Chad Kassem is the founder and owner of a number of businesses: Acoustic Sounds, Acoustic Sounds Super HiRez, APO Records, Blue Heaven Studios, Quality Record Pressings, Analogue Productions, and the annual Blues Masters at the Crossroads festival in Salina, KS [Chad may also have a few more businesses we’ve forgotten…—Ed.]. Acoustic Sounds’ audiophile vinyl pressings have helped lead the resurgence in quality vinyl recording sales over the last decade, and they have also entered the reel to reel tape market. John Seetoo spoke with Chad for Copper about the beginnings of his business, and his thoughts on how the industry has changed.
JS: You started buying and selling LPs about 30 years ago, when most people were abandoning records for CDs. Had you always been a music fan and record collector? Or did you just see an opportunity?
Chad: No, no. I’m from Louisiana; from the Cajun part – Lafayette, Louisiana. Growing up in that area made me a music lover. In 1984, I moved to Kansas…pretty much when the CD came out. When I moved to Kansas in ‘84, I started collecting records as a hobby. I was working for a little over minimum wage, and I was buying albums when pretty much the whole world was switching over to CDs. People were selling their albums and buying CDs and I kept on collecting albums. Buy sell and trade, buy sell and trade. I was making more doing that than with my day job. Then we started working out of my apartment, and the apartment filled up and I got so I couldn’t move any more, it was full of records, so I bought a house. But then that house got full, and the city started complaining because 18 wheelers would be showing up delivering pallets at my house, people said I had to move; had to get a building.
So—in ‘86, I started the business, where it became a full-fledged business; by ‘88 I moved from the apartment and went to a house; and between ‘88 and ‘91, I ran it out of that house. We had 11 employees working out of the house (laughs). It was great; I mean, we were doing like a hundred grand a month out of a bedroom, you know? That was back when you had a fax machine!
JS: You went from selling old records to reissuing rare titles, to actually pressing those records and printing the jackets—not to mention running recording and mastering studios, and a blues festival. Did you have a “master plan” from the start? Or did things just grow organically?
I do everything BUT print the jackets. We have a four color press that prints the inserts and the labels. Pretty much organically. Everything we do – I mean, we have a Hi-Res download site. People were asking – I mean, we sell SACDs, so they asked for downloads and we provide them. People asked for reel to reel, so now since we own our own studio, we’re making reel to reel tapes. Everything kind of goes hand in hand; we almost have like, five to ten to 15 different businesses here, you know what I mean? Just to have a printing press – I had to learn all about printing presses. Do you want a 4 color press or a 5 color press? Do you want coding? So I had to learn each thing…
But it’s all in conjunction – all linked together. We have graphic designers that work here. We sell pre-owned records – that’s a whole other part of the business. We’ve got graphic artists. Got my own blues label, where we record the musicians. And actually. you mentioned the blues concert – with the recording studio, I bought an old church in 1997 and we made a recording studio out of it called Blue Heaven Studios. Then in 1998, we had our first blues concert. Well, the one coming up this October will be our 20th, our 20th Blues Masters concert.
Chad: Yeah, thanks. So then I just bought Doug Sax Mastering, so we’re going to start mastering very soon. So we can do everything from the recording from the microphone to the mastering, to the plating, to the pressing, to the printing of the labels and inserts and the design of the jackets. We just don’t do the printing of the jackets.
JS: You both anticipated the increased demand for records, and contributed to it by reissuing desirable titles. Is your pressing plant still running at full capacity? Do you see demand falling off at all?
Chad: No, no, it’s running full. I mean, we just got a new country order. Chris Stapleton. We’re pressing 60,000 records for him. I mean – country music? 60,000 records? You think vinyl’s falling off? (laughs) We’re working on six more presses right now and before October we should have those six up and running.
JS: Here’s a question that always irritates Michael Fremer: are you sure the resurgence in the popularity of records isn’t just a fad? If it turns out that it is—then what?
Chad: Well, ever since I started out in 1984 when CDs came out, it’s always been growing – for me. Do you know what I mean? So – people ask me all the time, “How did you know this was happening?” or, “Did you see this happening?” My answer to that is this: I always trusted my ears. I always knew the LP would never die because I trusted my ears on the sound quality. But what I didn’t see coming was for the CD to start dying like it did! It had a 30 year lifespan!
Listen, since the day CDs came out, I have been doing this, investing every moment of my time and every dollar I had to making this thing grow, and I still am. I mean, the amount of money to put these next six presses up on line are incredible. So if it was starting to die or slowing down, I wouldn’t be doing that.
It’s always grown. Is it a fad? I don’t think so. I mean, let’s say, it slows down, even if it goes back to 1992 numbers. That’s fine. People still want records. They wanted them then. I mean, it won’t be every band in the book, just certain bands will make records, you follow? So, it ain’t gonna die and it’s not slowing down.
JS: You produce LPs, sell downloads, and now are reissuing reel-to-reel tapes. Do you see any areas of the recorded music biz that you’ve missed, now that you also have concerts and mastering covered?
