The Persistence of Vinyl
For almost 70 years, United Record Pressing has been in the business of pressing vinyl records. A quarter century ago, everyone thought those old black disks were going the way of the dodo. Then a few years ago, a funny thing happened: The kids started buying vinyl again. And now, one of Nashville’s oldest manufacturing businesses is growing to beat the band.
Tucked away in a industrial-turned-arty neighborhood just outside Nashville’s city center stands a legendary building. The façade is covered in a blue-green mosaic, the color of the sea, and at high noon when sunlight glints across the thousands of square tiles, the wall seems undulant, like a vast body of water heaving and swelling to a steady rhythm within. Floating along the aqua expanse, a string of bright orange letters spell out three well-known words in the recording industry: United Record Pressing.
The building was erected in 1962 on Chestnut Street, the main vein of the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood, and is home to the largest record pressing plant in America. United has been pressing vinyl for more than 65 years using the same method and equipment. In the early days, when the company was called Southern Plastics, it pressed most of the records for Motown, Sun and Stax — as well as the first Beatles 7-inch released in America.
Now, United churns out everything from Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited" to Jay-Z’s “The Black Album.” It pressed Jack White’s 2014 release, “Lazaretto,” which sold 40,000 vinyl copies in the first week, making it the fastest-selling vinyl album since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991. Today, United presses all the vinyl for Universal, Sony, Beggars Banquet and Jack White’s Nashville-based Third Man Records.
The last seven years have brought on a resurgence of vinyl that has stunned the music industry. Vinyl records are for sale in the aisles of Target and stacked in the bedrooms of tween pop fans. It’s nothing short of a valiant return from what, for decades, seemed like a bleak and endless slumber.
Now considered a Nashville institution, United Record Pressing has weathered it all. The historic factory stuck it out through the best and worst times, from the apex of vinyl production in 1960s and ’70s through the dead years of the ’90s and early aughts, and now, the company is doing its best to stay on top of the unexpected and massive swell.
The plant is a Southern icon, a revered and unsinkable vessel which, despite moments when it nearly capsized, has fought its way through the tides of time and come out on top. It’s a classic American manufacturing success story — a story of the underdog coming back in the ninth inning, a story of persistence and dedication paying off.
Walking through the glass front doors of United, you feel that legacy. United is little changed by time but still brims with life, churning and chugging with old-world efficiency. It feels a lot like boarding an old ship. Framed and unframed records adorn the ubiquitous wood paneling of the lobby, offices and interiors. Behind the front desk, a turntable is mounted to the wall surrounded by a display of photographs. The place smells like nothing I’ve encountered before, an olfactory cocktail of tangy metal, ancient books and a hint of stale cigarette smoke, no doubt lingering from the days when employees chain-smoked at the front desk. Now, at the same desk sits a cigarette-less young woman with tousled hair that hangs languidly down the sides of her face; she’s wearing a Hatch Show Print T-shirt, jeans and sneakers.
I tell her I’m here to see Jay Millar, the head of marketing for United. She pages him over the intercom system and asks me to have a seat.
From my chair, I watch as employees buzz down halls holding stacks of records, taking breaks, clocking in and clocking out. The distant hum of machinery permeates every room. United is alive in a way that a lot of workplaces aren’t anymore; it hasn’t been deadened by the silence of laptops and headphones. In most modern workplaces, productivity is silent. Here, it is noisy and visceral. There is stuff everywhere, but the clutter is somehow comforting, invigorating, promising.
Millar finally pokes his head through a side door holding a cup of coffee and apologizes for my wait.
“We’ve been slammed,” he says.
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In United’s case, “slammed” is a gross understatement.
Demand for records pressed on vinyl is exploding; sales have skyrocketed since 2008, increasing last year by 52 percent from 6.1 million in 2013 to 9.2 million in 2014. Every major pressing plant across the country — there are now fewer than 20 — has had a seemingly endless production queue over the past several years.
Though the presses at United run 24 hours a day, six days a week, it is never enough.
At time of my visit, Record Store Day 2015 was right around the corner. Record Store Day is the biggest sales day of the year for stores and labels. Held on the third Saturday of every April, Record Store Day is an nationwide celebration that premieres an exclusive selection of limited-edition releases available only on that day. The releases are notoriously sought-after and collectible; they’re often resold at several times their original prices on sites like eBay.
The first year of Record Store Day, 2008, was also the year vinyl saw its first shocking spike in sales. Many people believe Record Store Day was responsible for the vinyl resurgence; others insist the vinyl comeback was brewing well before the event’s widespread popularity. There’s no conclusive evidence either way, but there’s no denying its continual influence on vinyl culture and the record industry.
