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Hand Drawn's Crusade To Bring Back Vinyl

North Texan Dustin Blocker raced to be part of the resurgence of vinyl and his new record presses may be setting the pace.

by Hady Mawajdeh 16 Feb 2017
Dustin Blocker

Most people became aware of Dustin Blocker when he was the frontman for local act Exit 380. But after years on the road, Blocker decided it was time to pursue a new path and, with the help of friends, he founded Hand Drawn Records. Now he ventures on a new path as a manufacturer of vinyl records with state-of-the-art record presses that work at nearly three times the industry standard.

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CTA TBD

Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we’ll explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.

Video by Dane Walters

We hate to sound like a broken record, but vinyl is back. Last year vinyl album sales grew 10 percent, topping an 11-year streak of positive growth. That’s great news for one North Texas record label that’s hoping to become a major player in the resurgence of vinyl. Art&Seek caught up with the label’s co-founder Dustin Blocker to learn about his plans and his life.

Up in Addison there’s a giant packaging facility – it’s about the size of two Home Depots squished together. It’s filled with rows of boxes stacked floor to ceiling. In one corner sit two brand-spanking-new vinyl record presses, each about the size of a pickup. They’re the first record presses built and installed in the United States in more than 30 years.

Standing in front of the presses is the co-founder of Hand Drawn Records, Dustin Blocker.

“These are the record presses,” Blocker says. “They’re made by the company Viryl Technologies in Toronto, Canada, and they’re named Warm Tone.”

Blocker doesn’t look like your average businessman or manufacturer. He’s not wearing a button-up shirt or tie. He’s not even wearing a shirt with his label’s logo. Instead, he looks like a musician or an artist. He’s rocking a black T-shirt from a popular bar in Denton. The back of the shirt reads “Support Local.”

Support Local

As of today, Blocker’s Warm Tone presses are one of a kind. They’re smaller than older presses, fully automated and run by cloud-based software. But that’s not all.

“We have a lot more safety guards on our press,” Blocker says. “It keeps our workers from injuring themselves. And then, on top of that, the speed and efficiency is much faster than the old presses.”

Before Hand Drawn started pressing records, there were only 18 record pressing plants in the U.S. Those plants used refurbished machines that were built in the ’60s. And though the steps required to press a vinyl album with Blocker’s presses versus the presses built a half-century ago aren’t very different, the new presses have major advantages.

“On an automatic press from the 1960s, you’d get a vinyl record coming off the line once every minute and a half or so. We can get one pressed under 30 seconds. Sometimes around 20 or 22 seconds,” Blocker says.

Press Work

Blocker got into the music business after being a musician for more than a decade. He started singing in a band with a friend during college, but began taking it more seriously around the mid-2000s. His band was named Exit 380.

“We were on and off the road for about 10 years,” Blocker says. “But then I got married and our guitarist got married. Then the other guitarist got married. Eventually we started having kids. And I literally just wanted to sleep on my own pillow at night.”

But Blocker wasn’t done with music. His father was a music minister and his mother was a music teacher, so Blocker had the genetic desire for music. And he thought that he should pursue something in the music industry.

“I thought maybe I could do something different and start a label,” Blocker says.

He looked for musicians who were like-minded and willing to work with him to make his dream come true. That’s how Hand Drawn Records was born.

“I wanted it to have a community vibe that put artists first,” Blocker says. “I mean I draw, so it was easy to start Hand Drawn. If someone needed a logo, I’d draw it. If they needed a website, I built it. If they needed help booking a show, I’d book it for them.”

Blocker says the artists would trade services. Eventually, Blocker and his band wanted to get an album made and after talking with some folks he realized it was pretty tough process.

“I thought there was probably a better way to do it,” Blocker says.

But he quickly found out that part of the reason it was such a complicated process was that there weren’t many vinyl pressing plants and that most of the plants used old equipment that didn’t always yield perfect results. So he thought he’d just press the album himself.

“We were on the hunt for machines,” Blocker says. “We couldn’t find any out there in the world. Literally. I even began sketching schematics for what I thought they could look like.”

Blocker, who’s definitely not an engineer, looked up blue prints for record presses and tried to create a press of his own. On an online forum, he found the guys from Viryl Tech, and he knew he was cooking with gas. They worked out the details for purchasing the presses, which Blocker says would allow him to help the artist on his label.

“We’re clearly trying to make really great product for artists. Something they can actually sell and make money off of to get the next city or to stay in town and become profitable. That’s what vinyl records do for the independent artists,” Blocker says.

Charlie Photo

Just this month, Hand Drawn Pressing pressed and manufactured Charley Crockett’s album “In the Night.” And the Texas Blues musician says he’ll make money on it.

“They do cost some money to come out, but with Hand Drawn and stuff, we definitely are going to be profitable on a limited press of 500,” Crockett says.

That’s music to Blocker’s ears because he knows that getting your album pressed can take a long time and that the cost can be as high as $3,000.

“With the old machines you’d have 30 to 40 percent waste,” Blocker says. “So after they made your record they’d be bowed or messed up in some way because of the process and so they’d have to recycle the record and start over. Ours are under 1 percent.”

Fewer mistakes during manufacturing means a better end product, says David Grover, the owner of Spinster Records in Dallas. Spinster recently hosted Charley Crockett’s vinyl release party and Grover says that the album was perfect. Other vinyl hasn’t been.

“It’s like on the Norah Jones record – that real famous one – I think Side B has a slight hiss in it and the record label was still selling them. That’s always a hassle for us, because we’ve got to mail it back and you know accounting for it is like almost not worth it, you know for a few records,” Grover says.

