Plane Groovy and the Magic of Vinyl (Republished)

In the early 2010s, we began to read about the vinyl revival, and now, in 2018, it looks as though it’s here to stay. But why are we telling you about vinyls? The answer is simple—our team is filled to the brim with vinyl connoisseurs! This is why we’re so excited about our exclusive interview with Chris Topham, a charming gentleman who owns a record label called Plane Groovy.

When I asked David Longdon about him, he told me that Topham is almost evangelical about vinyl. In other words, we’re talking about a man with a long-lasting passion for music, and there’s always a thing or two that we can learn from people like that.

The Plane Groovy brand stems from Topham’s history with the RAF mixed together with his love for groovy music. In the interview, he told RVG that, “My friend Dave Marheine came up with a rough idea for the name; Plane because of the flying connection and because a record is also a flat plane; Groovy because it’s groovy music and also the record surface is grooved.”

But what makes Plane Groovy special? It’s that someone is trying his hand at crowdfunding, and much like film, digital art and games, we’re sure that this unique crowdfunding model can change Plane Groovy’s artists’ futures for the better.

Illustration Photo

If you’re interested in analog audio, Plane Groovy and its artists, or just want to find a hidden gem of an album to whisk you away for the remainder of the night, we’d recommend this wonderful interview.

For the uninitiated, please explain how vinyl records are made.

It’s a complicated and very highly skilled process with many steps before the finished article comes out of the factory.
Hi-res 96k 24 bit audio files (ideally), optimised for vinyl, are sent to the manufacturer. These audio files have been carefully EQ’d to allow for the standard cartridge frequency biases, and from those correct audio files the stampers are created. A cutting machine which is basically the reverse of a record deck is used to cut the grooves into a lacquer copy of each side of the album; these are then processed to produce metal stampers with a negative image of the grooves.

Vinyl pellets are introduced into a hydraulic press, heated up and then squashed with the stampers to produce a vinyl record which is trimmed and then packaged. From the mid-70’s until recently only recycled vinyl was allowed to be used to make records (apart from in Japan), so a large part of the awful reputation which vinyl had for being noisy and for crackling was due to foreign matter (such as mashed-up old labels) being suspended in the vinyl.

Nowadays everything is pressed using virgin vinyl, and the manufacturing tolerances of the cutting machinery are much tighter so we potentially have much better sounding records, with a wider dynamic range than in the past.

How did you come up with the Plane Groovy brand? I like to think that it’s a reflection of your history with the RAF combined with your love for music, but I might be wrong. What’s the story there?

You’re pretty much correct! My friend Dave Marheine came up with a rough idea for the name; Plane because of the flying connection and because a record is also a flat plane; Groovy because it’s groovy music and also the record surface is grooved.

I have collected vinyl for many years and realised a few years ago that a lot of music which I liked was simply not available in that format, only as CD or download. In 2011 I did some overtime in my “other” job as an airline pilot, and my wife agreed that I could use that money to start a record label. The original idea was to put out those previously unavailable albums, but very quickly I was being asked to release current albums, because either bands didn’t have the expertise or funding to do this, or else their record label were not interested in vinyl because it was too much effort for not enough return!

Six years ago, a short time after I started the label, well-respected journalist David Hepworth (Old Grey Whistle Test, Q Magazine, The Word) wrote an excellent article about us, but in it he called the label Plane Crazy! I think that was a reflection of his thoughts about starting a vinyl-only label at that time, but of course since then vinyl has made a huge come-back. It seems very odd to have been there right at the start of a trend, at my age!

What is your favorite memory involving music?

I went to an all-boys boarding school in 1967, at the age of 10. During my third year we had a concert one Sunday afternoon by the band Steamhammer. They were playing in nearby Peterborough that evening so played for us from 2:30pm, to a huge audience of almost 750 boys and it changed my life forever. I had always enjoyed listening to music, but this live performance was like nothing I had ever imagined.

Their self-titled album Steamhammer, which starts with “Water” and then sequences into “Juniors Wailing” has been recently rereleased on the German Repertoire label as a half-speed mastered album and I highly recommend it as the example of a live-sounding studio album; listening to it takes me straight back to that Sunday afternoon many years ago. Incidentally Martin Quittendon from the band went on to write Maggie May for Rod Stewart!

Anyway, thereafter we had regular gigs at school right up until I left in 1974, featuring bands such as Comus, Camel, Magma, Greenslade, String Driven Thing, Van der Graaf Generator, Tear Gas, Esperanto, Genesis and many more; this pretty much ensured that I’d be a lifelong fan of Progressive Rock!

Were there any 2017/18 albums that have impressed you? And if not, are there any older releases that have left a lasting impression?

Yes, many albums from the past two years are still getting played regularly here; I think that the Prog scene is currently as strong as it has been for many years. From Plane Groovy we’ve had a great run of Prog releases during that time, including albums from DBA, Magenta, cosmograf, Big Big Train, Tim Bowness, Damian Wilson and Adam Wakeman, Comedy of Errors, Niko Tsonev’s Moonparticle, Lifesigns, Tiger Moth Tales, Robert Reed and Kyros. These encompass the full spectrum of Prog from melodic and instrumental through orchestral, to Prog Metal and are all outstanding albums.

Elsewhere I’ve really enjoyed releases from I Am The Manic Whale, Needlepoint, Gandalf’s Fist, Riversea, Regal Worm, Major Parkinson and The Fierce and the Dead. Of those, Needlepoint’s “Aimless Mary” would probably be my choice as the very best, it’s a complete masterpiece.

What’s your favourite album cover and why?