As Record Store Day approaches, the customer queue at United gets longer, but the presses go only so fast. On an average day, United’s 22 presses can produce up to 40,000 records a day. That number is the plant at full capacity. So while buyer demand has been rapidly increasing, the amount of records that can be produced in this country has stayed virtually stayed the same — which often leads to a lot of pissed-off people spread out over the buying and selling landscape. Though the supply problem is technically a good one — business is booming, after all — it’s still a serious problem.
"United is five months back-ordered, and everyone else is that or more," Matthew Johnson, owner of the Oxford, Mississippi, record label Fat Possum, told Billboard magazine back in December. "We used to be able to get these turned around in seven weeks."
A week before my trip to United, I spoke to Ben Blackwell, head of production at Third Man Records and official archivist for the White Stripes, about this very issue. Third Man has played a key role in the vinyl resurgence, not only by pushing the collecting of vinyl and upping its cachet, but also by demonstrating the media’s capacity for innovation and creativity. Third Man’s relationship with United is symbiotic. They work together to push the vinyl medium to new heights, like putting secret songs under labels, making hand-etched holograms appear when the record spins, engineering records to play from the inside out and building a special Frankenstein-ish press that manufactures half-and-half colored vinyl (it’s the only one in existence).
I ask Blackwell about his view on the supply and demand dilemma.
“I don’t think anyone is satisfied with how many records they’re getting and when they’re getting them,” he says. “Everyone wants more. Everyone wants it faster — across the board, from the little guy, to me, to Universal Records.”
“That is the complaint all the time,” says Anna Lundy, manager of Grimey’s Records, Nashville’s most beloved record store since it opened in 1999. “And Record Store Day makes it worse.”
This is why United, intent on breaking the backlog of orders, decided to make its first major expansion since building the Chestnut plant in 1962. United says it will open its second location before the end of this year. It will house an additional 16 presses, nearly doubling the company’s production capacity. Purchased for $5.5 million, the new building is a 142,000-square-foot warehouse site on Allied Drive, just north of the Nashville Zoo near Glencliff, about 4.5 miles from the original plant. Millar says the company will bring on around 50 more employees for the expansion, putting United at a total of 200 employees.
Until the last couple of years, the notion that vinyl is “just a trend” has thwarted major investment in the format, even as LP sales grow steadily.
“How long is a trend a trend?” asks Grimey’s co-owner, Doyle Davis. “If something has grown consistently for eight years, is that just some blip? Something that’s going to die any minute? I don’t think it is. If that were the case it would’ve already showed some decline.”
Davis credits the advent of Record Store Day for playing a major part in the vinyl resurgence, but says it wasn’t the only factor.
“It was created by record stores to counter the narrative that everyone was hearing and every article was saying: that records stores were dead, obsolete, a thing of the past, going away, everything’s moving to digital, they’re anachronistic, they don’t matter. That’s what it was,” Davis says. Once Record Store Day began, “there became an awareness that vinyl existed.” He admits that today, however, the effort is has devolved into something of a corporate cash grab. The Record Store Day organization tried to push back against that in 2015 by ensuring more than 60 percent of the 400 Record Store Day releases were from independent labels.
I ask Davis if United’s expansion will put a significant dent in the number of records making it into stores.
“It will help,” he says. “Yes.” He pointed out that smaller investments in record production are helping to relieve the burden, too. New presses are slowly popping up across the country. In December 2014, Fat Possum Records opened the doors to its own plant, Memphis Record Pressing, with nine presses.
The resurgence in vinyl is also allowing local record stores like Grimey’s to grow their businesses. In February 2013, Grimey’s expanded into an adjacent building, launching Grimey’s Too.
“It was really hard to invest in a new space,” says Lundy, “but we’d gotten so busy that it was impossible to grow anymore. The size of the store was hampering that. We had a small office, but we almost exclusively used it for storage. Records would be all over the front room; you’d walk in and trip over boxes. It got so crowded that it became almost a deterrent for new customers — they’d get overwhelmed. It was overwhelming for all of us. Expanding allowed us to have real offices, a receiving area, and things like that — necessary things.”
Third Man’s Blackwell adds, “I don’t think anyone has the insight to say whether it’s a trend or not. It’s beyond the scope or understanding or knowledge of any one person, but I feel like people are investing in vinyl infrastructure to a level that hasn’t happened since the ’60s or ’70s. Five years ago people weren’t doing that, certainly not 10 years ago. People are investing and putting serious money behind upping capacity. That seems like the best indicator you’ll be able to get.”
