WRITTEN BY: Samantha Sullivan
Despite the accessibility and range of music streaming services, nothing can compare to vinyl. The crackle of the needle, the hypnotizing turns, reading along with the lyric sheet, the old-school intimacy of flipping through someone’s collection, and the rush you get when you find the record you’ve spent years searching for-it’s irreplaceable. For Softwax that magic is something, they want to make more accessible. Founded by Frederico “Kiko” Casanova, a first-generation American who grew up surrounded by music in the Dominican Republic it wasn’t until he started throwing shows that he realized the gap. Finding a home in the Bond Bread building he founded Softwax, America’s only POC owned record pressing plant. WHIP had the opportunity to speak to Kiko about the DIY scene, early internet, and the pressing process.
Samantha Sullivan: YOU GUYS ARE AMERICAS ONLY POC OWNED RECORD PRESSING PLANT-HOW DID YOU GUYS COME TO BE?
KIKO: Yeah as far as I know. It started when I first moved to Philly I was 18. I mainly got involved with the music scene by living in a house that threw a ton of shows in South Philly and thorough living there I learned the process and moved out and started doing my own thing. Through doing that I just met a lot of friends in the industry who had labels and who were constantly touring and I noticed they were all touring on material they wrote you know 2 years ago but they had new stuff that was out so I was like “yo what’s up with that?” and they were like “well it takes about 11 to 12 months to get our records pressed.” I was like that’s f****ing crazy why does it take that long? So I looked it up and in 2013/2014 there weren’t that many and my buddy who’s an engineer he’s an aerospace engineer he was like “oh yeah pressing a record it’d be pretty f****ing simple we should try doing that it’d be really fun.” I was like sure let’s try it and that was that.
SS: THAT’S TIGHT! CAN YOU GIVE US A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE RECORD PRESSING PROCESS?
K: It starts off with the artist recording their music and getting it mixed and mastered for vinyl. You need a special type of mixing so if it’s really heavy music it doesn’t make the needle vibrate and jump out of the groove. So it needs to be mastered for vinyl then it gets sent to our cutter and in real-time it inscribes the music with a cutter head, a diamond cutter head at a 45-degree angle or some s**t like that. Each side gets its own disc, it scratches it onto this big 14-inch aluminum disc dipped in lacquer and each side of the record gets its own lacquer and the music engrained, pretty much the data is scraped into their the frequencies.
Then it gets shipped to a galvanic plant and they spray it with nickel, copper, and silver. Then they dunk it in a tank full of zinc, you pull it apart, and the plate that you get is a stamper. It’s a negative so that gets shipped to us after the mold it to our specification, it comes to us and we attach it to our machine, we fill up the hopper with PVC pellets and then press the press button. Then it melts the PVC through a big old screw, forms it into little hockey pucks, and shoves it in front of the machine where it gets pressed at with I think 10 tons? 100 tons? I forget the number I know that’s a big window but that little 0 makes a big difference. It’s all steam and cold water that does it. Steam heats it all up and when it’s getting squished by the mold after it forms its sprayed with cold water like cold water runs through the pipes and the mold and cools it off. Then that’s that it pushes it forward to a cutting tray and cuts off the excess then you have your record.
SS: THAT’S SO COOL!
K: Yeah it’s a crazy process! I had no idea exactly how it went down until I started getting involved. I was like wait what there’s like 3 processes to getting a record f***ing pressed?
SS: HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INTO VINYL? WAS IT SOMETHING YOU COLLECTED WHEN YOU WERE YOUNGER OR IS IT A MORE RECENT INTEREST?
K: My father used to be a Disc Jockey a radio Disc Jockey over in the Dominican Republic. His station was the only station that you could listen to that was pretty much always in English. Some of it was in Spanish but you could listen to his station and it would be in English he’d be playing American music, English music from the UK, he would be playing The Beatles cause his station was called The Lonely Hearts Club Band, you know? My dad considers himself a Beatle. It’s hilarious.
SS: GROWING UP IN THE DOMINICAN WHAT KIND OF MUSIC WERE YOU INTO?
K: Honestly Dominican music like bachata, hip-hop, then when I was like 13 or 12 I started getting into punk. That’s when I started f***ing around with music and creating my own music cause I would listen to punk and be like this is f***ing easy! I’d pick up a guitar and start playing it and I was into it. I’d impress my dad and learn a Beatles song, it was dope. I was like f**k yeah this is dope. Every week I’d be like yo dad check it out and I’d rip a f***ing Beatles riff and he’d be like that’s great!
SS: WHEN YOU CAME TO PHILLY DID YOU HAVE YOUR OWN PROJECT?
