Vinyl Frontier 

Gotta Groove Records puts a new spin on the local music scene

You wouldn't guess from the black Beachland Ballroom T-shirt, featuring an illustration by Cleveland cartoonist Derf, but Vince Slusarz was a corporate bigwig not so long ago. For almost 25 years, Slusarz worked for Newbury-based Kinetico Incorporated, a plastics-manufacturing company. He liked his job as chief operations officer. But after the company was sold in 2006, a new CEO came in, eventually eliminating his position. Unemployed at 51, Slusarz suddenly had lots of time for soul-searching.

"I had to ask myself, 'What do I want to do with my life,'" he says. "I could go work for someone else, but that didn't appeal to me. I'd always wanted to start a business. I did go through the whole 'What do you like?' thing. I like beer, but there are too many people making beer. I looked at restaurants, but that seemed like a tough business."

A muse appeared in the form of a new turntable. He bought one for himself and gave his old one to his 19-year-old daughter, who told him that all her friends were buying turntables with USB ports so that they could download music onto their computers. That got him thinking. Pressing records, he figured, wouldn't be a huge departure from his plastics-manufacturing experience.

When his friends Mark Leddy and Cindy Barber, co-owners of the Beachland Ballroom, heard about his interest in starting a record-pressing operation, they were enthusiastic and encouraging. Exit Stencil, a studio and record label just down the block from the Collinwood club, was looking to start pressing titles on vinyl, and Music Saves, an indie record shop next door, regularly stocked new vinyl. (A used-record shop, Blue Arrow, is also located near the club).

In July 2008, Slusarz visited Musicol Recording in Columbus. He liked what he saw, but the owners weren't interested in selling their equipment. Next, he sent e-mails to four other plants. One said no and two didn't respond. But the owners of Dynamic Assets in New Jersey replied and said they were thinking about selling.

"It was pure serendipity," says Slusarz. "If it had been a month earlier or later, I would have missed the opportunity."

He flew to New Jersey and checked out the plant. He then put together a business plan, made an offer and closed the deal. Then came the hard part — moving the business here, to an old warehouse near Superior.

"I wanted to do it in Cleveland," he says. "I was born in Cleveland, and I think it's important to do things in the city." The relocation required six flatbed semis and a veritable fleet of lifts and tools designed for moving big machinery. The whole operation took about three months to get up and running.

Slusarz recruited his friend Dan Greathouse, who had worked in molding at Kinetico, to help get the heavy equipment working. "He loves machinery and is turned on by the whole thing," says Slusarz. "If he hadn't been on board, I probably wouldn't have done it."

Gotta Grove Records pressed its first album in late August: a Freedom/Deathers split 12-inch for the local bands' CD-release party.

SLUSARZ VISITED six different plants to see how other operations run. He's also learned that it's "a small, close-knit business."

Perhaps that's because pressing vinyl is an art form. The process requires precision: Raw vinyl goes into a hopper, where it's melted down to the size of a hockey puck. The labels are baked on and a press makes the record, slides it back and trims it. The machines Slusarz bought will produce 700 to 800 albums a day. The two seven-inch vinyl machines are rusted and corroded and haven't run in years, but Slusarz plans to convert a 12-inch machine to cut seven-inches, something he hopes to have sorted out before the year's end.

His timing couldn't be better. Unlike CD sales, vinyl has steadily risen over the past decade. According to Nielsen SoundScan figures, year-to-date vinyl sales for 2009 stand at 2 million — a 37 percent increase over last year's. While CD sales continue to plummet, vinyl sales might just save what's left of the music business.

"Vinyl has come a long way from the period in the '90s when it was a format that was almost exclusively used by underground rock bands and DJ-oriented genres," says Billboard's Glenn Peoples. "Many years passed when most artists — especially mainstream artists — did not have vinyl releases. Though it gained momentum toward the end of the decade, it wasn't until the mid-2000s, when new releases of all stripes were being released on vinyl, when it was seen as a purer way to experience music in an era of near-ubiquitous digital music. Labels started offering MP3 downloads with vinyl purchases, thus creating a great digital-physical combination. Today, consumers can find vinyl in both mass merchants and the usual independent stores."

Matt Earley, a music-industry veteran based in Columbus, agrees. He was looking to buy a pressing plant at the same time as Slusarz. But after learning he'd been beaten to the punch, he tracked Slusarz down. Earley is handling Gotta Groove's graphics and artwork. He thinks that CDs were doomed from the start.

"The jewel case was never a sexy package," he says. "Records are like a piece of art. In particular, there's a younger generation that's rediscovering them. When I go in the store on my street, the owner is always telling me that it's the younger customers who are buying the vinyl and the older ones who are buying the CDs, which is completely ass-backwards. Albums have a sense of value that CDs don't."

