Editor’s note: Any creative endeavor goes through twists and turns that unfortunately leaves certain elements on the cutting-room floor. In the case of Record Store Day: The Most Improbable Comeback of the 21st Century, the final left behind the story of how Making Vinyl came to be.
By Larry Jaffee
“I think that making vinyl is a big part of the future of music as an art form and as a vibrant business.” — Michael Kurtz, Making Vinyl 2018 program guide
Two-and-a-half years after Record Store Day co-founder Michael Kurtz and I first met in 2015, Michael helped me and my Making Vinyl co-founder Bryan Ekus launch our B2B conference celebrating the global rebirth of new vinyl manufacturing, an activity I kind of doubt would have happened without RSD brilliantly capturing consumers’ fancy, which, in turn, reinvigorated the entire vinyl food chain.
I originally pitched Bryan the vinyl conference idea in June 2013. We had worked together on several conferences about physical media, including the previous year in Las Vegas when Bryan headed an organization called the Media-Tech Association, whose mostly European members represented equipment manufacturers for optical media (i.e., CDs and DVDs) production and replicators.
In January 1998 I started a new job as editor-in-chief of what was known as Replication News.
I almost didn’t take the position because of the publication’s name and outdated tabloid design. It was the kind of trade publication that comedian Rich Hall made fun of on Onion World (1990-1991) on the Comedy Channel .
I attended my first “Replitech” convention in Utrecht, Holland, a month after I started the job. As I walked through the massive, noisy convention center with my journalist friend Matthew Rose, an expat living in Paris, he casually quipped, “Didn’t you tell them that you were interested in the other heavy metal.’” Thankfully within a few years the trade magazine’s name changed to the more palatable Medialine, undergoing a modern design and format. Among my responsibilities was programming and running our annual DVD conference in Los Angeles, and I recruited as keynoters and hung out with Hollywood luminaries like Billy Bob Thornton, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Evans, and Jon Favreau. It was the closest I ever had to a full-time job in the entertainment business, albeit covering the back-office functions. Periodically we would run a special vinyl section. I was able to take other creative liberties, such as interviewing Lou Reed – after 25 years of trying – and putting him on the Medialine cover in 2003.
Large Pressing Plant Session: © Making Vinyl Photo Doug Coombe
Two years earlier, a renegade group of Replitech exhibitors staged a coup, complaining about the high rates they were being charged by the publishing company, a rival of the company for whom I worked. Bryan Ekus was their spokesman, and they soon formed the Media-Tech Association, which soon mounted their own conventions that eventually killed Replitech.
The same post-Napster market forces (e.g., Apple Computer’s iTunes downloads) that threatened independent record stores selling mostly CDs telegraphed the replication industry’s fate. All good things usually come to an end, and I left Medialine at the end of 2005, and the publication was killed the next year by its new owner. I then worked on Media-Tech events and newsletters for the next few years. In March 2012, I remember having a drink in a Las Vegas hotel cocktail bar in March 2012 with a featured Media-Tech speaker I recruited. I casually mentioned that I had recently sold most of my vinyl collection. “YOU DID WHAT!?!” was his response.
In June 2013, veteran media designer Spencer Drate forwarded me a British-published PDF of a magazine about the vinyl comeback. It was so well done that I forwarded it to Bryan, and said, ‘Hey, we should think about doing a vinyl conference.’” Bryan wasn’t convinced, thinking it was probably too much too soon. In 2014, he became executive director of the Colonial Purchasing Cooperative, an organization that procured raw materials at volume discounts for replicators. For the next few years, I produced Colonial’s quarterly newsletter, and included articles whenever I could about the vinyl comeback. Several Colonial members also were vinyl brokers; Rainbo in Santa Monica, Calif., manufactured vinyl, CDs and DVDs.
(l-r): Bryan Ekus, Making Vinyl & Steve Sheldon, Rainbo Records © Making Vinyl Photo Doug Coombe
In May 2016, both RSD and Colonial co-located their conferences at MusicBiz’s massive convention in Nashville. I left the Colonial meeting to cover RSD’s “Town Hall” and a MusicBiz vinyl panel session, providing information that helped me land an article assignment about the vinyl revival. On the trip, I visited Jack White’s Third Man Records store and received a Colonial-arranged tour of United Record Pressing.
Fast-forward to February 2017, Third Man Pressing opens in Detroit. During that month, Kurtz and I had breakfast at a diner on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, just talking about stuff. In April, Bryan asked me to put together a PowerPoint presentation about the vinyl comeback for a May Media-Tech event in Germany. Apparently the content was well received because in June he decided it was time for us to act on my idea for a vinyl convention, which I dubbed “Making Vinyl.”
On June 11, Bryan Ekus took me, Michael and Rainbo’s Steve Sheldon for dinner at Gallagher’s, a midtown steakhouse to discuss launching a vinyl manufacturing event that fall. Before the dinner, I stressed to Bryan that we needed the Record Store Day seal of approval for Making Vinyl to gain credibility in the vinyl world because he and I were more associated with optical disc production, despite my label contacts as a freelance music industry writer. Michael saw the synergy for RSD to align itself with Making Vinyl on the ground floor as a conference partner.
Michael had not previously met Steve, even though scores of records released had been pressed by Rainbo, which sadly closed in January 2020 after eighty years of being business, due to the landlord no longer wanting a manufacturer in the building. The high cost of doing business in California made it prohibitively expensive moving the factory elsewhere, concluded Sheldon, whose old office was used as a set for actor Paul Giammati in the movie Straight Outta Compton about the rap group N.W.A.
