There’s something special about vinyl records.
The feel, smell, look and sound all seem richer and more authentic than digital music.
In 2016, stores sold 13 million records, the highest volume of vinyl sales in the past three decades. We are in the midst of a vinyl revival.
Vinyl record pressing companies can barely keep up with the demand. Most pressing companies are relying on restored equipment from the 70s and 80s, which is slow and error prone.
However, Hand Drawn Records is modernizing this process. They are using the first pieces of modern technology designed for record pressing. Their presses are controlled by computers, reducing error rate and speeding up the pressing process 3x.
Today, on Small Business War Stories, we are joined by John Snodgrass from Hand Drawn Records to discuss how they are revolutionizing the vinyl pressing industry.
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A summary of our interview with John Snodgrass of Hand Drawn Records is below.
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- How did everything get started and what do you guys do?
- Can you help me and our listeners understand a little bit better, so what is the difference between a company that presses vinyl versus a record label?
- What I’m hearing is that you have the company split into two. There’s the pressing side and then there’s the label side. The pressing side serves your label as well as many other labels, right?
- What’s the average in the industry for how long it takes to press a record?
- What is the entire production process?
- How did this process of pressing a record use to be versus what it is today?
- Why do you have fewer mistakes?
- Are there other ways in which you’re innovating and doing things differently in terms of your processes?
- What are some of the oddest, wackiest things that you’ve come across?
- Can you think of a time when things went sideways and how did you guys deal with it?
- What would you say is the number one lesson or piece of advice that you would have?
- Where do you see Hand Drawn going in the next 10 years?
Tell me a little bit about Hand Drawn Records. How did everything get started and what do you guys do?
John Snodgrass: Okay, so really sort of two-fold there and if you’ll see some of our literature or maybe just on our website, it says 2011. That’s when the record label was started, right, because we really weren’t started with manufacturing in mind. Our founder, Dustin Blocker, started the record label. It was him, at the time he was front man for a band called Exit 380. There were several other bands, or friends of his in bands, he said, “Let’s do this as a collective. Let’s make it easier on everyone. We’ll do the record label thing and what does that mean? Well, we’ll get each other on our bills. We’ll try to get our music on the radio. We’ll do things that an independent record label does.“
Dustin spent a lot of miles, a lot of hours, a lot of miles on the road and at one point, he got caught up in the vinyl industry coming back. I mean it was all around us. He could see it and really what happened there is, he was ready to finally press one of his own records, and it was this mysterious process. I think a lot of bands, if they’re listening, will identify with this.
He knew there were certain places to do it, but the process was like visiting the Wizard of Oz, behind the curtain, you don’t know what’s going on or how to do it. What are these secrets? How much is it going to cost? What do I really get for that? It was a frustrating process and I wish Dustin were here to give us the exact timeline, but I think it was six, eight months, maybe more before he got that record. During that time, he thought: “Wow, vinyl’s coming back. There’s got to be a better way to do this.“
That was sort of the birth, on the back of a napkin if you will, of Hand Drawn Pressing, which would eventually become the vinyl manufacturing plant that we’re sitting in today.
Can you help me and our listeners understand a little bit better, so what is the difference between a company that presses vinyl versus a record label? How does that all come together?
John Snodgrass: In our case they’re the same thing. There’s sort of two separate sides of the same company. Often a record label does what they do, they represent their bands. They try to do the best job they can for their bands to get their bands noticed. And we still do that.
We do promotion and marketing, and we work on getting the band on the radio, getting the band on the road, getting the band on showcases. Whatever that means. Social media is a lot of it these days too because some bands are very good at that. You may know bands that are fantastic at making their art. What do they like to do? They like to make their art, their music.
That’s the label side and we’re still doing that by the way, we put so much focus on the pressing side, we also like to remind people that there is a record label and we’ve been lucky enough to be noticed for that as well, and we’re proud of that because, manufacturing is awesome, because you’re putting out this cool product for a band. This piece of art, not only the audio, but the visual as well.
The fun part is getting out to see live music as a big music fan. That’s the fun side. That’s the art side. Helping your bands, so we’re still an active record label. The Observer Awards were nice enough to vote us “Best Label in DFW” again this year, so that was cool. We actually have a couple of new bands that we haven’t announced yet that are coming on to our other label and they’re going to be on our roster very soon.
What I’m hearing is that you have the company split into two. There’s the pressing side and then there’s the label side. The pressing side serves your label as well as many other labels, right?