Earley says there's always been "a select group" that goes for the sound quality. But he doesn't think they're the ones fueling the resurgence.

"In the past two years, we've really noticed tremendous growth, and part of that is because the labels are doing less licensing and now putting their own vinyl out," he says. "A few years ago, they didn't even put out everything on vinyl. Now, the vinyl sometimes comes out before the CD. Animal Collective put their last record out first on vinyl and then put it out on CD."

At indie record shops like My Mind's Eye in Lakewood, you'll find more vinyl releases than CDs. In fact, some indie bands are releasing their albums on vinyl only and including download cards so you can get digital copies for your computer and portable players. For independent bands, pressing on vinyl is essential, even if it is more costly than CDs.

"When I see bands touring with CDs, I just want to ask what they're doing," says Ken Janssen, who plays in the local rock act the Hot Rails and handles some of the Beachland's booking. "Nobody cares about [CDs]. They're coasters. There was a local band that played the Beachland and was charging $12 for their CD. Even FYE knows that's a bad idea. Vinyl is the way to go. You got the download codes on there, and people just want something to hold. Vinyl is way better. I think Gotta Groove is going to do really well from the beginning."

So far, local bands have gravitated to the plant. Drummer, the band featuring the Black Keys' Patrick Carney, enlisted Gotta Groove to print the vinyl version of its debut album. Local singer-songwriter Sloth did a limited, 100-copy pressing of his experimental Messages in Samsara through Gotta Groove, packaging it in a hand-painted cover as well.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum president Terry Stewart is hoping the museum can collaborate with Gotta Groove too.

"I think it's exciting for a city that has such a long musical legacy," says Stewart, who estimates his vinyl collection is "about a half million" and includes the first album he ever bought in 1948. "The fact that we now have one of the few vinyl pressing plants in America and it's right across the street from Ante Up Audio, a state-of-the- art recording studio, gives a certain cache to Cleveland. The museum is hoping to do something and start a Rock Hall label. A lot of our inductees and legacy artists don't have labels anymore, and it'd be great if, while they were in town, they could cut two sides, because I'd really want to do 45s. I have to put together a business plan. It's all pie in the sky stuff at this point."

THERE HAVE BEEN OBSTACLES,of course. Recently, Slusarz and Greathouse had to contend with a burst water pipe that nearly wiped out all their progress. In the boiler room, you can still see the gaping hole in the floor where the burst pipe shot up a geyser. "We heard someone say water was coming off the roof," says Slusarz. "The water main broke and lifted concrete and the boiler up; the amount of pressure was huge. Water shot up through the roof and while it's been repaired, it set us back about a week."

Another challenge was much more specific to the industry.

While Slusarz has had to farm some jobs out of the shop, he hopes eventually to do everything in-house and has signed a contract with Clint Holley, a local singer-songwriter and soundman, to do his vinyl mastering. For this process, the audio is cut onto a lacquer plate using a specialized machine called a mastering lathe. The lathe takes the electrical energy of the digital or analog recording and turns it back into mechanical energy as a needle cuts a groove into a record, which is then sent to a stamper.

Because only 700 lathes were ever made, the last in 1984, Holley had to do some research before he found a guy who would make him one ­— 82-year-old Albert Grundy, who lives on Long Island. Holley put up $30,000 to have the tool made.

"This is something you can't do in your basement," says Holley. "I think it's cool that we can look beyond Cleveland and bring attention to the city in terms of the music. I think [Gotta Groove] lets Cleveland be on the map, especially since there are only 11 plants in the country still doing this. Vinyl is coming back because of the uncertainty of what the next format will be. I tell people that when you buy an MP3 online, it has zero value. There will never be a used MP3 store. Kids are finding out the artwork has an aesthetic to it and there's a certain quality about playing a record."

Slusarz is hoping that's the case.

"As I looked at this business, I thought it's a lot of capital and risk, but right now, it's still a growing segment of the market," he says. "And it's survived all these formats and all these years. If you think about it, you go, 'OK. I want something physical that represents music.' What are you going to turn to?"

"It will be interesting to see how it all unfolds," he admits. "We've gotten some interest from major labels simply because things are so busy. [Other vinyl plants are] backed up by two months. So if you order something today, you'll be lucky to get it two months from now. We're not in that situation. What we're hoping to do with our manufacturing background — and I'm sure it won't be easy — is put a process into place that gets records out quicker than that and still satisfies customers. Our goal is to be a quality shop. Not just in terms of the record itself but in terms of the service that customers get."

That much, at least, is the same as it was in his former gig as a plastics executive. This new venture is just a lot cooler.

"I have some gas left in the tank," he says. "If I don't do it now, I might never do it. It's a unique opportunity. It's something I love. It's worth a shot. Let's see what happens."


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