Over the next two hours at the restaurant, we sketched out the event, which would be produced by Colonial. It took almost six weeks before the Colonial and Record Store Day boards signed off on the convention. I started working on the event’s conference program, and figuring out its theme. Bryan’s role was handling the hotel costs and logistics. Nashville was his first choice for the inaugural Making Vinyl for being centrally located in the U.S. But the country music capital’s hotels turned out to be out of price range. “Detroit is better,” I told Bryan, who grew up there. “Jack White (my first choice for keynoter) just opened his factory there. Maybe they’ll arrange tours.”
Jack White Endorses Making Vinyl Concept
Steve connected us with Ben Blackwell, who runs the Third Man Records label and brought the Making Vinyl concept to Jack White’s attention. As Third Man Pressing was planning its facility, “Ben and his engineering guy” visited Rainbo, Sheldon remembers.
“ think most of the help they received was from United because they were in United’s plant constantly. But if they had questions, Ben would call. I’ve always been very helpful to competitors. I always felt there was plenty [business] to go around. I was always very helpful to competitors.”
(l-r): Ben Blackwell & Jack White © Making Vinyl Photo Doug Coombe
On July 31, 2017, Bryan and I receive an email from Ben, who wrote:
Nice to make your acquaintance Bryan and Larry. As for sponsorship, let me know what that involves, if there are different levels of commitment or whatever, and I can run it up the flagpole here. As for Jack giving a keynote, it’s not completely out of the question, but if you can give me some sort of pitch that is more “official” looking and descriptive, that will be much more likely for me to receive a positive response from him. As for a panel, yes, I would be happy to speak wherever. Steve ran down a list of different ones that were running and I think maybe one of our folks on the ground in Detroit may be better suited for that one, are there any other spots looking to be filled in regards to panels? Do you have a rough list of those at hand? And yes, absolutely, we can host a tour for attendees no problem. Do you have insight into how many folks you are anticipating that to be? happy to schedule a conference call this week … just let me know and we can accommodate. This sounds really, really cool. Excited to help make it happen!
The conference call the next week with Ben went well. On Aug. 9, 2017, I was on vacation in Toronto with my college-age kids to celebrate son Jake’s 23rd birthday. Earlier in the day, Bryan texted me the Making Vinyl logo. I think to myself, “This is really happening.” Making Vinyl was locked in at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit for Nov. 6-7, 2017. We’re at the Yankees-Blue Jays game at the Rogers Centre when my phone pings with an email from Ben:
Jack responded very favorably to all of this. He’s leaning towards wanting to participate. Sometimes he can be difficult in regards to giving the full on “commit” so lemme know how/when we need this 100% locked-in by and I’ll put the work in to make it happen.
Bryan and I agree to ask for the end of August, so we’d have adequate time to promote Jack’s participation. As it turned out, Jack didn’t commit until three weeks before the event on Nov. 6-7, 2017. We were horrified to learn about an online music publication reporting on Aug. 16, 2017, that Jack White was going to keynote Making Vinyl. We were concerned that Jack or Ben would think that we leaked it without a done deal. I asked the publication’s editor responsible for the article for a retraction. He somehow received a draft of my conference outline, marked “For Your Eyes Only,” and sent to a select few. Who leaked it remains a mystery. The news outlet on Aug. 21 finally revised the article that Jack hadn’t been confirmed. Luckily Ben nor other Third Man Pressing executives with whom we worked closely on the tour logistics and panel participation ever brought it up. Thankfully, the story turned out true. The rest of the program – which was my job – filled in nicely, and on the big day we had a fairly good representation of the movers and shakers of today’s vinyl industry filling the Westin ballroom with a final attendee count of 292.
‘Make Something Beautiful’
Two minutes before Jack and Ben were to hit the stage at 4:28 pm, I learned that I’m introducing them. With no prepared remarks, I start spouting out everything I know about Jack, “Who else but Jack White would shoot up a record into space, carve grooves into the paper label and make it play, record two songs before an audience and have a quantity of the single for sale in less than four hours?” I was running out of material, and I could see Ben and Jack with big grins on their faces. They took pity on me and they took their seats on the stage. The main takeaway for me after 45 minutes of them talking about growing up with vinyl in Detroit, starting Third Man Records and then Third Man Pressing was Jack’s directive to the audience: “Make something beautiful.”
After they were done speaking and attendees broke for cocktails, I learned Jack made a special trip from Los Angeles to Detroit to be at Making Vinyl. The planets lined up for us.
“Sometimes stuff lands on my desk,” Blackwell reflects in a phone call four years later. “Rather than get bogged down with his manager, I can just talk to Jack and just say, ‘Hey, man, do you want to do this thing?’ That’s how we did Making Vinyl. Totally. We didn’t go through management at all.”
With two decades of experience producing media-oriented conferences with celebrities, I can honestly say that the first MV event was one of the highlights of my career and life. Among our backstage guests were Jack’s mom and other members of his family. With some alone time with Jack, I mentioned that my kids thought it was so cool I was meeting him. He asks about their ages. Twenty-three and nineteen, at the time. “You look too young for kids that age.” What a sweet thing to hear from one of music’s true geniuses.
Keynoting the second day was Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, of the groundbreaking rap group RUN-DMC, who explained how he owed his career to vinyl. The following year Making Vinyl returned to Detroit with keynoter “Little Steven” Van Zandt, who I initially reached via Twitter. More importantly, the program featured another seven new pressing plants sharing their startup stories. After four in-person events presented in conjunction with RSD and another virtual this December, Making Vinyl proved, if you build it, they will come – the same philosophy that the RSD co-founders summoned back in September 2007.
(l-r):Larry Jaffee, Jack White, & Bryan Ekus © Making Vinyl Photo Doug Coombe