Under-Cover Business

Riding the wave of vinyl’s resurgence

by Phyl Newbeck

burl_records1117Three years ago, musician Justin Crowther left touring to open the Burlington Record Plant on Pine Street, where he and his wife, Randi-Lynn, manufacture vinyl records. Their son, Ezhno, is named for Randi-Lynn’s grandfather.

Justin Crowther knows he fits the hipster stereotype. The 35-year-old is a tattooed musician who, three years ago, opened the Burlington Record Plant, devoted to the production of vinyl records.

He gets the “hipster” comment a lot, he says, “but this is a working person’s business. It’s not just a cool thing to do. It’s dirty and difficult and involves manual labor.”

That said, Justin and his wife, Randi-Lynn, are thrilled to be presiding over a company that has already grown significantly since they opened their doors, producing music spanning a variety of genres from across the globe.

Born in Willingboro, New Jersey, Justin grew up in Pennsylvania and toured with a band called Dust to Dust before moving to Vermont in 2001 at age 19 to follow his brother Noah. He continued to play music and enrolled at Community College of Vermont where he studied English and journalism.

After obtaining his degree he held a number of jobs, including restaurant work, construction, and concert production, as well as spending five years as a freelance music writer for Seven Days.

Music is in Justin’s blood. His father was a psychologist and his mother took care of the kids, but in their spare time they played in the Forty-eighth Street Band, which featured original jazz-rock fusion. Justin entered the punk and hardcore scene playing guitar, bass, and drums for bands; he is now a member of Blowtorch.

He and Noah met Kelly Ravin while playing at honkytonk sessions at Radio Bean, and, with Reverend Chad Hammaker, a friend from Pennsylvania, the four formed Waylon Speed in 2008.

The band is on hiatus, but recorded and toured widely, including to the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Justin is currently involved in what he describes as an experimental instrumental band called Siding Spring. “After years of touring, I determined Vermont was potentially the best place in the country to live and obtain a good quality of life,” he said.

Although there is a resurgence of interest in vinyl records, that wasn’t Justin’s motivation in starting the Burlington Record Plant. “I was on the road a lot and needed to make one job out of seven,” he recalls. At the time there were only 16 pressing plants in the country. “I just knew if I could figure out how to make one I’d have a job,” he says. Assisting him with this leap of faith was Randi-Lynn, now 33.

Born in Burlington, Randi-Lynn met Justin after her graduation from Burlington High School in 2001 when they were both working at Leonardo’s Pizza. Their friendship grew into a relationship, and they married in 2009. They live in Burlington.

It took Justin a year and a half to press his first record. “I had mentors from as far as Australia,” he says. “First they laughed at me and said I was out of my mind but as I sent pictures of my equipment they began to open up. It’s a hidden trade and there are no books on it so you have to use other industrial applications.”

Although he didn’t have an academic background in the field, Justin had experience working on equipment like motorcycles, which he was able to use in his new venture. “I found a building,” he says of his space behind Feldman’s Bagels on Pine Street. “Then I got an international calling plan and found some equipment in Germany from a Warner Brothers plant that had been out of service for over 30 years.”

Justin couldn’t afford to travel to Germany so he bought the equipment, sight unseen, and convinced his friend Davor Amrain, an engineer at Burton, to help him take it apart, discern what pieces were missing, manufacture them, put it all back together, and then build controls and a steam boiler.

He had to borrow money from his family to build the plant, and Randi-Lynn did her part to make things happen. “My role was to be supportive,” she says. “Justin had been on the road for so many years and he got fired up to start this journey to make records.”

As the bill-payer at home, Randi-Lynn took over the administrative role at the company, doing research and attending many of the early meetings with the Small Business Administration.

Burlington Record Plant’s first record was a practice piece stamped in 2015 featuring Echo and the Bunnymen and Gregory Isaacs. The next was a bit closer to home: a Waylon Speed record. Almost immediately, business picked up. “I’ve been 10 weeks out since we opened,” Justin says. “We just went up to 12 weeks.”

Burlington artist/singer Clark Russell credits Randi-Lynn with “friendly advocacy” for prodding him at the end of a Blowtorch concert to tell fans they had just made a record. “She was responsible for our first sales,” he says.

Russell lavished praise on Justin, as well. “Justin has a rare combination of kindness and honesty,” he says “and a real conscientiousness about his work.” Russell notes that Burlington Record Plant already has a great reputation in the industry. “The product is A-1,” he says. “I can’t say enough about how luscious the vinyl is.”

Initially Justin did all the work himself, but at this juncture, Burlington Record Plant has four full-time employees. “We’re all cross-trained,” he says, “but a few of us are more proficient with the mechanics of pressing.” Music labels and musicians across a variety of genres reach out to them.

“There has been a resurgence in vinyl and it’s not slowing down,” Justin says. “I didn’t realize that until I went for the small business loan and needed to do a market analysis.” Roughly 15 percent of the business is local, another 15 to 20 percent is regional, and the rest is international. “My three-year plan was to have three presses,” Justin says “and now we have two.”

One local group that took advantage of the Burlington Record Plant is the local performance art space ArtsRiot. Guitarist/singer Paddy Reagan reports that his group recorded a series of concerts at the venue, which were then brought to the Burlington Record Plant for mixing and mastering.

“Justin was great about accommodating our needs, walking us through the process and helping us out,” Reagan recalls. The record, which was released at Art Hop in early September has artists ranging from Waylon Speed and Dwight & Nicole to a collaboration with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra.

Randi-Lynn spent seven years working as a box office supervisor at the Flynn while pursuing her degree in visual arts part time at CCV. “I was really close to finishing my degree and I didn’t see myself going to another department,” she says, “so I quit my job and did freelance production work for the jazz and maritime festivals and Burlington City Arts.”

When she earned her degree, Randi-Lynn started working at The University of Vermont, and in December 2015, was hired to support the director of the teaching academy at the UVM College of Medicine, coordinating at least 80 programs a year for faculty. “It’s a huge job and brand new so it’s pretty overwhelming,” she says.

She continues to help Justin on weekends and evenings, but their lives have a new focus with the birth of Ezhno two and a half years ago. His Native American name, meaning “He walks alone,” is a tribute to Randi-Lynn’s grandfather.

“We’re learning as we go,” she says of the business. “I feel like I’m getting my master’s in business from living it. We’re busting out at the seams so we might try to get some office space and a little bit of storage room. It would be ideal for me to be here more, but the business has to grow first.”

In the meantime, she makes sure vendors get paid and serves as a liaison to the bank and their accountant. They don’t have a lot of spare time but they enjoy bicycling, skateboarding, and cooking.

The Crowthers’ musical tastes are eclectic. “Lately I get exposed to music based on what Justin brings home,” Randi-Lynn says, “but I love it all.” Although Justin gravitates toward punk, he appreciates all forms of music. “We did a Grammy-awarded string quartet,” he says “and I enjoyed the challenge of delicate music. I’d love to press more classical records.”

Randi-Lynn marvels at their opportunity to play a role in the Vermont economy. “This is such a creative state,” she says. “We’re happy to be a contributing member of that community. We’re preserving an art form that’s been around for a long time.”

Another unexpected reward, she says, is that, after working with positive role models, they have the opportunity to do the same for their employees. “We’re giving back in some small way,” she says.

They are amazed by how quickly things came together. “It happened so serendipitously,” says Randi-Lynn. “One thing led to another and we couldn’t have forecasted that we’d be where we are after three years. I feel like all our dreams have come true.”

Justin loves the independence of being self-employed but sees his work as more than that. “For some people a record is a sacred artifact,” he says. “I’m honored to be preserving a piece of history.” •