Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The rich sound of a vinyl revival

Bertrand Marotte

For hard-core vinyl enthusiasts, this must surely be hallowed ground.

The shop floor of RIP-V is tucked away inside a nondescript industrial building in a quiet South Shore suburb of Montreal. It’s hot, and there is the mild, not unpleasant odour of heated vinyl in the air. A bulky old industrial machine that once worked overtime in New Jersey churning out Rolling Stones and other mass-market pop records during the LP’s heyday is now doing duty stamping out a limited vinyl run of indie band Arcade Fire’s new album The Suburbs.

Tiny black PVC pellets are poured into a funnel at one end of the machine, run through an extruder and melted into a hot patty. Aided by 10 tons of hydraulic pressure, nickel-plated stampers squish the blob – complete with paper labels – into a 12-inch grooved platter. The excess vinyl that oozes out is trimmed and the record is left to cool.

The Arcade Fire pressing is for up to 20,000 vinyl copies of the eagerly anticipated double album by the Montreal alt-rock-music stars. Three other machines are standing by and another two are ready to be started later this summer as other work arrives.

Philippe Dubuc and his technician, Richard Quirion, work the pressing machine in an easygoing manner, pausing every now and then for quality checks.

Launched last year, RIP-V bills itself as Canada’s only vinyl-pressing facility. It is one of fewer than a dozen companies in North America riding the global vinyl revival after rumours of the phonograph record’s impending death turned out be greatly exaggerated.

“People are looking for something more than just downloads,” says Mr. Dubuc, a former National Bank Financial investment banker who knew nothing about record pressing before deciding to take the plunge with his Saint-Lambert neighbour, indie-label distributor Iain Walker, and Mr. Walker’s wife Renée Papillon.

(RIP stands for Renée, Iain and Philippe; the V is for vinyl, and RIP is also meant as a sly wink at the presumed death of the product.)

“I think there has been a reaction to the absence of texture in the digital sound of CDs and iPods,” says Mr. Dubuc, 43, and the father of three.

There is, of course, the core group of older music lovers, audiophiles and collectors who never abandoned vinyl, but the past few years have seen a younger, indie music crowd flocking to the low-tech analog medium, he says.

Many small record labels now also offer with each vinyl record sold a coupon that contains a download code for a free, high-quality MP3 version of the album, an added incentive for younger buyers. Adding to the allure is the large-format artwork and liner notes that come with LP-sized albums.

Aficionados, too, are adamant in their claim that vinyl provides a warmer, richer sound than digital.

Vinyl accounts for only about 2 per cent of the North American recorded-music market, but it has been on a tear in terms of growth – in stark contrast to CDs, which have seen sales drop dramatically over the past few years. Digital downloads, meanwhile, continue to climb.

New vinyl sales in the United States hit close to three million last year, up from 1.88 million in 2008, according to data from Nielsen SoundScan.

Mr. Dubuc stumbled into the business – which he characterizes as highly gratifying and good for the soul, never mind the fact that RIP-V is already turning a profit – following a turn of professional bad luck.

Rocked by the asset-backed commercial paper meltdown in 2007, National Bank Financial ended up cutting staff and Mr. Dubuc – a 15-year veteran – was one of the casualties.

At that point, he was ready for something else, he says.

“I felt like building something. I didn’t feel that, in investment banking, you really end up leaving your mark.”

When Mr. Walker proposed starting up a vinyl-pressing company, Mr. Dubuc was initially hesitant but warmed to the idea after his research indicated they could make a go of it, given robustly growing demand for the niche product.

He found himself searching the Web for used equipment, including an industrial boiler to supply the steam used in the pressing process. In the end, 14 pressing machines dating from the mid-1970s were purchased, eight of which are in storage and ready to be fired up as business expands.

He and his partners put up their own cash, in the $500,000 to $1-million ballpark, says Mr. Dubuc, wearing scruffy shorts and an orange T-shirt printed with the outline of a blue turntable, a far cry from his former investment banking uniform.

RIP-V’s first release was the Tragically Hip’s We Are The Same, a 12,000-copy run in early 2009.

Key to his business model from the outset was a modest, low-key start – before the recent hiring of Mr. Quirion, Mr. Dubuc was the only one on the shop floor – and building a word-of-mouth following, based on attention to quality and detail, he said.

“This place is run lean,” he says proudly. “But we don’t cut corners.”

Among the high-profile companies on RIP-V’s customer list are well-regarded independent U.S. labels Epitaph Records and Merge Records.

Mr. Dubuc confesses to not having entirely shed the urge to check the Bloomberg website every now and then for business and finance news.

Getting the vinyl business off the ground has been tough but he said he doesn’t miss his previous career a bit.

“This is a noble product. It’s worth all the effort. If it had been plastic pens, I would have walked away.”

SOURCE:   http://www.ctv.ca/

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