Despite opposition from the start — mostly from men, including her own father — Liz Dunster established the heavy metal-focused vinyl label Erika Records in 1980. A year later, she added a vinyl manufacturing plant in a bid to have tighter control of the creative aspects and quality of vinyl she released on her label. The venture made Dunster the first female owner of such an operation. And while the label’s output slowed down in the late 1980s, her vinyl production business boomed, creating iconic custom pieces for Elvis Presley, KISS, The Clash, The Police, Bob Marley, Bon Jovi, Gwen Stefani, Iron Maiden and Poison.
The full-service facility, based in Buena Park, Calif., is entering its fifth decade of vinyl artisanship and has expanded its manufacturing capacity from two presses to 42. Erika takes orders from major and independent labels and makes everything from black vinyl and variant-color pressings to specialty items like picture discs and records in the shape of just about anything from a space shuttle to fast food. The company also prints and designs record jackets and inserts, handles vinyl lacquer mastering and presses gold and platinum album plaques for the RIAA.
Throughout its existence, Erika Records has remained a family business: Dunster’s husband, Charles, does “anything that needs to be done,” she says, while son Janos “John” Schermerhorn is operations manager and daughter Erika lent her name for the company. Erika Records is also an innovator: As CDs boomed in the 1980s, it stayed afloat thanks to its out-of-the-box designs. Erika is now the largest manufacturer of custom records and picture discs in the United States. It’s also the first plant to use lead-free PVC for all of its pressings, taking a greener approach to vinyl manufacturing.
“When Third Man was preparing to open our own pressing plant, Liz welcomed us to Erika, gave us an in-depth tour of her facility and even took our team out for lunch,” says Ben Blackwell, co-founder of Jack White’s Third Man Records, which opened its manufacturing facility in Detroit in 2017.
To commemorate Erika Records’ 40th anniversary, Dunster, 67, discusses the uphill battle of the nostalgia business and vinyl’s bright future.
Does it feel like you’ve been doing this for 40 years — or 400?
It feels like a lot. (Laughs.) I’ve got a lot more gray hair, a lot more wrinkles. But I love it. I won’t give it up. I tell people I can cut my veins and PVC will come out — in different colors. It really is in my blood, but trust me, my body feels it after all this time.
How did you get into this business?
I had my own label, and I didn’t like the quality I was getting. My father at one time built presses, and I asked him if he would help me build some. He said, “No, your job is to stay home and have babies” — very old-fashioned. He said, “You being a female, you won’t make it in this industry,” because it was male-dominated at the time. So I saved enough money to buy my first machine shop in Signal Hill [in Los Angeles] and asked my father again if he’d help me, and he goes, “Hell, no!” I thought, “OK, I’m not going to have my own pressing plant.” Then I said I was going to go into law and wanted to be a judge, and he finally gave in and helped me build my first two presses.
Rather than have you go into law?
Yes. He didn’t want me doing that. He was like, “You’ll probably get killed in the first two weeks.” But that’s OK, because music was my real love and passion.
What made pressing records more rewarding than running a label?
I really like to create a finished product and see it in stores, knowing that I made it, that I was part of that release. Back in the late ’80s, I had to pick what I wanted to do: The label or the pressing? You can’t have both, because you’re pulled back-and-forth so much. So I picked the pressing, especially when people told me I couldn’t do it.
Did you encounter more sexism, beyond your father’s attitude, when you were getting Erika going?
Sure I did. I’m not going to go into all the details. But being blond and walking into places, I’ve heard people say, “Another blond coming in!,” and they wouldn’t take me seriously because I was the first female to get into the pressing business, and it was tough. I remember one of the guys saying it and I turned around and said, “I’m a bleach blond, just remember that,” and walked away. I really don’t want to say what some of the other challenges were, because they were such inappropriate things. I can write a book about it, and might do it at my 50th year, if I last that long.
So how did you get past those attitudes?
Just by keeping at it. I pretty much get along with everybody now, and the ones I don’t I still stay away from. Really, my second husband, Charles, helped me fulfill my dream. When I met him, I had two presses and he knew it was my dream. We just worked and worked. We actually pressed our own records ourselves here on Saturdays and Sundays, whatever needed to be done. We scrubbed down the machines, changed things in the back — it didn’t matter. I was not going to fail.
Starting out in 1981, you came in at the dawn of the CD age. That had to be a challenge.
