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Situated on an industrial stretch of Brighton Boulevard, roughly a football field’s distance from a cluster of train tracks on one side and the South Platte River on the other, sits an unremarkable building for which, if you are fanatical about music, there are remarkable plans in the making.
I visited 4201 Brighton on a cold, clear day this past January with Cameron Schaefer, the CEO of Vinyl Me, Please (VMP), the Denver-based record-of-the-month club that purchased the RiNo structure that will become the home of its new record pressing plant. Along with Schaefer were Rich Kylberg, VMP’s chief strategy officer; Gary Salstrom, a veteran of the record pressing business who will run operations; and Salstrom’s dog, Marley. Looking out the front door, with Marley by my side, I could see Mission Ballroom, the crown jewel of Denver’s indoor concert venues, across the street. Next to Mission Ballroom sits a three-story monolith that houses the offices of Anschutz Entertainment Group, better known as AEG—which owns the concert hall—and a Left Hand Brewing taproom. Down the road a few blocks: Victrola, which has been making turntables, under a variety of different names, for more than 100 years. The objective of opening the plant at this particular location, Schaefer says, is to help build a one-of-a-kind, mile-high music district.
Still, though, there was much work to be done before VMP could actually start pressing records. The 14,000-square-foot structure, which has high, arched ceilings, was mostly empty, and parts of the floor were still dirt and gravel. On the north side of the building, six thick slabs of concrete constitute the floor; the record presses will sit on the reinforced pads, which are designed to dampen unwanted vibration before it comes through the pressing machines. Pending any last-minute hiccups, Schaefer and company were anticipating that the first records would be pressed sometime in early summer.
The space may have looked bare to me, but to Schaefer, Kylberg, and Salstrom, it was full of potential. There were tangible things: the company’s first record press, still disassembled and wrapped in plastic over here; a rotary plating tank over there; a group of tubs used for cleaning and silvering sitting somewhat askew in the middle of the room. These were signs of what was to come.
There were also schematics near the front door of the building, which detailed what the so-called front of the house would look like. Eventually—likely this fall—there will be a cafe and bar and a wall of records. There’ll be listening stations. And there’ll be tours, so anyone who pops by will be able to see how a record actually gets made. “You can grab a coffee or a cocktail and then sit down at a listening station and hear a record that’s been pressed right there,” says Brandon Anderson, a principal at LIVstudio and an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Colorado Boulder, who designed the space. “It all comes full circle.”
But before any of that, Vinyl Me, Please will start by making LPs for its members, for those who buy single records on its website, and for the partners who helped finance the pressing plant project. The albums will be made in just about every color of the spectrum, but some will also be black, because the records we all grew up with were black. The grooves will be pressed into 140- or 180-gram discs, which are heavier than the flimsy platters of yore, and yes, they will almost certainly sound even better than those in your parents’ collections. Salstrom and his small team will QC the product right there, and once the records are good to go, they’ll be placed in their sleeves, and the sleeves will be placed in their jackets, and the jackets will be wrapped in cellophane and stacked on pallets and shipped out to the vinyl-loving masses around the world.
There was a time, not long ago, when vinyl had essentially disappeared. Records, which for decades had been the lingua franca of the music business, begat eight-track tapes, which begat cassettes, which begat compact discs. Then, in the early 2000s, most everyone started getting their music digitally, as MP3s, on their iPods. Music had become both ubiquitous and invisible.
Then, a funny thing happened: The invisibility of music begat the resurgence of records. No one really knows the reason for vinyl’s revival, but industry insiders speculate that people missed the tangible nature of the product; they longed for the feeling of holding an album in their hands, reading the liner notes, gazing at the jacket art. The increase in record sales began in 2006, and vinyl LP sales have grown every year since. Last year, 43.5 million records were sold in the United States—nearly 50 percent more than in ’06, according to Luminate, an entertainment data firm, and Billboard.
