Label ventures into vinyl with first press of its kind
Dustin Blocker started Hand Drawn Records in 2006. He saw untapped potential among indie bands across North Texas — including Denton acts. He wanted a label that would serve musicians, not shoulder past them in hot pursuit of a big, blinking bottom line.
Eleven years later, the University of North Texas alumnus means to plump up that bottom line for musicians by putting a vinyl album in their hands.
If things go as planned, Hand Drawn Pressing will make 2 million records a year.
Homegrown music manufacturing
“We’re finally all in,” said Blocker, showing off the compact, pristine record press nestled in a corner of a packaging room at Stephen Gould Corp. in Addison.
There is no other record press like it in the world. The WarmTone record press is brand-new technology. Blocker and Alex Cushing, the press’s chief operations officer, predict their small press will make a big splash in the record business.
It’s almost shocking how small the press is, with machines mounted on wheels so that parts of the line can be rolled away from the line for servicing or quality control checks. A tight network of skinny pipes carry the steam that powers portions of the press.
Cushing supervises a small staff of technicians as they make records. The press is maybe 50 yards from the Hand Drawn Records studio and headquarters.
“Yup, we’re all in. No more having one foot in. No more pinky toes,” Cushing said.
In the beginning
Blocker is a rocker himself, fronting a band born in Denton called Exit 380. He knows what it’s like to hustle as an indie musician — making music in home studios, trading favors for engineering, and mixing and schlepping CDs to gigs.
Hand Drawn Records had a proven track record by 2014, when Blocker booked time in Big Acre Sound, a studio built by Denton composer and musician Andrew Tinker, also a Hand Drawn artist. Blocker said Photomaps was to be Exit 380’s first vinyl record, with “a rock ’n’ roll A-side and a folk B-side.”
“That’s where we got into vinyl,” Blocker said. “It was making that record that we decided to get into being brokers.”
Everything old is new again.
For years, vinyl seemed like it might never be more than a collectible for audiophiles who see records as a cross between music and memorabilia.
Vinyl records outsold digital downloads for the first time ever in the United Kingdom last year, and Blocker said the U.S. market is brisk, too. Just when it seemed like digital streaming music platforms like Spotify and Pandora were dominating music distribution, habits shifted.
“There’s more streams happening and no one’s even purchasing downloads anymore,” Blocker said. “Beyond that, CDs are declining at 20-plus percent a year. Vinyl’s growing at 50-plus percent a year. By 2017, I think it’s going to be a $1.4 billion business just in vinyl.”
Blocker said Hand Drawn saw the writing on the wall: Presses were rushing to meet rising demand for vinyl, but with technology developed in the 1960s.
Blocker saw an aging infrastructure, and then he saw an opportunity.
On the hunt for efficiency
Shortly after Hand Drawn Records got into the vinyl business, the company looked for an affordable press that could move small amounts quickly.
A company based in Toronto, Viryl Technologies, was testing out its new machine: the WarmTone press. Designed and engineered by technicians who build medical imaging equipment, WarmTone can turn out a 12-inch vinyl record — from melted PVC pellets to finished album — in 33 seconds.
WarmTone has the same kind of precision that those hospital imaging machines do — temperature monitoring and control, sensors and built-in safety features that make it almost impossible for a technician to get even a fingernail snagged in the press. It’s fully automated. Technicians monitor the lines, bake the A-side/B-side labels in a specialty oven and get the finished records onto the cooling rack.
The total package
A mutual friend referred Blocker and Cushing to Rick DeVincent, the head of sales at the Texas branch of the Stephen Gould Corp., when they were looking for a printer for record sleeves. The men clicked.
“Alex and myself ... said, ‘Hey, we’re going to be making some vinyl records. How do we get great packaging?’ Well, really within that conversation, we realized we had a lot more things in common than just the vinyl record part and maybe the packaging side,” Blocker said. “It was really a love of music.”
DeVincent is a music fan with a vinyl collection of his own. He was visiting the Hand Drawn studio one day, and Blocker said talk turned to a closer working relationship — literally.
“Really it’s Rick ... who brought all this to bear, and said, ‘Why don’t you guys just move your operation here?’” Blocker said.
DeVincent said Stephen Gould’s business model boasts flexibility.
“We are always open for new opportunities, and they’re not always in packaging and printing. We have relationships with major airlines. We kit their food for them. We do a lot of assembly work here for the cosmetics industry,” he said. “For vinyl record presses, once the vinyl comes off the machine, they don’t just magically go inside a sleeve. So just like any other kind of kitting job we already do, we’re already set up to do this hand-assembly work.”
Merch with more value
“As a musician, it kind of crushed me when people started saying, ‘Don’t even make a full album, just make singles,”” Blocker said. “When you write music, you think in albums.”
In the Hand Drawn recording studio, one wall looks like a curio of the company’s LPs and personal favorites. A turntable is at the ready and connected to big speakers. The Hand Drawn staff is made up of record collectors, and the company would like to hand that practice down to emerging musicians and music fans.
“Even though this is the oldest technology for making music into a medium ... the real opportunity here is [for] the people who are getting into this space,” Blocker said. “The musicians who are playing music now, they’re digital kids. They’ve been recording on laptops. So this is brand new to them.”
DeVincent said stacking vinyl at the merch booth can make shows more profitable.
“What better way to sell your product?” he said. “What better way to do it than not just charging $5 or $10 for a CD, but charging for something that, if ... he’s got a really cool vinyl album — a limited edition with all kinds of bells and whistles to it — well, now if he sells 10 of those at a show instead of 10 CDs for $5? He can make some real money.”
Ready for the needle drop
Hand Drawn plans to press records for boutique and larger labels in addition to pressing their own records.
DeVincent said Hand Drawn Pressing has tested the WarmTone for bugs in pressing its first run: Analog Sessions Vol. 2, a compilation of music by Hand Drawn artists. They’ll press about 1,000 albums, some of which they’ll then send to labels and companies they’d like to do business with.
“It’s going to be a love letter to North Texas,” Blocker said. “Everyone wants a sample. They tell you, ‘We’ve heard the quality is good and we want to know what you’re doing.’ So what we want to do it is send them a love letter that says: Here’s the best music in North Texas, here’s what we’re about as a label.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.
The WarmTone record press creates a records in stages:
Special pellets of PVC are heated, stirred and extruded.
The extruded plastic is injected into a puck. The puck is moved to a plate where a stamp, a plate with the negative of the record, is pressed into a flat 12-inch disc, including the labels distinguishing A and B sides.
A mechanism presses over the disc, trimming off the edges.
The trimmed record is then stacked on a tall pin, where a technician takes it off and puts it on a cooling rack.
The finished records are then packaged in sleeves.
The record press can print illustrations on the records.
For more information, visit www.handdrawnrecords.com.