Vince Slusarz collected vinyl records for much of his life. But when he saw his oldest daughter, Emily, take an interest in what some had perceived as a dying format, the entrepreneur embarked on a venture to combine two of Cleveland's greatest assets: music and manufacturing.
Slusarz's record manufacturing plant, Gotta Groove Records, is just 2 years old, but this year the company is poised to turn its first profit since it started running its presses in 2009.
The survival of vinyl records first had been threatened by the introduction of compact discs in the 1980s and squeezed further by the rise of digital music files in the 1990s and 2000s. However, judging by the success of Slusarz's venture and rising vinyl sales, consumers appear to be migrating back toward the black circle.
Recently featured in the New York Times Magazine, Slusarz's small, 13-employee company has become a gentle reminder to the community that manufacturing still holds a place in northeast Ohio even after many of the steel mills closed and the rubber factories left the area.
That's what Slusarz, a licensed attorney and manufacturing veteran himself, wanted from the beginning.
“I just really wanted to start a business, and I had a strong desire to do something in manufacturing in the city,” said Slusarz, who estimates his vinyl record plant is one of about 20-25 left in the world.
Nestled in about 7,000 square feet in the old Tyler Elevator factory off Superior Avenue in Cleveland's Tyler Village, the smell of melting wax and the hum of well-oiled machinery permeates Slusarz's office off the plant's main floor. Gotta Groove's employees, many of whom are musicians themselves, are intimately invested in their work.
It's certainly a change of scenery for the 55-year-old Slusarz, who had spent 24 years at Newbury-based Kinetico Inc., ultimately serving as chief operating officer for the producer of water treatment systems. However, he said the prospect of manufacturing a product so many consumers and musicians hold dear is something to behold.
“Some of that is the desire to have that tactile experience of a vinyl record,” Slusarz said. “Vinyl clearly holds much more intrinsic value than other formats.”
Turning up the volume
Though they still comprise a small portion of overall music sales, vinyl record sales for the first six months of the year sat at about 1.9 million — a 41 percent increase over the like period in 2010, according to Nielsen SoundScan's midyear report on U.S. music sales.
Slusarz said he believes vinyl sales are much higher because his company prints hundreds of records without bar codes, thus making them unable to track.
Many of the big-box retailers — Best Buy, for one — have downsized their CD inventories considerably in recent years as digital music sales through Amazon.com or Apple's iTunes (as well as illegal downloads) continue to gobble up much of the market for recorded music.
However, independent record stores have capitalized on the renewed interest in vinyl, and many say their LP sales make up the bulk or a growing part of their business. Many of the region's record stores carry new vinyl selections in addition to heavy inventories of used LPs.
Melanie Hershberger, a co-owner of Music Saves, said her record store on Cleveland's east side sells twice as much vinyl as it does CDs. In the last few years, she said, record labels have begun pressing more vinyl and reissuing old releases in LP form. Longtime customers of the store, she noted, slowly are converting from CDs to vinyl.
“Independent stores are the ones more and more carrying and selling vinyl, and that is definitely a contributing factor to our survival,” Hershberger said. “If this continues in the direction it's going, record stores will again be vinyl only, which is an interesting cycle.”
Likewise, Dave Ignizio, a co-owner of Square Records in Akron's Highland Square, said vinyl makes up about 50 percent of his store's business, with that number inching up toward 60 percent.
“People, for some reason, feel like the vinyl is more important than a CD because they want that artifact and there's something inherently special about the vinyl — larger cover art, some say the sound,” Ignizio said.
The human touch
As Slusarz walked around his plant, he described the delicate process of manufacturing a record like an industry veteran.
He admittedly knew little about the business when he bought his first presses from the shuttering Sun Plastics Co. pressing plant in East Newark, N.J. But by talking with others in the industry, he got up to speed on the intricacies of pressing an album.
It's a more detailed process than the printing of CDs — every 25th pressing of each record is listened to for quality and humans man the controls. The company's first run of 100 records in 2009 took about two weeks to complete. Now, the company moves as many as 20,000 units in that time frame.
Slusarz said everything about a vinyl record is a personal experience. The manufacturing of the record is a hands-on process, the purchase of a record requires walking into a record store, and listening to a record requires more effort than turning on an iPod.
But, that's half the charm.
“With your cell phone and text messaging and everything else, you still have to sit down and listen to a vinyl record,” he said. “As the younger generation embraces digital downloads, there's still that group that wants to own something physical.”