Vinyl Me, Please—the brainchild of Tyler Barstow and Matt Fiedler, who lived in Chicago at the time and thought creating a record-of-the-month club as a side hustle sounded like fun—wandered into this vinyl promised land in 2013. As Barstow writes in the introduction to VMP’s 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection, “We started Vinyl Me, Please years ago with a simple idea: We all need to spend more time with albums that matter. Albums that are worth your time.”
This was not an original idea. Columbia Records created a record club in 1955; it eventually became Columbia House, and if you’re a Gen Xer like me, you probably had a subscription to this club, which hooked customers with its 12-albums-for-a-penny pitch. By the time I became a member, the club had begun offering cassettes. I wanted tapes I could play on my boombox. I wanted R.E.M. and Van Halen and Michael Jackson. I wanted Rush and De La Soul and U2. And I got them, and it was rad.
Of course, there was a catch, and as a preteen in the early 1980s, I was not yet a skilled reader of the fine print. As a 2020 column in the Washington Post noted, “Technically, this deal was far from over. By signing up, you were also agreeing to purchase eight more tapes over the next three years at regular club prices, which were often $14.98 a pop.” It worked out to be a pretty good deal, but I—and plenty of others—still felt swindled.
“When someone told me about a vinyl subscription service, I was like, Well, this is kind of like the Columbia 12-records scam,” says Eothen “Egon” Alapatt, the founder and president of LA-based label Now-Again Records and a VMP collaborator. “Who would ever want to subscribe to get a bunch of records again? Like, that idea was tried, and it was a bad one. But a lot of people were telling me about Vinyl Me, Please, and so I met with Cam and I thought, Wow, this is really different.”
When you join VMP, you start by choosing from five different tracks based on your musical interests: Essentials (different genres), Classics (soul, blues, and jazz), Hip-Hop, Country, and Choose Your Own Adventure. To celebrate its 10th anniversary this year, VMP is running a promotion that winks at Columbia House’s marketing tactics: VMP is giving away free records just for signing up. Register for three months at $128 and get one record free, in addition to the three you’re paying for. If you commit to a year ($435), you’ll get eight bonus records.
You might not get an LP you love every month, but that’s supposed to be part of the fun. “We would never expect you to love everything we release, but we promise you’ll find something here that is new to you and deepens your relationship with music,” VMP says on its website.
“What’s interesting about what they’re doing is they’re finding these records that haven’t been reissued and pressing them,” says Billy Fields, who is a VP of retail and commercial services and a vinyl strategist at WMX, part of the Warner Music Group. “And because it’s a club, they can deliver that, you know, obscure album, and people discover it, and there’s excitement around that.” Last year, Schaefer says, VMP shipped just under a million records to roughly 50 countries.
Unlike Columbia House, VMP’s business model has never been about volume. Although the idea was to deliver its subscribers music in a tangible package, what VMP sells is something much less tangible than a 12-inch record. “If our time and the way we spend it ends up being the essential piece of who we are, then what we listen to and the way we listen to it ends up being much more important than we may think,” Barstow writes in 100 Albums You Need…. “It means when we’re talking about the music we love, we’re talking about our life and our identity. It means that what’s on our record shelves is serious stuff.”
So VMP isn’t just selling records. It’s selling an idea about music; it’s selling the experience of listening to something you’ve maybe never listened to before; it’s selling the feeling of sipping a cocktail while you drop the needle on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds or Madvillain’s Madvillainy. And it’s selling the idea of quality.
Twelve years ago, Cameron Schaefer wasn’t a music business insider or the CEO of anything; he was flying remote piloted aircraft from Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada. Schaefer had grown up in Wyoming, the son of a high school teacher mother and an attorney father, the latter of whom had been a musician and music teacher. Schaefer played the trombone, like his father, but he was more into sports than music as a kid. After finishing high school, Schaefer moved to Colorado Springs in 2002 to attend the United States Air Force Academy. He graduated in 2006 and got married in the campus chapel the next day.
