“We didn't get into this to get rich, and we didn't get into this to turn ourselves into a behemoth - the idea of being a behemoth is a bit tiring."
The opening of Brisbane’s first vinyl pressing plant in decades has bands and fans of the old-school format pumped. Neil and Kathy Wilson from Suitcase Records tell The Music ahead of its launch that the leap of faith has been worth it.
“People are just drawn to it,” Kathy tells. “It’s the act of physically taking it out of the sleeve and putting it on the player. And you can’t skip through it as easily as you can with a CD or your music library; listening to music that way means you never actually stop and listen to a whole album.
“Whereas with a record, you put it on, you listen to it. And then when it's finished, you turn it over and listen to the other side then carefully put it away. It’s a tangible and tactile experience.”
These intimate but instantly relatable musings are partly what inspired the Brisbane couple on the path to opening the plant, making it one of only three operating in Australia.
Suitcase Records, based at Pinkenba on Brisbane’s north side, joins a small but burgeoning resurgence in vinyl manufacturing worldwide.
In 2012, $800,000 worth of vinyl was sold in Australia. In 2020, that figure reached almost $30 million.
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In 2020, sales of vinyl records outstripped CDs for the first time in decades, but limited production capacity in Australia has meant long lead times for artists wanting to press vinyl.
Enter Neil and Kathy, whose previous careers in construction and content production were seemingly worlds away from their new venture. But their respective business acumen and passion for not just music but the revived mode of celebrating and listening to music that is vinyl records saw them take a leap of faith in 2021 when they officially opened Suitcase Records.
“I’ve been in architecture, construction, project design management – the works – and I just literally reached the end, and when that happens your attitude goes with it,” Neil says.
“So, I was looking at a bunch of stuff and I came across an article about how there is this massive issue in the supply of vinyl when major labels like Adele’s order a 500,000 run of records.
“We were never keen on playing at that level but it was a really interesting issue in the supply chain to an outsider. So, I started looking into the industry here and realised there were only two small factories, both in Melbourne.
“Then we started looking into all the machines and started researching to the point where it became more about how it's going to actually work. And it just kind of grew from there.”
Kathy adds: “Vinyl kind of went into hibernation once CDs came out in the late 1980s. A lot of the major labels ran their own pressing plants and they got out. These labels are corporate businesses and in so many things now, people outsource their production because they don't want the headache of having factory overheads.”
If the business side of vinyl manufacturing was one-half of the Wilsons’ uphill journey to get Suitcase Records up and running, then the actual manufacturing half was the steep learning curve. Despite the resurgence in popularity of vinyl, there aren’t many manufacturing plants in the world – an estimated 100 pressing plants worldwide currently - with just 10 that have the capacity to produce large amounts of records – so Neil and Kathy began the process of scoping which machine would be the right fit for their planned small-medium order print runs that also offered a way to easily troubleshoot, given machine manufacturers were based overseas.
A trip to the UK in early 2022 saw Neil and his eldest son Fin get a fateful crash course in how their eventual vinyl press, the Allegro II, worked its magic.
“We saw a factory getting set up,” he tells, “there were two of these machines, so that was good because we got to meet suppliers, we could see how it worked, ask them everything and see it operate as a real thing.
“It can press an album every 30 seconds, which for our scale is perfect. It was really at that point that a lot of the fear factor in the technical side of the business got dispelled for us.”
One of the distinct highlights as the business set-up phase got well and truly off the ground was partnering with Scott Hull at Masterdisk, whose legacy includes huge titles as Nirvana’s Nevermind, Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA, AC/DC’s Back In Black, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, The Police’s Synchronicity and Run-DMC’s Raising Hell.
“Scott is, quite simply, a craftsman in the old-school sense of the word, and speaking with him is like a masterclass in vinyl knowledge, so we are really looking forward to working closely with Scott and Masterdisk to prepare and cut master lacquers for our presses,” Kathy says.
News of Suitcase Records’ launch has spread quickly, so Neil and Kathy already have orders to fill for “lots of local Brisbane bands and a number of big Australian bands” hot on the heels of their opening.
In some ways, it’s a sign of success that the Wilsons are still pleasantly shocked by. But being the music and vinyl lovers they are, it also comes as no surprise.
“When people buy albums, especially when they're buying local music, they feel like they're supporting that artist, and it's an active engagement. It's like ‘I'm supporting that band,’” Neil says.
“We didn't get into this to get rich, and we didn't get into this to turn ourselves into a behemoth - the idea of being a behemoth is a bit tiring.
“These could be my famous last words but that doesn't sound as fun as looking after artists with our amazing machines and just making really beautiful stuff locally that we're proud of.”
For more details, head to the Suitcase Records website.