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Business & Economy

Leading the vinyl revival

Vinyl is making a comeback. Well, in a way.

The traditional black disc market never really went away – millions still treasure their collections – but the emergence and immediate popularity of compact discs in the 90s, and increasing use of streaming services over the last decade, saw vinyl sales reduce to the hundreds of thousands worldwide. However, according to figures from industry trade body BPI, global sales increased by eight per cent on the previous year in 2020, with sales in the US rising from around eleven million in 2010 to 42 million last year. With the younger generation seeing the benefits, and joys, of investing in record collections, and older music fans reigniting their youth and reaching for nostalgia, vinyl sales are going through the roof again and are now accounting for one in five of all album purchases. They are also a very good revenue stream for artists, now that touring, and gigs, have resumed following the pandemic. Yet the truth is, the explosion has caught the industry by surprise, and it cannot cope with this fresh and unexpected demand. And in Middlesbrough, a small team are ready to fill the gap with a new record making plant, complete, eventually, with its own studio, which is set to offer fresh opportunities for local, national and international artists and their labels. Colin Young visits Press On Vinyl, based on Tees Advanced Manufacturing Park, to find out more.

Words by Colin Young
Photography by Christopher Owens

Press On Vinyl’s home on the fringes of Middlesbrough is perfect.

Groovy on the outside, making grooves on the inside.

Fittingly in the centre of the new and innovative Tees Advanced Manufacturing Park (TeesAMP), the first record making plant in the north of England since David Bowie was touring with his Spiders, stands out on the nearly occupied site.

In the Good Friday sunlight, the metal in the glass-boxed structure is not dissimilar to the great man’s hair back then and, go closer, and you’re immediately struck by the huge quote, in various font sizes, which covers the front door.

‘This is a place for everyone. Where positive language and behaviour are essential ingredients required. The Meltin Pot is diverse and produces the best results because we insist everyone uses the abilities we were all given… Compassion. Energy. Humour. Musicality and Rhythmic Intent’.

Peer through that glass door – yellow walls, a half-full Greggs bag on one of four or five tidy but clearly occupied desks, a Colin Cooper fridge magnet, a half-opened cardboard box with a pile of shiny new 12-inch records and a Robbie Mustoe mug beside the posh coffee machine only one person (Emily) has truly mastered. 

It would be ideal for a record store and cafe. They’ve not ruled it out.

David Todd and Danny Lowe emerge from the manufacturing sector as I enter and Danny, before a pressing family engagement, offers a quick tour of the mezzanine while his business partner takes a call.

“This was the original plan,” Danny says, as we climb into a mini building site. 

By June, it will be a ground floor master recording studio beneath a second floor lathe.

From microphones to vinyl within a (perfect) day.

“Bands will be able to record and it’ll go direct to lathe, fully analogue,” he explains. 

“It’ll be one of the only places in the world to offer that resource.

“This will be a one-stop-shop for bands and we’re talking high-level bands as well; accessibility is good, accommodation is cheap. 

“This will put Middlesbrough on the music map.”

From the sanctity of the office to the hubbub of the main plant. 

It may be the bank holiday weekend, and shutdown time, but the place is surrounded by half a dozen restless bodies, who all seem to be carrying spanners or records. 

And, like David, a permanent smile.

I meet Emily Skipper in one of the mini labs where the records we buy are constructed virtually from scratch, as she painstakingly, and without a scratch, cuts a silver disc to size among a myriad of cylinders, sinks and metal trays and containers.

The plant is a labyrinth of sanding and polishing machines, grinders, air compressors, steamers and cooling systems.

“It is mad,” David concedes.

Finally I meet the stars of the show – two pressing machines from Jakarta, which landed on Christmas Eve – backed by the imposing and vital steam generators, which sparked the shutdown, and a pause in operations and an all-important rethink.

We return to the office to complete the Press On Vinyl story over a cuppa and David goes to the pile of records by the kitchen, returning with Komparison’s ‘You Say She’s Satisfied’ EP – an eye-catching pink, black and white sleeve of the five-piece, complete with a huge supportive message from the Press On Vinyl team on the back.

This is the company’s first release of the millions to come. 

The plan is to produce 100,000 a month, increasing over time with more machinery.

And those hopes were boosted earlier this year when the business received £350,000 investment from NPIF – FW Capital Debt Finance, managed by FW Capital and part of the Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund, which could create as many as 46 jobs over the next three years.

“I’d love to press 100 records for a local artist and then, a few years later, press 2000 when they’re on a national tour, and then later on work with them when they’ve gone massive,” says David.

“That for me would be the best feeling and you never know, it might be Komparison. 

“I think that’s what we have all wanted; that journey to see the smaller artists progress.

“We’ve always been passionate about supporting grassroots music and local artists and we’d be really proud if pressing 100 records helps them and they get more exposure and do well; that would be brilliant.”

The lead singer of The Danny Kebabs (Danny) and The Brucey Ripper Band’s drummer (David) never actually played together, but got to know each other on the Teesside music circuit.

In their spare time, they set up Goosed Records with other enthusiasts and were major players in the grassroots scene around Middlesbrough, putting on festivals and gigs for local bands.

They moved to Sticky Fingers in the town centre with the intention of building a studio, and in September 2019 decided to record a compilation of local artists to raise funds for them.

David says: “We looked into it, not knowing how long it takes to get records pressed, hoping to have it out before pressed, hoping to have it out before Christmas, and we were told there was a five month delay, and the lead time was already increasing.

“So we started to look into why it was taking so long.”

The first lockdown gave the pair time to research, and, with the support of local businessman David Hynes and Colin Oliver, from Futuresound Group, in Leeds, they discovered a huge gap in a growing and neglected market.

And with the brassneck to go for it, David left his job with the Tees Foyboatman Association, where his grandfather and father had worked, and Danny quit as project manager at David Hynes’ firm.

“Because we had more time on our hands, we chatted about a few ideas and we said we’ve got to have a go at this, it’s got to be done,” says David.

“The more we researched, the more we found out about smaller labels and artists who were not getting stuff released and how much money they were losing – and they were already missing out because there was no live music in the pandemic. 

“We wrote a business plan, spoke to people locally, started to get help from Tees Valley Business Association and over six months got funding – a third from investment, a third from debt, a third from grants – and got this place.

“We moved in here March 2021, painted this room and built the rest of it. 

“There weren’t even any lights in. 

“Then we just waited for a few machines to arrive.” 

Production started in March, and after the Komparison release, dozens of artists from all sorts of genres had their records pressed on runs from 100 to 2000.

David says: “The test press is the first quality control, and we have a listening booth for critical listening, and sometimes they’ll come in and say, ‘you have to listen to this’, and we’ll put it on in the office and go, ‘wow!, who is this?’

“Quite often, we see the name and label and think you know their style and then it turns out to be something really different – I love that.”

Rather than deal with the inevitable early glitches as they went along, they decided to shut down operations completely and perfect them. 

This is the testing time, and it has been testing, but it has also given the directors time to reflect on the huge potential for the business, and the clear demand for vinyl.

So why not deliver the lot from TeesAMP?

“Over the last two years, we’ve learnt so much,” David says. 

“I had more idea than most but still had no idea how much more there was to learn about the process. And I am still learning now. 

“The very first business plan was a record store, and recording studio direct to lathe, then we scaled it back.

“The advice from the consultants and industry experts was to get the pressing machines in and working, worry about the other side later and don’t try to do both at once because there are so many variables. 

“Being how we are, we just thought, ‘go for it’. 

“Some would say it’s ridiculous to take so much on, but that’s the nature of how we do stuff.

“It might be a year before we do our first recording, but it’ll still be here, and it’ll be amazing – that one performance cut live.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get it right, perfect the skills, and learn the craft of recording direct to disc, but it should be fun. 

“It’s getting exciting again now. 

“We were dreading the shutdown and it’s been costly, but it’s probably one of the best things we’ve done and a blessing in disguise.

“We have reset mentally – but we have pretty much gone back to the original plan.”

David, who has wife Kerry and their seven-year-old McFly fan and drum-bashing daughter Annie and noise-loving three-year-old son James to occupy his spare time, is convinced Press On Vinyl will be a hit.

He adds: “There’s a massive gap, not least the lack of capacity in the UK – 60 per cent of records are being imported from Europe – and hopefully we’ll make a dent in this country, but there’s a worldwide shortage.

“It won’t take long for people to find out there is new capacity here – word of mouth is massive – but we want to manage people’s expectations and make sure the product is right. 

“We want to produce quality records and build our reputation from the start.

“We won’t get the orders if the quality is not right.

“We want to win artists’ and labels’ trust, so it is hugely important to get it right.

“We left steady jobs for something that doesn’t really exist, and if it hadn’t been for the support of Kerry, and Danny’s wife Emma, encouraging us, I don’t know if we’d have got this far.

“But we know the market and the gap is there; we know, if we get it right, it’s going to work. 

“None of us worked in a pressing plant before, but we’re all logical and have similar skills. 

“And we’re enjoying it.

“Of course there have been doubts, and every record is nerve-wracking at the moment. 

“But we’ve got to go for it. If you think too much about it you get stuck…”

In a groove…