By the time he and his wife, Marelize, moved to Nevada half a decade later, Schaefer had begun to reckon with how he felt about the United States’ military involvement in the war on terror. He’d flown a C-17 transport plane for about four years, making trips to Afghanistan and Iraq, primarily doing airdrops of supplies and medical evacuations. Schaefer decided to sign up for the job flying drones so he could be with Marelize and the couple’s children. “While I really loved flying, and I loved a lot of the people I worked with,” Schaefer says, “I was discovering that being in the military as a career was probably not the path I wanted.”
One of the things that got him through what he calls that “darker time” was vinyl. Levi Sheppard, who was one of Schaefer’s fellow drone pilots, had a collection of more than 1,000 records, and Schaefer had ended up with his parents’ assortment of albums. So, when Schaefer and Sheppard weren’t working, they’d fix a drink, pull out an LP, put it on the turntable, and drop the needle. It was an escape, a respite—music as salvation.
It wasn’t the first time in Schaefer’s life that he lost himself in tunes. Schaefer was still in high school when the digital disruption that changed the music business forever settled in. And, just like so many of us, he downloaded, by his own estimation, “tons and tons of music.” He filled several hard drives with songs, more music than he could ever listen to. For years, Schaefer hauled those hard drives from one place to another, wherever the Air Force wanted him to be. Those drives contained, “in my mind,” he says, “every important album that existed.”
He also had his parents’ record collection with him, which was pretty easy to break down. Mom: pop rock from the 1960s and ’70s, like Manfred Mann. Dad: classical and jazz and opera, like Madama Butterfly. “I think there are a lot of people of my generation who did similar things—the internet and file sharing—and there was this momentary rush where you thought, Oh my gosh, I can have all the music for free,” Schaefer says. “Everyone just downloaded and downloaded, and it was almost like fast food. You have that initial hit, and then you realize, Oh, this doesn’t actually mean a whole lot. Whereas my parents’ record collection meant a great deal to me. That felt incredibly valuable.”
While he was flying drones, Schaefer was also working on his MBA through Colorado State University’s distance-learning program and was getting into social media. He persuaded his pilot buddy, Sheppard, to start a blog on Tumblr, where they’d write about records and the cocktails they drank while listening to the albums. They signed on with Amazon’s affiliate program to try to bring in a few bucks each month; the idea was to, if nothing else, pay for their vinyl habit. The blog was, appropriately, called Vinyl & Cocktails. It was February 2013.
Within a few months, Schaefer and Sheppard got an email from two guys in Chicago who liked Vinyl & Cocktails and wondered if they could partner up in some way. As it turned out, the guys in Chicago were named Barstow and Fiedler, and they had just started a record-of-the-month club called Vinyl Me, Please. Fiedler moved to Boulder in 2013 to focus on VMP, which had roughly 1,000 subscribers at the time, and Barstow moved in early 2014. That same year, Schaefer and his family moved to Louisville.
The first long-playing album, which held up to 44 minutes of music, was released by Columbia Records in 1948, around 60 years after Emile Berliner invented the 78 rpm disc. In the ensuing three-quarters of a century, little has changed in the process that goes into putting albums on vinyl.
It all starts in a studio, where an artist records music to tape, or, more likely today, to a digital file. That tape or digital file becomes known as the master. Before a professional artist distributes her music digitally, she sends her master to an engineer. That engineer fine-tunes the sound, sends it back to the artist for approval, and then, with a couple of keystrokes, the album goes out to the digital world.
Creating a record is a different process entirely. Once the artist has her music recorded, the master goes to someone like Ryan Smith, a senior mastering engineer at Sterling Sound in Nashville, who works with VMP. Smith will transfer that recorded music onto something known in the industry as a lacquer. Before that, though, the engineer does all sorts of work to optimize how the music will sound when it’s played on vinyl. Smith, for example, listens to the original tape, makes notes on each song, and then masters the album—adjusting the volume on this track, upping the bass on that track, turning the vocals down a bit on another—based on those notes.