But it’s not just financial investment that had held up expansion: Vintage presses are now nearly impossible to find. Earlier this year, Kansas-based Quality Record Pressing found 13 new presses in an old warehouse in Chicago and the industry basically went ape-shit; no one could believe it.
“No one has a sense of how many unused presses are out there. Someone could unearth 100 presses,” said Blackwell. “People are secretive, and don’t want to show their hands. It’s still a curious business.”
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United’s 150 employees workers range from blue-collar factory types who may or may not care about music to young people who obviously have a deep-rooted love of indie rock. In general, there’s nothing glamorous or pretentious about the place; it feels a little clunky, like a heavy vessel just trying to get from Point A to Point B before sundown.
Millar walks me to the lower level, where dozens of colossal machines are humming and churning. Rolling off the presses that day are records by the Ramones, Scott Pilgrim, Ryan Adams, Lady Gaga, James Blake and many others — a hugely diverse array of titles.
“United is the only record pressing plant I’ve ever visited,” Lundy says. “It’s kind of like the ‘Mister Rogers’ episode when you see how crayons are made, and as a kid you just think it’s so cool. Having listened to and sold records for so long, it’s cool to see how they’re made. And surprising in some ways. You feel like records are this niche thing, but then there’s just like dudes there working at the factory making records happen like they’d be making batteries happen if they worked in a battery factory. I thought it was going to be guys in sweaters and little glasses!”
All vinyl records start off as vinyl pellets, little black or colored plastic beads. Giant drums of pellets wait in a side room of the factory. The pellets are fed into a hopper, like coffee beans into a barista’s grinder. They are melted down and squeezed, like toothpaste from a tube, into a metal cup to form a “biscuit,” which looks a lot like a warped hockey puck. The labels are applied to the hot vinyl, but no adhesive is used because the heat alone seals the label to the record.
The label storage room is like eye candy. Circular paper discs are bundled in twine and stacked into what looks like millions of colorful stalagmites. Walking by the stacks, I spot labels for Angel Olsen, Glen Campbell, Talib Kweli, CHVRCHES, Foo Fighters, James Brown, Jack White and Blink 182. United used to print labels in-house: simple ones of one color ink on one color paper. Now they have them printed elsewhere onto large sheets and die-cut them in house. The new plant will allow them to go back to printing their own labels.
I watch a tall guy wearing a backwards baseball cap carefully place a stack of R.E.M. labels under a circular die-cutting ring and pull down hard on the lever; the machine cuts a stack of 200 each time. He loads another stack, and repeats ad infinitum.
The stacks then move to a foot-operated drill press, which burrows out the center hole. All the labels are baked in an oven overnight to remove any moisture. Millar opens the small oven, inside are stacks of labels for Tom Waits, The Clash and Pearl Jam.
The labeled puck is slid between two stampers. With 6,000 pounds of pressure, the stampers slowly mash the puck into a thin disc, with excess vinyl oozing out of the sides. A cutter removes the excess trimmings, which get reused. If it’s colored vinyl, the excess gets broken up into tiny shards to be reused for United’s “tie-dyed” vinyl.
Record presses are finicky by nature. Certain employees’ sole job is to pull records off every press each hour and listen to them in designated listening booths, ensuring quality control. United also has a full-time machinist in house who repairs and makes replacement parts for the presses.
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One of the most unique facets of United’s history is its infamous “Motown Suite.” Originally called the “United Hilton,” the large living space above the factory was built specifically to accommodate United’s black customers. In the segregated South of the 1960s, there were few places for African-Americans to stay. Since the plant was working for Motown, Stax and other labels that had black executives, providing a place for them to stay was simple logic. “I think for them it was sort of like it is now: It’s just common sense,” says Millar.
The suite is less like a hotel room and more like a vintage apartment preserved in amber: a bedroom with two twin beds, a living room with plenty of seating to entertain guests, a turntable, a full bathroom, a full kitchen and dining room. None of the furnishings have been updated — it’s still decked out in mid-century style.
“It’s like a time machine,” says Davis of Grimey’s. “You walk in the door, and it’s instantly 1973.”
Though it’s no longer used to put up customers, the employees still use the space for meetings, office work and listening to test pressings. Unfortunately there is no official record of who stayed here, but they have gathered stories about some guests: the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Wayne Newton, the Cowsills.
The founder of Motown himself, Berry Gordy Jr., stayed in the suite on several occasions. Why did Gordy choose to press records in Nashville when there was a pressing plant operating in Motown’s native city of Detroit?
“Well, the owners of United were the only ones willing to extend a line of credit to Gordy at that time,” Millar says. “In theory you could say that without this plant, Motown might not have existed because he may not have found the funding to get it off the ground.”
