The colorful past and promising future of United Record Pressing
By Michael McCall, photos by Eric England
MARCH 29, 1999: Once a year, Shoei Go travels to Nashville from her home in Osaka, Japan. She comes here because she's in the music business, but she isn't peddling country records. Even so, Music City is home to one of her primary business suppliers, United Record Pressing. Never mind the fact that most locals could care less about a vinyl record manufacturing plant located in an industrial zone south of downtown. For Go, it's something of a pilgrimage, a chance to meet the people who do thousands of dollars of work for her. Why she comes, and why she chooses to do business with a pressing plant halfway around the world, speaks volumes about this small, quiet, yet richly historic Nashville enterprise.
With a history stretching back 50 years, United stands at the center of the Nashville record business, a cog in the Music Row machine that has been every bit as important as WSM radio, the Grand Ole Opry, Decca Records, Tree Publishing, and BMI. But its tale has rarely been told, mostly because it's a company built on engineering ingenuity rather than famous names or classic hits.
The records pressed in the plant include some of the most important and best-known popular music ever created, including landmark works by Eddy Arnold, Elvis Presley, Slim Harpo, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, and The Judds. But United's daily business isn't very glamorous. It's a small factory, a place where the rubber meets the road--or more correctly, where the music meets the vinyl. For decades, it marked the last step of the lengthy creative process that brought popular music to millions of listeners.
As it turned out, the peak period for vinyl coincided with the heyday of American popular music, a time when the best rock 'n' roll, the best rhythm-and-blues, and much of the best country music was made. For this reason, the medium holds a special sentimental significance for those baby-boomers who grew up listening to Elvis Presley, James Brown, and Loretta Lynn on 45 rpm singles and 33 1/3 rpm LPs.
That's not true for the young record buyers of today. With the advent of compact discs and now the Internet, everything has changed. As such, United could be seen as a dinosaur, one of the last holdouts of a dying breed.
But there are those who think there's still plenty of life in this lumbering, old-fashioned way of documenting music. Vinyl may never play the central role that it once held, but there are those who believe it will last as a boutique business, serving a specialty market that loves the sound and even the feel of vinyl. What's more, the 12-inch disk is still very much a part of current, cutting edge music, crucial to hip-hop performers, dance-club deejays, and turntable artists, all of whom depend on vinyl to create their art.
There's no denying that business has changed enormously for those in the record-pressing industry. But while many plants have simply ceased operation in the last decade, United has been undergoing some major transitions, including new investors and a new ownership arrangement. By all indications, it's one of the few remaining independent vinyl plants in America outfitting itself for the future. That future will be drastically different from the past. Where United once regularly received press-run orders of 150,000 to 300,000 for one hit single from RCA or Motown, today the company exists largely on runs of 2,000 disks or less. But the new owners, in partnership with veteran United executives and employees, believe there's a way for United to flourish amidst the evolving market conditions of the music business.
"It's a far more complex business than it once was, and in truth the principals of the company, who are all in their 70s, didn't want to deal with the transitions taking place," says Cris Ashworth, who became United's new president on Jan. 1. "They're dealing with a lot more jobs with a lot fewer units ordered. It's also become an international business, so there are also language issues to deal with, and time issues and transportation issues. And then there's the Internet as well."
United's new international customer base has no better representative than Shoei Go, who runs a record label specializing in underground rock and avant-garde noise albums. Ever since she started her label in 1994, the young Japanese businesswoman has made a point of putting music on vinyl as well as CDs. Her choice is aesthetic as much as it is financial.
Japan has only two vinyl pressing plants--one for 7-inch records, another for 12-inch discs. "They are very expensive," Go says. "It is a lot cheaper for me to press records in the United States, even with the shipping costs."
A former New York resident, she found out about United through American friends who were involved with independent labels. She surveyed several different people about where they had their records pressed, and each of them suggested the same plant: United Record Pressing in Nashville.
That was three years ago, and Go has been a steady customer ever since. Not only that, she has expanded her business by becoming a broker for other labels and artists who want to utilize vinyl. Nowadays, her company, Japan Overseas, receives shipments of several thousand singles and LPs every two weeks from United.