K: Yeah, but it wasn’t anything big. I moved up cause my brother moved up a year prior. He had this punk band called Glocca Morra and they moved up here after they toured up here. They where like yo Philly is the s**t it’s where you need to go. F**k Montreal, f**k New York we gotta go to Philly. We went up I visited when I was 17 I was like this is dope, I moved up when I was 18 and as soon as I moved up two of my homies from Miami moved up with me. They dropped out of college and we played music here and there but we’d like release an ep and then get caught up doing other s**t then a couple of years later release another ep, we tried booking a tour and it just didn’t work out. It wasn’t everyone’s main focus it was just something we had fun doing and we were so involved in the scene it was so easy to get a show jump on this jump on that so we would do it for small events and things like that cause it was fun and easy. It was harder to let people down so we were just like f**k yeah we’ll get together for this!
SS: YEAH, I GET THAT. I FEEL LIKE IT’S HELPFUL TO HAVE THAT EXPERIENCE THOUGH NOW THAT YOU’RE WORKING IN THE INDUSTRY.
K: Oh yeah, 100%. Everyone that works here is involved in music heavily. Has produced it, has toured, they know what it is and they’ve also all worked in the restaurant industry which in my opinion is amazing. I feel like everyone should at least before doing anything crazy and serious work at a restaurant. When you’re 15, 16 even when you’re older it’s the best job and it helps you I don’t know deal with pressure and weird s**t like that.
SS: YEAH FOR REAL, Y’ALL PROBABLY HAVE MADE CUSTOMER SERVICE SKILLS.
K: It forces you to get good at that, it’s crazy.
SS: WHAT WAS THE FIRST RECORD YOU GUYS PRESSED?
K: Alright, the first time we pressed in production in Philadelphia was it was Palamino Blond and Las Nubes from Miami, Miami Beach. After that it was CIA. Those two were on the press at the exact same time, we finished those jobs on the same night. Those albums are amazing, I love those albums.
SS: HAVE THERE BEEN ANY CUSTOM VINYLS YOU’VE MADE THAT HAVE REALLY STOOD OUT TO YOU?
K: Yeah my friend Sam they have a noise project they go by Pain Train and every single record was a completely different color cause we just got a crap ton of sample supply of color from one of our suppliers and I asked my friend Sam like yo would it be cool if we just ran through all the sample colors for your project so all your records will cool and crazy as f**k and they were just like f**k yeah yo let’s do it. That was my favorite a lot of the records came out looking wicked. Yeah, it was hella fun, and yeah we just stayed up all night doing that. That was during our first month of production when we were still calibrating the machines to get everything right, figuring out a proper flow.
SS: IS IT HARDER TO PRESS COLOR? DOES IT CHANGE THE PROCESS AT ALL?
K: Yeah, every material every color there might be a small difference in temperature, you might have to melt it at a higher temperature or at a lower temperature. It all depends but for the most part if you get it from the same supplier it stays the same but that’s something you’ll notice after the second record and be like oh I gotta change the temperature.
SS: CAUSE THE COLORS WILL COME OUT DIFFERENT?
K: Yeah just like the chemical makeup of each pellet of different colors like say from black compared to pink there’s a different chemical make-up that might make it burn at a slightly higher degree and if it’s not burning hot enough it will stick to parts of the machine and just won’t go. It’s an interesting thing, there are so many annoying little nuances.
SS: YEAH I FEEL LIKE IT’S ONE OF THOSE THINGS WHERE IF ONE THING IS EVEN SLIGHTLY OFF IT’S A HUGE MESS.
K: That’s exactly how it is.
SS: DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST RECORD YOU EVER BOUGHT?
K: I think it was Wavves their first album or Broken Social Scene. No no no it was Spirit If… by Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene. Yeah, that’s what it is, Broken Social Scene Presents Kevin Drew Spirit If… That was the first album and then I think I bought Wavves as well at the same time.
SS: DO YOU REMEMBER WHERE YOU GOT THEM OR HOW OLD YOU WERE?
K: I think I was 15 and it was for Record Store Day but let me see wait no no no no it wasn’t Wavves it was Broken Social Scene Spirit If and uh what is it that f**king band The Black Lips Good Bad Not Evil.
SS: I LOVE THAT ALBUM! THAT’S A GOOD FIRST BUY!
K: Yeah, that was that and that was in Montreal. I was living with a friend and that was not when I was 15, 15 was when I found out about record store day and my roommate bought f***ing Blonde Redhead 23, Broadcast Tender Buttons, and there was another f**king album what the f**k oh Elliott Smith self-titled.
SS: Y’ALL HAD INCREDIBLE MUSIC TASTE AT 15!