John Snodgrass: Absolutely correct. If it was just serving our label, we wouldn’t be busy, right? I think we have six or eight bands on our roster right now, and we are getting ready to grow by two. We love to service them. What we can do for them is get their vinyl pressed and get it done, or we can expedite it so they don’t have to wait and play other games, and that’s great. That’s part of what we can do for our bands, but really if you think about Hand Drawn Pressing, it was open for the world. We help bands in North Texas, Texas as a whole, and we’ve got a lot of Austin clients. Nashville’s caught on because it’s tough waiting on some of the other pressers. There’s a big one in Nashville, which is a fantastic record press, but they’re just booked up.
What’s the average in the industry for how long it takes to press a record? You were talking about eight months and how long does it take you guys to put out a record, to produce a record?
John Snodgrass: Yeah. That’s kind of a sore spot in the industry right now because people want vinyl and whether you’re a label or a band, or maybe a management agency of some sort. Depending on what kind of power you have, let’s say you’re just an independent guy. You may wait six, eight months. We have a friend of ours that actually came to us and ended up doing the business here. They just had a quote from another manufacturing company, that is domestic, that’s stateside and he just couldn’t believe it was going to be eight months. It just didn’t seem fair.
With Hand Drawn Pressing right now we tell people 8-10 weeks. We haven’t hit that yet. In other words, we’ve done better. In this business, one of the things you’re trying to do, because we know there’s not much of it, is offer some sort of customer service. If you’re not on time, if there’s a delay for some reason, giving the artist or the label a reason why. Giving them an ear to talk to.
We had a really big order that I can’t say who it is because it’s for Record Store Day, so it will be released on 4/22 for a pretty major label, and we hit five weeks on that. If we could always hit five weeks that’d be great. That’s not realistic.
What is the entire production process? Do you produce the covers and the record itself?
John Snodgrass: Artists send us their masters and their cover art, and we can take it from there. We assemble everything, and theoretically your art and all your printed goods are ready prior to the records coming off the presses. Once they’re cooled, as you just saw in the back, we can go to an assembly line, a packing line if you will, about 20 yards away.
It’s really cool when all the stars align. If your printed goods are waiting, they’re done, and they look amazing. The artists themselves have proofed everything, not once, but twice. Now you’ve got your records that have come off the machines. They look amazing. The labels are perfect. We approve them. The art goes through basically three rounds of sort of a QC, and then when the artist approves it and we have it printed with our partner, it arrives here. It’s sort of in queue if you will waiting.
These records, once they come off our machines, they don’t go through a long cooling process. Some of the older machines did. We actually do the cooling process as they’re being manufactured, so theoretically, when they come off the machines they’re ready. They go on a spindle, a cooling rack if you will. You’re ready to pack them up. Shrink wrap them. Maybe there’s a sticker. Whatever the artist wants.
It’s all about getting that time down, efficiency, and still delivering quality. That’s why I mentioned our quality control process several times. Several pairs of eyes and ears go into that before it’s shipped out the door.
How did this process of pressing a record use to be versus what it is today? How have facilities kept up? You were talking about some older facilities where maybe the cooling process is longer. What are the other differences in how the process has maybe evolved and changed with this?
John Snodgrass: It has changed and it hasn’t. You go back 50 years ago and more and you still had to melt plastic, or in our case PVC, into a form that you can then press it. You press the grooves into it, because you have a master that’s already, the music’s cut into that master.
Some processes have become more efficient. The quality is a little bit better. It’s less likely for a bad master to get out the door. Sometimes we’ll press a record, several copies of a record, and give the artist what’s called a test press. We stop the machines. We make five or ten, whatever it may be. We get to listen to it. The artist gets to listen to it and generally if there’s a problem there, it’s from that stamper, and again a stamper’s a term for a copy of that master. You want to keep the master on file, nothing happens to it, but the stamper itself is kind of a, it’s nickel and it’s flimsier than a record, because it’s made out of metal.
From the master, you peel off a negative. Okay, now you have that negative and you press it into our hot plastic or hot PVC, so once again, you’re back to a positive. It’s like three steps.