"I like to work with United because they are very prompt," Go explains. "They always deliver on time, and that's very important in Japan."
A company that once took calls from legendary U.S. record men like Col. Tom Parker, Berry Gordy, and Chet Atkins now finds itself deciphering orders from Japan, Brazil, Jamaica, and Germany. But that's only part of the changing climate for United's business. As both the company's longtime executives and the new management recognize, it's time for United to stop sitting back and waiting for orders to come in. To stay in business, they need to let the world know what they do and how well they do it.
Until now, United banked wholly on its reputation; even the foreign companies who discovered the plant found it by word of mouth. But with Ashworth at the helm, United is prepared to start a new marketing and advertising campaign aimed at calling attention to its capabilities and its reputation.
A well-traveled executive with a reputation for expanding a company's bottom line, as well as a veteran of the international marketplace, Ashworth plans to make United a more prominent presence both internationally, nationally, and even locally. United may stay small and family-oriented as far as its staff is concerned, but no longer will it be a quiet industry player. Ashworth's plan is to make both Nashville and the rest of the world familiar with the work his plant does.
The history of United goes back to 1949, the year RCA Victor issued the first 45 rpm record--a competitive move that came only months after Columbia had introduced the 33 1/3 rpm, long-playing album. That year, John Dunn opened Nashville's first seven-inch pressing plant, then called Southern Plastics. By the mid-'50s, when the 45 and the LP replaced the 78 as the recording formats of choice, Southern Plastics found its services in demand. Through all kinds of developments in the music business, the company stayed busy for decades. Given that it's the 50th anniversary of the 45--and of the plant itself--it's fitting that United is undergoing some of the most significant changes it has seen in decades. With Dunn's passing in 1998, remaining partners Ozell Simpkins and Joe Talbot decided it was time to look to the plant's future. The 71-year-old Simpkins, who built the Chestnut Street plant and personally designed its machines, had been acting president for more than three decades. Talbot, now 70, had been a United officer and treasurer since the mid-'60s.
"Me and Joe felt it was a good time to bring in some new people," Simpkins says.
Through a local banking contact, they found businessman J. Crispin "Cris" Ashworth, who had a history of joining large companies and expanding their net worth and their business holdings. The son of a former British diplomat and an MBA graduate of Vanderbilt University's prestigious Owen School of Business Management, Ashworth has played a key role in the growth of several local businesses.
He worked as chief financial officer at Nashville Gas in the '70s, helping complete its merger between Tennessee Natural Resources and Piedmont Natural Gas. In the '80s, he was president of Advantage Industries and helped the corporation take its Worldcom long distance company public in 1989. In 1992, he moved to New Jersey to become chief financial officer for Medical Economics, the company best known for publishing the Physician's Desk Reference. During the five years Ashworth worked for the company, it grew from a $125 million firm to a $400 million enterprise, thanks largely to acquisitions in Latin America and Europe.
After he returned to Nashville two years ago, Ashworth worked for two health-care companies, Envoy and Princeps. It was at this point that a friend alerted him to the possibilities of getting involved with United.
"When I walked through the front door, it was love at first sight," he relates. "What I loved was the history of the business, and the types of people who work at United. Beyond that, a real commitment has been made by the owners and the employees to make this business continue to prosper. There's a real family feeling inside this building, and there's also this real affection that people have toward vinyl. It's a piece of American history, but it's also something that can continue to play a real role in the entertainment industry."
Ashworth didn't buy the business simply because it had sentimental value. He did some investigating before he got involved. "As a market, the vinyl business has declined significantly," he says. "But, in my opinion, the shakeout within the industry had hit the floor. No one was making presses anymore, and most of the plants that were going to shut down had done so. Now there's only a handful of plants left, and those that are left are profitable. Then I noticed that there was renewed interest in vinyl by a new generation of consumers."
As Ashworth paged through hi-fi magazines and industry publications, he noticed a flurry of stories on turntables and on the comparative value of CDs versus vinyl records. Most of all, he noticed stories about how some music fans were turning back to vinyl.
