In the fall of 2019, Andy Weber and the three other co-founders of Smashed Plastic, the local Chicago record-pressing factory, arrived at the glitzy Chicago Theater to meet Jeff Tweedy, guitarist and frontman of the band Wilco. Arguably Chicago’s most successful band, Wilco have produced twelve studio albums since 1994. Their music has resonated with listeners over the decades, as evidenced by the number of albums sold, plays on streaming platforms and ticket sales for their live performances.
Smashed Plastic, on the other hand, had only started pressing records a year earlier, using a single elephant-sized pressing machine to make vinyl for local musicians and labels.
The Smashed Plastic crew only had 15 minutes with the famous rockstar before Tweedy performed to a sold-out crowd. His manager had made the first contact with Weber to say that Tweedy was interested in getting involved with the factory. With the Chicago-based musician’s ultimate support fitting in nicely with Smashed Plastic’s local customer base, Weber approached Wilco to fund a second pressing machine, doubling the plant’s ability to serve local artists.
“At that time, we were the ones presenting who we were,” Weber recalled. “I just remember rambling on and on and telling him the story of how we came together. I’ve been a fan of Wilco since the first album, so I was like, ‘Wow, that’s Jeff Tweedy sitting directly across from me. My life took an interesting turn. Before starting the new business, Weber was a part-time stay-at-home dad, part-time real estate agent, and lifelong music lover. At one point given, he worked as a DJ on CHIRP Radio.
The short reunion was enough to capture Tweedy’s interest, but a few months later the pandemic interrupted the conversations. Wilco’s main source of income – touring – temporarily dried up. Meanwhile, Smashed Plastic’s business took off. The pandemic accelerated the “vinyl revival” of the past decade as young people searched for ways to spend time at home while supporting their favorite artists. In 2021, vinyl record sales topped 40 million – an exponential increase from around 2 million in the early 1990s when cassettes and CDs took over the market. Smashed Plastic went ahead and purchased the second machine on their own, agreeing to keep in touch with Tweedy for another opportunity.
Now, three years later, Smashed Plastic have established themselves as a staple of Chicago’s indie music scene. Many of its sixteen employees are members of local groups. The factory’s location in the city – they are in the Hermosa district – also means more frequent and deeper relationships with the artists.
“I live nearby and I can pick up my records and go on tour,” says Ben Baker Billington, a Chicago-based musician. “Everything is family and community. I love having them around town. It creates pride. P. Michael Grego, another local musician, filmed a live set at Smashed Plastic with his band ONO. He described the factory as having “that Willy Wonka factory wonder”.
Smashed Plastic is one of thirty companies in a coworking space called Workshop 4200, the home of the former Hammond Organ Factory. They share the building with coffee roasters, candle makers, printing presses, distilleries, etc. “Vinyl is a luxury item,” says Weber, referring to its relatively high price compared to streaming platforms. “We’re kind of like a craft brewery or a craft coffee roaster, so we fit in perfectly.”
The entrance to Smashed Plastic is down a long hallway, where a large blond wooden door bearing the Smashed Plastic logo opens directly onto the factory floor. Two disc presses hiss and hum constantly, producing print runs of 250 to 20,000 discs.
But in recent years, crippling supply chain shortages have strained capacity and hampered production. Basic supplies can take months to source, from the plastic that melts to form the disc to the thick, shiny paper sleeve that the finished product comes in. It now takes eight months to complete an order, up from three months at the start — an industry-wide average delay. Weber’s current goal is to get to six.
Adding to supply issues, only one manufacturer in North America, Toronto-based Viryl Technologies, makes pressing machines, including the two from Smashed Plastic. Since the pandemic, obtaining spare parts and completing maintenance projects has taken weeks instead of days. Smashed Plastic has a steady revenue stream, but almost all of it goes to upgrading equipment and infrastructure.
After years of battling machine shortages and problems, Smashed Plastic recently encountered a hard-earned stroke of luck: Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy returned to the table with a deal to purchase a third machine, details of which are private. The partnership is a win-win-win: it accelerates the growth of Smashed Plastic, records for Chicago musicians and Wilco’s own vinyl. The new machine will increase the size of the total production cake enough to support Wilco’s larger orders of 30,000 or more while leaving room for other batches.
