Melvin Dillon doesn't hate the digital world.
A prominent feature of his apartment is a Macintosh computer with a huge monitor. Two magazines with late Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs on the covers sit in a virtual place of honor on his coffee table. He pulls out his iPhone to make a new music selection on his stereo as he chats with a guest.
But as much as Dillon likes digital, he loves vinyl records.
Larger and more prominently displayed than his Mac is his record collection, from vintage vinyl and garage-sale finds to special vinyl editions of albums by bands like My Morning Jacket, Wilco and White Stripes.
"There's just something about hearing the pop and the crack and the warmth off the record — hearing the grooves of the record instead of the zeroes and the ones of a digital track," Dillon said, lowering the needle on his turntable onto one of his prized records, the vinyl release of Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues.
Dillon's collection has something extra, though: copies of records from his own company.
Last year, he launched Soul Step Records, which releases only vinyl records. Dillon is not signing new acts to produce. What he aspires to do is take smaller acts that are already recording and help them release their music on vinyl, a medium that has seen growth in the past few years as CDs and other formats have declined with the advent of digital music.
Last year was the first year that digital music sales through mediums like iTunes and Rhapsody exceeded CD sales. At the same time, Nielsen Soundscan reported that vinyl record sales jumped 36 percent in 2011.
According to a January story in The Wall Street Journal, most vinyl is sold through independent record stores such as Lexington's CD Central and Pop's Resale. But major retailers are also getting in on the game including Amazon.com, which now has a vinyl store where you can pick up LPs of recent bestsellers like Adele's Grammy Award-winning 21 and the Black Keys' El Camino, as well as classics such as The Beatles' Abbey Road, which has been the No. 1-selling vinyl record for several years.
Why has it been the top seller?
Look at the cover, one of the most iconic images in rock music of the Beatles walking across a street.
Dillon said that's why, as counterintuitive as the resurgence of vinyl seems, it makes sense.
Yes, younger music fans are going to continue to get their music through digital sources. But Dillon said that for people who really want a tangible version of their favorite music, vinyl is the way to get it.
"As the world started to go digital, the CDs didn't make sense," Dillon said. "The CDs weren't enough to have a physical representation of music. There's something about actually holding it, a two-handed product.
"I'm sure there are a lot of guys and gals like me that are looking to physically connect with their love of music, and that's where the vinyl record comes into play."
He's banking on it.
Dillon's pitch to bands is that he will front the costs of pressing the album. It will start with a limited edition of 100 discs in a form like a clear disc or some sort of colored artistic vinyl. After those are sold, the rest of the 500-record run is pressed in basic black vinyl. Once Dillon has recouped the costs of the run — $3,000 to $6,000, he said, depending on how ready the band is to release a record — he splits the profits 50-50 with the artist.
At this point, he said, he just wants to plow any profits back into making more records, though the setup does set the stage for a nice windfall "if one of these bands blows up and sells a ton of copies."
And since starting this enterprise, Dillon has learned that vinyl weighs a ton.
His first client is Chicago-based Scattered Trees, and he recalls that when he received his first shipment of their album, Sympathy, he wore himself out taking the boxes from the office at his apartment complex to his third-floor apartment.
To start the business, Dillon had to find a vinyl pressing plant to work with and learn the particulars of recording for vinyl, which requires a slightly different mix than digital releases. He found there are only 20 to 30 vinyl pressing facilities left in the world, and he settled on United Record Pressing based in Nashville.
Jay Millar, the marketing director for United, told The Wall Street Journal that the facility is often running 24 hours a day because of the increased demand for new vinyl.
Dillon said Millar told him that the Scattered Trees records were pressed at 3 a.m. on his birthday, Oct. 21.
At this time, Dillon is Soul Step Records — everything from the owner to the shipping department. The albums are sold by the bands at shows and through the Soul Step Web site (Soulsteprecords.com) for $20 for the special edition clear records and $15 for the black vinyl, plus $5 shipping.
"You can imagine the look on the faces of the people at the post office when I came in the first day with 125 individually packaged vinyl records and each one had to go to a different location," Dillon said.
Since the release of Sympathy in October, Dillon said, the amount of shipping he has to do has slowed, and now he is looking to secure his next artist. There were 500 records pressed in the initial run, and Dillon said any subsequent pressings would be 500 records at a time. Subsequent pressings are $1,000, and like that initial run, Dillon said, the deal is, he recoups his costs and then has a 50-50 split with the artist.
"I hope to release one record each season in 2012," said Dillon, who just signed his second band, San Francisco-based Big Tree, last week.
Going forward, he hopes to have fun with the special-edition copies like those that are among his favorites in his own collection. Among the ideas are colored discs and picture-disc releases, as well as records in shapes like hearts and other forms.
"I want my records to be something that people show off when guests come to their homes," Dillon said. "I want them to say, 'Look at this. It's unbelievable.' "