Chad: Well, I’m looking at – in the process of buying a pretty famous audiophile label. But after this…in a few days, I’ll be 55. I think I’ve reached my limit. My goal is to finish what I’ve started, and to finish it well. I don’t want to take on any new business things, do you know what I mean? I need to finish what I’ve started and ride it on out. I mean, when you have a hundred employees…I want to finish these six presses, get the mastering facility running, do all these re-issues we’ve already got lined up…just try to see it to the end. Like right now, a lot of the stuff I’ve started, we haven’t reached the full capacity of it. We’re not making as many records with the machines we have right now.
Dude, I’ll tell you what – pressing records and having a pressing plant is HARD. And people really don’t understand, they think you’re just cutting a fat hog you know? You’re making money hand over fist. And you go to work, and, “Oh, so and so broke a screw today,” and you know, well a screw is $3,000! “Oops! Sorry!” (laughs) And you barely get a “sorry” you know? And they’re breaking screws like you and I break toothpicks!
JS: There’s a lot more to the business that meets the eye, once you look below the surface.
Chad: Right. When you get into manufacturing. The one thing, the one good thing about being in vinyl pressing is that you don’t have to advertise; you don’t have to go looking for orders. And you’d think, “Well, that’s a great thing, right?” You’d think that you could run 24 hours; you’d think that money – you could just – there’d be plenty of it. But the reality is that there’s labor, there’s material, and there’s electricity. And the only one you can really control is labor, and you can only control that to a point. It’s just – it’s a tough business that costs a lot to start and to keep going. But I’m in the middle of it now.
I mean, for me, I’ve always seen it growing. I would never thought that I’d be pressing 60,000 country records, you know what I’m saying? But again, I’m more surprised that the CD died how it did! (laughs) I say good riddance.
JS: Given the challenges you have towards putting out vinyl, do you see streaming services affecting your business, or the market for physical media?
Chad: Well, vinyl will always be vinyl and it’s going to do what’s it’s going to do. As far as us issuing SACDs and us continuing doing downloads, I’m not sure how streaming will affect the downloads. It probably will. You probably have to be a much bigger player than me to get into streaming. You probably have to make some guarantees, and things like that. I’m not ready to jump into that right now. We’ll just have to see. The streaming quality, I’m sure, will continue to get better. You know, everything is about these businesses learning new ways to capitalize on their investment. Music – get it out, the way people want it. So they’re probably figuring out ways to make deals on it. I’m going to wait until it’s a little easier to get into that game. Right now, it’s probably just the major players.
JS: Or Neil Young right?….[referring to the recently-announced XStream streaming service]
Chad: (laughs) Well, it’ll be interesting to see how that works out for him. Hopefully, he’ll have more success than he did with downloads on Pono.
JS: Salina is smack-dab in the middle of Kansas, in an area better-known for farm equipment and grain elevators than the blues. What kind of reactions did you get from locals when you first proposed a recording studio in a church and a blues festival, twenty years ago?
Well, CBS Sunday Morning and CNN came and did a piece on that. We get a lot of questions, not just about that – Salina – it’s pronounced “sa-LIE-na”, that’s the way the locals say it – Salina, Kansas is not known for the music business, much less the blues. So they ask, “Why Salina?” The only thing I come up with is: “Why not?”
So they ask that question. The reaction – a lot of people were surprised. I mean, the blues musicians, when they come here, they’re the most surprised. A lot of people were surprised, but they liked it – they filled the church up. A lot of people come from out of state to come to this thing.
Here we are in the Midwest, almost exactly in the middle of the country. About 90-93% white here. It blew peoples’ minds that we were having this blues festival in Kansas. But they like it. They come. Anything to get people into this town, they like it.
JS: I’m sure it helps local businesses, right? Lodging and food?
Chad: It’s a two night event. We seat about 500 people each night. So they rent a lot of hotel rooms and sell a lot of food. Actually, Salina is on the corner of two interstates: the east/west interstate – that’s I-70, and then the north/south, I-135. And they both cross here. So there’s a lot of hotels and restaurants catering to people. And that’s why we had a play on words, we call our blues thing, “The Blues Masters at the Crossroads”. I’m sure you know enough about the blues to know about the significance of the crossroads in Mississippi and all that. But they call it the Crossroads here too, because of the interstates. I mean, if you put your finger on a map in the middle of America, you would probably land right on Salina.
Like I said, I’m from the Cajun part of Louisiana and I’m a real proud Cajun. Tomorrow, I’m going to a private party to see Dr. John at Antone’s in Austin. And also there’s Sonny Landreth. Then I’m going to Lafayette for a festival called Festival International. So yeah, I miss it. But there’s a lot of good things about the Midwest. There’s no traffic, there’s not much crime. There’s not much trouble, you know?
JS: Your love of the blues and subsequent formation of APO shares some aspects to the story of Bruce Iglauer’s Alligator Records. Did that influence you at all, and given the analog roots of Alligator’s earlier releases, is there a special approach you use to capture the magic of blues for your recordings, given your love of analog?
