No serious record collector, tech geek or student of the music business is going to want to be without How to Build Your Own Record Pressing Plant, Steve Spithray’s excellent account of Teeside’s Press On Vinyl. It’s a lively and readable behind the scenes chronicle how two men in Middlesbrough set up the UK’s first new vinyl pressing plant in decades, one that not only included in-house design and recording facilities, but also committed itself to ethical and sustainable business practices. If it wasn’t all true, you’d think it was a fairy tale.
The story begins in 2019, with local indie scenesters Danny Lowe and David Todd running Goosed, an online music label devoted to local bands. They want to release their first vinyl record—a compilation of tracks from all of their releases to date. They want it ready for Christmas, but like a lot of people running small record labels in 2019, they discover that long lead-in times mean that the product wouldn’t be ready in time. Also, due to the likelihood of bumping, a cute industry term for the way that many pressing plants push small artists and labels out of the way in favour big orders from the majors, there would be no guarantee that the record would be ready by next Christmas.
So Danny and Toddy curse their rotten luck at not having their own local pressing plant. Then they wonder, what if we had one ourselves? The idea doesn’t go away, and soon the pair are working on business plans, building contacts in the small world of vinyl pressing and looking for funding. From the start they commit to keeping a set percentage of capacity for independent acts and refuse to give a discounted rate to the majors. They hatch ambitious plans for recording and design studios and as well as handling sales via crowd funding and even setting up their own distribution arm. They also aspire to do what they can to clean up vinyl’s appalling environmental impact—as well as using a lot of raw plastic, the process require large amounts of water and energy.
Finally, and most endearingly, they are utterly devoted to Middlesbrough. To oversee the pressing machines they bring in Franco Sironi, an Italian veteran of the vinyl pressing industry and Sheung Man Lui from Hong Kong. Otherwise they recruit locals, for example, their sound engineer, Andy ‘Kilvo’ Kilvington, is plucked from a Morrison’s delivery van. They want to turn Middlesbrough into nothing less than an internationally recognised manufacturing centre for the recording industry and want that to mean jobs and training. It’s all part of a vision powered by the kind of dreamers who look at twenty-first century Middlesbrough and see 1960s Detroit.
Because there are parallels between humble Middlesbrough the ruined psychedelic Motor City of legend and fable, birthplace of Berry Gordy’s Motown and proving ground for musical beasts as influential as the MC5 and George Clinton’s Funkadelic. Middlesbrough in its day was an industrial power-house, dubbed Ironopolis, and described in 1862 by Prime Minister William Gladstone as the ‘infant Hercules’ of the industrial revolution. A little over a century later it had become a byword for decline, a backdrop for Margaret Thatcher to walk through the mud looking concerned. Spithray dismisses these easy cliches, and brims with affection for the town’s close knit musical community and the talent and ambition of its people. Danny and Toddy’s love of Motown extends even to acquiring the equipment to record music live to disc via a lathe cutting machine, just because that was how the engineers worked in the glory days of Motown. There is, let’s be clear, little reason to do this other than that it’s pretty damn cool.
Spithray goes deep into the sharp detail of the manufacturing process, guiding us through the ups and downs of galvanics and vinyl pucks. It’s amusing to learn, for example, that silver and nickel record stampers are called mothers and sons and grown in a tank, or that at one point in a complicated tangle of mishaps the team were heating up blue vinyl pellets in a slow cooker from Curry’s in order to get the right kind of splatter effect on a finished disc. Even with zero interest in these kinds of technical questions, in this writer’s hands its riveting stuff. He gets seemingly unlimited access and captures hours of candid interviews with everyone at the plant. A diary format catalogues the technical glitches and setbacks that constantly threaten to derail the production line, and Spithray keeps the tone light. He’s interested in the daily grind as well as the thrills and spills, gets to know the characters involved, and while the technical details occasionally threaten to overwhelm the reader, the book never drags. Spithray gets a unique and privileged insider view of an area of the music industry that usually keeps itself out of the limelight and I can’t imagine a more complete and entertaining picture of the ins and outs of successfully setting up a business.
We’re so used to hearing bad news about the music industry that its a useful corrective to tell a story of the little guys, not just surviving, but thriving and innovating. Its long been a mystery why the industry giants seemingly prefer to let their product be a hobby for rich pensioners, and haven’t grabbed the vinyl revival by the scruff of its neck, given it a good shake, and managed to get prices down to something less exortionate. Its satisfying to think of shrewd operators like Press On snapping at their heels. And with the future of sites like Bandcamp and Discogs looking decidedly sketchy, then perhaps there’s the seed of something in their ambitions for crowd funding via their sister project FairSound. In between the lines this book offers a lot of food for thought.