Like the history of Memphis’ Stax Records, it’s another one of those stories about how music was one of the few forces that could trump racism, even in the Jim Crow South.
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Not only has United’s contribution to the cultural landscape survived in the form of millions of records, but it’s also has been handed down through stories of how the plant endured the inevitable ebbs and floods of any industry.
The story of United used to begin in 1949 with the founding Southern Plastics. However, in 2012, The National Park Service released a Historic American Buildings Survey of United’s plant that tells a different and inarguably more fascinating story.
The report traced United’s origins back to 1946 and the very first million-dollar single to come out of Nashville. As history would have it, the problem catalyzing United’s expansion today — the struggle to meet buyers’ demands for records — is exactly what got the company started in the first place.
The earliest incarnation of Southern Plastics was called Bullet Plastics, which was born as an offshoot of Bullet Records, one of Nashville’s first independent labels and the first to achieve national success. Though the label wasn’t around for long, it is largely credited with launching the recording industry in Nashville.
Bullet Records was founded in 1946 by radio announcer Jim Bulleit, banker Orville Zinkler and C.V. Hitchcock, who’d spent his career in the jukebox industry and would provide the ownership link to Southern Plastics. Though Bullet Plastics was incorporated just months after the record label, it didn’t get up and running in any real sense until more than a year later. It had to hustle to keep up with the unpredicted, phenomenal success of one record.
In 1947, Bullet Records released the single “Near You” by Nashville-based pianist and composer Francis Craig and his orchestra. The song, an easygoing ditty about a hopeless romantic pining for his long-distance lover, was a smash hit and became one of the best-selling records of the year, peaking at No. 1 and staying on the charts for more than 20 weeks. Demand was so high and unexpected that Bulleit had trouble securing enough stock to keep up with the orders. At one point, he had multiple factories producing the records, and that still wasn’t enough.
“It was a tremendous shot in the arm for Nashville,” John Rumble, senior historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, told The Tennessean in 2012. “They sold in excess of 2 million copies, which was 10 times what a good country hit would sell. Nobody in New York or Chicago was thinking that Nashville was going to become a big recording center, but ‘Near You’ did as much or more than any other single factor in gaining attention for Nashville.”
With the success of “Near You,” coupled with his paranoia of pressing plants selling copies of the record behind his back, Bulleit made establishing his own pressing facility a top priority. Bulleit bought used presses from a distressed plant in California, shipped them to a Quonset hut on the soon-to-be plant site and enlisted Jim Dunn to oversee the new enterprise. Dunn was the only person who worked at Bullet, Southern and United.
On November 2, 1947, The Tennessean announced the launch of Bullet Plastics:
“Jim Bulleit, president of Bullet Records, said the project involves an investment of about $50,000 and said the plant will be the first record pressing factory in the South. The plant will be located on Bogle road near Berry field. Between 25 and 30 skilled workers will be employed, Bulleit said.”
In his book, “A Shot in the Dark: Making Records in Nashville, 1945-55,” published in 2007, author Martin Hawkins quotes Ogden Stokes, the son of a lawyer involved with the Bullet companies, on what it was like visiting the Bullet plant when he was a child:
“The squares of plastic were cooked on a grill, like a short-order cook’s, until soft. Then they were transferred on a spatula to one of the vertical presses, which had a stamper from the master recording. I remember the female machine operators using a footswitch, and the steam, which was used to operate the press, would come out, then down would come the press. While it was down she would take a knife and trim the plastic off that had squeezed out at the sides. The yellow labels were put on the press first. The whole place was very dimly lit, it was hot, regardless of the outside temperature, the cut-off plastic was all over the floor, and steam was leaking everywhere. It seemed to me then that this was what hell must look like. I always compared it to Dante’s Inferno.”
The plant enjoyed a short run of success — even printing dust jackets that said “Bullet - the Fastest Growing Independent Record Company in America” — but by 1949, Bullet found itself in troubled waters. Under the leadership of Bulleit, the label sunk far too much money into producing a string of pop records that bombed. This prompted Bulleit to sell his share of the company to his two partners, Hitchcock and Zinkler. It wasn’t long before Zinkler also left, leaving Hitchcock in charge. Hitchcock decided to drop the record label and focus solely on Bullet Plastics.
Working with Dunn, Hitchcock moved the presses to the basement of a music store he owned on Broadway, Hermitage Music. Sometime in the 1950s, they renamed the company Southern Plastics, and in 1956 moved the operations to a new location downtown on Franklin Street. By the early 1960s Southern Plastics was doing well and secured a contract to produce all of Motown’s singles. Motown’s seemingly endless string of hits led to the decision to build the 20,000-square-foot plant on Chestnut Street.
