Thousands of old-style cardboard sleeves for Jack White's album "Lazaretto" sit in tightly packed checkerboard rows at Stoughton Printing plant in the City of Industry, 12.3-inch squares waiting to be stuffed with 12-inch circles.
Jack Stoughton Jr., son of the company's founder, takes one from the newly printed stack and admires the work. White's blue suit pops off the print as he sits amid a flock of angel statuettes. The inside of the jacket is black — one more flourish to separate it from the others in the increasingly competitive vinyl business.
Nearby, a heavy Heidelberg press pushes Stereolab jackets across a conveyor belt: a reorder of the British band's 1993 drone-rock gem, "Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements," with its close-up image of a turntable tone arm gliding across an album.
In the vinyl comeback of the last decade, people like to credit the so-called warmth of LPs. But don't overlook the artfully crafted jacket. After all, if a label expects fans to spend money on music that's available for free online (and pay a premium over a download or CD), the object had better be desirable.
And Stoughton makes them desirable.
"It's like when you get into an Audi or a BMW. You shut the door and it has that sound," says Patrick McCarthy, project manager for Light in the Attic Records, a reissue label that uses Stoughton for most of its packages. "It's this almost imperceptible quality, but you know it when you have it in your hands."
Founded nearly 50 years ago, the unassuming company has ridden a roller-coaster ride from ubiquity to near-death and back, enduring the 45 rpm single, 33 1/3 rpm album, eight-track, cassette, compact disc, laser disc, MP3 and streaming eras — an arc that captures the history of the music business itself.
Jack Jr. recalled the company's early years, after a young Jack Stoughton left a solid job at Bert-Co Press, at the time the music industry's biggest L.A. printer, in the budding Los Angeles vinyl world of the early 1960s.
"Dad's motto was, 'Large enough to serve you, small enough to know you.'"
Each day thousands of jackets are crafted with Stoughton's heavy machinery and its employees' deft hands, a rainbow run of colors and titles rolling along presses and glue machines.
You might find employees hand-sticking printed slicks of the War on Drugs' new "Lost in the Dream" onto high-grade cardboard gatefold sleeves, referred to in industry parlance as "old style tip-on jackets" for the way they're constructed. Or working with Fullerton indie punk label Burger Records on the design for a cardboard cassette box. Or brainstorming an ultra-secret project involving a high-profile rapper.
With five weeks' worth of a queue behind it, the company is running night shifts all year long for the first time in ages and expanding its printing capacity — all for a product declared dead in the early 1990s.
Need a glossy tip-on like jazz label Impulse! used to do in the 1960s a la John Coltrane's "Ascension"? Want something with leatherette finish like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Deja Vu"? Stoughton's got it. The dull, uncoated texture of the Grateful Dead's "Workingman's Dead"? No problem; Stoughton has worked with the Dead for years. Elvis Presley's mega-selling catalog, including the multi-platinum "Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite," bought the company a new building.
"Theirs look like the way it's supposed to be," says Ben Blackwell, who oversees vinyl production for White's Third Man Records imprint. "When you look at an old Beatles record, before people were able to print direct to board, this is how they did it. They printed a slick, it had to be cut, and it had to be glued on and folded." At Stoughton, the final two steps are done by hand.
Jack Jr., who runs the company with his younger brother Clay and a host of descendants and longtime employees, credits the labels that Stoughton works with for a renaissance in LP art.
"They're stretching the limits of what we do, and they're making us look at it again fresh," he says. "Specialty papers, specialty inks, special matches, coatings, finishes, embossing, UV — you name it, they're doing it, and they're not afraid of it. They want to put out the best record they can put out. Not just from the sound, but the package is part of the artistry of the whole thing."
At the company's headquarters, a two-story entryway features a wall of fame: Nirvana's debut, "Bleach," hangs alongside Rod Stewart's "Every Picture Tells a Story." Frames hold Metallica's "Ride the Lightning," Joanna Newsom's "Ys," Cuban all-star band Buena Vista Social Club's debut, Father John Misty's "Fear Fun."
A virtual history of art of the album era, shelves contain samples, negatives, color separations and more. The more you dig, the more there is to discover, especially upstairs in the building dubbed "the house that Elvis built," where thousands of game-board sized cardboard envelopes hold old color negatives and reference art.