Chicago gets its first vinyl-pressing plant in decades | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Chicago gets its first vinyl-pressing plant in decades 

A look inside Smashed Plastic, whose brand-new technology could bring relief to labels and artists stymied by long waits for records

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John Lombardo of Smashed Plastic inspects a record for warping. - ADAM JASON COHEN
  • John Lombardo of Smashed Plastic inspects a record for warping.
  • Adam Jason Cohen

Chicago hasn't had a working vinyl-pressing plant for at least 20 years. The last one was allegedly shut down by the FBI in the 90s for making bootleg 78 RPM records to sell in India. The presses from that facility, acquired in 2003 by Chicagoan Joell Hays, sat dormant in a local warehouse after Hays failed to find investors to get his own plant up and running. By the time Quality Record Pressings, run by Chad Kassem in Salina, Kansas, bought them in 2015, the machines were in wretched shape—rusted, clogged, and missing parts. But such is the demand for vinyl that Kassem bought 13 of them.

Founded in 2011, QRP is one of a handful of new U.S. companies that have emerged to meet this increasing demand—the country has only about two dozen such operations, old and new. Independent artists now tend to wait at least six months for their vinyl orders—and that's if the test pressings turn out fine and nothing else goes wrong. Many a band has booked a record-release show and ended up with no records when the day arrives.

Record Store Day launched in 2008 with the aim of rescuing brick-and-mortar music retailers threatened by the transition to a digital marketplace—and the primary instrument it used to draw customers into those shops was vinyl. Sales of vinyl have gone up every year since, and according to Billboard, 7.6 million new vinyl records were sold in the first half of 2018—a 19.2 percent increase from the same period last year. But because new pressing capacity isn't coming online as fast as the quantity of orders is increasing, vinyl plants are often flooded with jobs. This can leave indie labels and artists high and dry while the available presses deal with, say, RCA's vinyl version of G-Eazy's EP The Vault, one of many inessential Record Store Day releases this Black Friday.

PVC pellets are melted at 285 degrees Fahrenheit and formed into round pucks. - ADAM JASON COHEN
  • PVC pellets are melted at 285 degrees Fahrenheit and formed into round pucks.
  • Adam Jason Cohen
The melted pellets are extruded in a cord, which fills a mold for the puck. These pucks were discarded while the press was being tested. - ADAM JASON COHEN
  • The melted pellets are extruded in a cord, which fills a mold for the puck. These pucks were discarded while the press was being tested.
  • Adam Jason Cohen
Fresh records, several of them irregular, cool on a table during testing. - ADAM JASON COHEN
  • Fresh records, several of them irregular, cool on a table during testing.
  • Adam Jason Cohen

In Chicago, four investors are looking to address exactly this problem. Andy Weber, a longtime CHIRP DJ; John Lombardo, another CHIRP DJ and founder of indie label Stationary Heart; Steve Polutnik, who's worked in banking; and silent partner Matt Bradford have just opened the vinyl pressing plant Smashed Plastic on the north side, hoping to shorten those waiting times for small bands and labels.

Based in the former Hammond organ factory in Belmont Gardens, northwest of Logan Square, Smashed Plastic soft launched last week, pressing records for a few local imprints. Their first order is a 12-inch by Chicago soul combo the Right Now, a release planned for January from boogie fiends Star Creature Universal Vibrations. The Smashed Plastic crew own just one press (with the capacity to add two more), and they want to fine-tune their processes before taking on more business. "We aren't as concerned with profits at the beginning as we are with getting things right," says Weber. "We're gonna know how to operate that machine up and down, left and right."

The idea for Smashed Plastic came from Weber—specifically from a conversation he had with Bradford in January 2016 about his friends' bands waiting months to get their records pressed. "I had no idea how much a record press cost," Weber says. "I figured it could be a side business." New vinyl presses, however, are typically priced in the low six figures, and running a plant can require several full-time employees. But Weber had the promise of financial backing from Bradford to help get over the cost hurdle, so he investigated the viability of launching such an operation in Chicago—acquiring Polutnik and Lombardo as partners along the way.

Like Kassem, the Smashed Plastic team first considered buying old presses—not because they understood how expensive new presses could be, but because they didn't even know anybody was still making them. "Old ones are tough to find," Polutnik says. "They're not cheap, and you still need maintenance to get them up online. It's 40-year-old technology that you're dealing with—stuff breaks down, and there's only a handful of guys in the U.S. that can service them."

