A History of Disc Makers, From 78s to DVDs.
Ivin had to first build his own pressing plant to get shellac 78’s for his own label as there were no plants to contract his releases. So Ivin Ballen, who was a remarkable character, did what not too many others would have done: he built his own factory and studio from scratch. To keep his operation humming when his label’s acts were "cold," Ivin began to take in work from other established labels, and within a few years the business had become a full-time pressing plant for third party labels. The record label? As the music scene changed, it slowly withered away. Ivin Ballen passed away in 1978.
Through the next two decades, the company progressed through various formats such as 45 rpm vinyl singles, 33 1/3 rpm vinyl LPs, 8-tracks, and audio cassettes. The roots of its "format neutral" philosophy were born in the late 60s, when Ivin’s son Morris Ballen decided that regardless of the format the client wanted, Disc Makers would be there to offer it to the market and the company began to duplicate 8 tracks and cassettes. By the late 1970s Disc Makers was a regional commodity vinyl and cassette supplier to the music industry, selling to record companies in New York, Philadelphia, and the Baltimore/DC area. It was a difficult time in a rough industry – record labels were (and are) notorious credit risks, and were quick to jump ship from one plant to another who would give them a slightly lower price and a fresh line of credit.
So it was with Disc Makers. Morris, who joined the company in 1959, realized in the late 70’s there had to be a record market that was not subject to the whims and credit risks of the record labels. Coincidentally, in the early 1980s home recording studios began to become popular when affordable recording gear started appearing on the market. With the emergence of these small studios came independent artists who were now, for the first time, able to afford making and marketing their own recordings. But what was an artist to do when they had a master tape with 10 great songs on it? Morris Ballen had the answer.
Ballen was one of the first to realize that there was an independent music market – that offering vinyl pressing and cassettes directly to artists was a viable business model. He became an early pioneer of Short Run manufacturing (300 up), advertising record pressing services in magazines like Billboard, The Source and Mix Magazine. Business began to accelerate, and in the mid-80’s the company passed the 5 million dollar mark in sales.
In the early days of record pressing, it was not easy for an artist to release their own product. When artists wanted to produce their own album, they had to deal with up to eight different vendors:
- A graphic designer – to design their album cover.
- A color separator – to make film for the jacket printing.
- A full color printer – to print the color "slicks" that would go on to become the album cover.
- A jacket fabricator – to apply the slicks to the board jackets.
- Label printer – to print the record labels.
- A mastering house – to cut lacquer masters.
- A plater – to make stampers to press the records.
- And finally, a pressing plant to duplicate cassettes or to press the records, and insert them into packaging.
Morris realized there had to be an easier way to make and more affordable way to release records. In 1985, Disc Makers became the first pressing plant to offer complete vinyl packages to artists and record labels. This one stop concept – where the artist could buy design, printing, pressing, and packaging from one company – would end up revolutionizing the music market, and was the spark that created the do-it-yourself ethos that to this day permeates the indie music community. The launch of complete record pressing and cassette packages launched Disc Makers' "modern era."
Working with musicians drove a new culture at Disc Makers, one focused on quality, customer service, and delivery. Tony van Veen joining the company in 1987, now the current president, realized that artists were used to being treated poorly and unfairly by whomever they dealt with in the industry: booking agents, club owners, radio DJs and program directors, managers, record labels – they all treated artists poorly. Disc Makers’ secret became that it was the only company to treat artists well, and as its reputation spread, sales of LP’s and cassettes to artists began to really take off. In 1984 the company planted its flag in New York with the opening of a Manhattan office on 46th Street.
In 1986 the compact disc was introduced (the first successful new audio format since 1969), and Disc Makers began selling that format in 1988 in small quantities – as few as 300 CDs. Disc Makers was ahead of the curve – artists who would order CDs often didn’t even have their own CD player at home. Since the package concept had worked beautifully for vinyl and for cassettes, Disc Makers began with CD packages, but with a twist: the company stunned the industry by giving away free graphic design to musicians with every new CD or cassette order. By 1990, when the CD market exploded, so did company sales. The free design offer turned out to be too good for artists to pass up. (Competitors too. They figured out how to copy the idea within a few years of its introduction.) Company staff numbered approximately 50 people.
In 1990 Disc Makers also revolutionized how CD manufacturing services were sold when it introduced the first CD (and vinyl, and cassette) manufacturing catalog. The company had moved beyond its regional base and was now marketing nationally through its catalog. It strengthened its hold on the national market when it started offering 2-day shipping anywhere in the U.S. at ground shipping prices. Other regional offices opened, in Puerto Rico (1986), in California (1995), when it purchased Music Annex, a Fremont, CA cassette duplicator and CD broker with locations in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, and in Seattle (1998), when the company acquired Martin Audio, a Seattle CD based broker.
