This is the former investment banker in his new element: wearing a T-shirt and shorts, tinkering along a steam tube with a small wrench in a warehouse on Montreal’s South Shore.
The tube has a blockage, explains Philippe Dubuc, switching wrenches; if he doesn’t fix it, there won’t be enough heat to properly press the plastic puck in front of him into a record – the first of two discs making up Neko Case’s forthcoming LP, due out in September.
Mr. Dubuc is modest about his new trade. “It’s not complicated,” he says. “You heat, melt and press plastic.”
But he might as well be turning lead into gold: Mr. Dubuc manages RIP-V, the only vinyl record-pressing plant in Canada, and has tapped into one of the fastest-growing sectors in the otherwise deflating market of music sales.
Cheap, low-fidelity music becomes more accessible by the day, but RIP-V has capitalized on the warm sounds of the vinyl record. After investing $100,000 in a cache of 14 vintage record presses, RIP-V began pressing in 2009 and has quintupled its output in just a few years.
“There’s something there you can appreciate a lot more on vinyl because of everything that surrounds it,” Mr. Dubuc says after watching a puck of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) come out of an extruder, where it was formed from specially formulated pellets at 150 C. Steam blasts the puck for 15 seconds as nickel-plated A-side and B-side moulds converge on it, labels already attached, with about 10 tonnes of pressure. It’s then blasted with cooler water for another 15 seconds, and the moulds move away.
Excess plastic is trimmed from the side to be reused, and the record is ready to be played, though Mr. Dubuc lets them cool overnight for maximum quality – something he cherishes in the medium. “It’s a better sound,” he says.
Mr. Dubuc worked for National Bank Financial for nearly 14 years but was let go after the summer of 2007 when the asset-backed commercial paper crisis hit Canada’s markets. He wasn’t a vinyl enthusiast then. But his Saint-Lambert neighbour Iain Walker showed up at his door the day after he lost his job with a proposal: to manage the new record-pressing facility he wanted to install in his nearby music-distribution warehouse.
The resurgence in vinyl purchases was heating up in 2007. Mr. Walker, who co-owns FAB Distribution with his wife Renée Papillon, noticed that demand for vinyl LPs was surpassing the supply provided by the world’s few remaining record pressing plants. The company would often order a few hundred LPs of a given title, only to get half as many a month late. Fixing that problem, the owners realized, could turn out to be a sound investment.
Mr. Dubuc didn’t need much convincing to jump aboard. “The fact that it’s manufacturing music is what got me into it,” he says.
No one has mass-manufactured new record presses for decades, so the team sought used equipment. After considering the presses at a small shop northeast of Toronto, they picked up 14 machines from a shuttering New Jersey company for a $100,000 – less than it would cost to build a single press from scratch, Mr. Dubuc says. (The equipment only presses the larger, album-length 12-inch records, and not the smaller seven-inch ones, usually used for singles. And the team decided to leave the prepressing processes – which turn the original recording into the nickel-plated moulds that press the records – to experienced U.S. experts.)
And so RIP-V was born. Named after the three co-founders – Renée, Iain and Philippe, with a hat-tip to vinyl at the end – the company employs six people, two of whom operate its four working presses. Two more are being refurbished, and the rest are in storage; the cost of expanding the plumbing infrastructure to accommodate the other presses is too high to justify adding the others yet, says Mr. Dubuc, who manages the plant’s day-to-day operations.
The company pressed about 40,000 records in its first year. That’s no small number, considering the machines occupy a space not much larger than a one-bedroom condo. But RIP-V pressed more than five times that amount in 2012, and Mr. Dubuc expects production to grow at least another 30 per cent this year.
That number matches the global trend. In July, Nielsen SoundScan reported that vinyl sales in the first six months of 2013 rose 33 per cent over the same period in 2012, to 2.9 million records – compared with a 5-per-cent drop in total album sales.
David Bakula, Nielsen Entertainment’s senior vice-president of analytics, says 2013 could be the eighth year in a row that vinyl sales reach record levels since SoundScan began tracking data in 1991.
“We don’t see anything slowing this down at all,” he says. While consumer trends lean toward inexpensive and portable means of listening to music, Mr. Bakula says, a specific market has formed that indulges in the higher-quality, costlier medium. “We’re definitely in a period of resurgence for vinyl.”
(Two-thirds of vinyl sold in 2012 was through independent record stores, many of which are not SoundScan members; the Entertainment Retailers Association in Britain, however, reported last week that independent stores had a 44-per-cent growth in overall sales in the first half of 2013, much of that in vinyl.)
RIP-V succeeded Music Manufacturing Services’s Toronto-area plant in being the only one of its kind in Canada after the latter company’s master pressman retired. MMS vice-president Aaron Zon says he’s happy his company is still in the vinyl brokering business, but didn’t want to continue the plant’s operations without an experienced craftsperson at the helm. These days, he says, most experienced press operators “are somewhere between old and dead.”
RIP-V’s team have been in the game for just about five years, but the company’s quality has already spoken for itself. “I love working with them,” says Rhonda Jessee, director of production with Epitaph Records, an independent label in California founded by Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz.
“There are some plants out there that are just putting records out as fast as they can,” says Ms. Jessee, worried about the quality of production. And at Epitaph, “the first concern is quality.”
Luckily for the label, she says, “we get that at RIP-V.”
Ms. Case’s new record, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, will be released Sept. 3 on Epitaph’s sister label, Anti-, as a double LP with bonus artwork etched on the fourth side. But on this mid-summer day, it’s still a series of makeshift hockey pucks turning into grooved discs. There’s no time to rest at RIP-V; after this pressing, the company will start stamping out the coming Arcade Fire album.
“We’re pressing maybe twice the records we pressed last summer,” Mr. Dubuc says. “May, June and July were pretty slow the last few years. This year, it hasn’t stopped.”