With record pressing plants around the world struggling to meet demand, and delivery times increasing, a new pressing plant in Alexandria, Virginia is aiming to lighten the load. We asked Eric Astor, founder and CEO of Furnace Record Pressing, about the challenges of opening up the 50,000 square feet plant, the future for physical formats and the impact of the vinyl industry on the environment.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure. My name is Eric Astor. I’ve been playing music, running record labels and pressing records since I was 14. I love figuring shit out and finding creative and efficient ways of doing things. When I’m not running Furnace Record Pressing, I’m a partner at a reissue label called ORG Music and develop products for a vinyl accessory company I helped start with Alliance Distribution called Vinyl Styl. I’m married, have two dogs, surf rivers, mountain bike and aspire to living in a van down by the river.
What does your personal record collection look like?
Pretty boring really… I set a cap on my collection to about 2,000 records so anything new that comes in forces me to get rid of something. There is a lot of old punk rarities, a lot of stuff we’ve pressed here at Furnace, all of the ORG Music titles (200 and counting) and a strange group of old-timey records that my wife won’t let me throw away. Lots of Sonny & Cher for some reason. She loves Cher. I do some woodworking and have promised myself I’d someday build some custom shelving but haven’t got around to it, so I just have the IKEA Kallax shelving with really nice wood dividers from Koeppel Designs.
All of my stuff is alphabetized by band, last name, soundtracks, compilations and #s. I used to do it by first name so I didn’t have to think but then I decided that was poor form. So was the exercise to categorize by mood and spine color. The Discogs “Collection” tool is fucking brilliant. I’ve cataloged up to “D” of all my records and its insight has prompted me to take out an insurance rider in case the house burns down. I semi-regret getting rid of some records back in the early nineties when I sold a bunch of super rare straightedge records so I could buy a van and move out to the East Coast.
Looking back on it, I don’t miss anything I’ve sold and have become unattached to my collection. The only thing I really cherish is all of the first pressings of the early Dischord stuff. Ian and Dischord were my role models growing up. I read an interview with him talking about how and why they started Dischord and I said, I should do that. Between Dischord and the insane way that Black Flag pioneered the early touring circuit, it taught all of us to figure shit out, don’t rely on anyone else and just do it. It’s been the way I’ve done things ever since.
What inspired you to open Furnace Record Pressing?
I founded Furnace Record Pressing in 1996. My start in this industry goes back to 1986 in Tempe, AZ. I was playing drums in various punk bands and since we were kind of bad and nobody wanted to put out our demo, I started a label called StepForward Records. We released our first 7” in 1987 followed by a few others. In the early 90s I moved to the East Coast and started a new label called Art Monk Construction. We put out records by bands like Lincoln, Hoover, The Trans Megetti, Samuel, Darkest Hour and others.
It was hard getting distribution back then so my partner and I called 10-12 labels that were in the same situation and we founded Lumberjack Distribution to get all of our records into Indies and chain stores. As we were doing this, I knew how to do computer pre-press and design which was fairly new back then, so a bunch of labels were coming to me to do design and pre-production for their vinyl and cd projects. After doing that for a while, I spun that division off into Furnace and sold the distribution company to Doghouse Records in Ohio.
We started as a vinyl and CD broker, got out of vinyl when the plant we were using closed down. Fast forward to 2008, labels started calling asking if we can help them get high quality records pressed. At the time, RTI in California was the only high quality pressing plant in the US so they were jammed up, even back then. We went over to Europe to talk with some plants that I knew pressed great quality records. First we went to Pallas in Germany. They thought I was crazy but reluctantly agreed to work with us. Our first order to them was for 110,000 records. Within three months, they went from barely pressing any records to filling up an entire first shift, then a second. We needed more records pressed so we approached Record Industry in Holland. We still work with both plants and have five of our own machines in Germany that Pallas runs for us. All of the records are shipped back to Furnace in sleeves. We assemble them here and then ship them to our customers.