The lacquer is a 14-inch, smooth, aluminum plate that’s coated in nitrocellulose lacquer. “I don’t even know all the chemistry, but what’s important is that it’s a relatively soft surface,” Smith says. The lacquer disc is placed on a lathe with a turntable. There’s a carriage, not unlike a typical record player, but the stylus is a cutter—typically a gem, such as a sapphire or diamond—rather than the stylus on a turntable that picks up the sound from a record.
The engineer then places the cutter on the lacquer and runs the music from the master to the lathe, and the cutter moves back and forth and up and down as it converts sound waves from the tape or digital file into vibrations that are cut into the lacquer. (“That’s why they call it ‘cutting records,’ ” Smith says.) There’s one lacquer for each side of the album. Once the lacquers are good to go, the engineer punches a hole in each disc and sends them off to the record pressing plant.
The rest of the process is what will take place at VMP’s RiNo facility. Salstrom, who has been making records since 1979, will get the lacquer, VMP hopes, in an overnight shipment. (Over time, the lacquer degrades; after a couple of weeks, it’s worthless.) The lacquer is sprayed with a thin layer of liquid silver and then dunked in a nickel bath. The latter part of the process is called electroplating, in which the nickel trickles into the grooves and bonds to the lacquer. The nickel plate is then removed and has upward ridges rather than the downward grooves of the lacquer. This is known as the father disc.
The father disc is then electroplated; when that plate is removed it has grooves like a record. This disc, known as the mother, is electroplated to make the so-called stamper discs. These are the discs that, as the name implies, will stamp the vinyl that will become a record.
Now comes the fun part. The LP sitting on your turntable starts out as a bunch of small polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pellets. The pellets are melted at 320 degrees Fahrenheit and formed into a hockey-puck-shaped biscuit, which then goes into the pressing machine. The labels are centered on the biscuit. The stamper discs sit on either side of the biscuit (Side A and Side B), and the pressing machine heats the PVC. The stampers then imprint the grooves on the vinyl—using roughly 2,000 pounds per square inch of force—and smoosh the label into the center of the record. Excess vinyl is removed, the plastic cools down, and voilà—a record is born.
As a teenager growing up in Lacey, Washington, outside of Olympia, Gary Salstrom really wanted to play the saxophone. When his high school band teacher took one look at Salstrom’s size—he was bigger than most of his classmates—the teacher declared he would play the trombone. So Salstrom played the trombone, in the jazz ensemble and the symphonic band, but the soft-spoken 64-year-old admits he just didn’t have the dedication of “the great musicians.”
A teenage Salstrom may not have been committed to the trombone, but he couldn’t put down his older sisters’ records. He’d play 45s of Joni Mitchell and the Beatles, and as he puts it, he was hooked. He’d badger his sisters to drive him into Olympia so they could go to Rainy Day Records and buy used LPs. When he couldn’t get to Olympia, he would go to a nearby mall, buy albums, and then sneak them back into his house past his dad, who thought they were a waste of money.
Salstrom didn’t set out to prove his dad wrong, but after high school, while he was enrolled in a technical college in Phoenix, he saw a job listing that piqued his interest. Wakefield Manufacturing had a part-time gig at its record pressing plant.
By then, it was 1979, and records were huge. Wakefield was a high-end outfit, and Salstrom began to learn the craft from some of the best artisans in the country. He worked near where the electroplating happened and spent time pressing the stampers. He left tech school, and within a few years, he was overseeing plating and managing the test-pressing department. Before long, he was in charge of quality control. “When I got to Phoenix and figured out I could work in a plant that makes records and actually get free records,” Salstrom says, “that was about the coolest thing I could think of.”
From roughly 1979 to 2010, Salstrom worked at two of the best record pressing plants on the planet: Wakefield and Record Technology Inc. (RTI) in Camarillo, California. Then Salstrom got a call from Chad Kassem, who wanted to start a record pressing plant in Salina, Kansas. Salstrom would get to build this plant from the ground up, and so he and his family moved to Salina so he could help launch Quality Record Pressing (QRP). It wasn’t long before the house that Salstrom helped build became a renowned pressing plant in the music business.