K: Oh dude yeah, that’s all we did was listen to music, read AP Magazine, you remember that shit? How old are you?
SS: I’M 19
K: You’re 19? Dude! Wow haha yeah that’s awesome that’s cool that’s f***ng rad. So wait do you even know what AP Magazine is? Is that even still a thing?
SS: I DON’T THINK SO I’VE NEVER HEARD OF IT.
K: I don’t even think it’d be cool, I don’t even know if it was cool then.
SS: I’M CURIOUS NOW, WHAT IS IT?
K: It was a magazine called Alternative Press so all the alternative s**t you’d listen to you could find there. They’d mention small stream s**t main stream s**t and it was pretty chill it was a pretty chill way to find s**t out cause all we had back then for music was like Pure Volume and like Myspace, you know?
SS: IT SOUNDS LIKE A LESS PRETENTIOUS PITCHFORK.
K: Oh yeah yeah yeah we loved Tiny Mix Tapes. Tiny Mixtapes was the s**t because that was the place to get really dope reviews. Pitchfork was cool but we were always like eh Pitchfork but it was cool it was cool and then we’d use Live Journal, do you know what that is?
K: Live Journal is like this f***ing forum where everyone would be able to write entries on like their f***ing day and all your followers would be able to read your entries and you’d be able to read theirs and comment on it. That’s what we did, that was before Myspace so Live Journal was there and we would use Live Journal cause there was a handle on there called like Indie Exchange where you were able to download full albums of every band of all the dopest indie bands, all the dopest underground hip-hop, you would be able to download soundtracks to movies. It was really f***ing cool it was like a really dope database for people to upload all of the stuff they wold torrent and yeah it was f***ed up, the internet was so crazy back then.
SS: YEAH, I NEVER EXPERIENCED THE INTERNET LIKE THAT BUT IT SOUNDS TIGHT.
K: Have you had the experience of f**king chat rooms, dude?
K: Dude! Those are the worst like when you and all of your friends are in a chat room on f**king AIM yooooo that s**ts hilarious. There’s a show called PEN15 on Netflix that has an episode that’s just straight up about AIM which is America Online Instant Messaging, watch that that’s exactly what I’m talking about. What they do in that show is exactly what it was like for everyone in middle school in the early 2000s. It was f***ing hilarious.
SS: I’LL HAVE TO CHECK IT OUT!
K: I’m sorry we totally derailed from talking about records I apologize.
SS: IT’S FINE! DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE VINYL IN YOUR COLLECTION?
K: Yeah, my dad’s Beatles collection the ones that he would use during his DJ set cause those were f***ing dope. The only way to get them was from Argentina and he would get them shipped over, the DR would get them shipped over from Argentina and they were f**king awesome. Same tracklisting as the ones that were pressed in the UK so we have like Rubber Soul that starts with “And I Saw A Face” or whatever. If you listen to Rubber Soul now it probably starts out with “Ticket To Ride” or something like that I forget but yeah it’s cool. That’s my favorite thing to have I take that everywhere with me.
SS: YOU GUYS OPENED IN JANUARY-WHAT’S IT LIKE BEING A SMALL BUSINESS OWNER IN THE MIDDLE OF A PANDEMIC?
K: It’s scary. It’s f**king scary especially because the PPP didn’t give us anything they denied us $15000. They denied us everything but then they gave us $1000 out of nowhere but you know we’re not upset about the $1000 we definitely used it and it helped but it’s just crazy yo. We got nothing cause they were like ha you have no history of employees and I was like yeah I know we can’t afford employees we just started. But yeah it was pretty crazy.
SS: HAVE YOU FOUND THAT THERE’S BEEN A LOT OF COMMUNITY SUPPORT?
K: Yes, absolutely and I feel like if we can make it through this s**t. It feels like we’re going to be able to pull through and keep things growing and keep things moving once all of this settles down.
SS: ESPECIALLY WHEN PEOPLE CAN TOUR AGAIN I FEEL LIKE THAT WILL REALLY HELP YOU GUYS OUT.
K: Oh yeah for sure the fact that people are able to still sell their merch online helps. Online sales have been higher than ever so I read.
SS: EVEN LIKE BANDCAMP DAYS AND STUFF WHERE THEY LET THE ARTIST KEEP 100% OF THE SALES, I FEEL LIKE THERE’S JUST BEEN A LOT OF COMMUNITY-BASED ASSISTANCE IN THE ARTS.
K: Absolutely, it’s been cool.
SS: I SAW ON YOUR SITE THAT YOU OFFER AN OPPURINTITY FOR SMALLER ARTIST TO GET HELP FINANCING THEIR RECORDS. CAN YOU TELL ME A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT THAT AND THE COLLECTIVE YOU RUN?