Disc Makers realized that its ability to offer ever-improving service and faster delivery to its customers was compromised as long as it didn't do its own printing, so in 1991 the company began printing in-house instead of buying print from the trade printers. They started small, with black & white cassette inserts, but rapidly ramped up their capabilities in 1993 to include full color cassette and CD inserts. This reduced turn times for clients, and the fast delivery became a growth driver. By 1994 Disc Makers had outgrown its Philadelphia facility, and in January 1995 they moved across the Delaware River to their present location in Pennsauken, New Jersey, going from a 40,000 sq. ft. facility to 82,000 sq. ft. The company had 76 employees.
That same year, CDs also became a data medium with the introduction of the CD-ROM. Morris Ballen realized two things: 1) the company was not in the music business, but in the business of empowering artists, businesses, and filmmakers to get their message across to their market, and 2) the company already knew how to make these shiny discs, all they had to do was learn how to sell them to the corporate market. Disc Makers therefore entered the business-to-business market offering CD-ROM replication packages, adding more printing capacity, as well as the die cutting, folding, and gluing facilities required to offer the corporate market all the packaging formats it needed. The company became the first manufacturer to offer previously-hard-to-find formats like board jackets, wallets, and presentation folders affordably, and in small quantities suitable to small business needs.
It was 1998 when recordable technology (CD-Rs) became affordable enough for companies and artists to begin burning their own discs. Moreover, desktop CD duplication machines were beginning to become popular for short-run duplication. When Disc Makers’ customers began asking if they could purchase duplicators from the company, Disc Makers was faced with the dilemma "will duplicators kill our replication business?" Taking a page from the computer industry, the company forged ahead and introduced a line of CD duplicators at the risk of cannibalizing its primary business. Format neutrality meant offering what the market wanted, even if it meant risking the golden goose. Fortunately, while CD duplication equipment sales took off, replication sales continued to grow as well. In 2002 DVD burners began to appear, and sales of both the DVD duplicators and DVD media began to accelerate. By 2004, duplicator and media sales accounted for 25% of Disc Makers’ total sales. Payroll hit 350. To further strengthen its market position, offer more aggressive pricing, and differentiate its product line, the company began assembling its own tower duplicators in house in early 2005.
Also in 2002, the company began offering DVD replication services to independent filmmakers and corporate and institutional customers. Morris Ballen saw a huge market opportunity among independent filmmakers, who (thanks to a killer offer of 300 DVDs for just $990) were now finally able to afford making their own independent, retail ready DVDs. An aggressive marketing program was launched with the independent filmmaker in mind. Just like audio home recording became affordable in the '80s, independent filmmaking had just become affordable: by combining newly affordable DV-cameras with cheap computing power and low-priced editing software, and you had a revolution in the making. DVD sales began to experience explosive growth, which continues to this day.
But it wasn’t just DVDs that were seeing growth. As the independent music market evolved in the new millennium Disc Makers continued to add value to its packages for independent musicians. Its in-house capabilities allowed it to deliver faster than any of its competitors. Much faster, in fact. Complete CD packages were shipping in as little as 7 working days, as compared to close to 4 weeks at most other companies. Yet, Disc Makers did more than just build the value into the product it manufactured. It added additional services that allowed its customers to more effectively promote and sell their materials. Promotional posters priced at the bargain-basement price of $99 were too sweet to resist. The company partnered with CD Baby, the web's largest indie music store, to offer worldwide CD sales to its customers, and later partnered with them again to offer free web hosting to musicians. Other partnerships followed, with industry leaders like TAXI, Sonicbids, and the Indie Bible. These services created such momentum that Disc Makers opened regional offices in Chicago and Atlanta in 2005.
Today, Disc Makers stands alone as the undisputed leader in optical disc manufacturing for independent artists, filmmakers, and businesses. Many of its 400 team members are musicians and filmmakers themselves. The company has pioneered many of the features currently taken for granted in the music and film industry: complete turnkey packages, integrated in-house manufacturing, board packages like jackets and Digipaks, promotional posters and value added promo services, quality unparalleled in the industry, the industry’s only money-back guarantee, and turn times no one else can touch. The company operates the most vertically integrated manufacturing facility in the industry out of its Pennsauken, NJ facility, and produced over 40,000 titles in 2010 and the number is still growing. Disc Makers will furnish from 1 to 1,000 discs (or 10’s of thousands when ordered).
Despite the company’s success (or because of it), Disc Makers continues to be firmly focused on its mission: helping independents – whether musicians, filmmakers, or small businesses – compete head to head with companies much larger than themselves. In short, Disc Makers empowers artists to do what they love. And that is a worthy mission.