Vinyl pressing plant Smashed Plastic breathes new life into record biz here

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John Lombardo (left), Steve Polutnik (middle) and Andy Weber are opening Smashed Plastic, Chicago’s first vinyl record pressing plant since 1980. They plan to help local artists with their record needs as vinyl sales soar nationwide. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Over the past dozen years, nostalgia for — and sales of — vinyl records has been on the rise.

Yet, in that time, one of the country’s great music cities, Chicago, has gone without a single record being pressed here.

That blew the mind of businessman Andy Weber, who’s teamed up with two friends, John Lombardo and Steve Polutnik, to make the first vinyl records in Chicago in almost four decades.

The three have jumped head-first into their new business, Smashed PlasticRecord Pressing, despite having virtually no experience in the record production biz until now.Lombardo, who previously started a small record label on the West Coast, is a colleague of Weber at local radio station CHIRP, and Weber’s and Polutnik’s kids go to school together.

Three friends are opening Smashed Plastic, Chicago’s first vinyl record pressing plant since 1980. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Three friends are opening Smashed Plastic, Chicago’s first vinyl record pressing plant since 1980. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

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Retail sales of vinyl records in the United States grew for the 12th straight year in 2017, according to Nielsen, accounting for 14 percent of all physical album sales. Another Nielsen report from 2015 found vinyl album sales had grown 260 percent since 2009.

Despite this demand for analog recordings, there are fewer than two dozen pressing plants nationwide, which means major music labels get priority. That often leaves the little guys waiting months to get their records produced.

That’s where Weber, Lombardo and Polutnik come in.

Smashed Plastic, in the city’s Hermosa neighborhood, will become Chicago’s first pressing plant since 1980. The company wants to give small labels an easier, quicker and more hands-on local option for getting their music into disc form.

The lights are on Smashed Plastic butWeber, Lombardo and Polutnik are still testing their equipment. They’re aiming for agrand opening party in January as the first records from local musicians are pressed.

Until now, indie labels have had to find a major factory somewhere around the country, place an order and hope for the best. If something went wrong, they often had hundreds of imperfect records on their hands.

The logo of Smashed Plastic Record Pressing at its manufacturing facility in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

The logo of Smashed Plastic Record Pressing at its manufacturing facility in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

“Bands and friends were having a hard time getting things done,” Weber said while showing off Smashed Plastic’s new pressing machine during a tour of the plant with his two business partners. “There are really good bands in Chicago that just aren’t putting out vinyl, and I don’t think it’s because of the medium.”

To solve that problem, the group wants to offer its customers as much or as little access to the record-making process as they want. That means guiding fledgling labels through all of the pre-production processes and offering a listening room where bands can test a record as soon it comes off the press.

That approach is part of an “open-door” policy that the trio thinks will help artists with as many needs as possible.

“We want to do more than just press records,” Weber said.

A record in the production process at Smashed Plastic. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

A record in the production process at Smashed Plastic. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

If only someone had provided them with the same kind of guidance for opening a pressing plant.

It hasn’t been an easy road for Smashed Plastic. Between figuring out finances, looking for a location for the plant, determining the logistics of working a pressing machine and finding the right machine, they’ve hit plenty of speed bumps.

“I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights,” Polutnik said.

Despite that, he and his business partners are pressing on, in part because of their city’s music history.

“Chicago has a lot of pride in being Chicago,” Weber said. “We’ll get pride out of, ‘Damn it, I did this in Chicago.'”

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