K: Hell yeah. It’s a program that we didn’t realize was going to be really hard to get together cause we didn’t know anything about coding and in order to do everything we wanted to like collect peoples money and do all that we needed a solid-excuse me if I’m speaking so ignorant about this but I’m not really a tech-y person-but we had to program some s**t but we found people to do it. We’re just about done it’s about to go live soon but it’s a program where the artist does not have to put down any money to release a project so if they have a fan base that is willing to pay for the record they can get it.
The minimum is 200 and it gets put into production after 150 pre-sales are sold cause that covers all costs and then with the rest the artists make that money back. They make money just for promoting it so it’s like 150 records need to get sold but it’s ultimately 200. We’re selling them at $27 and that includes a color record and that includes drop shipping so we take care of all of that. All the artist has to do is promote so if they sell all of that they get $1,000 just from profit and they can do whatever they want with it they could donate it, they could put it towards their funds so they can go touring when it becomes a thing again or whatever.
SS: THAT’S SO COOL AND IT’S SO NEEDED. THERE ARE SO MANY ARTISTS WHERE MONEY IS THE ONLY OBSTACLE.
K: Oh, most definitely yo. I know so many people especially coming from booking shows in basements and s**t I know that there are artists that have a huge following in their immediate surrounding and they can sell about 200 records just make it limited, make it cool, do all that s**t yo. Be creative with your f**king release!
SS: YEAH ONE OF MY FAVORITE BANDS DEHD RELEASED THEIR LATEST ALBUM FLOWER OF DEVOTION AND THEY DID THIS SUPER LIMITED RUN OF VINYLS THROUGH HARDLY ART. THEY WERE THIS SUPER COOL GREEN COLOR AND THEY INCLUDED THESE LITTLE PACKETS OF SEEDS SO YOU COULD GROW YOUR OWN FLOWERS. IT’S QUIRKY STUFF LIKE THAT THAT MAKES YOU REALLY LOVE A BAND AND WANT TO SUPPORT THEM I THINK.
K: Oh yeah! We specialize in specialty records especially when our other machine is up and running we’ll be able to offer so many different types of records. Tri-color records, split color records, records that look like an egg you know with the little sunny side up in the middle some bulls**t like that. We love f**king around we love experimenting with s**t like that. The thing is those types of records are labor intensive so most of the time artists only get 20 or 30 of them out of a big order because it adds up and they’ll be spending a lot of money on just the labor of getting the records made.
SS: YEAH, I GOTCHA. ON YOUR SITE YOU ALSO MENTION A HUGE GROWTH IN THE RECORD PRESSING INDUSTRY SINCE 2012 BUT A LOT OF PEOPLE HAVE BEEN PUSHED OUT OF IT. HOW HAS THAT SHIFT INFLUENCED YOUR APPROACH?
K: Oh yeah, we just do business with independent artists and independent labels predominately cause most of these plants that I’ve worked at their main priority was to appease the big people and only take work from them and then maybe do Bob’s record down the street or Stacey’s record overstate, you know? So that’s all we just try not to do that. Right now all of our clientele are independent artists and independent labels.
SS: WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT PHYSICAL MUSIC?
K: The artwork you know? It’s cool I always dug it. All the s**t that my dad had every time we would move to a different house I remember the records where always an issue but I loved all of his records they were f**ing dope so that’s what I think about it. Now that streaming reigns supreme I think that sort of inadvertently pushed everyone back to a physical format so now you can think about like okay I do want a physical format it would be cool to flip through something. Do I want it in a CD format or do I want it in a vinyl format? If this is going to be physical I feel like you might as well have the full experience and go for vinyl because it’s bigger the artwork is there they give you cool s**t. I don’t know that’s how I feel about that.
SS: DO YOU THINK IT’S A DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE LISTENING TO VINYL THEN JUST STREAMING AN ALBUM?
K: For sure yo MP3 is wild completely different lower quality. Everyone knows that.
SS: I TOTALLY AGREE.
K: But you know that’s not to say that it’s worse. I don’t mean to use buzz words but vinyl brings a warmer fatter sound like you’ll find that in every f**king article, it’s so corny that I even said it but it’s true it offers a different sound, a different experience it’s more engaging. If we’re talking hanging out and we have the record playing I play side A and we’re talking having a good time and side A ends I have to stop get up engage with the record again, flip it, and just keep things going. It’s a dope thing it’s a really cool engaging thing. It’s almost like listening to a cassette tape where you have to take it out flip it when you want to listen to it, same deal. I think that’s something people forget about that they like. It’s cool.