Chad Kassem doesn't like compact discs. He never has — not now, not back when manufacturers started churning them out in the 1980s. There are CDs in his office at Acoustic Sounds, the Salina-based music empire that he runs. But he listens to those only to decide whether his company will rerelease a better-quality vinyl version of the music contained on them.
"CDs push you out," Kassem says, standing inside a concrete-reinforced vault adjacent to his office. He tugs randomly at the sleeve of one of the thousands of vinyl records stored here. "Vinyl is more emotional. It feels better. It draws you in. You start playing a CD, and dogs leave the room.
"The major labels tried to kill vinyl," he continues. "At first you'd go to Sam Goody, and they'd have a little box of CDs, and the rest was records. Two years later, it was all CDs and a box of records. So I've been swimming against the current ever since I started Acoustic Sounds. But I trusted my ears. Now the Johnny-come-latelies are coming back to vinyl. I knew vinyl wasn't really going anywhere all along.
"But here's what I didn't predict," he says, and his eyes gleam. "What I didn't predict was that CDs would die so hard."
Kassem has earned the right to gloat. CD sales are plummeting, and vinyl sales rose for the fifth year in a row in 2012, from 3.9 million units in 2011 to 4.6 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Kassem is perhaps better positioned than any individual in America to benefit from these trends. Acoustic Sounds and its subsidiaries, all of which are located on a 70,000-square-foot campus near the train tracks that run north of downtown Salina, are essentially a massive bet on the market for vinyl. The company retails and distributes new and used records — plus an assortment of audiophile paraphernalia, such as turntables, preamps and speakers — online at acousticsounds.com. It supplies wholesale vinyl to independent record shops. It records artists at Blue Heaven Studios. It plates and presses vinyl records at its plant, Quality Record Pressings. And it reissues rare and out-of-print albums from such labels as Blue Note, Impulse and Prestige.
It has been only two years since Kassem decided to start pressing vinyl in Salina, but Quality Record Pressings already has an international reputation for high-end audio.
"I've visited almost every vinyl pressing plant in the world," says Michael Fremer, senior contributing editor at Stereophile magazine and editor of analogplanet.com. "And QRP is right at the top, along with a handful of others. There's Pallas, in Germany. There's Optimal, which is also in Germany. There's RTI, in California. And there's Chad and QRP. And I'm not sure there's anybody else getting the consistency he's getting. And here's another thing: RTI has been around 30 years. Pallas has been making records since before World War II. QRP just came out of nowhere."
In 1984, Kassem moved from Lafayette, Louisiana, to Salina to get sober. Why the middle of Kansas? "You don't send a drunk to New Orleans or Miami to get sober," he says.
He got a job as a cook at Russell's Truckstop Café and started collecting records as a hobby. Using mail-order catalogs, he traded, bought and sold rare and high-quality blues and jazz records. By 1986, he put a name on his operation: Acoustic Sounds.
Kassem has an obsessive streak and an audiophile's ear — advantageous characteristics for record collectors — and his business grew quickly. He moved from a two-bedroom apartment to a house with four bedrooms to accommodate the stacks of records piling up. By 1991, Acoustic Sounds was doing $100,000 a month in sales. "The neighbors started complaining about the 18-wheelers delivering pallets of records outside," Kassem says. "So we finally had to move to a commercial space."