Caravan – “In The Land of Grey and Pink.” It’s an evocative full gatefold image, imagining a land as described in the title; the cover screams Progressive Rock and almost demands that you take a look to see what album it is.

It also happens to be pretty much my favourite album of all time, so that’s another reason why it’s up there! There was a recent version, on pink and grey swirl vinyl, remastered by Steven Wilson which is very hard to find as it only came out in a run of 500 copies but is well worth finding as it has some interesting alternative versions too. Concurrently there was a CD/DVD package which is probably easier to come by – but of course you’re then missing out on the full magnificence of the gatefold LP artwork!

What are your thoughts on the music industry in its current state?

I’m not best placed to comment on the industry in general but here are some comments on parts of the business which affect me and Plane Groovy. There’s still a huge disparity between those at “the top” and the vast majority of bands, and it manifests itself in many ways. People will happily pay £100 plus travel expenses to go and see Steven Wilson, but will not make the effort to go along to see two or three bands locally for an entry fee of just £10 and I still fail to understand this.

On the vinyl side, Led Zeppelin (for example) rerelease their albums in quantities of 20-30,000 as double albums, when the manufacturing cost for such a large quantity drops to around £3.00 per copy, but their label still charges £25 per copy. We put out a package which is manufactured to the same high standard but because the market is small we can only justify pressing 300 copies, with a manufacturing cost of £9 per copy.

This makes it very hard for us to break even, since we can still only sell at £25 without people complaining that they are being ripped off. At that selling price, the wholesale price is £16 and the distributor takes a hefty cut from that figure too, so a lot of the Plane Groovy releases are only out there to put the album onto vinyl for those who prefer to listen that way; they will never make any significant profit.

The plans to fund the Cosmograf – “When Age Has Done Its Duty” release could be a real game-changer for Plane Groovy and its artists. Crowdfunding has risen to transform thousands of musicians’ lives already, and I’d like to ask about your views on it. How do you think this new approach will pan out?

That’s a really interesting question, which follows on nicely from what I just talked about. There are a number of albums (such as the early cosmograf releases) which run to around 60 minutes; too long to put out as a single album. Releasing these as a double album in the normal way would put the Company at some risk, because frankly they would probably never break even. I looked at a “standard” crowdfunding model, but even then we would have to give away 20% of the funds received to the crowdfunding site, affecting viability. I decided to try a slightly different approach, by asking people to invest in a series of upcoming projects. Very simply, they are paying very slightly over the odds for their copy; £30.00 for an album which will retail for £25.00.

However, the investment element is that we’ve agreed with the artists that subsequent profits from further sales will be split three ways; 33% to the artist, 33% to the label and 33% back to the investor. This means that potentially, if the album sells out, investors will receive back somewhere around £10 each making their purchase good value. Even if there are no more sales, they will be getting the very lowest numbered copies, they will be offered the test pressings ahead of any other buyers and will have a name check on the cover thanking them for making this possible. We also offer a couple of other benefits too which have been very well received, and there’s the opportunity in the future to have a say in which albums get released in this way. I envisage around 4 albums per year will form the Investor collection.

The first release, cosmograf “When Age Has Done Its Duty” hit the complete funding target very quickly; we also now have a small “standby” list of potential investors who didn’t particularly want that album but would like to be considered in the future. I’m very hopeful that we’ll keep most of the current investors, as my “bucket list” of releases includes some very well regarded albums!

Vinyl, much like traditional painting (wording borrowed from Sasha) does not strip art of its last refuge, which is physicality. It keeps its intrinsic value. A vinyl can be cherished, inherited, and loved, which is why to buy a vinyl, is to make an investment. Are you in or out?

Oh, I’m very much in! I’ve been collecting vinyl since I was 10 years old.

The first record I actually bought myself with my own money was The Beatles “Penny Lane” in 1967 on the day it was released, in a picture sleeve. The first albums, at Christmas three years later were Family “Fearless,” John Lennon “Imagine” and Lindisfarne “Fog on the Tyne.” I recognise that there’s a place in our lives for both mp3 (when I’m away on a trip) and CD (when we have friends around), but if I’m *ever* sitting down to really listen to the music it’s always vinyl. I can get lost in gatefold covers for hours and hours.

Since I became an airline pilot I’ve travelled the world buying vinyl – I’m now having to consider what to do with my ridiculously huge collection and I think the answer is that it’s going to be sold off gently over the next few years. I’ll keep a core collection of maybe 1000 pieces which ultimately will be passed on to my son, but the rest will generate some cash for doing other stuff. I’ve had enormous enjoyment from compiling such a mass of vinyl (probably around 10,000-15,000 records), but the ones I choose to keep will all have extra special meaning for me. I’m delighted that vinyl has retained its value – as our Plane Groovy releases sell out prices start to rise and some of our albums command pretty huge prices now.

This is not surprising when releases are in such small numbers. I’m going to check, but I think the recent DBA album “Skyscraper Souls” has the smallest release quantity for any Roger Dean LP cover, which makes it potentially very collectible!

What’s next for Chris Topham and Plane Groovy?

The Plane Groovy Investor project should run for years; there will always be releases which can be justified in this way. I’m going to retire from flying very soon and that may change things somewhat for the main label; currently I don’t mind that Plane Groovy runs at a small loss but once I’ve retired we’ll perhaps have to be slightly more selective about the albums which we release, to ensure that the label at least breaks even.

We’re considering putting on a small festival featuring Plane Groovy artists within the next couple of years; there’s a local vineyard and brewery which would make the perfect location.

By Vox Groovy staff writer;
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