Darren Fulton, the buyer for the vinyl department at Nashville's Tower Records, supports Ashworth's belief that a solid niche market remains for LPs and 12-inch singles. Like most stores, Tower eliminated vinyl from its sales floor in the early '90s. But interest from consumers brought vinyl back into the store two years ago.
A self-professed vinyl fan, Fulton predicts that vinyl will likely outlast the CD as a musical medium. "As everything goes to a purely electronic format, with people downloading their music from the Internet, there will still be vinyl records. There's a satisfaction you get from an LP that's not there with a CD. Vinyl is more aesthetically pleasing." Echoing Go's observations, he points out that a record gives the listener something to hold onto and to look at--something downloadable music won't be able to provide in the same dimensions.
Current industry statistics confirm that there is a renewed, if limited, demand for vinyl. After falling off the cliff in the '80s, vinyl sales figures have slowly begun to claw themselves back into view. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, vinyl now represents 1.14 percent of the market, up from 0.3 percent in 1993. That may not seem like much, but 1 percent of a multibillion-dollar business can add up--to an estimated $85 million a year in the United States. In Europe and Japan, the percentage of the market is even larger.
"People are going back to vinyl because of its unique qualities," Ashworth says. "Vinyl has a unique sound, a very pleasing sound. I can play you a CD of a song and the vinyl version of the same song, and nine times out of 10 you'll prefer the vinyl. It's a warmer, richer sound. Digital can transmit extreme highs and extreme lows. Vinyl cannot get to those extremes, but those limitations provide an opportunity for a very unique, very human sound."
With only four major plants operating independently in the States, it's easy to see why Ashworth believes there's a sizable niche market for United Record Pressing. Moreover, the three other leading independent plants all have owners who are in their 70s or older. In a graying business, Ashworth, at age 48, is the new kid on the block. Although he skirts the issue now, it's evident that he has his sights on eventually absorbing other U.S. plants into the United fold.
"There are people who think I'm crazy when I say this, but there are a lot of opportunities in the vinyl business," he contends. "And there's not another place that has the people and the experience that United has. My job is to sell what makes United so unique: This plant has a uniquely qualified staff, and there's not another place that can compete with that. No one can make records with the kind of consistency and quality that United offers."
Much of that quality comes from people like Ozell Simpkins, a legendary figure in the vinyl trade because of his understanding of the manufacturing process. In the early '60s, John Dunn sent Simpkins, an electrical engineer by profession, to Brussels, Belgium, where the most modern plant and most efficient presses in the world then existed. Simpkins spent two months learning everything he could, then returned to Nashville to design a steam-powered record pressing production line of his own. Located at 453 Chestnut St., around the corner from Greer Stadium, the 27,000-square-foot plant is a one-of-a-kind facility, from the steam boilers in the basement to the vinyl pellet silos on the roof.
Out front, the building's fading facade features a checkerboard of pastel tiles that marked the place as a hip, progressive establishment several decades ago. Inside, the reception area and front offices are all wood paneling and shiny vinyl flooring (naturally), while the casual mishmash of overstuffed files and music-biz artwork suggests that this is an office designed for comfort rather than flash.
For the most part, the building probably doesn't look any different than it did 30 years ago, when Dolly Parton was still a 34-C and her initial RCA singles--"We'll Get Ahead Someday," "In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)"--were being pressed in the rear of the factory.
What has changed, however, is that the records are now pressed by automated machines instead of the old, manual machines, which were much more dangerous and prone to mistakes. In 1972, along with colleague Bill West, Simpkins personally designed these presses, which flatten 12-inch disks with 100 tons of pressure and seven-inch 45s with 50 tons of pressure.
The presses sit in the back of the building, where the nitty-gritty work is accomplished in two long, rectangular rooms--one for 45s, the other for 12-inches--and a central packing room. The presses line the long concrete floors like so many big-shouldered soldiers--tall, foursquare, green metal machines that huff steam and clang metal, their intricately moving parts pushing and sliding the heated vinyl through its steps with imperturbable military precision.