Chad: Well, I know Bruce a bit, and I know the label, and I also know Delmark. In fact, we were just at a HiFi show in Chicago and Delmark – in fact, Bob Koester of Delmark is from Kansas. He’s the guy that Bruce worked for and learned from; he’s almost like a Chess Brother! Yeah, he’s still living.
But anyway, what we do, the way we record – we have a church. The acoustics in there – they built the church before there were microphones and amplifiers. And we like to have a kind of “less is more” thing; as little as possible in the middle of the process. A bunch of tubes, analog (tape), and air. Just the pure acoustics. We’ll have the musicians also play acoustic (instruments) too a lot of times.
So, we also do live to 2 Track. I don’t think Alligator ever did live to 2 Track except maybe those first Hound Dog Taylor records. But most of them were multi tracking. You can tell when something sounds really processed versus…
JS: …sounding like it’s right in the room?
Chad: Yeah, we like to think ours sound right like you’re in the room.
JS: What is the most unusual recording experience that you have had at Blue Heaven that wound up surprising you with its results?
Chad: That’s a good one! (pauses) We like to record the oldest [blues artists] you know, the most original blues that we can. A lot of times, we’re recording people in their nineties. We’ve recorded like, Pinetop Perkins – he was in his nineties, Henry Townsend – in his nineties, Homesick James, Robert Jr. Lockwood, also in their nineties.
Henry Townsend wanted to talk more money. We had the recording on, everything set up and ready to record. Henry’s nickname was “Mule”. And he goes (mimics Townshend): “We have to talk. I need more money!” (laughs)
I say, “Well Henry, you know, we’ve got engineers and musicians here from all over the world ready to go.”
And he goes, “Like I said. We gonna have to talk.” (laughs).
Now this has nothing to do with the blues, but John Atkinson of Stereophile came here to record…the guys from St. Martin’s in the Fields from London. And they came here with Stradivarius violins…
The church acoustics are so good, you could hear water drip all the way in the corner. Just water dripping on the ground…So they had these birds squawking. And you know these people all flew in from London, very quiet, very famous, and they had a Stradivarius, a Guarneri….we had like $20,000 a day’s worth of people here and we couldn’t record because of the birds squawking.
So we called the city. And you can’t kill the birds. No, no. Can’t get them exterminated. Only thing you can do, they tell me – “there’s this poison that you can spread it on the ground, and it gets into their claws when they walk on it, and it kills them.”
So I go, “Now let me get this right. You won’t let me kill them now, but you’ve got this poison that will slowly and painfully kill them, and we’ll have to wait days before we see results?” And the officer says, “Well, I guess you’re right, never thought of it like that.” (laughs) And it’s against the law to kill them. You can really get in trouble.
So we got a cherry picker. Somebody got up there with a spray can of foam; like in the fascia board. And you heard them go, “CHEEP…Cheep…cheep….” and then it was gone (laughs). We didn’t have much of a choice.
The other funny thing was, the ladies wanted to break for lunch. So they asked,
“Hey, are the instruments cool?”
“Yes ma’am. We’re in Salina.”
So we go to eat about a block away. And while we’re eating, she mentions that the Stradivarius violin is worth about $4 million and the Guarneri is worth about $2 million.
So then I go, “Ok, Can you hurry up and finish that lunch?”
“What do you mean? I thought you said everything was cool?”
“Everything IS cool, but for $4 million I don’t even trust myself, so let’s go!” (laughs)
You know, we left the doors open and everything…every recording session has something.
John Atkinson came to our first blues concert and he answered back that he was coming this October, so that’s cool.
JS: Acoustic Sounds and Quality Record Pressing first really became known in the audiophile market. Is that still your primary market, or have you gone more mainstream as you’ve grown?
Chad: We’re mostly audiophile. I mean, anybody who wants LPs we’ll sell to. We sell albums to everyone, but it’s still probably mostly audiophiles. It’s also interesting that about 30 percent of our business is overseas.
JS: Finally: did you have any idea what you were getting into when you started buying records? And where do you see your business growing in the future?
Chad: It’s like I said before – We just want to do what we’re doing only better, and to finish the things we’ve started.
JS: Better quality and more internal efficiency?
Chad: Right. I started the printing press, (new) pressing plant and mastering..we just want to take the things we’ve already started and finish them and make them more efficient to do it better, instead of other new things. ‘Cause it’s enough. I can’t really take much more. I feel young at 55, but I’ve got to be realistic, man. I can’t..I’ve already created a monster! (laughs). I’ve gotta tame it down, you know? ‘Cause my ideas are endless.
And you asked if I ever had any plan – and the answer is: no, none of this was planned. We just fly by the seat of our pants. It’s like with reel to reel tape; we always loved it and we always knew it could be the best, but to actually manufacture it and negotiate it, to do all those things – it’s not easy.
Customers may ask for things or we may come up with things, but I’m trying to limit those unless it’s a great idea or something very easy.
[Thanks to both Chad and John for a very interesting interview!––Ed.]
Here’s an interesting video on the Doors boxed set shown above: