Old School Music Format Finds New Life via Technology and Personal Touch
On a side road, in an unassuming warehouse near Addison Airport, the lean team at Hand Drawn Pressing is producing 3,000 vinyl records per day. The company is part of a international resurgence of vinyl production and sales. Dustin Blocker, 38, is the co-founder of Hand Drawn Pressing and its affiliated label, Hand Drawn Records, and also serves as the Chief Creative Officer for the 18-month-old manufacturer. He carried himself with a relaxed and aware air when he met me at the company’s warehouse to talk about how a rock musician turned record manufacturer, what it takes to make a mark in a format that only accounts for a sliver of music sales, and how automation is saving him time and money.
How It All Started
After 15 years of playing and touring with Exit 380, the band he formed while a student at the University of North Texas, Blocker decided to put down roots after marrying and having children. He joined the marketing team at Fossil in Richardson, where he worked on merchandising, website development, and e-commerce. At the same time, he used his insight and experience as a musician and marketer to launch the Dallas-based collaborative Hand Drawn Records in 2011. The label’s slogan, “Home of the Records Drawn by Humans,” speaks to a mission of helping musicians record music, launch websites, and market themselves through photography and videos. Word of mouth spread quickly, helping the company to work with multiple independent artists over the course of a few short years. In 2015, Blocker left Fossil to work on the label full-time. Hand Drawn Records currently has 14 bands on roster, mostly from DFW. The most recently signed artist hails from Montana but has a strong fanbase in Dallas.
From Recording Booth to Record Sales
Launching a manufacturing vertical isn’t unusual for many start ups. However, for musicians, the production of a physical format is typically done by a third party and organized through their label. As a vinyl record manufacturer, Hand Drawn Pressing invested even more into their service-based identity, creating best practice formed from their own experience.
Initially, Blocker and his co-founder Alex Cushing, 49, operated without a facility when they started in 2014, working instead as brokers between musicians and vinyl producers. This strategy helped them learn the business and create a customer base.
“When we launched it [Hand Drawn Pressing] and the buzz started, more labels and management groups came,” Blocker said.
18 months into business for Hand Drawn Pressing and there are 12 people employed between the two companies. Clients vary from rock to acoustic folk with a smattering of rap, electronica and country, and are based in Texas and Nashville.
“We’ve done no advertising, no Google Adwords,” Blocker said. “20 to 25 percent of business is artists with short runs; 75 to 80 is return customers and management groups or labels. We’ve been at capacity since January, and there is room to grow.”
Automation Meets Art
Quality and customer care are two central concepts at Hand Drawn Pressing. Vinyl is now 12 percent of the music business, and most artists have never released anything on the format. Blocker shared that with almost every order they take, they’re coaching musicians through the process because it’s “vastly different” from making a CD or delivering streaming music.
“When you’re making somebody’s pet project and it’s their baby that they’ve worked on for maybe two years or more in the studio…it’s super important to us to get it right,” Blocker said.
The process itself is efficient. Machines powered by programming take the raw materials of PVC and wax and transform the pellets into a final pressed record. Technicians carefully monitor the heating, cooling, and formation of the materials as they move through assembly. Master plates are shipped from partners in Nashville, and the machines have an output that is eight times that of presses from the 60s and 70s.
To address waste, both from the pressing process after excess material is cut from the edge of the record and from any yield loss, the team recycles material back into the production process. Most runs are virgin wax and the recycled mix materials are 90-10 between new and reused.
When asked about future growth, Blocker said he was working to get the right people in place before pushing into expanding production capacity. He is looking for great communicators with trustworthiness and the “intangible” right attitude. As Hand Drawn Records and Hand Drawn Pressing continues to organically grow, Blocker said it is that growth that gets him out of bed in the morning.
“I try to look at things I can do daily that will move the needle forward for either Hand Drawn Records or Hand Drawn Pressing,” Blocker said. “And typically it moves it for both at the same time.”
Hand Drawn Pressing Fun Facts:
- Prior to being pressed between master plates, the material is called a “puck” due to its resemblance to a hockey puck.
- It takes nearly 2,000 pounds of pressure per square inch to turn a puck into a vinyl record.
- The steam and water used to mold the puck during pressing are 330-350 degrees and 90, respectively.
- The blade used to cut excess material from the finished record is heated to 200 degrees.
- Hand Drawn Pressing has 20 different colors of wax on hand, and can run custom blends.