by Shawn Hart
Vinylux…the very name evokes time cutting grooves back to the big-fin ‘50s, those DeSoto years when your ride was wide and your music meant everything.
Vinylux…oh man…tuck-and-roll interiors, pushbutton shifting and AM radio around the clock.
If lucky, you owned a portable record player — a turntable, amp and speaker in a box — that could easily transport you as far as you could transport it.
The spindle’s pins contract, the 45 falls, a slight slipping sound as it catches traction on the rotating rubber, then the zist..zist..zist
…“Be my, be my, be my little baby….” Warm molasses pleas from the Ronettes pour into your room, and your buddies sing along with punk falsetto voices and dreams of fragrant girls to squeeze at Friday night dances. And then, too soon perhaps…“People try to put us d-down…”
For many, drafted or driven underground in the ‘60s, record collections were left-behind libraries, the expressions of our formative tastes and the soundtracks of our lives. For a generation in camouflage and on the move, music had to be portable; vinyl was just too heavy.
Everything was TOO HEAVY!
So what happened to all those LPs abandoned to moldy basements and sagging garage shelves? How many of these records and memories were jettisoned in the exodus from adolescence?
“Billions,” estimates Jeff Davis, Chestnut Hill resident and founder of Vinylux. And Vinylux, the creative little company that could, is what’s happened to a million of them, and counting, since its inception nearly a decade ago.
“Records inspire an immense nostalgia,” says Davis, who looks like a ‘50s rocker (Buddy Holly and Elvis Costello come to mind) even without his F-hole electric slung over his shoulders as he moves among the machines he’s built to repurpose vinyl into an expanding catalog of products. His creations manufactured out of old records — bowls, coasters, clocks — and the contraptions he’s designed to produce them repose quietly around a large loft space at 6139 Germantown Ave.
He’s restless, an entrepreneurial artist with a passion for problem solving. By his own admission, he’s not much of a businessman, but no Rube Goldberg either. The solutions and the machines are almost stupid simple, the kind of stuff you’d make with a top-tier Erector Set. Hell, you think, I could build these in my basement if I lived near a landfill and had an advanced degree in industrial design. Which, of course, Davis does, from the Rhode Island Institute of Design, where Vinylux was born in 2002 as an offshoot of a graduate thesis project.
Here, in his sunlit, funky factory in Germantown, he’s surrounded by an obvious fondness for the graphic art of the old record industry, whose bones he’s collected since his school days, and the retro products and very cool packaging that make Vinylux rock. Old posters and plastic milk crates full of records lend to this loft the air of a college dormitory without the dirty laundry. What you see is a vanishing analog world, the interface of product with music that expresses the imagination and character of the collector…an aesthetic beyond your battery powered, cigarette-pack-sized, plastic repository of downloads.
“I always thought you could learn a lot about someone by looking at their record collection,” Davis says. “I don’t believe the same is true when looking at digital playlists, even if the owners are willing to share and assuming that you were even inclined to ask.” People, he contends (and the success of Vinylux proves it) want to engage physically with their music.
Amanda Hart, a 23-year-old former DJ at KUPS radio in Tacoma, Washington, when asked about vinyl offers this: “My friends want a real physical connection with the music. With an iPod or mp3 player, you’re not pulling album covers and sifting through titles or pages of lyrics and artwork. With records, it’s more about people sitting on the floor, passing records back and forth and pointing out things to one another that you can’t see or feel with a digital music player.”
Brian Reisman, owner of Hideaway Music in Chestnut Hill, was equally sanguine: “Not only are Indie bands pressing new records, but labels are re-issuing classic rock and collectible LPs. It’s great for business, but it’s also nice to see that people are unplugging and experiencing the music the way everyone used to, sitting around with friends, reading the liner notes, enjoying the cover art. It was a social thing.”
Precisely. And Jeff Davis clearly knows this; it’s the basis of his business. He explains the success of Vinylux from a designer’s perspective. “Objects have meaning beyond their original intention,” he says, “so records, which were designed to deliver music, became iconic because of how they make us feel and make us behave.”
What Vinylux does is transform the lost elements of creative community that, back then (when records ruled) coalesced to produce and market music — great graphics, tuned-in liner notes and artists who inspired their retinues to engage and express themselves — into tangible alternatives. And, seeing these again, whether as bowls, a sketch book, clocks or coasters, we recognize the symbols and respond by assimilating, with our imaginations, that shared experience.
Pick up a package of laminated Vinylux coasters made from old record labels, and you might recall cracking open a new pack of baseball cards. You don’t know what you’re going to get, but it’s all good, even without the gum. Prestige, Blue Note, Motown, Capitol, Mercury, Dot or Decca, these labels are a trip through history, a hall of fame tour of pre-computer graphic design. You shuffle the magic and the music they represent in your hands like cards.
“We don’t take the music out of anything we make,” says Davis. “It’s still in there. In fact, you can turn our bowls over onto a turntable, drop the needle and play them, at least the first half inch or so.” Cool.
Barnes and Nobel certainly thought so when in 2009 they ordered 40,000 coasters from Vinylux, the company’s biggest order to date at that time, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. Davis, who admits to running Vinylux “on instinct” after having taken but one business class, relates the story with pride and self-deprecating amazement.
“I said ‘yes’ to the order without a clue as to how I’d get it done. I didn’t know anything about licensing rights, and I had no equipment that could press that many coasters or print and attach labels to both sides. But I managed to secure the art from Michael Lang, the original promoter of the festival, and contracted with United Record Pressing in Nashville to build mini-stampers and use our vinyl scraps to manufacture the 4.5 inch LPs. The labels were wet-pressed into the vinyl (so they’d be waterproof) and delivered here in cartons. I devised a means of mass sorting and packaging them into boxes of four, and we shipped them from here for sale in 750 Barnes & Noble stores. It was probably the pinnacle of my transition from designer to businessman.”
His instincts have sustained the success of Vinylux for nearly a decade, and last year alone he managed to recycle 175,000 old LPs into novelty products sold nationwide. The recent resurgence in vinyl has not only created a new generation of record lovers but a steady market for the scrap remains of Davis’ manufacturing process. He’s the conductor of a closed-loop, clean operation that starts with throwaway material that’s nearly free, then profitably extracts product (and not incidentally ‘good vibrations’) along the way and leaves a recyclable residue that’s turned into more source material.
Think about the coasters made from old LPs: Davis is selling donut holes, and then returning the donut for a refund. Not a bad business plan. One suspects that, as a 30-something father of two who invented a green, sustainable source of income and finds creative gratification by repurposing a medium once on the edge of extinction, there may still be a pinnacle or two to come.
For more information, call 215-848-0861 or visit www.vinylux.com.
Shawn Hart, a resident of Mt. Airy, is a former associate editor at the Local.