Vinyl record pressing
Blocker founded a music label, Hand Drawn Records, in 2011 to distribute the music recorded by his band, Exit 380, and other musicians.
In 2014, Blocker and his bandmates decided to press a vinyl record entitled Photomaps. "We were a rock band for a lot of years, then we got more Americana and folksy," says Blocker. "This was before vinyl was huge. We said, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we did side A as all rock and side B as more folksy, Americana stuff?"
He found a pressing plant, but they brokered it and pressed Photomaps overseas. "It took a long time and by the time I got it, I wasn't super happy with it."
Later that year, Blocker connected with his partner at Hand Drawn Pressing, COO Alex Cushing, and started booking orders while putting plans together to stand up a pressing plant in response to the coming boom.
"At that point, it was 2 percent of the music business," says Blocker. "Fast-forward to today, it's 15 percent. On the physical side, it's almost all. Right now it's streaming and vinyl for the music industry."
But the comeback of vinyl has outpaced the ability of the manufacturers to keep up with demand. A big reason for that is lack of innovation and capacity stemming from the near-death of the medium in the 1980s. "Record-pressing technology has been the same since the '50s," says Blocker.
Starting with a machine akin to "a very large waffle iron," the industry added some automation in the late 1960s, but stopped making record presses entirely in 1984 after cassette tapes overtook vinyl. "From that point -- until we got the new ones in 2017 -- there were no press manufacturers on the planet," says Blocker.
Canada-based Viryl Technologies delivered its first two WarmTone presses to Hand Drawn in 2017. "They reverse engineered some of the best features from older presses, and then of course put in robotics, HMI systems, sensors -- all of the things that are used in production today in other industries," says Blocker.
"The record press itself is highly advanced in relation to older presses, but the way that records are made through compression molding has not changed since the '50s. That's the constant."
"We use a steam boiler to superheat steam for the heat that goes into the molds themselves. Then you superchill it, so we superheat it then superchill it, and you compress the plastic in between the molds, and in those molds are the grooves for the record."
Hand Drawn Pressing leverages automation for record handling and packaging. The yield loss is less than 5 percent, says Blocker, notably lower than the 15 to 20 percent loss at competing manufacturers.
Word is getting out: After growing by an average of 30 percent in 2018 to 2020, sales jumped by 65 percent in 2021.
As it moved to a new 24,000-square foot facility, Hand Drawn added two more WarmTones for 2022, boosting annual pressing capacity by a factor of two. As of January, the company was already booked through the end of the year and into 2023
"We did a million units last year and we doubled our production capacity this year to do 2 million," says Blocker. "Over the last few years, the pressing side has grown so much we've had to press pause on Hand Drawn Records to put all of our resources over here."
The machines now cost close to $200,000 each, plus the cost of a notably involved installation. "It's not like CD manufacturing -- just plug them into electricity and go," says Blocker. "You have to have a lot of infrastructure. Getting two more machines is not as simple as just getting two more from Viryl. You have to have a massive overhaul of auxiliary systems -- the boilers, the chiller systems, and electrical. It takes up to 18 months sometimes, depending on parts."
Once the presses are up and running, each can press 100 records per hour -- about 30 seconds per record. "We started running 24 hours a day last February when the big freeze happened in Texas," says Blocker. "Since then, we haven't been able to stop. We do close on Saturdays for our workers but we reopen Sunday midday."
Regardless, the emphasis is squarely on quality over quantity. "We're widely known as one of the highest-quality manufacturers," says Blocker.
"As good as the machines are, it is very much about human intervention," he adds. "The technicians are very highly trained. Unless you've worked at a record-pressing plant, you don't know how to press records. You have to train them onsite, and it's about six months to get an operator up and running at a high level."
Hand Drawn Pressing works with outside printers for the record covers and inserts. Customers include labels and musicians, but Blocker keeps it private "unless that client talks about us."
Challenges: Supply chain, especially shipping, is a big one. "There's just been challenges all over the supply chain as everybody knows from COVID," says Blocker. "That's even getting the presses themselves, and the chillers and boilers."
The supply of the primary raw material for vinyl records, PVC, has been fairly stable, but it can be hard to source specific colors, he adds.
Opportunities: The opportunity is simply meeting "explosive" demand, says Blocker, and it's also a challenge. "Can you imagine making a product everybody wants, but you can't get the machinery to make more of it? That's exactly where we're at. That's from the majors to the big indies. They want so much more than we can produce."
"The press manufacturers are just as overwhelmed as us, and they franky can't make more," he adds. "You can't throw money at this problem, and they don't have anywhere to go."
Blocker says it's rooted in a "backlash" to all things digital: You can hold a visceral record in your hands and see the needle travel around the grooves. "The bigger that digital gets, especially in music, the bigger vinyl will get," says Blocker. "At the very core, people want to connect with music."
Needs: More space and/or possibly a second plant, but Blocker says he is taking it one day at a time. "We took over this space when we started putting in new equipment," he says. "We're in an 80,000-square-foot facility we were sharing with two other companies, and now 24,000 square feet is ours, and the other 56,000 is warehousing we may have to take over pretty soon."
He continues, "We are thinking internally: 'Do we want to open another plant?' Our largest client, they assure us, as much as we can make, they can feed it. . . . The opportunity's there. It's literally sitting there."