Record Store Day takes place this year on April 21, and a lot of attention is paid to the artists releasing music and the stores selling it. But there is a step in between, and that is actually manufacturing the records themselves.
Here in Georgia, there’s one record pressing plant, Kindercore Vinyl in Athens, which just opened its doors last fall.
The factory sits on a hill in a rural, industrial area of Athens. With its gray concrete floors and complicated-looking machinery, it looks like they could be manufacturing anything, until you notice a guy sitting at a table on the factory floor, intently listening to a record in headphones.
This is Kindercore Chief Operating Officer and former record store owner Cash Carter. He waves me over and unplugs his headphones, letting the music boom out of the speakers. Carter is playing a test pressing of an album from a Chicago record label called Star Creature which traffics in funk and disco. The beat of what sounds like 1980s break dance music fills the room.
The bright blue, yellow and red machines that made this slab of vinyl are just a few steps away. Kindercore president Ryan Lewis walks me through the process which, despite the new-fangled technology, remains a pretty analog job.
We start at the 2,500 pound container of black vinyl pellets. Lewis pulls out a handful.
“They look like lentils, kind of,” he says, then walks around to a wide metal hopper on one of the presses. The pellets get poured into this extruder and heated up and shaped into a puck.
“Which looks … like a puck. Like a hockey puck,” Lewis said, “and that has the vinyl that’s gonna make a single record.”
The puck gets fed into the machine where there are two metal stampers, basically negatives of the a-side and the b-side of the album. We watch as the vinyl puck gets fed into the machine and then squashed between the metal plates with 7,000 pounds of pressure which comes from the steam boiler behind the building.
“So it’s kinda like a Play-Doh Fun Factory,” Lewis laughs, “where you smash it and the stuff comes out the sides. So then that excess gets trimmed off.”
These neat robotic arms with suction cups pick up the record, still hot off the press, and drop it into a stack where it can cool off before being put into sleeves, shrink wrapped, then boxed up and shipped out.
Kindercore’s four founders work at the plant full-time and along with their handful of part-time employees, interns and volunteers, they can press about three thousand records in a day on their three machines.
“We also named [the presses] after one of Georgia’s premier vocal groups, TLC,” Lewis says. “So the presses are ‘T-Boz,’ ‘Left Eye’ and ‘Chilli.'”
And sure enough, each press has affixed to it a small portrait of its namesake singer, painted by an Athens artist.
Kindercore’s Georgia roots aren’t just on display in their obvious love for the group that sang “Waterfalls.” Indie rock fans might remember the Kindercore record label which Lewis ran with Dan Geller — who is also part of their current incarnation. Between 1996 and 2003, they put out albums by bands like Maserati, Japancakes and Of Montreal. That label went out of business and they all went their separate ways until Carter approached Lewis in 2015 about starting the label back up.
“And I said absolutely no, no way,” Lewis recalls. “I said some words that aren’t good for public radio. And then he said ‘well fine, what about a record pressing plant?’ I was like ‘You’ve lost your mind, you wanna open a factory?’ Then I thought about it for a minute and thought, ‘well, it’s more viable than a record label is, so who knows?’”
Backed by some local investors, they were able to assemble their facilities and they pressed their first record on Halloween 2017.
Being an Athens-based plant, with a former life releasing albums by Athens bands, you’d expect they’d continue in that vein, but Lewis shows me one of the first records they made. It’s a blood-red record by a Finnish hair metal band called Santa Cruz.
“People are like ‘oh, is the first record you made from Georgia?’” Lewis says, “We’re like no, it’s from Finland. But hey, whatever.”
If you’re curious how a small pressing plant in Athens picks up business from Finland right away, as it turns out, because of the scarcity of pressing plants around the globe, that’s kind of how the business works now.
Scott Pollock is president of A to Z Media, which acts as a broker between bands and music manufacturers.
“10 years or so ago, we were hearing from our clients about these incredible delays getting their records out of the few plants that existed at that time,” he said.
Coincidentally, 10 years ago was 2008, and 2008 was the year of the first Record Store Day. There was a shift happening in music culture back towards vinyl. That combo of increased demand and fewer plants created a backlog.
“We had to really start looking further afield for good partners who would help us deliver.”
Before the plant ever pressed their first record in 2017, Lewis said they began taking orders in August of that year, and their workload filled up almost immediately.
But Record Store Day has been going strong for a decade, you can even find vinyl at Target now. And there are still fewer than 30 pressing plants in the U.S.
“It’s really hard. And really expensive,” he says. “We had to raise over a million dollars to do this. Almost entirely for equipment and build-out and setup. It’s dangerous. The boiler is essentially a bomb waiting to blow up if you don’t take care of it correctly. So yeah, it’s a big hill to climb.”
Kindercore also made the business decision not to press any Record Store Day releases this year, Lewis said.
“We already had a ton of regular jobs,” Lewis explains, “and I wasn’t willing to penalize customers that just wanted to make records for other customers that wanted to rush something.” Even without those jobs on their itinerary, Record Store Day has effected their work flow in that it has created scarcities in their supply chain. For a few weeks, they weren’t able to get any white vinyl, so that put a few of their projects on hold.
Lewis said that the phenomenon of Record Store Day has been a mixed blessing. As an former employee of Wuxtry Records, he says it’s great seeing independent stores getting a boost in sales.
“So obviously if it helps them, that’s great,” he says, “but on the other side of it, it sort of becomes this major label feeding frenzy to see how many Hall & Oates or Air Supply records they can press up for these ‘special limited releases.’ But Record Store Day, because of that, has been one of the things that has helped bring the need for more pressing plants in.”
In other words, it creates a lot of work for everyone, which is not a bad problem to have. And creating work is definitely on Lewis’ mind. He says he’s excited to be able to bring more music-related jobs to a city that is famously steeped in music.
“Now you can write, record, and manufacture music in Athens” he says, proudly.
Given that Kindercore, in a past life, had already spent years spreading Athens music to the world, being a part of that trinity seems like a fitting second coming for the company.