Quietly tucked into a once industrial, now artistic minded, section of Nashville, Tennessee, sits the United State’s largest record manufacturing plant, United Record Pressing. A staple of Chestnut St. since 1962, United stands as one of the longest running, and best known, plants of its kind in the world.
I first encountered United Record Pressing back in 1997 when I was working on putting out my first album. At the time, they were easy to find, and had little in the way of major competition. I would make the (long-distance) call and speak with an older southern lady about the process, the timing and the cost. While prices have not changed too much, the wait time for pressing has significantly changed since 1997.
In 1997 record pressing was at a low ebb – now, it is one of the few growing areas of the recording business. What started with a simple phone call in 1997, has now blossomed into a 19 year business relationship. I have worked United on many projects, so when the chance came to visit the plant – I jumped on it. But first, I’d like to provide a little background.
Ozell Simpkins, John Dunn, and Joe Talbot founded united Record Pressing, the largest producer of vinyl records in the United States, under the name “Southern Plastics” in 1949, the same year that RCA introduced the 45 rpm record. Southern Plastics changed their name to United Record Pressing in 1971 after a management change. United found initial success as a jukebox producer for large labels such as Mowtown Records before buying Dixie Record Pressing and expanding to LPs.
In 1962, the company moved to its current location at 453 Chestnut Street from 512 Franklin Street in Nashville, Tennessee. Since, United has continued to operate, creating history along the way. For example, United was the first US plant to press a Beatles single, for Vee Jay Records. During the early years of the Chestnut location, Nashville – and the south – was still very much segregated. Many of the African American customers, executives, and musicians had trouble finding hotels or restaurants that would offer them service in town, so in response, the company built the United Hilton Suite, which would later go on to be known as The Motown Suite.
The lobby of United is ramshackle and full of dusty, lived-in information. It reminded me very much of the entrance to CBGB, and in a lot of ways, the matter of fact approach to both companies legacies are very similar to how CB’s operated when it was still open. After a short wait, and chatting with the receptionist I was greeted by the production liaison for my latest release, Brian Thompson.
Brian was a wealth of knowledge and led us on the tour of the facility. Before entering the pressing plant, Brian explained the lacquering and plating process, as well as what happens to unused metal parts and lacquers – short answer is they are all in various ways recycled. Typically metal parts are stored for up to a year, some companies have them returned, and others pay to store them longer at United for quicker turn around times on represses.
The way that records are made is pretty simple theoretically. Vinyl pellets are heated and extruded into a hot vinyl biscuit. The biscuit is then placed between two paper labels and pressed between two metal plates that have the reverse grooves of the record on each side. The record is then trimmed and placed for testing and packaging. While the simplicity of the process owes a lot to its longevity, each little step has a thousand things that can go wrong, and each machine requires constant monitoring and upkeep to keep the 24 hour operation going.
Following the tour of the pressing facilities you are brought upstairs to the Mowtown Suite and recording and events space. The Mowtown Suite is as much a product of need as anything else in the building. The Mowtown Suite is an area on the second floor of the building that is an apartment-style living space. The suite still has the same furnishings that were offered to the visiting patrons back in the 1960s. This includes a common room with a bar, plenty of seating for guests, a full bathroom, a double-occupancy bedroom, a kitchen equipped with an old push-button stove and other novel 60s décor.
Next to the Motown Suite on the second floor of the building is a large space that is used to host record release parties and other events for labels and artists. It also functions as a small museum to the company and the history of recorded music. The space is still used today, some bands have recorded records that the plant has issued under it’s own imprint; while other’s have opted to rent the facilities from the company.
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. Record pressing demand is so high right now that investors are racing to build new presses for the first time in decades.
Plants in Portland, Seattle, Detroit have all come online in the last year with investors as varied as long time enthusiasts – to even Jack White of the White Stripes fame. Though the presses at United run 24 hours a day, six days a week, it is never enough. To meet this demand, United has just put the finishing touches on a new second location bringing even more presses online.
After more than sixty-five years in business United is helping to prove that vinyl is far from an anachronism in this age of digital music by expanding. United management credits new technology with contributing to a rebirth of appreciation in vinyl.
While digital is the peak of convenience, and vinyl is the peak of experience. The two formats can indeed work in tandem. According to United, about 75 percent of the vinyl records pressed come with a code for a free digital download of the same music. Download codes have proven to be very smart and consistent with listening habits. Increasingly vinyl sales are used as status and art objects, while digital sales are used for more immediate and mobile needs.
While not releasing revenue figures, United boasts that it has grown from 40 to 150 employees since 2007. Approximately 70 to 80 jobs will be created when United opens a second Nashville plant later this year, an investment Mayor Karl Dean cited as an essential component to the continued strength of Music City.
Timothy Grisham is a writer, photographer, and musician living in Olympia, Wash. Over the past 20 years he has been involved with running three labels, and has released records by musicians from around the world. His latest group Dark Palms can be found on various parts of the internet and traveling the country at any given time.