On the record: Vince Slusarz is betting on the resurgence of vinyl with his Gotta Groove Records, and that wager is paying off
A cacophonous roar fills the first floor of Tyler Village in Cleveland’s St. Clair-Superior neighborhood, sounding almost like music. On a sweltering hot manufacturing floor, six compression-molding presses whoosh and clank. Workers snake in and out like stagehands, rushing to keep the act going.**FOR MORE INFORMATION: Best car speakers brands, best car speakers system**Clad in a T-shirt and cargo shorts, Vince Slusarz watches as the machines spit out red vinyl records. The place seems to move with all the precision of a big band, punctuated by unruly outbursts of sound not unlike those of freestyle jazzman Ornette Coleman on saxophone.As owner of Gotta Groove Records, the 58-year-old Slusarz is an unlikely and relative newcomer to the business of vinyl records. In 2008, he left a 25-year career with Kinetico Water Systems, having served in corporate positions ranging from human resources and manufacturing to sales and finance.
The sale of Kinetico left him with money to invest, and he set off in search of a new mountain to climb. It didn’t take him long to find it, thanks to his daughter, then in her 20s. She surprised him one day by coming home with a collection of vinyl records.“When I asked her [about it] she said, We don’t buy CDs. If I’m going to buy music physically, it’s going to be a record,”’ he recalls.Slusarz did a little research and found a media format seemingly lost to time that, surprisingly, was primed for renewed growth.He mentioned his discovery over lunch to Cindy Barber, co-owner of Beachland Ballroom. They’d been in talks about Slusarz investing in the concert venue, but Barber foresaw a different path for him.“He said he had been thinking about starting a vinyl pressing plant, and I said, 'Wait a minute, you have to do that,”’ says Barber. "‘I’m not even going to let you invest in the Beachland. Stop talking now, because you have to go do this.’"So Slusarz set off on a search for hard-to-find record presses. There are no new models on the market, so factories have to hang onto their machines from the 1970s. He managed to find six presses in Newark, New Jersey, at a factory that was going out of business. That scarcity of pressing machines has created a production bottleneck in the industry.“I knew capacity was fixed and demand was going up, and that’s a good place to be when you’re starting a business,” says Slusarz, who pressed his first record in late August 2009.His hunch that vinyl’s popularity would continue to grow has paid off. Since 2009, according to entertainment metrics firm Nielsen, vinyl sales have increased by 260 percent. In 2014, national unit sales for vinyl totaled 9.2 million, compared to 6.1 million units in 2013. From January to March of this year, sales were 53 percent higher than the same period last year.At Gotta Groove, sales have increased by roughly 30 percent year over year. The company works project-to-project, pressing records for big and small acts alike, from James Taylor for Warner Brothers to a solo album by Cheetah Chrome, the punk legend guitarist for the Dead Boys. They even press self-released records, such as one by Boston rockers the Sun Lions.Slusarz employs an evolutionary analogy to explain why vinyl is experiencing such resurgent popularity.Each new media format was built to emphasize portability, from eight-tracks to cassettes, CDs to iPods. Now with the proliferation of cloud services including Spotify, music isn’t tethered. It lives nowhere and everywhere, streamed directly to your ear through your wireless device, car speakers, Best car audio speakers . The portability conundrum is solved.But Slusarz insists that some people miss the physicality that you can’t replicate in the digital ether. For them, portability doesn’t matter–records are now a luxury item.“The reality of it is, from a tactile experience, nothing compares to vinyl, the artwork on the album, the liner notes you can actually read without magnifying glasses,” says Slusarz.The analog experience of listening to a record provides a singular respite from the relentless multitasking demanded by the modern economy, says Slusarz.“You have to engage with a record. It lends itself to unplugging, sitting down and listening,” he says. "That’s what, as a kid, I did with records."Saying to somebody, ‘Hey, do you want to come over and look at my record collection?’ is way more exciting than ‘Hey, do you want to come over and pick some songs to stream?’"Over the clangor of the factory floor, Slusarz explains that every record has a mother–a single copy. All the others are birthed from it, and then go out into the world.To have his recordings lacquer-cut–the process by which that mother copy is made–Slusarz sends it to a vinyl engineer like Clint Holley. Holley uses special equipment in his space at 78th Street Studios to make a single, perfect laquer. From the mother two metal disks are made, called stampers, which function much like a mold. When played, the record player’s needle dips into the hills and valleys of the disk, translating minute vibrations into music.
What becomes a record itself arrives at Gotta Groove Records as a large container of thumbtack-sized beads of a specialty PVC that’s heated to 280 degrees and formed into pucks.Those pucks are fed between two stampers where grooved plates squeeze and heat the puck between them to around 300 degrees. The vinyl spreads outward in a highly controlled splat.When complete, the newly minted record is rapidly cooled with water, then goes to the cutter to shave the excess vinyl around the edge. The scrap, which accounts for about 10 percent of a given run’s yield, is recycled back into the process."[Our scrap rate] is really high for manufacturing," says Slusarz, about 10 percent. "I’m used to scrap rates in the decimal points, less than 1 percent. We do recycle, which is great. That helps."This multistep process is complex yet precise.“We’re dealing with machinery that’s pretty old,” he says. "It breaks down virtually every day. It requires a lot of attention, so that’s a big frustration."Away from the din of the manufacturing floor, a young bespectacled guy wearing purple surgical gloves sits behind a white door, listening to music all day. It’s a great gig, really, listening to guitars blare from two boxy speakers.But it can quickly get a little grating, explains Slusarz as he peeks in to this quality assurance bay. These staffers have to listen to LPs at 45 revolutions per minute, as opposed to their intended 33.3, to find pressing errors.“We’ve probably done 15,000 James Taylor’s greatest hits,” says Slusarz. “If you listen to it for three days in a row, you’re done.”
**SEE ALSO: Best car speakers, best car speakers for sound quality**In six years, he’s gone from two employees to 30. This year, Gotta Groove is on pace to press 1,800 projects. Each project can include as few as 100 records to runs as large as 5,000, though the average is about 500. They press about 75,000 records per year.The company showed its first profit in its third year of business.Today, Slusarz’s startup is entering maturity, complete with the upside such growth brings. “We weren’t able to, and still aren’t able to, offer health benefits to our employees, and that’s a goal of mine,” says Slusarz. “I think next year we’ll be able to do that.“Now he’s thinking about expansion. There is room enough on the factory floor for two more presses, one of which he’s cobbling together from spare parts. He’s even contemplating the possibility of adding a third shift.”[Vinyl] is not going to be the main medium for delivering music like it was what I was young,” says Slusarz. "It’s a niche, but a growing one, and it’s going to continue to grow for a while."Hannan, Sheehan