Not even the loudly rotating test pressing of AC/DC’s new record could break the quiet concentration of Noiseland Industries’ five employees one Friday afternoon last month, but hell’s bells were ringing inside their heads.
It was crunch time on album packages due to hit stores worldwide this week for Record Store Day’s Black Friday sale — the last big to-do in what will be the most trying yet prosperous year ever for this small Minneapolis company.
“Everything is insane right now,” said operations manager Peter Schmitt, rushing in with overdue boxes of an Alice in Chains reissue.
In the only office not wildly filled with music memorabilia, production manager Jamie Shuler clicked through a spreadsheet of the many vinyl releases in the pipeline: albums by Mariah Carey, Weezer, John Legend, Dolly Parton and a Japanese-anime-related LP called “Cowboy Bebop” that somehow is one of the company’s most in-demand international titles of the year.
Noiseland might be the most vital and fascinating music business in Minnesota that most local music fans have never heard of.
It’s basically a go-between for big record labels such as Sony and Universal and all the assorted manufacturing and distribution companies it takes to put a vinyl album package together — plus the occasional CD and cassette projects that still come up.
Tucked away in an industrial building off E. Hennepin Avenue in northeast Minneapolis, its offices might be mistaken for a janitor supply company on the outside. The company’s founder doesn’t make the work they do inside sound much more exciting.
“We’re not really in the music business,” insisted Andrew Volna, a tousle-haired dad of three who grew up in northeast Minneapolis. “We’re more in the packaging and supply chain.”
Never mind his stories of working with Prince and flying to London to hand-deliver Adele’s “25” record; or the fact that he already possesses the new Lou Reed and Willie Nelson live vinyl collections coming out Friday — each among the many Record Store Day collectibles Noiseland handled this year.
Volna was finishing up his history degree at the University of Minnesota in the early 1990s when he started helping musician friends Jay Hurley (Hovercraft) and the late Ed Ackerson (Polara, 27 Various) put together their CDs. He officially launched Noiseland in 1994.
Two rather lucky developments helped make Noiseland a big player in the industry.
First was convincing Prince he could pull off the ambitious packaging of “Crystal Ball,” a box set released in 1998.
Then came an exclusive deal in 2010 with one of the world’s last large vinyl-pressing plants.
“I totally didn’t know what I was doing, but nobody really did,” Volna recalled of “Crystal Ball.”
Prince would call Volna out to Paisley Park at 3 a.m. to go over details of the clear-plastic, ball-shaped set. They even toured a CD-making plant in Alabama together.
“We made it up as we went along,” he said. “I sort of had to walk through walls to accomplish what Prince wanted. But once I did, it led to a lot of other really exciting projects.”
A crystal ball on vinyl
Volna’s exclusive partnership with MPO International — a 63-year-old vinyl pressing plant in Villaines-la-Juhel, France — came just as CD sales were plummeting and the resurgence of vinyl was taking off.
He likened the deal to winning a game of musical chairs: “I just happened to wind up with one of the last chairs.”
The few vinyl pressing plants worldwide that hadn’t closed or simply fallen apart during the CD era were suddenly in huge demand.
“The pressings they get from MPO are uniformly amazing,” raved John Jackson, senior vice president of A&R at Sony’s Legacy Recordings.
Jackson knows Noiseland and its local rock stars well. He worked with the company on Sony’s recent Prince and Bob Dylan collections, and he also became an auxiliary member of the Jayhawks around 2014 after helping produce their reissues.
“When we manufactured the Jayhawks’ ‘Back Roads and Abandoned Motels’ album as well as the two Ray Davies ‘Americana’ albums [with the Jayhawks], I made sure we used Noiseland,” Jackson said. “I insist on them every chance I get.”
So do many other record companies. In 2020, that demand has been both a blessing and a curse.
“It’s going to be our biggest year ever,” Volna said, citing more than 3 million vinyl units made, thanks to Noiseland. “But it’s definitely been our craziest and most demanding year, too.”
Vinyl record sales have been one of the few bright spots in the music industry during the pandemic. Conversely, though, there was a logjam on the manufacturing end and especially the shipping end.
“Everything has been more expensive and more challenging to make,” said Dan Miggler, Noiseland’s graphics designer and print production manager — who also proudly took note of the challenges the company’s staff faces year in and year out.
“When you pick up a vinyl record and hold it, and it feels solid, and you can notice all the different little details on the sleeve, those are all the things we work on,” he said.
Amazingly, Volna said he still isn’t sure the future of vinyl is solid.
“You might see the fact that Target is selling vinyl now as either a new era, or the beginning of the end,” he said.
Noiseland’s founder has made some interesting investments on the side in recent years.
He is renovating his Northeast neighborhood’s Hollywood Theater into an events center. He recently bought Cloquet’s historic R.W. Lindholm Service Station — designed by Frank Lloyd Wright — which is still operating as a gas station.
“I guess I like cool, old things,” Volna said, who nonetheless remains eager to keep making albums in their cool, old format.
“We’re all music fans here, and proud to be from Minnesota. Of course we’re excited to even play a small part in getting a Prince or Bob Dylan record out to the world.”