, including the Cincinnati Music Heritage Foundation, the Bootsy Collins Foundation and Xavier’s King Studios LLC, have gained momentum in efforts to preserve the decaying site, with the city authorizing use of eminent domain as necessary to halt the property owner’s continued requests for a demolition permit.
As to where things currently stand, it has been described by some participants as a nebulous “mixture of negotiations” which, at this juncture, remains unresolved.
Admittedly, there is not a lot left of the original King Records. When James Brown toured the site in 1997, nearly 30 years after it closed, he was reportedly outraged, crying, “There’s nothing left...where’s my desk?”
But while the people, furnishings and equipment are long gone, there is no denying that King’s rich history still permeates the physical site. I was there in 2008 when the historic landmark plaque was erected, as Nathan’s widow Zella looked on approvingly.
At that time, Terry Stewart, former president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, observed: “There’s not a more important piece of real estate in musical history than the building over there on Brewster. If you folks don’t remember and preserve it, shame on you.”
Memphis, Nashville and even Detroit via Jack White are all cities that have recognized the value — and potential for profit — in preserving and showcasing their musical heritage. As this column and accompanying photo essay demonstrates, Cincinnati has both a rich history of music and a vibrant, deserving current scene.
If this year’s Record Store Day offers nothing more than the opportunity to stress the importance of preserving and highlighting King Records in the overall history of music and civil rights, as well as the historic tapestry of Cincinnati, then a day spent forcing my kids to shiver with me in a cold line on a Saturday morning to buy a limited release David Bowie 1971 promo and Iggy Pop Live at Royal Albert Hall is, indeed, a day well spent.