As the clamorous sounds suggest, the presses are quite violent. But the delicate touch of the workers removing the finished wax from the spindles implies that the product of this violence is art--or at least some form of personal expression.
Simpkins also is responsible for what's known as the United Hilton. On the second floor of the plant, across from the board room, is a fully furnished apartment. Still filled with vintage '60s furniture, the three-room apartment, complete with a stocked kitchen, was designed to give black record executives a comfortable place to stay when they traveled to Nashville to conduct business with United. Among United's biggest customers were such legendary record labels as Detroit's Motown and Chicago's Vee Jay Records.
"In those days, there wasn't a decent hotel in Nashville that would let a black person stay there," Simpkins says, shaking his head. "So we built a real nice apartment upstairs so there'd be a nice place for our customers to stay if they needed it."
The apartment also played host to the occasional party: Hank Williams Jr. celebrated his 16th birthday there, and a young Wayne Newton toasted the release of his first album with a shindig there.
Simpkins, who has been responsible for switching the boilers each morning for more than three decades, can tell plenty of stories about United's history. One of his favorites involves bluesman Slim Harpo, creator of such classics as "I'm a King Bee" and "Rainin' in My Heart."
"Slim was living in Nashville in the '60s," Simpkins remembers. "One day he called and asked if I could deliver a test pressing to his house. The song was 'Baby, Scratch My Back,' which ended up being a pretty big hit for him. Well, I drove over there, over off Jefferson Street, and he had a house that was hardly fit to live in. Now, I knew Slim Harpo, and I knew he was making some pretty good money. I mean, I knew how many records we were pressing, and it was a lot.
"So when I got there, I said, 'Slim, let me ask you something. I know you got all kinds of money. Why do you live like this?' He said, 'Young man, you cannot live in an ivory tower with a silver spoon in your mouth and sing the blues. I live where my people are. I feel what they feel, and I see what they see.' Well, I always thought that was a real wise statement there."
Simpkins often gets ribbed by his coworkers about the time Frank Sinatra called. One day in the '60s, he picked up the phone, and a deep voice bellowed, "Hello, this is Frank Sinatra!" As he recalls, "Guys in the music business were always playing pranks back then, so I didn't believe it for a second. So this guy tells me he's Frank Sinatra, and I said, 'Well, no shit! I'm Napoleon Bonaparte!' That just made him mad. He screamed, 'Goddamn it, I am Frank Sinatra!' I probably said something else smart, and then he hung up."
Simpkins remembers the days when United sometimes got so busy that it operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, stamping out 1.5 million discs a month. He also remembers the heyday of such big-selling Motown artists as Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, and Marvin Gaye. The plant's last single-artist bonanza came from Lionel Richie, who hit a hot streak with a string of platinum- and gold-selling singles from 1981 to 1986. Right up to the dawn of the CD age, United was in the thick of it.
Used to be, Simpkins says, he operated on a first-name basis with nearly all of United's clients. With the number of orders coming in now, that's no longer the case. "It's not a handshake business anymore," he sighs. Working with smaller, independent record labels can have its headaches. Simpkins laughs as he recalls the Tampa-based buyer who ordered 2,000 records on credit, leaving only a minimum deposit. Payment was due within 30 days, but the guy kept ignoring past-due statements, until he finally paid his bill nine months later.
Some time later, the same customer personally showed up at the front desk to deliver the master recording for his next pressing. When he requested credit and was denied, he asked to speak to Simpkins, who explained to the customer that he couldn't get credit since he hadn't paid his first bill on time. The customer, however, protested: He'd sent the money exactly 30 days after selling the last record from the previous order.
For the most part, though, Simpkins enjoys the new international flavor of United's business. He gives Shoei Go a fatherly hug whenever he sees her, and he speaks fondly of the Jamaican caller who eventually grew into one of the company's biggest clients. Seems Jamaica's only 45 pressing plant had closed without telling anyone, leaving customers scurrying about for another place to order records.
