Neil Wilson stands outside a large blue shed at Pinkenba, in the industrial outskirts of Brisbane, looking like a kid on Christmas Day. He slides back a glass door and reveals the source of his enthusiasm for him – a brand spanking new, fresh off the boat, vinyl record press.
The Allegro Line II. Designed in Hong Kong and Italy, the machine was manufactured in China and is almost ready to start spitting out vinyl albums every 28 seconds.
Neil and his partner, Kathy Wilson, have dubbed their family business Suitcase Records. After all, that’s what most independent artists carry their merchandise in. The big seller on the merch stand these days is either a tea towel or a vinyl album. And who wants to be in the tea-towel business?
The vinyl revival has been a talking point in the music industry in recent years – there’s no romance in filesharing, and CDs are moderate sellers.
But Suitcase is Queensland’s first fully functioning record press in 30 years. For Neil and Kathy, this endeavor is more mid-life awakening than mid-life crisis.
Before they downsized their lives to finance the press, the Wilsons would regularly host back yard concerts. Everyone from Steve Poltz to Hat Fitz and Cara played. And they’d all turn up with a suitcase loaded with vinyl to sell.
“We both come from backgrounds where we dealt with corporations,” says Neil, who spent the bulk of his working life as an architect.
“Ten years ago I went across to working for big construction firms doing project and design management. We worked on building hospitals and so on. I had moved away from anything creative. It was in a world with a very hard-nosed process. There was animosity and butting of heads. There were big dollars, big jobs and big contracts on the line. I lost that idea of what I should be doing.
“I was very unhappy. It was causing me anxiety. It wasn’t working. Kathy said ‘you should make a change, we can do this as a family’.
“I’d always loved music and I’d always loved vinyl and I came across an article talking about the demand for vinyl. There was a resurgence. I put two and two together and thought about how that might work for me.”
So now Neil will run the press while Kathy has taken on a marketing and logistics role in the company.
Digital gets loud, but ‘vinyl fills the room’
Over the years this writer has quizzed artists about why vinyl matters.
Asking U2’s The Edge on the PopMart Tour in 1998, I queried the comparison between omnipresent CDs to the then virtually defunct vinyl.
I could see his shoulders tighten.
“CDs are all zeroes and ones,” he grimaced. Enough said.
The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster told me that digital files – when the volume is increased – “just get louder, vinyl fills the room. It’s warmer.”
Elbow’s Guy Garvey went a step further, suggesting that, in his mind, a vinyl album is the optimum vehicle for a songwriter to share their message: “You can tell a three-act story over two sides.”
The Brisbane artist Sahara Beck was more forthcoming. “I’m tired of having CDs under my bed,” she said. “Every time I was selling CDs at gigs, people would ask for vinyl.”
Everybody remembers their first record. For most, it’s a gift from a well-meaning relative.
Neil Wilson first caught the bug when he was given a copy of Suzi Quatro’s debut album as a Christmas present. I have played it again and again on the family record player. When he had his own cash to spend, he opted for Midnight Oil’s Red Sails In The Sunset. Some of Kathy’s fondest memories of her are lying on the floor of her as a kid and listening to her father’s copy of Billy Joel’s Turnstiles and the song New York State Of Mind.
“They’re such strong childhood memories,” she says. “That album made me dream of going to New York.”
more than spin
John Watson, an Australian music industry giant who manages the likes of Missy Higgins, Cold Chisel and Midnight Oil, remembers his first vinyl purchase: Skyhooks’ Ego Is Not A Dirty Word. A few weeks later he went back to buy Living In The Seventies by the same band, but the salesperson advised his mother of him “not to buy that filth”.
“For an artist, having your work released on the vinyl format connects it more directly to an earlier time in which music was less of a disposable commodity and more of an enduring cultural artefact and with arguably a more substantial legacy,” Watson says.
“Obviously, as an over-50, I personally have a nostalgic liking for vinyl because it’s associated with all the great music of my childhood and teens. But I think it’s more than just that. In the golden age of the LP (approximately 1966-1986) there was vastly less music released and, with so few media channels available to audiences, big records dominated the zeitgeist in a way that rarely happens in this much more ‘splintered’ media age .
“So LPs that defined their year [of release] like Sgt Pepper’s, The Dark Side of the Moon, Born To Run, London Calling or 10-1 and Circus Animals still occupy a different ‘shelf’ culturally than most music released in the age of streaming where 75,000 new songs are released every single day . Even big hits don’t register with lots of people because they don’t fit their algorithm.”
But, closer to home, Neil and Kathy Wilson feel a deep sense of wanting to engage with the local music community.
“We’re agnostic in what we press,” Neil says. “It could be Nepalese yodelling or Simpsonwave, we’ve got lots of inquiries from local artists.
“It’s corny, but you’re dealing with people’s dreams. That’s especially true with the small acts. Larger artists are used to the process, but small acts are different. Our customers aren’t buying nuts or bolts, they want us to turn their art into something and to be able to support them. That’s where we want to be.”
“Everybody we talk to wants the vinyl press to work,” Kathy adds. “Not just for themselves, they see there’s some kind of magic in making a vinyl record.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism