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Vinyl: Why Scotland's retro revolution isn't simply music industry spin

Above, Sea Bass co-founder Dominique Harvey <i>(Image: Sea Bass)</i>
Above, Sea Bass co-founder Dominique Harvey (Image: Sea Bass)

With a commitment to make great listening at a fair price, Sea Bass aims to become known across the Scottish music industry and beyond as the go-to professionals for pressing vinyl records

 

DAVE Harvey has a recurring nightmare. In it, a 14 year old is given a gift by an older relative, a round piece of plastic, pressed onto which are formative recordings that could  go on to shape the teenager’s musical taste for the rest of their life.

Or not, in Dave’s nightmare.

“It’s a wonderful present to give your nieces or nephews or sons or daughters: a record that they’ll take enjoyment from for a long long time,” said Harvey, owner of Scotland’s first vinyl pressing plant, Sea Bass.

“But my worst nightmare is giving a 14 year old a birthday present of a piece of vinyl that has an issue. We are absolutely determined to make a product that we are proud of, that people take pleasure from, and will listen to over and over again.”

Harvey has put his money where his mouth is. The 52-year-old Dubliner, and his French wife Dominique, have self-financed Sea Bass Vinyl, the first factory in Scotland to make vinyl records.

Last November they began production in their purpose-built plant outside Tranent, East Lothian. Harvey, a former IT management consultant, who studied process engineering at Strathclyde University in the 1980s, has a long-held love of vinyl ever since he first bought Soft Cell’s single Tainted Love as a teenager.

After a successful international career in IT, he and his wife, who also worked in IT consultancy, decided to make a change, having identified the much-publicised bottleneck in production.

A pre-pandemic backlog in vinyl production had clogged the supply of essential revenue for artists.

By the time of global pandemic lockdowns, what was stuck in the bottleneck started to solidify.
Harvey said: “We were aware of the problem that bands, including friends of ours, were having getting their vinyl issued. It became particularly bad during lockdown.

“There were already a limited number of pressing plants. Now bands were getting shafted. They were having to do a split release and sometimes wouldn’t have any records to sell as merchandise if they went on tour. They had no revenue streams, so unless they could sell merchandise and concert tickets to the fans, there would be no new music from them.”

The Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde also played a part in the pair’s decision to move from their home in Manchester and take a swing at a new business in Scotland.

“The British government had said they were going to invest £2.5m in the Beatles museum in Liverpool to drive music tourism.

“Simon gave a very scathing but pointed reply basically saying: ‘If you want to help the music industry in Britain, then spend that £2m on vinyl presses and that will generate an incredible amount of revenue for everybody.’ That was the lightbulb moment for me.

“It’s an industry we always wanted to be involved in somehow,” he said. “We came up with the idea in 2021, we went to see some vinyl presses, did the business case and decided to take the plunge. In March 2022, we placed a deposit on the presses and we’ve been working on the project intensively ever since.”

The Herald:
The Herald:

Above, the modern marvel of arcane listening systems

 

A hunt for rentable premises gave way to the couple buying a plot to build their own instead.

“Our investment in the plant and the press alone wouldn’t be far off £1.5m,” said Harvey. “We have some serious infrastructure, and we have also sized it for four presses, whereas we only have two at the moment. We can scale up if we need to or want to.

“It’s all essentially self-financed. We brought in some asset-finance at the end to help manage cash-flow and we’ve had one grant from Scottish Enterprise for an element of renewables.”

The sale of vinyl records is on an upward trajectory at a time when the global imperative to lessen the impact of plastics on the environment is beyond negotiation. Songwriters write songs about climate change and release them on bits of plastic or on streaming sites hosted by energy-hungry servers.

American troubadour Father John Misty spears this hypocrisy in his wry song Now I’m Learning To Love The War, with its lyrics: ‘try not to think so much about the truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to make a record’.

Worldwide, around 180 million LPs are produced a year. It’s a conundrum the Harveys – who aim to produce 15,000 records a week – have addressed from the off, with plans to collaborate with Evolution Music, a company leading the way in manufacturing plant-based LPs.

“We have made a huge investment in sustainability,” he said. “All our energy is Carbon trust certified. We are investing heavily in wind turbines and solar panel so that we can generate 50% of our electricity on site.

“It’s inevitably energy-intensive, this process. But these things have been big differentiators for us.”
While the company have an international focus, they’re keen to forge strong bonds with Scottish artists and labels.

Fittingly, the first record off Sea Bass’s press was by Scottish rock veteran Fish. Last Night From Glasgow, one of Scotland’s most successful record labels, and Edinburgh-based Indicator Records, are already doing business with Sea Bass.

For singer Jerry Burns, whose self-titled 1992 record will be re-released this month with new bonus material on vinyl by Last Night From Glasgow, Sea Bass represent a sea-change she couldn’t have fathomed first time around.

“To have been someone who was obliged as everyone was then to take most things we did to London, Paris and New York for mastering and pressing – which we loved – being among the first artists to be pressed at the first pressing plant in Scotland is actually incredibly moving,” she said.

“They’ve been meticulously perfectionist in their approach to the nuanced, intricate musical breath and detail of the pressing.”

Harvey has learned how to do the pressing himself, and, although he plans to increase their staff of five in the near future, he jokingly shows off the marks on his hands to prove the “real work” of his new job.

“I went and worked in The Vinyl Lab, a pressing plant in Nashville, for a few weeks last September,” he said. “They were really generous, allowing me to learn from the most experienced vinyl press operators in the world. Our ambition is to employ people fairly, scale the business up, make great records at a fair price and become part of the infrastructure of the Scottish music industry so we’re a go-to supplier for people who want to get records pressed.”

All that, and the responsibility of helping a generation of 14 year olds into a lifelong love affair, sparked by the first thrill of putting a needle on a Sea Bass record.

REAL WORLD STORES WITH SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

KEITH Ingram was once in charge of the cassette wall at HMV in Dundee.

The Herald:
The Herald:

“I was the tape buyer. I had a 25-foot wall of cassettes,” said Ingram, now the owner of Assai Records, which has branches in Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow. “Then I became singles buyer and then assistant manager.”

These days, his shop’s walls are layered with vinyl.

Ingram opened an independent record store in Stirling in the 2000s – Hear That Sound – before successfully switching to online-only sales for a decade. In 2015, he ventured back onto the high street, opening a record shop under the name of Assai in Broughty Ferry.

“It’s a music term. My daughters play brass, and we spotted it there,” he said.

The word translates as ‘very’ and, such a superlative seems apt for an industry which last year saw the highest figures since 1990, with almost six million sales, according to industry body BPI.

Assai sells records and turntables to play them on. The stores also hold live events. Last week, they staged a listening party in their Glasgow shop to mark the launch of Green Day’s new LP. They’ve booked The Snuts and Cast to play in-store sessions at their stores in coming weeks, with the likes of The View having done so already.

“Our sales are made up of a lot of Scottish artists but also pop artists like Taylor Swift. It’s young people buying records that are the foundation of our business – the 16 to 25 year olds are the ones really driving the market.

“I remember a certain record shop saying they’d never stock Oasis,” said Ingram. “But there’s no place for that sort of snobbery in successful retail. There should be something for everyone.”