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Dub syndicate

LoFo Duplications helps bands self-release in small batches.

By Matthew Shechmeister

CHRIS ROLLS IS trying to become every indie band's new best friend ... and make enough money to quit his day job. His company, Lower Fourteenth Duplications (485 14th Street, SF. www.lofodupes.com), manufactures CDs at bargain rates, taking advantage of the plummeting cost of CD-R technology. Rolls has teamed up with artist Jonathan Runcio, whose design and print shop, Woodward Flats (same address, www.woodwardflats.com), offers price-conscious packaging and promo items to accompany the discs. Together, the two entrepreneurs are on a crusade to drive down costs for independent labels and musicians who want to self-release small batches of CDs.

Lower Fourteenth Duplications, or "LoFo Dupes," as Rolls has dubbed the business, grew out of his experience running his indie label, Kimosciotic Records. "The music I was doing didn't need runs of 1,000 discs ... but anything less than 1,000 discs was ridiculously expensive [per disc]."

The reason for this high up-front cost has to do with the way CDs have traditionally been manufactured. Large-scale CD duplicators make CDs from a glass master disc, which is used like a mold onto which new CDs are pressed from scratch. Since the master disc costs a lot of money to produce, traditional manufacturers have to charge almost the same price for orders of 300 discs as they do for runs of 1,000 (between $500 and $1,500) in order to cover their costs. For musicians with smaller followings who might not need 1,000 CDs, it doesn't make sense to do a smaller order using the glass-master method, especially since there's no objective evidence that it produces better sound quality.

That was the situation that confronted a beleaguered Rolls when, late last year, he wasn't sure if his label could afford to keep releasing CDs. If he could raise Kimosciotic's profit margins by spending less on CD production, however, he'd have more money for the next project. Rolls discovered that buying a CD-R duplication machine would cost roughly $3,000, about the same price as two or three separate runs of 500 to 1,000 CDs from a third party. CD-R duplicators, which etch information onto discs much like the burners on home computers do, don't entail the high setup costs of manufacturing CDs from a glass master.

Though it's a common perception that CD-Rs are more likely to skip or have compatibility problems with some old stereos, Rolls says, "That's really not so much of an issue when you're talking about modern CD-R duplicators, which are built to be error-free. I haven't come across these problems myself."

The cost per unit can't be beat: A run of 100 CD-Rs costs $100 or less, instead of $500 or more. Realizing that bringing production in-house would be the best way to improve his profits for low-volume releases, Rolls took the plunge and bought a duplicator.

After successful experiments making CDs for Kimosciotic, the indie entrepreneur is now putting his CD-R machine to work for local musicians, charging around a dollar or two per unit, packaging included. Michelle Cable, a booking agent for Japanese band DMBQ, which released a tour CD using Lower Fourteenth, says, "My take on the whole process ... is that it's something a little more unique that bands can have on tour with them."

Uniqueness is important to most indie bands. Though CD-R duplication is readily available from online vendors (and LoFo's prices remain as low as or lower than the Internet competition's), no self-respecting art-rock group is going to let a megatron corporation ram their magnum opus into a jewel case and stick a tacky laser-printed label on it. The packaging design that Woodward Flats provides LoFo evokes the artisan-crafted, DIY aesthetic. Picture your CD in smartly folded heavy cardstock with hand screen-printing of your cover design on the front. If there's something else you want to put your CD in, Rolls and Runcio will probably find a way to do it. And, unlike your home burner, the duplicator can paint a design directly onto the disc.

Rolls hopes that by offering cheap CD reproduction, LoFo will give established players like DMBQ the opportunity to offer more limited-edition CDs, and allow musicians with smaller followings to release material without spending a lot of money. Mike Alexis, whose fledgling band AM Magic was an early LoFo customer, likes Rolls's approach. "I think it's such a good option for bands like us. It's really unrealistic to think you can get rid of 1,000 CDs." San Francisco's animal-friendly, flute-core trio Death Sentence: Panda! manufactured their release Puppy, Kitty or Both through LoFo and plans on doing more limited releases with the company in the future.

With all systems go, Rolls expects to stay busy for the rest of the year and hopes that, in addition to making a positive contribution to the San Francisco music scene, LoFo just might enable him to quit that pesky day job.