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CD Printer Does Well Giving Musicians Taste of Freedom

You might think a slump in the compact-disc industry would be bad news for a CD manufacturer. But no one is complaining at Disc Makers.

Sales of CDs have declined four out of the last five years and fewer sold last year than in 1995. Still, business is thriving at Disc Makers, a Pennsauken company that made more than 30 million audio CDS last year, up 11 percent from 2004.

CD Makers turns recordings into records for independent musicians famous (reggae icon Burning Spear, for example) and fledgling (ever hear of the Illinois-based blues rockers the Kung Fu Mamas?).

"It's almost like we're selling them a dream," said Tony van Veen, the company's executive vice president.

The company, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, began loosening its ties with the mainstream recording industry nearly 20 years ago. Until then, Disc Makers' main business was wooing big contracts to manufacture records for the big record labels.

Now, Disc Makers does not seek any of those contracts.

Instead, it sends catalogs and attends trade shows in an effort to win the business of musicians one by one, helping do-it-yourselfers do it themselves. With its DVD service, it does the same thing for aspiring filmmakers.

The do-it-yourself boom comes at a time when big labels' CD sales are on the decline, partly because so many music fans are downloading their music — either legally or illegally.

Last year, mainstream CD sales in the U.S. declined by 8 percent from 767 million to 705 million, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, a lobbying group for the nation's major record companies.

Van Veen said his company does not need to worry about the music-buying public. It concentrates only on doing what the musicians want.

"If we're going to make a product that doesn't quite match with the one in musician's mind's eye, it's a disaster. We've ruined their career," he said.

Disc Makers is not a record label, so it does not choose which CDs to make. And while it offers help — displays for selling CDs, for example, and coupons for hosting services for musicians' Web sites — it does not promote the recordings it replicates.

It is also not a recording studio. Artists record their music elsewhere — anywhere from a pricey studio in Sweden to a home computer in their basement — and send it to Disc Makers.

In its factory outside Philadelphia, the company manufactures CDs and prints the labels for them in batches as small as 300. The price for 300 discs starts at $300. The company has engineers who tweak the recordings to make them sound cleaner and graphic designers who assemble the packaging.

Without distribution deals, Disc Makers' customers sell their music on their own at concerts, independent record stores and through online outlets such as CD Baby. Ben Kihnel, customer service person for the online store, said far more of its products were manufactured by Disc Makers than by any other company.

David Berger, a New York-based jazz composer and conductor who has used Disc Makers for three of his albums, said he sees the CDs as "expensive business cards" that he can sell at his concerts and use to book his band, the Sultans of Swing.

He said that the downside of the vanity music press is that the volume of CDs it produces makes it harder for the good ones to get noticed.

"Now I'm competing against 100,000 people who are putting out records, most of which are pretty sad," Berger said.

Dave Asti, who plays banjo and guitar for the Hillbilly Gypsies ("West Virginia's hardest-driving bluegrass band," as he describes them) said his band has sold about 500 copies of its debut album "One Foot in the Gravy," from the 2,000 it ordered from Disc Makers earlier this year.

The professional-looking CD is a big step up for the band, which had previously produced CDs by burning them one-by-one on band members' computers.

He said that philosophically, the band wants to remain independent as long as it can. But there's a business reason as well. "All profits go directly to us," he said.

That's why some musicians — even those well-known enough to record for labels — admire Disc Makers as an alternative to a mainstream recording industry that is hardly loved by musicians.

"We got tired of record company taking the product. They give you an advance. They never give you any royalties," said Sonia Rodney, the wife and manager of reggae veteran Burning Spear (aka Winston Rodney), who has used Disc Makers to put out 13 new and back-catalog albums in the past four years. "Spear wanted to be independent. Spear wanted to be a free man. He wanted to be free from all record labels, period."