Oh, that just about killed me. Only half my presses were going. What kept me going was we did unique records, not just standard black vinyl. We’d do a record, and I’d put an ant farm in it, floating, or a Pez dispenser with candies — made out of paper, of course. I made a record shaped like a Christmas tree, with little lights in it, and when it would spin, they would twinkle. I’d go out to different companies and say, “Hey, why don’t you put a record out with your logo on it?” We did that with the [now Las Vegas] Raiders football team. I just like to do things that are different, and that’s something that kept Erika going when the music industry wasn’t pressing as much vinyl after CDs. We’ve always been busy because of the unique records.
What do you say to those who think the picture discs and things like that are just a gimmick and not the meat and potatoes of the industry?
Picture discs got a bad rap. People said that the sound quality sucked. I said, “No, no, no — it sucks for some people because they’re using thinner material.” I was using the better material, and the sound quality was still good. That made a difference.
How do you explain the current vinyl boom?
The kids, the young generation, being home has a lot to do with it. They can’t go anywhere, so they were staying at home listening to records instead of CDs, and they just started something new. They see the jackets are bigger. They can open it, they can touch it. I have kids coming in here — no kidding — and they open the record and smell it. I think, “What the hell is going on?” But they say there’s a smell to it that they love. I start sniffing and I can’t smell it, but OK. So then once the older generation saw the young kids were doing it, they started going back to it, and collectors were back into it big-time.
Has the pandemic affected business in other ways?
We’ve grown. We’re putting more presses in. A lot of releases that were on CD are coming back out on vinyl. Right now, I’m booked until June of 2022. It’s crazy. We’ve got a huge order for the next Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack that’s going to take a lot of time. I’ve got to wait for the city to give us permits, but I want to have 60 presses altogether. So it has been a real growth time for us.
What are the biggest issues facing the pressing industry now?
I’m hearing that PVC is going to be an issue here soon. Every time you turn around, [the price] goes up. In December, it was $1.10 a pound, and now it’s $1.65. Every time you turn around, something goes up. Now they’re saying there’s going to be a shortage of PVC. My suppliers are saying get as much as you can, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m stocked up like you wouldn’t believe.Erika was the first plant to use only 100% lead-free vinyl material.
Why was that important to you?
We’re in California, so I made sure we’re very green. We got rid of everything that’s leaded, sold it to other companies. The unleaded material is harder to work with, but I have children and grandchildren, so I want to make sure we’re totally green. We recycle all our PVC, all the jackets, everything. We make our own dyes here. Everything we can do on our own, we do it.
What are your favorite projects?
The one I put out myself would be the space shuttle. My ex father-in-law was one of the guys that worked at NASA here in Downey [in Los Angeles]. They gave me a recording of an astronaut talking and we made a space shuttle-shaped disc with that on it. It’s silk-screened and really unique. We have a french fry one that’s really hot, too. They’re just different things to catch people’s eyes and get attention. That’s what I like to do.
Have you met many of the artists over the years?
KISS came in, and I know Stryper. And Gwen Stefani, when she was still a teenager. The funniest one was when Poison came in. A couple of the guys came in, and it was really hot outside. I said, “Why don’t you tell your girlfriends to come in?” Because they were in the car, and it was hot outside. And they said, “That’s the other band members.” I was like, “Oh, s–t.” But that’s what they get for having prettier hair than me. (Laughs.)
As Erika turns 40, how would you describe its legacy?
That a woman did it when they said it couldn’t be done. It wasn’t easy, but I kept plugging away, and here we are, still doing it. I’m very proud. I’m tickled to death. I can look in the mirror and say, “I did it” — and I still am.
By the Numbers
A look at the metrics behind the largest manufacturer of custom records and picture discs in the United States, which pressed first releases for No Doubt, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Sublime and many others.
65,000 square feet: The Erika Records plant includes three buildings, and in a given week presses 20 to 40 releases, translating to nearly 100,000 records.
75 employees: Dunster’s operation has evolved from its DIY, family roots to a staff of over six dozen industry professionals.
42 presses: The vinyl factory has 18 12-inch automatics, 16 12-inch semiautomatics, two 7-inch automatics and six 7-inch semiautomatics, with seven more presses to be added soon.
5 Winklers: The fabrication machines are used to print designs for record jackets, inner sleeves and other packaging.
1 lathe: The machine rotates on an axis to cut lacquers — hard, shiny finishes — on vinyl.
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