Words by Rafe Arnott, photos courtesy of Qrates. Image above: Part of the Qrates mastering suite in Tokyo, Japan.
There was nothing easy, or egalitarian about the ability to commercially sell albums before the digital era arrived. In the ’60s and ’70s if you wanted to put out an LP and didn’t have the backing of a record label, you were left with finding a way to privately press your own. Which is exactly what many lesser-known (or obscure) artists did – at great expense. It was a costly endeavour to book studio time, pay for tape, hire recording engineers, session musicians, get lacquers cut, then connect with graphic designers and photographers for cover art. Due to these analogue production necessities, pressing runs often ended up being limited to three hundred copies or fewer because there just wasn't enough money leftover.
While this era saw multiple albums by Led Zeppelin or The Rolling Stones sell in the millions, get dozens of represses and receive untold hours of radio play, psychedelic, lo-fi fare from the likes of Peter Grudzien, experimental Krautrockers Rävjunk or pressings so rare they're more whispered legend, like Tohru Aizawa Quartet's Tachibana Vol. 1 went unheard, lost in obscurity. No record deal, no airplay. Their LPs garnering attention (and selling for upwards of $1,000 USD) decades later through little-known collector catalogues, or being spun by indie selectors and college DJs. So much has changed in the intervening decades that when it comes to releasing an album today, most artists from vinyl’s golden age wouldn’t even recognize the current model for disseminating and consuming music.
Today, it’s gotten to the point where the Internet has made digital music production so democratized, cutting an online album is the equivalent of cutting the cheese; anyone can do it. That, and the fact no one buys digital ‘albums’ anymore. And let’s be honest, who even downloads music? Popular culture, in its current disposable fashion, has seen fit to eliminate physical ownership of music entirely – streaming models like Spotify, TIDAL or Qobuz are de rigueur. But, there is a growing number of music lovers whose devotion to the analogue LP and its standard for quality is noteworthy. It is the fuel powering the engine of continued increases in vinyl record sales (to the tune of $619.6 million in 2020 according to the RIAA, and that doesn’t count used LP sales). So, while the cult of convenience makes streaming music the biggest cash cow ($12.2 billion in 2020), dematerialization doesn’t sit well with everyone; many people want to hold something in their hands. But, in an ironic twist, it is digital network technology that is allowing a new generation of unknown artists – and record labels – to manifest their work physically through private pressings. This time, via online platforms such as Qrates.
Photo above: A portion of the pressings that London, UK-based label Time Capsule has employed Qrates to handle production on.
Qrates, while not offering an end-to-end service model involving music production, provides a unique and proven track record of taking one’s digital or analogue masters and connecting artists and labels to the resources required to create professional, high-quality vinyl LPs. Pressing runs can start with as few as 100 copies, and scale upwards from there with pre-order, press-and-sell or crowdfunding options that also include storage and online sales plans. The fact that a number of independent record labels work with Qrates speaks to the level of the mastering, lacquer-cutting and pressing facilities employed – I learned about the company during an interview with Kay Suzuki of the re-issue focused record label Time Capsule. Resistor Mag reached out to company CMO Taishi Fukuyama to discuss what Qrates offers, to look at the private pressing and music industry today, and learn how they built an artist-driven user experience focused on producing albums delivering audiophile-quality, boutique pressings.
My mission and passion at Qrates are to improve the sustainability of independent artists’ careers by enabling anyone to create beautiful physical vinyl records."
–Taishi Fukuyama, Qrates CMO
Photo above: Check out the Qrates.com virtual Vinyl Studio for setting up a production run.
Qrates Q&A with CMO Taishi Fukuyama
Resistor Mag: Who is Taishi Fukuyama? What’s your background, your relationship to music?
Taishi Fukuyama: “I’m co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer at Qrates, a vinyl crowdfunding platform and end-to-end solution for artists and labels that need short-run and on-demand vinyl. Qrates eliminates any financial and inventory risk and hassle, working with a proprietary network of quality vinyl pressing plants worldwide for the best pricing and fastest delivery. My mission and passion at Qrates are to improve the sustainability of independent artists’ careers by enabling anyone to create beautiful physical vinyl records.
“Previous to my current role, I started my career in the music industry as an independent artist and music producer. As an artist, I became the first Red Bull Soundclash champion in Japan and have also written and produced the music for some of Japan and Korea’s top J-pop and K-pop artists.
“My tech/startup career started in 2010 by consulting U.S.-based music tech companies entering the Japanese market. With genuine passion and interest in the crossroads of music and technology, I have also helped launch the first Music Hack Day in Asia in 2014, connecting the Japanese music-tech scene to global technology platforms such as Spotify, Soundcloud, and more. Some notable clients whom I helped launch and grow their businesses in Japan include the Echo Nest and Spotify.”
