From the time Erika Records cut its first record, nothing about the company fit the mold of a typical vinyl-pressing plant—especially not its founder. Determined to enter the business on her own in 1981, Liz Dunster—a 27-year-old, bleached-blond mother of two—found most plant owners and manufacturing executives didn't quite know what to make of her.
Sheer gumption and the knowledge culled from working 11 years in her parents' record business compelled her to start her own tiny heavy-metal record label in 1980. She bought limited runs of vinyl for her bands, who split the stock with her 50/50 to sell on their own while keeping the rights to their music. (She sold her share out of the trunk of her sandy-colored Pinto.) But Dunster knew she wanted to have more control over the quality of the product she put out. So she saved money for two years to buy a machine shop in Signal Hill, where she could make the records herself.
"I started pounding on doors in the industry and had a lot of them slammed in my face," Dunster says. "They'd be like, 'Sorry, babe'—just because I was a female. They weren't rude, but they probably thought, 'Oh, what does she know?'"
Turns out she knew a lot more than they thought. This year, Erika Records celebrates its 35th anniversary, having grown from a record label into the only female-owned pressing plant in the U.S. Dunster's company churns out about 20 to 40 new releases and 100,000 records per week for bands ranging from Orange County unknowns to major-leaguers such as Metallica, Bon Iver and Jack White. Since starting in Signal Hill with six presses, the plant has migrated to Downey and, as of nine years ago, Buena Park, with more than 40 record presses—and 10 more on the way. But it's not only huge volume or massive names on the roster that has kept Erika Records in business so long; it's also Dunster's commitment to running her shop with a grassroots mentality, a woman's touch and an inventor's spirit.
"I'm very blunt," she says, smiling sweetly. "No one comes in here feeling that I'm pretending. And no one comes in here with a big head either because I'll deflate it—because you're no better than we are. . . . Everyone's equal."
Everything in her office, including her Shih Tzu named Elvis, is a shrine to the King. Among the memorabilia are rare porcelain collectibles, photos and a life-sized cardboard cutout. Her pride and joy is an Elvis Presley-shaped picture disc dubbed "Windows of the Soul," with a recording of a rare 1956 Presley interview. Specializing in custom vinyl that's shaped, pressed, and etched with photos or other artwork is what has earned Erika Records its rep.
Despite its unremarkable industrial surroundings, any audiophile walking inside Erika's 36,000-square-foot complex instantly feels as if he or she is paying a visit to the Willy Wonka of records. Vinyl covers the walls of the main office, drenched in a kaleidoscopic splatter of color or cut into shapes such as hearts and rocket ships, even mini records not much bigger than a silver dollar. If it can be done, chances are that Dunster can have it made for you.
"I'm one of these people who can't sleep at night, and I've always got to be the first one to come up with something," she says. "I go to bed thinking, 'What can't we do? Why can't we do it?' And we'll go back and do different samples."
Over the years, she has experimented with such novelties as scented records, glow-in-the-dark albums, and clear vinyl embedded with love notes, yarn, peacock feathers—almost everything the FDA will allow. "I had someone request to have maggots in their record," Dunster says. "I've had people who want us to put real blood in it, which we won't do."
Whether it's the concept for a new project or building her own presses, the Anaheim resident makes it a point to get her hands dirty, and she expects the same from her office staff, many of whom have been with her for at least a decade, including her family members. Her daughter, Erika (whom she named the company after), works in accounting. Her son, John, works in production, as does her husband, Chuck. "I even have my dad come in here and twiddle around with the machines from time to time," she says.
Turnaround time for most vinyl orders is around 18 weeks, with big and small orders constantly coming in, typically through word of mouth since the company doesn't really advertise. "Yes, we do have majors here, and we appreciate the [local bands] because they've helped it grow quite a bit," Dunster says. "[But even] without any majors around, we have enough indie artists, garage bands and independent labels come to our doors and want to get something pressed."
All 72 employees work on physically making the products the company sells. "We've all taken turns in the warehouse," says Ma Nerriza Dela Cerna, a project manager who specializes in dealing with customers. "We work double shifts, and that started because of the uptick."
Dunster is grateful for the resurgence of vinyl in the mid-2000s. Before that, CDs nearly killed the record business, forcing her to let go of some employees, whom Dunster was able to hire back once things picked up again.
On a recent Thursday morning, Dunster walks through the plant as the hiss of pressurized steam, whirring blades and clattering machinery echo through the warehouse. Once a record is fully equalized and mastered by Erika's in-house engineer, Richard Simpson, the project goes into production. From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., workers place globs of candy-colored PVC into manual and semi-automatic presses fitted with molds that create the unique platters of sound, as well as standard black vinyl. The hot, nearly finished records are then set onto a rotating turntable that cuts off the excess PVC, which gets discarded like waxy, overgrown licorice whips into giant bins.
As she checks in on her operation, Dunster stops to dig her fingers into drums filled with granulated PVC, which come in a variety of colors. Erika is the only vinyl-pressing plant in the country that uses 100 percent non-lead material to produce its records, something its owner has been very vocal and passionate about. "I think a lot of it is being a woman and a mother," she says. "I'd hate to have [made] a record that had lead, and then a child starts gnawing on it."
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That kind of attention to detail is key for customers who appreciate her ability to make their music stand out. But it's Dunster's leadership and vision that truly make Erika Records a gem in OC's music industry.
"I always try to come up with something new," Dunster says. "The passion is there for me. Money is important, too, but first is the passion. If you cut my veins, PVC will come out. I don't think blood will come out—just red PVC."