Third Man’s Blackwell says Jack White’s “Lazaretto” is “an anomaly in all record pressing, in which we can’t catch up. It’s the exception not the rule. We are constantly pressing it, we’re doing worldwide production at United. I have orders for 30,000 right now.”
To me, it echoes beautifully the anomaly of Bullet’s “Near You” almost 70 years before. It’s as though the company has come full circle —weathering storms and choppy waters to find itself yet again in a place of growth and prosperity, proving once and for all that they are here to stay.
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Vinyl was the dominant format for almost the entire history of recorded music. However, in 1988, CD sales surpassed vinyl for the first time. But even as vinyl lost favor among consumers, United still maintained a steady (albeit smaller) customer base.
So what did the ’90s look like at United?
“Lots and lots of singles,” says Millar. In the late 1990s, Cris Ashworth took ownership of United and began pressing 12-inch singles, typically used by DJs, for the first time; previously United had only been pressing 45-rpm singles. “Today, maybe we’ll get 20 orders of 1,000 records. Back then they would probably get one order of, let’s say, 20,000 Jay-Z singles.”
The orders were mostly hip-hop and dance records used by DJs, not only because that was the majority of what was popular in vinyl, but it because it had become the focus of the company’s marketing.
When Ashworth bought the company, it was down to only 10 employees. After striking a deal with another Nashville plant, Dixie Record Pressing, which was gradually closing down, Ashworth acquired new presses and through diligent promotion and networking, began to significantly expand United’s output of 10- and 12-inch records.
The 12-inch singles, along with 7-inch records for jukeboxes, of which there were thousands still operating around the world before the advent of the digital jukes, kept the business afloat through what most consider “the dead years of vinyl.” But as Millar points out, the dead years weren’t all that dead.
“What people call the ‘vinyl resurgence’ is actually the ‘LP resurgence’ because vinyl never really went away,” he explained. “When people think it went away was when 12-inch singles were booming. It was really a shift in what type of record was popular.”
In 2007, Ashworth sold the company to Mark Michaels, who remains CEO. It was then, Millar says, that the focus of United shifted toward LPs, “which is what the market was doing, too.”
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Touring the Motown Suite, I can’t but think about how our contemporary culture will be archived and preserved. New technologies arise and become obsolete in the blink of an eye, but here I am, surrounded by tens of thousands of records — music preserved using a technology that people 25 years ago believed was on its way out forever. I wonder: Will our digital legacy endure the way vinyl has?
Physical artifacts have preserved centuries worth of history, whereas digital content faces the constant threat of being entirely wiped out through technological upgrades. It raises a series of new and frightening questions. Without bundles of diaries, paper correspondence and printed photographs, could the stories of our culture disappear into a digital black hole?
A record will play on a turntable today and forever, just as it always has. If you find an LP in a store or in the trash, whether it was made yesterday or in 1950, there’s an immediate historical context provided by certain hallmarks: the label information, the runout etch (markings on the record’s inner rim), the artwork, the stickers. You can learn about it, you can discover it, you can know it.
The historical aspect becomes more abstract with digital content: how it’s archived, how it’s searched, how it’s found by future generations. A hundred years from now, if you stumble upon an MP3 file, will you even know what you’ve stumbled upon? Maybe there will be a band name or song title attached to the file, but maybe not. All you have, at its essence, is digital ones and zeros.
“I almost feel scared by it,” Blackwell says of the uncertainty of digital files. “I don’t know anyone in the world who hasn’t lost a shit-ton, if not all, of their digital data. You can lose a lifetime of photos and music instantly. I don’t know anyone who’s just lost a [vinyl] record collection.”
“I think there’s something magical about the vinyl format—for a lot of reasons,” adds Davis.
He’s right. There’s something about vinyl and the way it preserves. It is a vehicle, a conductor, a time capsule for something ephemeral and deeply human, a tangible strand that connects music and people who came before us: their joys and pains, their despair and love, their lessons and senses of beauty. It’s another world, one that protects us from getting lost in the modern world.
“When I was a kid, I loved my parents’ records,” Lundy says. “I loved pulling them out and looking at the art.” She says that now, when our cultural life is largely hidden away in the illusive "cloud," parents are denying their children a certain element of discovery: one that is rooted strictly in the physical world.
“Vinyl will never be the format of the masses,” Davis says. “Those of us who appreciate the realness of tactile things will keep that around. Digital music is moving toward a subscription model, which I don’t think really affects sales of the vinyl format. If you like vinyl, you have to have vinyl. There is no other method of distribution that satisfies that desire except vinyl itself. It’s bulletproof.”