By 2021, demand for records had outstripped supply to the point that, late that year, the New York Times published a story titled: “Vinyl Is Selling So Well That It’s Getting Hard To Sell Vinyl.” “[T]here are worrying signs that the vinyl bonanza has exceeded the industrial capacity needed to sustain it,” the piece reads. “Production logjams and a reliance on balky, decades-old pressing machines have led to what executives say are unprecedented delays. A couple of years ago, a new record could be turned around in a few months; now it can take up to a year, wreaking havoc on artists’ release plans.” The VMP folks thought maybe it was time to buy a pressing plant, and they set up a meeting and tour of QRP as an option. After doing the math, though, they began to think, Maybe we should just build one of our own.
Schaefer and the VMP team brought Salstrom out to Denver to consult on the potential project, and they were looking at spaces when Schaefer said to Salstrom, “Hey, if we are going to press records, we want to do it at the level of QRP”—which, of course, Salstrom was in charge of at the time. “If you were running a new plant, Gary, do you think you could get it up to a point where the quality is the same as QRP?”
Salstrom turned to Schaefer and said, “I think I can do even better.” Within months, Salstrom joined Vinyl Me, Please as an equity partner and the head of the new Denver plant.
“Someone once said to me, in the vinyl realm, ‘it’ll get better, but it’ll never get easy.’ ” I was on the phone with Ben Blackwell one day this winter, and he was describing the myriad things that can go wrong at a record pressing plant. Blackwell is a drummer; he’s also a lover of vinyl, the White Stripes’ archivist, and supervises day-to-day operations of Jack White’s Third Man Records, which has a pressing plant in Detroit. Blackwell, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, likes to talk. “Shit, they’ve got Gary Salstrom there, and so maybe there’s less for them to figure out,” he says. “I hope so, for their sake. Because it’s not like, ‘All right, we’ve got the presses, all the water lines are hooked up, press the button—everything’s good to go, let’s start printing money.’ ”
VMP’s Kylberg says the company doesn’t need its own record pressing plant to make money; its current revenue comes from subscribers (60 percent) and from nonsubscribers who buy one-off LPs and merch from VMP’s online shop (40 percent). (Although co-founders Barstow and Fiedler don’t work at VMP anymore, both are still major shareholders, and Fiedler is the chair of the board of directors.) Instead, the impetus for the plant came when it became clear that the capacity at the facilities VMP was contracting with to press new records couldn’t keep up with the demand for vinyl.
The stories of artists having to wait for their records to be pressed because of the lack of pressing capacity were, and still are, legion, with even A-listers having to wait months—or up to a year—to get their LPs made. For VMP, the potential of not getting albums to their subscribers on time was existential—after all, how can you have a record-of-the-month club if you don’t have records? “For years, there had been underinvestment in the industry,” Schaefer says. “I think a lot of people kind of had PTSD from when vinyl almost died in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and they were really slow to trust that this vinyl comeback was more than just a fad. People were reluctant to put money into building new plants and buying new machines, even as the demand kept growing.”
At around the same time VMP started moving forward with its plans to open a pressing plant, recording artist David Rawlings learned that QRP would no longer be able to make his and Gillian Welch’s records. Despite taking home two Grammy Awards—and gaining name recognition for tunes they sang for O Brother, Where Art Thou?—Rawlings said QRP explained it didn’t have enough capacity to make records for such relatively niche artists.
Fortunately for Rawlings, he had worked with Salstrom on records for four or five years at QRP, and once the former learned the latter would be in charge of the RiNo pressing plant, Rawlings wanted in. “As soon as I spoke with Cam, I understood his philosophy and realized that everyone involved would do a great job,” Rawlings says. “It’s very much aligned with how I like things to happen. This plant is going to be scaled where the quality can always be the most important thing. We’re not going to try to make so many records that we would have to lower the quality in order to find customers.”