"About the only thing I could make out was when he said, 'We need some records done in a hurry, mon,' " Simpkins recalls. "He had such a heavy accent, I couldn't understand him, and he couldn't understand me. But we got it worked out, and he told all the other Jamaican record companies about us. Now we're doing a significant percentage of our business from Jamaica and from Japan."
Indeed, on any given day, the plant will be pressing records from all over the world, by all types of artists. One morning a few weeks ago, United was pressing 45s by female Jamaican singer Lady Saw, Martina McBride, Big Star, Jason Falkner, and a hip-hop band called Underground Resistance. Across the hall, the machines were stamping out a German techno 12-inch single on red vinyl.
The move appears to have been a savvy one. In January, United pressed 10,000 LPs. In March, it plans to send out more than 50,000.
As Ashworth points out, 7-inch records and 12-inch records constitute totally different markets. Independent bands tend to favor 45s, since underground-music fans remain among the core consumers of new singles. Major-label artists, meanwhile, have their singles pressed on vinyl to reach the more than 300,000 vinyl jukeboxes still in service. Because CD jukeboxes require a significant investment, many bars and restaurants are holding onto their vinyl machines, but they still want the latest hits--which explains why Martina McBride's next single, "Whatever You Say," was on the presses recently.
Twelve-inch singles, on the other hand, are a vital part of urban and dance music. Rappers, hip-hop artists, and turntablists depend on the thick, swirling curves of 12-inch records to create the scratching technique central to their music. Likewise, club deejays find 12-inches easier to manipulate, sync, and blend--which keeps the music pumping and the dance floor full.
Every day, there's a culture clash of sorts taking place at United, as men like Ashworth and Simpkins supply the goods for all-night raves, gay dance clubs, and the punk underground. But the United chieftains don't pass judgment on their clients. Instead, as they give tours of the plant to East Coast thrash bands, West Coast hip-hoppers, Rastafarian toasters, and Teutonic techno-freaks, they display a laissez-faire attitude, the sort of understanding that comes with being a broker of global pop culture. "We know each one of these records we produce is very, very important to the people who created it and who gave it to us," says George Ingram, president of Nashville Record Productions. His business, located next door to United, turns master recordings into lacquers and then into metal plates, which in turn mash formless molten blobs of vinyl into records. "Some of it might sound like noise to me, but I don't judge it. We do the best we can with it, because we know how much it's going to mean to the people we send it to. No matter how long you've been doing this, you know the thrill someone gets when they first hold a record that they've had a part in creating."
That process, turning instruments and voices into recorded material, is a mystery to most people. The colorful nature of how records get pressed--an amazing process that seems as archaic as a factory scene from a novel by Dickens or Dos Passos--has fueled a dream of Ashworth's: to create an experience where tourists and the general public can tour through the plant and view the creation of vinyl records.
"I was always very impressed by how Jack Daniel's approached communicating the distilling and bottling of its products," he says. "I think United also has a history that needs to be communicated, so one of my thoughts is to open up the plant and create a Jack Daniel's type of tour experience. It's a very interesting process, and very few people actually understand how records are made. Besides, because of how Ozell designed this facility, there are some very unique features to this building and this plant. There's a lot of history here, and it should be shared."
Part of Ashworth's enthusiasm for his plant is savvy marketing--after all, if tourists go home talking about their visit to a real-life record plant, it helps spread the word that United is the place to go for anyone wanting LPs and 45s. But part of his excitement comes from genuine romance--he's obviously caught up in the idea of dealing in something as nostalgic and as magical as records. How many businessmen could say the same for window sashes, or garden hoses, or Tupperware?
A few weeks ago, when Shoei Go paid her annual visit to the plant, Ashworth was brimming with his typical ardor. As Go pulled out one of her business cards--a miniature paper replica of a 45--and handed it to another United visitor, the owner grabbed it from the visitor's hand.
"Is this you?" Ashworth exclaimed. "I love this! I'm going to have to get a card like this.
"Is that OK?" he asked. "Would it be OK if I copy this? I absolutely need to use this. I've been looking for the right card, and I kept putting it off because I didn't have the right idea yet. But this is it. This is what I need--a business card shaped like a record. That would say it all."
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