Around 2012 we got the contract to press the entire Led Zeppelin catalog. It was a huge project. Around then, the vinyl market went bonkers. We went from consistently turning projects around in 4-5 weeks to 6 then 8 then 12 weeks. We were going nuts because all of our customers were pissed and so were all of the customers that used all the other plants because nobody could keep up. At that point we decided to start looking for machines to start Furnace Record Pressing here in the states.
What challenges did you run into while getting started?
The biggest challenge when we decided to build the new plant was the lack of equipment. We got a call from a gentleman in Mexico who had ten 1970’s era Toolex Alpha automatic presses. These are the same ones we use in Germany at Pallas. After some negotiation, we got the deal done, flew down to Mexico City, making bribes and facing threats of abduction. It was crazy. When they finally made it back to Virginia we all kind of looked at each other and said, “now what the fuck do we do?” So we started talking to everyone we knew about who we could hire to do the job and that’s when we were introduced to some lads in England who used to run a plant, used those same model presses and were engineering wizards. So they’ve been fixing those presses up and making some semi-auto hand presses for us. While we were waiting for those to get done, we bought two of the new Warmtone machines from Viryl. We feel between all of those machines, we’ll be able to make some great records.
With a couple of startups now making new equipment, finding presses is no longer the biggest barrier of entry. The challenges that persist are a lack of talent and the enormous cost in setting up a plant. All of the old timers who worked and managed pressing plants are mostly retired. If you can find an experienced plant manager or press operator, they are usually in another part of the country or the world and it’s not so easy to relocate someone. So all the new plants have to learn from scratch. We have our European partners to lean on and a couple of consultants we work with but a lot of it is figuring shit out, making a lot of mistakes and having the stomach to throw a lot of records away until you get it right.
That leads me to the next challenge – being able to fund the startup and keep the plant operating. This business is a labor of love. It’s a craft. You have to be crazy and a glutton for punishment to open a pressing plant, especially a larger plant like Furnace’s. If we didn’t have our existing business, I don’t think there would be any way this could have worked. We were lucky to piggy back our new plant on top of our current business to keep the lights on as we were setting up the new machines and all of the new infrastructure it requires.
How long did it take from the idea to the opening of Furnace Record Pressing?
It took about 3 years. We could have done it much faster but we wanted to restore the equipment back to like new condition, find the right building and setup the systems in a way that allowed us to hit the ground running instead of chasing problems and fixing 30 year old equipment all day long. I think we are doing it the right way but it’s added a lot more time and cost to the startup than we would have liked.
How is the production line set up?
The Furnace pressing room has pipe and utility drops for up to 28 presses. We have 16 machines:
We have 50,000 square feet of space that includes component warehousing, office space, sleeving and inspection, assembly, three finishing lines and shipping and receiving. We also have a workshop for maintenance, a large area set aside for plating, which we hope to add in a year or so, and another room to house a mastering studio in case we ever decide to get into cutting lacquers. Our run out code will be a generic 7 digit code with the first two numbers signifying the year of the cut, then 4 numbers signifying the project and a letter to signify the side. Nothing too sexy.
Have you integrated old and new techniques? What innovations/adaptations were needed?
Come to think of it, yes. The bulk of our machines are 1970’s era Toolex Alpha presses originally made in Sweden. We stripped those of all their old parts, re-chromed and painted everything, put on all new hoses, valves and electronics. We also took the old “dumb” controls off and replaced them with programmable PLC controllers. They are like brand new machines now. These are the same as the presses at our partner Pallas in Germany. Those have been cranking away for 40+ years so we should be able to get a lot of life out of those machines.
We opted to install a water chiller instead of an air cooled system because it provides more consistent water temperature and uses a lot less water since it’s a closed loop. It costs more to run but it helps make better records. Consistency is key to making good sounding records.
