In Salina, along the railroad tracks, in the shadow of grain elevators, next to a gravel lot filled with industrial propane tanks, is the headquarters of Acoustic Sounds.
It’s run by Chad Kassem. He’s originally from Louisiana.
“Back in the mid-’70s every teenage boy had a stereo, or most of the boys in my neighborhood had a stereo, and maybe a hundred albums,” Kassem says. “So I wasn’t any more of a collector than most of my friends.”
By the time he was 21, though, Kassem’s drinking and drug abuse was causing him trouble with the law.
“I came to Kansas to get sober in 1984. That’s where the judge picked.”
As we know, Kansas has alcohol, but in general, there were fewer distractions for a man who needed to dry out.
“Since Kansas was kind of out of the way, most of these records that were very rare and sought-after, they still had plenty of them in Kansas and I found a couple of motherlodes.”
A record store called House of Sight and Sound still had audiophile-quality versions of LPs such as Crosby, Stills Nash and Young’s “Déjà Vu,” the Beatles' “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung.” It turns out that judge in Louisiana did a favor for music lovers. Chad Kassem’s hobby turned into an international mail-order business.
“You sell albums, and you sell pre-owned albums, and people are looking for particular albums nobody is putting out and they’re very valuable, so you decide to reissue it,” he says.
He founded Acoustic Sounds and contacted record labels about reissuing classic albums. He built up a staff to recreate the artwork, negotiate rights, and handle sales. At first he contracted out the vinyl pressing.
“Next natural step is to have your own pressing plant. It just took me 20 years and two million dollars to do it.”
Since vinyl went out of style a few decades ago, no new presses have been built. So when Kassem bought his first presses in 2010, he found some used ones in England and others came from Los Angeles. Most were in pretty bad shape. Kassem hired two experienced technicians to get them up and running. And he lined up an influential customer: The estate of Jimi Hendrix.
“I knew Chad through his work on behalf of blues artists at his studio in Salina,” says John McDermott, producer and catalog director for Experience Hendrix, LLC. “And we also knew of Chad’s reputation as a vinyl wholesaler by mail order, certainly selling a lot of Jimi Hendrix product. So when he decided to get into the manufacturing process, once it got up in running we began shifting all of the Jimi Hendrix vinyl manufacturing to his company in Kansas.”
Kassem’s presses are running 24-7. Each one is about the size of a Volkswagen Bug. They’re intricate systems of steel and hydraulics.
On a day in early April, they’re pressing records by Leonard Cohen, Kiss, Pink Floyd, and The Doors. About sixteen record-pressing plants are operating around the country, and Kassem says it’s an arms race to find any remaining presses and get them back into production.
So it was a big deal when he discovered thirteen rusting presses in Chicago, owned by a guy named Joell Hays who runs a rehearsal studio and always wanted to make records. Hays bought some abandoned presses on eBay a decade ago.
“I didn’t have any idea how much it was going to cost to get them going at the time,” Hays says. “At first I thought a couple hundred thousand to build the factory, which, after tons of research, turned out to be closer to a million.”
Hays tried to line up investors, but he never could.
“A lot of people tried to buy (the presses) from me over the years but I’ve always said no.”
With Kassem, it was different.
“I went up there, and I was willing to help him get his pressing plant, give him all the advice and everything I learned,” Kassem says. “I was willing to share this with him and I told him I would. And the last thing I said was, or, if you want I’ll just buy ‘em all.”
Which is what he did. All thirteen. They’re in pieces now, spread out all over the floor of Kassem’s warehouse. It looks like a mechanic’s garage, and it smells like rust and grease. Three guys are working on the machines.
“We’re stripping everything down and getting ready for paint. A lot of stuff has to be replaced,” says Robert Drenton, originally from Abeline. “I actually worked on tractors, and I did a lot of painting and assembly work, so I’ve got a lot of mechanical skills when it comes to stuff like this. I was surprised that there are machines like this still.”
It could take a year before these presses are up and running. But that’s ok with Chad Kassem.
“Basically the first time you see these old, rusty presses it looks like scrap metal. But it’s not scrap metal. It looks like gold to you once you’ve seen what they can do and make.”
For Kassem, make that black gold.