A lot of times, when we’re in that test press process, we’ll find an audio issue and typically it’s not because the press itself did something wrong, because it’s basically just doing what it’s told. It’s pressing grooves into the valleys, I should say ridges into grooves really. Maybe on that stamp, that master stamp, there was something wrong with it. Maybe there was a burr of some sort or something to cause a skip. We can catch it right there. You’ve only made five or 10 copies. Okay, and you’re waiting for your own quality check and your artist. Then you can stop it versus making 1,000 copies of that, delivering it, and then the artist being unhappy. That’s just one level you can catch it, but to answer your question when we started there, that was the way it was made 50 years ago. All we’re doing different here, and there’s a couple of other new presses in the world, is we’re doing it with fewer mistakes, quicker.
Why do you have fewer mistakes? There’s a video where Dustin talks about you having lower average waste. Why is that?
John Snodgrass: A lot of that is due to the manufacturer of our actual machines, Viryl Technologies, a company out of Toronto. The machines are technical enough. I’m going to stop here and be clear. Our machines aren’t made by robots. They’re still made with tender, loving care and human hands by John and Gabe and me and Dustin and Alex, but it does have a brain. It’s the first one ever to have a brain. In other words, if the records are getting too hot or if they’re getting too cold and brittle, a lot of different things can happen. It will stop, so instead of making 1,000 copies that aren’t good, it stops and tells you, “Oh, you might want to adjust that.” Boom.
As you’re saying less waste, so I don’t know if this is a 100% accurate number, but for a while there was a stat out there that there were about 30-40% of the records coming off of record presses needed to be thrown out. Now what I say by throw out, is that they are reground. We want to, it sounds pretty dirty if you think, “Oh, you’re throwing away 30-40% of your product.” We regrind that all into the same pellets and can introduce that and start over again, so that’s good.
These machines are still fairly new to the world. We want to get that down to 1% or 2%, versus 30% or 40%. We’ll still regrind that. We’ll still reuse that. There is a recycling element there, but we won’t waste a lot of time doing it. That’s the difference. What does that translate to? That translates to money and time to the artist as well. We can do it a little cheaper for them, we’re not wasting vinyl, and we can get it to them quicker, so I think that and the customer service thing, that’s kind of what an artist wants to see.
Are there other ways in which you’re innovating and doing things differently in terms of your processes?
John Snodgrass: Yeah, you know, like I said, most of it is the same, it’s just we’re trying to do it better and trying to do it with a smile. I think that’s most of it. Maybe there’ll be something in our lifetimes, but I don’t know how you’d make a record other than what we’re doing now. There are some people with some wild ideas out there, especially now that vinyl’s in demand, talking about some interesting ideas. Getting rid of the boiler altogether is one of them.
There’s a boiler outside the wall. You didn’t see it because it was just past the wall. It delivers the steam at a constant temperature and flow, so the records melt evenly and you’re getting the same consistent product. It takes a boiler. The analogy that’s been drawn for me, it’s kind of like the same boiler, if you’ve ever seen like a cool craft brewery, and they’re always sending that steam into the vats as they’re making beer, it’s the same type of process. It has to be consistent. It has to be at the same temperature, at the same flow, and if you do that, you get consistent records and that’s what you want.
There are people talking about doing it differently, such as using an electric current to heat. These are things that are still years away it seems like. What we have right now is the most advanced way to do it in the world. We’re not saying we’re the biggest and the best or pounding our chest, we’re just saying it’s the most advanced way to do that we know of right now.
Because it’s the music business, you must see some wacky things out there. What are some of the oddest, wackiest things that you’ve come across?
John Snodgrass: You know so, maybe this isn’t wacky, right. The colors, the color schemes, of course everyone wants to do something funky, and that’s very, very possible. It’s time intensive if you start basically taking the puck that makes the record, slicing it in half, trying to fuse two together, maybe one side’s red, maybe one side is blue. There’s a lot of fun things you can do like that. There was a band, which I won’t name, it probably wouldn’t mean anything anyway to the listening audience, but that wanted to come in and put their own blood, I think they’d seen that or heard about that with Alice Cooper or Kiss. You know, back in whenever that was, I think Kiss did something like that in the 70s.
I guess even if you just put a few drops, right, you could technically say, “Our blood is in the mix.” We were really worried about that, due to the fact that that hot plastic goes through our machines and it just seemed like a bad idea, so we said, “Let’s table that. Maybe some day in the future.” Fun, but probably doesn’t make sense.
That was about two months ago. We didn’t do it unfortunately, but we’re always up for funky stuff and as we go, you know, as the year progresses and we roll into next year, I’m sure we’re open. Right now, what we’re trying to do is keep the machines on track. Keep the timeframes on track for artists and labels, and just provide a clean, consistent product that we can be proud to put out there. Not warped. Flat, no skips. Clean, great sounding records.