Photos above; The Qrates.com website is an easy-to-navigate platform that can have even the vinyl uninitiated up and running in no time.
RM: Qrates offers a unique approach to cutting an LP. Can you walk me through what the company does (design & customization, mastering, artwork assistance, pressing, storage, digital downloads, etc.), and how it came into being?
TF: “Qrates (pronounced like ‘crates’) launched in 2015 as the world’s first crowdfunding platform dedicated to democratizing access to create, finance, and distribute vinyl. From design, on-demand vinyl pressing, sales, storage, distribution, and shipping, Qrates provides everything artists, and labels need to get music on vinyl.
“There are three ways artists and labels can work with Qrates. The Crowdfunding option allows artists to press vinyl without upfront costs or inventory risk, eliminating hassle and waste starting from as little as 100 copies. Once the minimum quantity is reached, Qrates presses the records and ships them directly to fans. We think this is a great option for artists to press with Qrates for the first time. The second option is our Press & Sell option which allows artists to get their records faster. Artists can start recovering upfront costs by taking pre-orders while the records are still in production. And lastly, the Press Only option is simply a vinyl pressing order fulfilled to one address.”
RM: Can you describe the production pipeline? You receive high-resolution digital files… then what happens? How involved do clients usually get?
TF: “Even before you’re ready to go to production, each vinyl release on Qrates is supported by our team of vinyl production specialists who are in constant communication between the artists and audio engineers, pressing plant, shipping carriers, warehouses, retail shop managers, and eventually the individual fans who buy the records from the artists. Making a record involves multiple external parties, but from the artist’s perspective, it’s all managed with Qrates through a single project dashboard.
“There’s a project timeline in the dashboard starting from the date of when the project was created, leading to the date of shipping. It’s an easy way for artists to have a birds-eye view of where in the production process they’re at. File management, test press and artwork approvals, sales reporting and inventory management are all consolidated within the dashboard.”
Photos below: Featured Qrates artists like Qrion chose the company for small batch, private pressings.
RM: Is Qrates able to cut lacquers from analogue tape? If not, can you facilitate digital mastering of tapes?
TF: “Yes, we sure can cut lacquers from tape. We also do have an in-house mastering option for anyone who needs audio mastering for vinyl.”
RM: The online tools you offer to facilitate creating an LP with Qrates makes it look easy for even the uninitiated to get rolling. The user experience is obviously key to the business. How difficult was it to formulate and refine that interaction model?
TF: “Our Vinyl Studio is the tool all artists use to select the size, quantity, color, packaging and other optional specifications for their vinyl. It provides artists a dynamically updating quote and profit simulator for the over 15,000 vinyl variations available along with a mockup representation of the record specs you’re selecting.
“You can upload your own album sleeve and label artwork to the mockup, spin it around, change the color, make it into a splatter.. It’s easy to have a bit too much fun on this thing to be honest.”
RM: You’re located in Tokyo, Japan, and you provide services to a global community of vinyl heads – do you think this could have been possible 10 years ago?
TF: “That’s an interesting question, but I don’t see why not. In fact, it may have been easier 10 years ago when there weren’t variables like Brexit and Covid-19. With the continued growth of demand for vinyl, and congestion in the supply chain everywhere, the challenges for fulfilling vinyl I would say are growing too.”
RM: Before I learned of Qrates, I had limited knowledge of private pressings in a modern/online context – my familiarity came from researching the small vinyl runs of the J-jazz, North African and Middle Eastern music scenes in the ‘70s. Imprint/small label/private pressing was a niche endeavour – is it still?
TF: “In the grand scheme of things, yes absolutely it’s very much still a niche endeavour – but so is Qrates. However, any endeavour can now broadcast and market at scale without the traditional gatekeepers of the past. It’s great to see so many of them with their own specialities and angles. We definitely want to continue to help these niche initiatives create meaningful vinyl releases and experiences.”
RM: Who is the average Qrates customer?
TF: “Unlike many other music services where only a small minority of users are “superfans” of a specific artist, on Qrates, it’s the average customer who tends to be a superfan of an artist, label or much more. There are customers who have bought hundreds of records on Qrates, making it a destination for vinyl collectors as well.”
RM: What’s next for Qrates? Is there anything new and noteworthy you’d like to mention?
TF: “Apart from building more tools and services for artists, we’re also looking to collaborate more with artists, labels, brands, media – you name it. If you’re curious about Qrates, you can book a 15min demo with us anytime to learn more.”