Both Chad Kassem and the vinyl records he sells are making an unexpected comeback from near oblivion.
Kassem, who is Cajun, started as an unwilling transplant to Kansas from Louisiana. He now spends his days behind a messy desk covered with stacks of LPs thinking about how to extend his unlikely music empire based on an obsolete technology.
His Acoustic Sounds and its several subsidiaries employ 90 people spread over three buildings in the city’s industrial north end.
He has businesses that press new vinyl records, make and distribute high-quality digital downloads, buy and sell old records, and buy and sell audio equipment. He even has a recording studio in an old church downtown.
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He owns a record factory, Quality Record Pressings, at a time when vinyl is again a hot thing in music after nearly disappearing in the early 1990s. Through the first 11 months of 2014, 8 million vinyl records were sold, a 49 percent increase over the year before, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
As a result, demand is red hot for time at his plant. He put a second shift at his record-making company, Quality Record Pressings, this summer and company makes 6,000 albums a day. He expects to put on a third shift in the next few months. He has to tell record companies they have to wait to get their product on his presses.
“The whole industry is months and months behind,” he said.
The reason for the revival is simple, he said: People love the sound of vinyl.
The analog sound is warmer, fuller, richer than what’s delivered by the mass market compact discs.
He’s married to the sound, not necessarily the technology. In the last year, he also launched a digital download service, Super HiRez digital, that provides the same high quality sound in digital that it does in analog. It produces reissues under its Analogue Productions label and its new music under APO Records label.
Earlier this month, Kassem was in Los Angeles to receive the Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society’s 21st annual Founders Award for extraordinary contributions to audiophiles worldwide.
To some extent the vinyl revival is a luxury niche, like curated adventure travel or Rolex watches. The new records, heavy at 180-200 grams with beautifully laid out art and liner notes, cost in the range of $30 to $50. It’s easy to spend a few thousand dollars a year on vinyl. Audiophiles, the people who really love the music, are willing to pay for it.
The company’s main demographic is upper-income middle-aged white men, said David Clouston, the company’s communications associate.
Some can even afford the $30,000 turntables sold in the company’s catalog.
“The people who spend that kind of money tend to set up listening rooms in their homes – I hate to say 1 percent, but yeah,” Clouston said.
But it’s not about money, it’s about the music.
“I’m really no different from the guys who buy records from me,” he said. “What’s fun is to come in and hear my favorite music. Reissue an album and hear it sounding better than it’s ever sounded before.”
A visit to Acoustic Sounds can be a startling experience because the staff here are touching, even tweaking, some of the most emblematic music of the last 70 years.
Earlier this month, a visit through the pressing room revealed Neil Young’s new solo “Storytone” on a couple of the record-pressing machines, and reissues of Bob Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home” and the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ Safari” on other machines.
The reissues start with the original masters, hidden away in vaults in Los Angeles or New York. A master engineer recuts a first copy, called a “lacquer,” which is delivered overnight to Salina. He has a crew that handles the high-skilled work of making stampers, the dies that put the grooves on the vinyl.
Production workers coat the “lacquer” with silver and then a nickel alloy. That is used to create a second copy, “the mother,” which is used to create “stampers,” the dies used to stamp the grooves on the hot vinyl.
The result of this reprocessing can be pretty impressive.
He and his staff played Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home to Me” in the company’s listening room. The original featured Cooke’s soulful voice, but the vocal edges were ragged and the sound a little muddy as if coming from the next room – caused by time and the limitations of a 1960s-era mass market disc. The company’s reissued version, taken from the original master and reproduced on high quality vinyl, is clearly the same song, but considerably cleaner and brighter. Sam Cooke’s voice had moved into the same room as the listener.
“Sometimes we blow them away, sometimes it’s just a little bit better,” Kassem said.
In the graphics department, workers were cleaning up the original photos of those Beach Boys covers where Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine are frolicking on a beach. The designers work with the studios to get the original photos or, sometimes, to create their own designs if it’s something like a boxed set.
The company also retains it longtime business of buying and selling records. The company now has nearly 100,000 records in the company headquarters and in its climate-controlled warehouse.
His best decision
Kassem’s big corner office is messy, his desk piled high with records and CDs that he is in the midst of evaluating.
Next to his desk sits a turntable. On the floor in front of his desk are more stacks of records and beyond those, a couple of large speakers directed at his chair, making it the room’s “sweet spot.”
It wasn’t very obvious in 1984 that Kassem was headed for success.
He grew up in Cajun country, Lafayette, La., and even after 30 years in Kansas, he still has a Cajun accent.
He freely acknowledges that he partied, drank and smoked pot heavily in his teen years, barely graduating high school. By age 21, he faced a judge and a choice: jail time or a drug treatment/halfway house in Salina.
Coming to Kansas was the best thing that ever happened, he said.
After seven months, his brain finally cleared, and he started to see the world a little more clearly. He remained in Salina, at first, because Kansas had a law that allowed him to cut his probation if he stayed sober. He also realized that going back to Louisiana would probably mean going back to his old ways.
As he killed time waiting, he continued his business of buying and selling records. By 1985, he was living in a small apartment, and he placed an ad in the back of Audio Magazine.
His business took off. By 1990, he said, he was doing $100,000 a month in record sales out of his house. City inspectors came down on him.
“I don’t think they minded the UPS trucks coming to the house every day, but when the 18-wheelers started coming ... ,” he said.
He’s moved the business five times since then, and every time he moves, he thinks he’s arrived and will never have to move again. But he’s an entrepreneur, always looking for new or complementary niches.
He took major financial risks in opening the pressing plant in 2011 and the digital download business last year.
Next year, he plans to open a printing plant for labels and add more vinyl pressing machines.
“I could never have imagined you can do what you love for a living,” he said.
He’s still torn by his Cajun heart and his Midwestern head. He still loves Louisiana, its culture and its fun-loving attitude. But he’s stayed in Salina because, he says, Kansans are hard-working, modest and conscientious. It’s a good place to build a business, he said.
Plus, he’s trying to prove a point.
After he completed his probation in Kansas, his probation officer wrote a letter to officials in Louisiana. The result: Louisiana then-Gov. Edwin Edwards actually issued Kassem a full pardon.
His life, to some extent, is a validation of that gesture. He’s stayed in Salina, stayed out of trouble, built a solid business that employs a lot of people.
Kassem is still kind of emotional about it.
“They didn’t waste their pardon,” he said.