“I’ve loved records all my life,” says Tweedy. “I feel lucky every day to be able to spend so much time making records. But until now, I’ve never had the opportunity to participate much in the making of a record. Smashed Plastic is a great local, independent company that I’m delighted to be able to partner with, following a long tradition of Wilco, The Loft and the Tweedy family supporting and participating in the Chicago music scene.
The machine will be delivered in early 2023 — hopefully. Viryl has not committed to a specific date as they battle their own parts shortages, including microchips that are so rare around the world that the US government has passed a bill to bolster domestic production of fleas.
As Weber waits for the machine to arrive, the delays tire him. He spends his days communicating new schedules to customers and solving production problems like a game of Whac-A-Mole. During a visit to the factory, the problem of the day was a faulty thermal unit (mobile and economical replacement of a complete boiler room). Without it, one of the presses would sit idle – a loss of 250 discs a day. Weber anxiously checked his phone to see if Dave, a friend and pipefitter, had arrived to fix it.
“It was 20 times harder than I thought it would be,” Weber says. “I had a really bad anxiety attack in September because we were so supported. But I just remember that I run a pressing plant and it’s a great job. Amidst it all, Weber maintains a relaxed appearance, with a smile that quickly shows up in conversation.
Behind the scenes, Weber relies on meditation and therapy to manage stress. He makes it a point to be open about his mental health with his kids and fellow Smashed Plastics. “Meditation saved my life,” he says proudly.
In recent years he has made great strides in keeping an even keel – but finicky machinery has been a years-long battle. “I need a vacation,” Weber says. “I always need a vacation.” But the joy of working with local bands and labels, he says, keeps them going.
“When you step away from the quagmire and muck of the daily grind that drives you crazy and you start looking at the bigger picture and its positivity, and you’re like, ‘So much good is happening.'”
As the factory grows in size, number of presses and volume of orders, so does its contribution to the local music scene and the people who make it happen. Weber makes a point of working directly with customers. If there is a problem, he invites them to come to the building to solve it in person, rather than by email. “There’s always going to be someone who can do it cheaper somewhere else,” Weber says. “But people choose a local manufacturer because they believe in it. They support us and we support them.
Jordan Reyes, a local musician who also owns the American Dreams label, fondly remembers buying the first vinyl records of his own music from Smashed Plastic. Twenty-eight at the time (he’s 31 now), he stopped in front of the building and went inside to meet Weber. His album, close, was playing on the turntable in the living room. The two loaded the trunk of his Ford Explorer with nine boxes full of 500 salable-ready records with custom sleeves he had ordered three months prior.
“It was the first time I went to a pressing plant and the first time I pressed something of myself on vinyl, which was a refreshing moment as a musician,” says Reyes. “I had this feeling where I was, ‘this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. “Reyes, like many other artists and listeners, is drawn to the warm sound quality unique to vinyl. Since then, Reyes has pressed 40 albums with Smashed Plastic for his label.
Weber can often be found sitting between the press and assembly rooms, working on his emails in a retro-chic living room. A sign on the back wall reads: CRASHED PLASTIC WELCOMES YOU with a row of arrow-shaped light bulbs on top. On one side of the room, old arcade cabinets, a beige vintage jukebox and a brown leather sofa create a retro living room. A large bar takes center stage.
All the ingredients are there for a great party space, including a turntable sitting above the bar, spinning whatever album the machine is pressing. But this summer morning, the sun is streaming in from above through an open skylight, and Weber is working on coordinating Smashed Plastic. first music festival in october. The one day event will feature all local musicians at an affordable price. The range includes Pixel Grip, ONO, Tar, Rookie and Serengeti. Weber hopes this will be the first year of an annual festival.
“Everyone is local and everyone pushed with us,” Weber says. “It’s a festival for local music lovers. It’ll be all the local labels selling their stuff, and local bands playing, and local beers, local food trucks.
“Keep all of Chicago.”