At first glance, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about Blythe Road. Like most of Hayes, Middlesex, a commuter belt town 15 miles west of London, it is a vision of suburbia, and a slightly down-at-heel suburbia at that. Two storey, between-the-wars terraced houses line the north side of the street; a variety of businesses occupy the boxy buildings on the south. But Blythe Road is, if not unique, then a special place, because it is the site of a business called Portal Space. And Portal Space are one of the last companies to make vinyl records in the UK.  

Portal Space is run by Roy Matthews, a smart, well-spoken man approaching 60. Despite his greying hair he has a boyish look about him, while the row of pens in his shirt pocket give him the air of an engineer. “Lots of people are surprised to learn that anyone is still making vinyl records,” he says. It’s not hard to see why. Didn’t vinyl go out with the ark? It’s all downloads and CDs these days, isn’t it? But, according to Roy, Portal Space are busier than ever: this year they will press over three million records.  

In an average week, something like 150 singles are released in the UK. Seventy five percent are vinyl only, pressed up in limited runs and sold in independent retailers. Consequently they don’t appear in chart returns. According to Mark Wadhwa, founder of Vinyl Factory, the company that owns Portal Space and its sister factory Orlake Records in Dagenham, official BPI figures grossly underestimate the true level of vinyl sales. “The official BPI (British Phonographic Institute) figures for vinyl production are about 70% below the number of records made in England alone,” he says. “The BPI reckon there are eight million vinyl records sold [in the UK] in the whole year. That’s just what we make across both our plants, and there’s five other plants in the UK.”   Somewhat surprisingly, in 2011 vinyl is in rude health.

As a medium for reproducing music, the record has been superseded by new technology three times – by tape, by CD and most recently by MP3s. Vinyl could hardly be more outmoded. Indeed, the basic principle of making record hasn’t changed since the days of shellac and 78s. It’s still in operation at Portal Space. The pressing plant receives a master lacquer disc from the cutting room at the studio, which they then spray with two chemicals that leave a film of silver on the lacquer. The aim is to create a surface that will conduct electricity. The silvered lacquer is then placed in an electrolysis tank and plated with nickel. The nickel layer – a negative of the master with ridges, not grooves – is peeled off, and the process repeated to produce a positive plate. This is called the mother disc and it can be played like a record. The mother is use to produce negatives that are used as stampers in the record presses. The stampers, one for each side of the record, are placed in the presses. A biscuit of vinyl automatically drops into the press, steam heats the stamper and the 100-ton hydraulic press closes for five seconds. Water then flows in to cool the record, the press opens and the record pops out. Special inks and paper have to be used for the centre label. Ordinary paper breaks in the press, and regular inks discolour. People have been making records this way for a hundred years.

The major record companies decided vinyl was on its way out at the beginning of the ’80s. By the early-’90s they had shut most of the their vinyl pressing plants to concentrate on CD production. If it wasn’t for 1988 and acid house, vinyl would probably be dead. “There was a revival through the dance scene, with DJs really promoting vinyl,” says Roy Matthews. “That really led the way. I think it brought it to the attention of a lot of young people who had never seen it before, or who weren’t as aware of it.”  

Dance music and the demand for vinyl that accompanied it caught the record companies completely off guard. Such pressing plants as still existed had been wound down to the point that they couldn’t cope with the new demand. The machines needed to increase production didn’t exist in the UK. When Roy Matthews started working at Portal Space ten years ago he had to scour the globe for old presses. He found the ones he currently uses in Greece and Australia. 

stamperredux.jpg

 

A stamper... 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dance music ensured that vinyl didn’t die out, but it’s only part of the story. In the mid-’00s there was another vinyl revival when bands such as The Strokes and The White Stripes started releasing seven-inch singles, making vinyl cool all over again.Ironically the internet has helped to save vinyl, not destroy it. Mark Wadhwa explains. “A lot records we make are reissues pressed in limited numbers. People who want them around the world get hold of them via the internet. I think the limited number – that exclusivity – helps push them. For example, a few years ago we did an Elvis box set. It was a collection of ten-inches, and we pressed 5000 copies. It sold out in one day. It was phenomenal. You can press 1000 records – a limited run – in London and someone in Thailand or Singapore can still buy one if they want. The internet is one of the reasons I feel OK in a declining market. It gives you access to a larger number of people. There might only be a thousand people in England who want your record, but globally there might be 20,000, and the internet gives you the ability to reach them.” 

Roy Matthews started work as an apprentice with EMI in 1952. His first job was at Blythe Road. Turns out, Portal Space isn’t just one of the last vinyl pressing plants in the UK: it was also one of the first. The original plant was opened by EMI in 1907 by Australian opera star Nellie Melba (after whom Peach Melba was named, incidentally). Roy recalls that when he started at the plant making records was “sweatshop” work, with manually operated presses and workers paid a penny a piece. By the ’60s there were 140 to 150 presses working 16 hours a day making some 80 million records a year. It was by far the biggest plant in the UK. Roy thinks it was the biggest in the world. He should know: he eventually went on to oversee all of EMI’s pressing plants around the globe, and later its CD plants, too.

In 2001 EMI finally decided to get out of making vinyl. Mark Wadhwa and business partner Tim Robinson were the only people interested in buying the equipment at Blythe Road (EMI no longer owned the building). They opened a pressing plant with ten machines the next year in what used to the dispatch department of the old EMI factory. They asked Roy Matthews, who EMI had asked to shut down the their plant, to run the new one.   Roy, for one, is surprised to still be making vinyl records, even more so that it’s in the same location that he began his career. “In 1999 it really seemed that vinyl was on its last legs,” he says. “Less and less was being produced. If anybody had told me five years ago that I would be putting out funk 45s on vinyl in a box set, I would have thought they were mad. But that is precisely what is happening. And there is more to come. The demand is out there. Traditional CD sales have more competition from downloading, but there are lots of people out there who appreciate the analogue sound quality and the physical feel and size of the album or 12-inch format, or how special the humble seven-inch single really is. You just don’t get that from a CD and certainly not from a CDR that you’ve burned a bunch of downloads onto.”

Maybe vinyl’s endurance, albeit it as a niche concern, isn’t that surprising. Vinyl has a mystique a compressed digital file doesn’t. “If you want to collect something, have permanence and have a sense of enjoyment in the collecting I think the vinyl record is vastly superior,” says Wadhwa. “The more you become exposed to the music you like, the more you’ll be attracted to having a permanent collection or a permanent record that will represent that. For that reason I think that vinyl has a strong future. For example, I play records that my father bought in 1950. I can play them at home now on my record player. I think it’s a great thing. I love it. His name’s written on it, together with the date 1954. It’s 50 years old. It’s fantastic.”

It’s a sunny August day, but Roy Matthews is sat inside at Portal Space drinking a pint glass filled with orange squash as the machines that have been his life clank and hiss in the background. He has a hint of steeplejack and steam power obsessive Fred Dibnah about him, something he laughs good naturedly about. He’s ruminating about vinyl’s future. “Although the EMI plant closed and we replaced it with a smaller number of machines, there are three other new plants that appeared in the UK since that time, so the overall capacity is about the same,” he says. “And really everyone’s got a bit busier. It’s not growth in double figures, but there is some growth, and certainly demand is strong. Each year has got successively busier. We have more presses in storage and we are thinking of putting more in.”

He downs his glass. “Actually, I think I’ll go a see about that now.” And off he saunters with the contented air of a man who can’t believe his luck.

 

Text: Chris Cottingham


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