Roughly 80 percent of the plant’s capacity—one-and-a-half to two million units per year—will be taken up by records produced for VMP’s offerings; the other 20 percent will be reserved for partners, one of which is the artist management firm Q Prime. Another is Rawlings, who’s managed by Q Prime and is an unabashed believer in the transcendence of records. “You know,” he says, “the thing about records is they just kind of give people more of what’s there, more of the humanity.”
I told Rawlings a quick story that, at least in the moment, felt related. When I visited the site of the pressing plant in late January, Schaefer gave me a copy of a VMP pressing of the Grateful Dead’s 1968 album Anthem of the Sun. I had to laugh to myself when he handed me the colorful, psychedelic LP jacket. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, the home of the Dead. I went to college at the University of California, Berkeley. And I have never liked the Grateful Dead.
When I got home, I pulled out the tie-dyed tangerine disc, placed it on my turntable, cranked the volume, and dropped the needle. “The sound that came out of the speakers was just magnificent,” I said to Rawlings. “I don’t know any other way to put it.” Then I told him that listening to that record didn’t make me a Grateful Dead fan, but it did give me a different appreciation for the band, a sense of the effort and care and passion that went into making its art.
“I mean, it’s closer to the music being made in front of you,” Rawlings says. “It’s more of a direct line, you know?”
Yes. Yes, I did.
On a day that didn’t even reach 20 degrees Fahrenheit in late February, I met Schaefer and Salstrom at Schaefer’s house in Louisville. Over the previous few weeks, we had talked a lot about vinyl and music and the process of record-making, but we hadn’t actually listened to records together. Schaefer, of course, has a massive library of vinyl at his ranch-style home. Salstrom brought several albums, some of which he’d actually made. I had a few of my favorites in tow, too.
It’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again: The experience of listening to records is much different than streaming songs through your iPhone. There are the jackets, which have big, beautiful art; there’s the handling of the sleeves and carefully sliding the LP into your fingertips and palm; there’s the cleaning of the record and the crackle of the needle hitting the vinyl, which to this day is anticipatory and intoxicating for me.
We started with one of my recent acquisitions: a used, fourth pressing of the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1993 album Siamese Dream that I’d recently purchased at the Rocky Mountain Record Show in Denver, which happened to be sponsored by VMP. Both Salstrom and Schaefer said the record, which is roughly two decades old, had great sound. I told them I wasn’t sure it met my expectations, but then they laid some audiophile knowledge on me: Billy Corgan’s layered, distorted guitars don’t necessarily highlight vinyl’s strengths.
For the next two hours, we took turns playing songs. Salstrom brought a record by Steve Tibbitts that Salstrom pressed at Wakefield close to 20 years earlier; it sounded as if Tibbitts were playing his guitar in the same room with us. Schaefer played a VMP pressing of an album by Darkside, a New York City–based electronic band, that was sharp and bright and demanded our attention. We listened to a VMP pressing of King Curtis performing live in San Francisco and couldn’t help but move with the grooves. We heard the primal rumble of the bass line in Massive Attack’s “Angel.” And we played a David Rawlings album, All the Good Times (Are Past & Gone), that Salstrom had pressed. Again, there was that intimacy—the clarity of sound and warmth that only really comes from vinyl.
I got the last spin on the turntable and picked Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, Salstrom told me he’d pressed when he was at RTI in California. My copy is purple vinyl. Schaefer asked if there was a song I wanted to play, and I told him that I love the band’s cover of the Meat Puppets’ “Plateau.” It’s a haunting piece, one that I’ve listened to over and over and over. Schaefer dropped the needle, and there was Kurt Cobain pushing into the upper reaches of his vocal range; Dave Grohl, somehow playing the drums quietly; Curt and Cris Kirkwood strumming the guitars; and Krist Novoselic playing the bass line that he’d apparently learned just the night before.
The song’s outro features a beautiful, swirling, two-part arpeggiated guitar line. A few bars in, Cobain starts humming a descending melody along with the guitars, and I couldn’t help but think of something Rawlings had said to me when we’d talked about listening to records. “There’s something about the way that process works when you put on a record and it’s played with a needle,” he said. “There’s a magic to that that you’re not getting any other way.”