We invested a lot of money in all of our systems because we didn’t want to lose productivity fixing stuff or having to throw a lot of records away. You pay on the front end or on the back end so we decided to invest up front so it would give us a better opportunity to make great records faster.
What is the capacity of the plant?
With the equipment we currently have, we will be capable of pressing 10,000 – 12,000 12” records and about 3,500 7”s per shift. The trick is getting enough people trained so we can run a second and then a third shift and more than 5 days a week. In a few years, we hope to be able make 8-10m records a year.
Will the pressing plant focus on any particular type of releases?
Since we are a contract manufacturer, it’ll be whatever projects our customers entrust us to press for them. We do plan on reserving a big chunk of our capacity to press for small bands and indie labels. They are always being relegated to end of the line so I hope we can help the folks out there who are struggling to get good lead times for their projects. That said, we press for all of the majors and hope to continue to earn their business. For as much slack as the majors get, they really helped fuel the vinyl resurgence and they pay their bills on time so their support has been vital to us and many other plants in the industry.
Furnace Record Pressing has been pressing CDs, DVDs and more for over 20 years. Between CDs, DVDs and records, what release that rolled off your presses are you most excited about?
Who is your favorite kid? You have one but you’re not going to disclose that, right? But honestly, my favorite projects are the ones where the customer calls or posts and tells us how excited they are about their finished records. When I was a kid and I put out my first 7”, it was such an exciting achievement. I know how that felt so I get amped to see and hear that positive feedback.
We recently pressed a Voyager 40th Anniversary boxset for Ozma. They did an amazing job on that project. We press all of the Led Zeppelin and Metallica records. It’s pretty fuckin’ cool to know that they are psyched enough about what we’re doing that they trust us with pressing their records. I also dig anything that is crazy custom, creative and challenging. It makes you pay attention and step up your game. I like that kind of work.
The company will be donating to environmental organisations, can you tell us more about that?
I’m excited about this. We are in a dirty industry. Plastic, paper, electricity, natural gas and transportation. I’m an outdoors guy. I like to surf and mountain bike and know it’s up to all of us to preserve nature. So we feel it’s our obligation to help counteract the impact we have on environment. We are partnering up with local environmental groups to plant trees to offset the carbon we are putting into the atmosphere and are trying to find a reputable organization who works to clean the ocean of the sickening amount of plastic that is choking the coral reefs and killing animals. We’ve committed 5% of our profits each year to go to these causes.
We’re also setting up a calculator for our customers to use so, if they feel so inclined, they can tally up how much in offsets will make their project carbon neutral and then we’ll give them a list of non-profits where they can make a donation. We have until the end of the year to get all this figured out but we’re actively working on this and am excited to do our part. Furnace is trying to do well by doing good! We should all strive to leave no trace.
What do you think the future will bring for physical music formats?
I can’t see CDs coming back because there is an equally mediocre digital format that is easier and basically free in downloads and streaming. Even though very few said it back in the day, everyone missed records as they were gobbling up CDs throughout the 90s. The collectible nature and the great art of the album was lost – I don’t ever remember ever being psyched to find a limited edition CD. I don’t think I ever framed a CD and put it on my wall. I was never blown away at the sound of compressed digital. So if you forced me to guess, I’d say we’ll have cloud based digital services and vinyl. Digital for on the go and for convenience and analog when you want actually listen to music and truly experience what the artist envisioned.
Anything else you’d like us to know?
Keep buying records. Not just because I want to stay in business and keep our staff employed but because it is the format where artists can actually generate some money to fund their craft. They get paid shit for streams and it’s hard to make enough money to put food on the table if you’re a musician. It’s our responsibility as music fans to support the musicians we love, the record stores who educate, spread the culture of music and sell the stuff and all of the people slaving away behind the scenes to make it all a reality. Making music, pressing records and running a record label is all very difficult. It’s mostly thankless work but it feeds your habit so don’t shy away from spending some money to keep the whole industry from imploding into an Apple/Amazon/Google/Spotify owned black cloud.