With purchase of A&R vinyl pressing plant, Josey Records isn’t just a record store anymore

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As written by Robert Wilonsky for Dallasnews.com

One year ago this week, Luke Sardello and Waric Cameron opened a sprawling 15,000-square-foot sound warehouse on the LBJ Freeway service road known as Josey Records.

At the time, at least, it seemed like a mighty big risk filling such a cavernous building with what had long been dismissed as a dead format popular only among the flashback fetishists — the vinyl record, how 1978. But in just 12 months’ time, Josey Records is already more successful than even its owners expected, having expanded to Kansas City earlier this year with the promise of more outposts to come.

And this week, Sardello and Cameron, the managing partners at Josey, expanded the empire exponentially: The pair bought A&R Record Manufacturing Corp. on Riverfront Boulevard in the shadow of downtown Dallas, the lone vinyl-record pressing plant in the Southwest and a place where the Flaming Lips, the Smashing Pumpkins and Prince have pressed records in recent years.

Waric Cameron, left, and Luke Sardello are owners of Josey Records -- and, now, A&R Record Manufacturing Corp., where this photo was taken October 29. (Rose Baca/Staff photographer)

In short, Cameron and Sardello are no longer just selling Willy Wonka Bars. They are Willy Wonka.

“This is just another part in the grand scheme of things,” says Cameron.

“This was always part of the plan,” adds Sardello.

And the plan is even bigger than just the pressing plant: They mention a studio, a label, a distribution facility — all under one very familiar Northwest Dallas roof before the next 12 months are up.

“This was part of a conversation that depended on how things went with Josey Records,” Cameron says. “And so here we are. It came to fruition.”

A machine makes a microgroove impression on a vinyl record at A&R Records. (Rose Baca/Staff photographer)

It’s a perfect-weather late October afternoon, and both men are standing in the bright sunshine just outside A&R’s back door off the perpetually under-construction Riverfront. Inside, two women — longtime employees of A&R who worked for previous owner Stan Getz — are test-pressing records, showing one of Sardello and Cameron’s mechanics how the machines work. There are seven record-pressing machines at A&R, each dating back to the 1960s, which is about as modern as the technology gets. All of them work; the trick is making sure they continue to function, since repairing the once-thought-obsolete presses can cost thousands of dollars.

Gracie Damian is a longtime employee at A&R and has pressed countless records. She will remain on following the purchase by Josey Records. (Rose Baca/Staff photographer)

The facility is small, cramped and stuffed with rolls of dusty labels and thousands of record-making plates kept in white envelopes dating back years. There are cardboard boxes everywhere — some filled with empty record jackets, others with the grain-sized black and brightly colored pellets of vinyl that will eventually be melted into gooey globs and pressed into turntable-ready product. The whole place feels like it’s covered in a thin layer of yesterday.

Cameron and Sardello say they approached Getz about buying A&R in July. They’d known him for years, having run dance-music labels of their own in the mid-1990s; like every local label, they had to get their records pressed at A&R, especially since the CD essentially killed the vinyl industry by the early 1990s and the nearest facility is now in faraway Salina, Kansas.

The way they tell it, the duo hopped in the car, drove to A&R and made Getz an offer. And he said yes.

Lazaro Escobar packages a vinyl record at A&R. He too is among the small group of staffers at the pressing facility. (Rose Baca/Staff photographer)

“That’s sort of the short and sweet of it, to be honest,” says Cameron. “He had some lookers, but I don’t think they were serious, and he saw we were serious. We just put our money where our mouth is.”

(Getz, who worked at A&R since 1983 and bought it from the previous owners in 2007, couldn’t be reached for comment. The Josey Records men say he will still be involved on an as-needed basis.)

As recently as five years ago, buying a record-pressing facility might have been considered a dreadful investment unless you also had a time machine to go with it. Yet sales of records — records — continue to climb: According to figures provided by the Recording Industry Association of America, more than 13 million LPs were sold in the U.S. alone in 2014. Numbers haven’t been that high since 1990. And according to a recent New York Times story, about how there are just a “few dozen plants around the world that press the records,” more than half of LP-buyers are 34 years old or younger.

“The business of vinyl is an old business model, and it’s the one that has survivedeverything,” Sardello says. “Vinyl has survived streaming, and not only has it survived, it’s thrived. It’s up 40 percent each year. So what else is there to detract from it? It’s never been easier to access music, and yet vinyl is as strong as it’s been for the last 25 years.”

Stacks of wax at A&R (Rose Baca/Staff photographer)

This is how much the pair believe in the format: The Riverfront building will not be their permanent home.

The pair say they’ve also bought the former Dave & Buster’s on Composite Drive, off Walnut Hill Lane and Stemmons Freeway. That’s where they intend to set up the new record-pressing plant, augmented by “a state-of-the-art recording studio” and record-label offices and, eventually, a distribution facility. (They are not disclosing the purchase price for either A&R or the Dave & Buster’s, but, clearly, there’s at least some gold in them thar grooves.)

They expect to begin transporting the presses, one at a time, within the next six months. At the same time, they will begin opening other Josey Records stores: Cameron says he wants to have six to 10 more outlets in the next two years in “major metropolitan areas,” including San Antonio.

Josey Records is now one piece of a much larger operation. (Vernon Bryant/Staff photographer)

“The thought was always vertical integration,” says Sardello, “We started thinking about bands. We started thinking about a label. We started thinking about a studio. We started thinking about more stores and how we can work with bands and labels and go from pressing your records to distributing our records to putting them in our stores to sending your band on a store tour.”

The first Josey Records release will be an EP that goes on sale on Black Friday during Record Store Day, featuring five bands performing at in-stores in Dallas and Kansas City. The Dallas EP will feature Birds of Night, Taylor Lewis, The Azalea Project, Howler Jr. and Reinventing Jude. A&R is also scheduled to press a forthcoming solo project from Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan.

“To go from playing records to see them being made, that was magical,” Sardello says of his first visit to A&R in the mid-1990s. Now, after 20 years, he owns a piece of that magic.

“A&R is a piece of Dallas history,” Cameron says. “We recognize that, and we want to preserve that legacy.”

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