Can you think of a time when things went sideways and how did you guys deal with it? How did you handle it?
John Snodgrass: I don’t want to peel back the covers too much. The only thing I can think of really, because it is a fun product at the end of the day, is that, like any small business, we had challenges raising money. We had to find a way to make this dream a reality.
We’re a typical small company and we spent many days in meetings like this with the paper out. Traditional banks weren’t really open to it because, as you can imagine, in a bank’s eyes, there’s manufacturing, which they understand, but vinyl records? Didn’t that go away?
It’s a labor of love. What we did is we kind of cobbled several things together. We have some people here locally that trusted we had a good idea so we borrowed money. Private loans and they’re basically just trusting these three guys to pay them back. We did have a bank come in at the last minute. The person was a huge music fan, so they were willing to forego the normal approval process.
What would you say is the number one lesson or piece of advice that you would have? What’s the number one thing that you’ve learned that maybe you didn’t know before you started working with Hand Drawn, in terms of something that’s been meaningful to you?
John Snodgrass: One thing I go back to, and I always tell my wife, passion for the business you’re in, has to trump a paycheck. Yeah, you have to pay your debts, going back to the banks and the lenders, but you may not take a paycheck for a long time, but if you’re having fun and you believe in what you’re doing, and for us, it couldn’t be truer. I don’t know if it would be the same if I was making another product, but for me, music is a passion and for the other two owners, music is a passion. I believe we will make money. It’s just like any other small business though, it doesn’t happen overnight.
If you’re super passionate about it, and know that it may be a little bit of a weather the storm time period, I think you’ll do okay. In this case when you throw that record that just came off the press on to the turntable for the first time, and you crank it up in the plant, you’re like, “Wow. I may not have had a great day, but I made this. Matter of fact I’m going to take one of these home tonight and spin it at home, because it’s this awesome.” Maybe you never heard of the band before you guys got the order, right, before we got the order and you’re introduced to this amazing sound you didn’t know existed. That is a payoff in itself.
Where do you see Hand Drawn going in the next 10 years?
John Snodgrass: It’s kind of hard to tell, so music itself is a passion play. You know, those that think they’re going to monetize it are often sorely disappointed and I’m talking more on the label side now. If you can, well for us, to answer your question, I think we’re going to lean a lot heavier into our artist side, into our label side, making sure that that is, if not front and center, at least given equal billing to the pressing side. I think a year from now, if we’re as busy as we think we’re going to be consistently, add maybe another machine or two.
So you can expand the footprint back here where I saw?
John Snodgrass: Sure, the footprint is ready for that and then the build out has already been done for the most part, so plugging another couple of machines in is a possiblity right now.
Those machines don’t look cheap…
John Snodgrass: They’re not cheap. No they weren’t giving them away. I tried. But yeah, we’ve got the room for it in this plant and we’ve done a lot of sort of the infrastructure work, and that’s the tough part. All the plumbing, the mechanical build-out and all that. If we’re lucky enough, yeah that would be it.
What we’d like to see for, not necessarily for us, but for Texas in general is sort of, wouldn’t it be cool if we were a hub for the manufacturing side of vinyl records? Not just us, but maybe there are other plants. Maybe you get a lot more of a spotlight on Texas in general. I think that would be cool. You know the tide lifting all boats, not just ours. On the other hand, we’ve got some ideas about sort of more of a marketplace mentality for artists. If you saw the big banner way up high above the machines, it says, “Helping artists help themselves.“
What goes along with that is, we feel, a lot of other things. They don’t have to be our artists. We’re not talking about artists on our label. We’re talking about other artists. Can we help them? What do they need? What’s hard to find or what’s frustrating? From merchandise to tour buses, to engineers, to producers, to … I know there’s a long list of things, could we aid in that? Could we be a resource and one that’s affordable? Maybe that’s the next iteration. I think it goes nicely with the label so we’ll see.
Is there anything else that you want our audience to know about your business? Where can people find you?
For many music lovers and collectors, there’s something special about vinyl and a renewed passion for records is helping revitalize the vinyl industry.
Hand Drawn Records is helping to bring this industry into the 21st century by utilizing modern technology to create a more consistent and faster to produce product that still has the depth and feel of pre-existing vinyl.
If you have any question or comments about today’s episode, please leave a comment below.