Blocker says flaws like that could make fans decide not to buy vinyl. And that’s a problem because even though vinyl album sales keep climbing, overall album sales, including CDs, and digital downloads are plummeting. Just ask Keith Caulfield. He’s the co-director of charts at Billboard.

“In 2016, we sold just over 200 million albums in the United States,” Caulfield says. “But that was down 16.7 percent. So in that 200 million, vinyl albums were up, but everything else was down.”

Caulfield says sales are dropping because so many people have transitioned to streaming apps like Pandora or Spotify. He believes vinyl’s return has a lot do with nostalgia for analog.

“It’s kind of a novel idea for young people to be able to experience the process of purchasing a vinyl album, holding this object where you can open it up and there’s liner notes and you can slide this big vinyl thing out and put it on a turntable. It’s interactive,” he says.

But audiophiles, like Charley Crockett, believe vinyl records reveal the soul of the music and that it resonates more distinctly.

“It makes the music more valuable, because you turn the record over halfway through. You know what I mean?” Crockett says. “You gotta put the needle on it and stuff and it feels good. And it’s all good for the artist because if people are bothering to do all that, that means they’re taking more time to get to know you as an artist.”

Back in Addison, Hand Drawn is ironing out the final kinks with its presses. And Blocker has big ambitions.

“In the ’60s and ’70s when vinyl was the biggest thing in music, this was a major hub and a major ‘live’ destination, because of vinyl records,” Blocker says.

He hopes his presses will once again make vinyl king.

Curious how a record mold is made from a recording? Check out this vintage film:

Dustin Works

How does being in North Texas affect you as a musician, artist, record label founder and now a vinyl record manufacturer?

Well, I’ve been here my whole life. I was born in Fort Worth, so honestly I don’t know any other way. Obviously my surroundings affect my art. I mean the things I ingest daily definitely have an effect of what comes out of me as a creative. So my upbringing and my surroundings are integral. I guess you could say every piece of work I put out – whether it’s album artwork or these albums – comes from something I learned here.

How are you able to maintain balance?

Maintaining balance is tough and I am only able to do it through a lot of self-reflection and a lot of communication with my family. I want to make sure we’re not in a situation where it’s like ‘Daddy’s gone all the time.’ My wife (Emily Blocker) and I are aware that it’s a hard journey for any young family to have one parent to be starting a business. We know it’s not going to be easy. Thankfully, I have a great partner and she helps make it a lot easier for me to be away.

That being said, I think every person  wants to wake up and do something that they love. So I know that I am blessed in that regard and in turn that means my family is blessed. To have a dad that is happy doing what he does can be rare and hopefully that helps my family be happy and proud of me. So when it comes to maintaining balance, it’s definitely family first and then work. If you’re lucky and you can maintain balance, then the great opportunities will come at you.

Maintaining balance also has a lot to do with juggling all of the things that can come at you day to day. Being a small business owner means that one moment you’re an accountant or a graphic designer or a musician or a booking agent. So I have to take it one day at a time and keep my focus on what the larger goal is.

When did you first begin calling yourself an artist?

The first time I thought of myself as an artist was probably 10 years after I started playing music. So in my late 20s and early 30s. I didn’t even know that you were supposed to call yourself an ‘artist.’ I was just a ‘band guy’ or a ‘rocker.’ I guess I just avoided talking about those things, because that’s what you did if you were cool. So yeah, it takes a while to shake off what you think sounds ‘cool’ and what the people around you think about you.

Dustin Listens

OK. Well, when did you begin to think of yourself as a businessman?

I don’t know if I do think of myself as a businessman. I mean, I kind of do, but it’s hard. I like to think of my partners as the businessmen and that I’m the creative guy. That’s the easiest way for me to deal with it. I can say that I do take pride in the fact that I own a business that allows for others to do what they love to do and it makes them feel good. I love getting the artists that we work with excited about their day-to-day jobs and making them feel like they have a destination that they can come to. But getting back to your question: I probably began to think of myself as some sort of businessman about two years ago. That’s when I started working full time on Hand Drawn Records. That’s when I started telling people ‘I own a record label.” Now, I tell them ‘I make records.”

Are you creatively satisfied?

Yeah! Maybe more so than ever. Now that I can create and other people get to see it, it’s way more satisfying. Most of the time, nobody really knows that I am the one creating album art, playing on tracks, building websites, crafting logos, directing videos and photography, but at least I know they see it now. And I don’t want to pass those responsibilities to anyone else. They’re really fun for me. So as the label has grown and as the vinyl plan grows, what’s cool is that I get to put our logos on more stuff. That means more T-shirts and banners. So I’m actually more creatively satisfied than ever.

And when it comes to creativity, I don’t think it really stops with drawing or music. I think of creativity as a problem solver and so I am always trying to think of something new. Every day, I wake up ready for a new challenge.

Have you had to sacrifice anything along your journey as an artist, musician and entrepreneur?

The biggest thing you have to give up to start a small business is money. You almost have to be like ‘I don’t like money.’ And you have to be willing to use it to pay for things that you never imagined you would have to pay for. But that’s OK. The bigger vision for Hand Drawn Records and Hand Drawn Pressing has yielded all of these things that we didn’t know could be possible. So that makes it totally fine. To see something that was a hobby become a business and see that it’s happening the right way is awesome. So I don’t really feel like I’ve sacrificed all that much. I mean, we get to get up every day and do what we love and that’s all that anyone can ask for.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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