Andy Weber of Smashed Plastic listens for imperfections in a test pressing while his colleague John Lombardo examines another copy by eye. - ADAM JASON COHEN
  • Andy Weber of Smashed Plastic listens for imperfections in a test pressing while his colleague John Lombardo examines another copy by eye.
  • Adam Jason Cohen
Weber and Lombardo vet test pressings. - ADAM JASON COHEN
  • Weber and Lombardo vet test pressings.
  • Adam Jason Cohen
The steamless WarmTone press from Viryl Technologies takes up surprisingly little space at Smashed Plastic. - ADAM JASON COHEN
  • The steamless WarmTone press from Viryl Technologies takes up surprisingly little space at Smashed Plastic.
  • Adam Jason Cohen

Eventually they discovered the only two companies in the world that manufacture new vinyl presses: Newbilt Machinery in Alsdorf, Germany, and Viryl Technologies in Toronto, Canada. In October 2017 Smashed Plastic purchased a WarmTone press from Viryl for around $200,000.

The computer-controlled WarmTone can turn a handful of PVC pellets into an LP in less than 30 seconds, and Viryl claims it spoils only 1 percent of the records it manufactures, as opposed to older machines, which can waste 30 to 40 percent. Viryl was established in 2015, and its presses first went online in early 2017—Texas-based Hand Drawn Pressing had contracted for two of them.

The WarmTone machine that Smashed Plastic bought is a modified version—an experiment by Viryl. "We're the first steamless press in the world," Polutnik explains. Vinyl presses usually require a steam boiler to melt the PVC pellets, but Viryl has designed a hot-water system that can achieve the necessary 285 degrees Fahrenheit without the use of steam or even a tank.

That saved Smashed Plastic a lot of trouble, because Chicago heavily regulates steam boilers. The team eventually would've had to bring in a stationary engineer just to maintain one, and many landlords balked at the additional construction a boiler would've required. "We were coming in $200,000 over our budget," Weber says. "We were all scratching our heads going, 'Do we even have a business?'" The experimental machine solved all those problems. It uses electricity rather than gas to superheat water in a sealed vessel without boiling it. In December 2017, Smashed Plastic signed a lease for 3,500 square feet in the Hammond factory, now called Workshop 4200—after real estate company Baum Revision acquired the building in December 2015, artists and boutique businesses began moving in within the year.

The bottom of the two stampers that press the puck of melted vinyl into a record—the top stamper is mostly out of frame. - ADAM JASON COHEN
  • The bottom of the two stampers that press the puck of melted vinyl into a record—the top stamper is mostly out of frame.
  • Adam Jason Cohen
A freshly pressed record rests on the WarmTone’s bottom stamper, about to be lifted by a suction arm that grips its center label. - ADAM JASON COHEN
  • A freshly pressed record rests on the WarmTone’s bottom stamper, about to be lifted by a suction arm that grips its center label.
  • Adam Jason Cohen
The press transfers the records onto a spindle, where they’re left to cool for 12 hours. They’re later sleeved and packaged by hand. - ADAM JASON COHEN
  • The press transfers the records onto a spindle, where they’re left to cool for 12 hours. They’re later sleeved and packaged by hand.
  • Adam Jason Cohen

Viryl delivered the WarmTone in July, and Smashed Plastic ran their first test batch last month. The "soft launch" period will last until January, if all goes to plan, at which point the plant will officially open for business—so far Smashed Plastic's only customers have been people they already know. The owners are diligently posting their progress on the company's Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, and potential new clients are already getting in touch. "What we put on social media and word of mouth has launched us," Polutnik says.

The Smashed Plastic space is divided into three rooms, one of which contains a bar built from rescued pine. The team envision it as a place where musicians and label staff who've placed orders can come in and relax while listening to their test pressings.

Because Lombardo runs his own label, he knows how stressful it can be to pour creativity, emotion, and money into a recording, only to send it off to a pressing service that turns out to be a black box. "It became so impersonal, and didn't even feel like you were working with somebody," he says. The Smashed Plastic crew want to run a plant where an order is more than just another number. "We're gonna try to do the opposite, where you get to know the people—there's only gonna be three of us that are working on the stuff," Lombardo says. "It'll be really direct, inviting people into our space."  v

John Lombardo, Steve Polutnik, and Andy Weber of Smashed Plastic in the plant’s listening room and bar - ADAM JASON COHEN
  • John Lombardo, Steve Polutnik, and Andy Weber of Smashed Plastic in the plant’s listening room and bar
  • Adam Jason Cohen

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