America's Largest Record Plant Expands Thanks to Vinyl Boom – But It's Never Been in Trouble (Q&A)

Courtesy of United Record Pressing

United Record Pressing in Nashville, TN.

Vinyl obviously isn't going anywhere any time soon... but did it ever?

United Record Pressing, the busiest vinyl pressing company on the globe (and the very same that recently helped Jack White break a world record) is expanding. The Nashville-based plant will nearly double the volume of records it's able to create, which it currently does 24 hours a day, six days a week to the tune of 30-40,000 pieces of vinyl per day. The company will bring 16 new presses online, some they had already and some purchased from shuttered competitors, by the end of the year.

The move is illustrates the success of vinyl in recent years -- 76.2 million units in overall sales so far this year -- which has exploded in the wake of Record Store Day, launched in 2007. Billboard spoke to Jay Millar, director of marketing for United Record Pressing who previously worked for PolyGram, Universal and SonyBMG. Below, Millar turns many common assumptions about vinyl on their heads.

Billboard: First of all, congratulations on a move that a lot of people weren't expecting.
Jay Millar: To be honest with you we weren't expecting it quite yet either, in terms of the announcement. We're early in the process -- we just officially acquired the buildings. Our initial plan was to hold off until we could say 'Look! It's the first record form our second building!' But the release went out from the real estate folks -- we were aware that they were doing the press release because we helped them with it a little bit, but we didn't realize it was going out just yet. I came into work all scruffy, and the local news crews were coming by.

But I know that's not the way you meant, as far as not seeing it coming. But really, we've been running 24 hours a day, six days a week nonstop for quite a while now. It used to be a situation where we'd ramp up like that before Record Store Day and Black Friday, but it has gotten to the point where there really is no slow time. It's year-round. So, with no option of adding more hours to the day and preferring not to add Sunday... I think people would go stir crazy if we were working seven days a week. And even that, adding one day is nowhere near almost doubling your presses. We're at the point where we're all practically sitting in one another's laps.

You said 'quite a while,' how long have you been going 24 hours a day?
Two years is probably a fair guess. There are the occasional days where we won't run on a Saturday, but it's never because there's no work, it's just because we feel like we're about to start punching one another. [Laughs]

How long have you been there?
I've been here seven years.

So not quite as long as the resurgence of vinyl began in the early 2000s.
Correct. But, oddly, I was kind of living it anyways. I was working at Universal at the time, which is what brought me back here. I started getting back into vinyl myself at the same time the resurgence was kind of kicking in.

A lot of people at indie labels were reportedly disappointed at turnaround times for their vinyl orders -- submitting a piece of vinyl for pressing in January wasn't a pleasant experience from what I heard.
I did see some of that criticism, and it seemed like most of it was coming from the U.K. They had a very different situation; there wasn't a person like Michael Kurtz [founder of Record Store Day] who was filtering things. Even though they were catering to a smaller population, they had 50% more titles than we did here.

I wasn't aware of any indies that failed to meet the Record Store Day deadline, but I was aware of major label stuff that didn't make the deadline. Even small stuff that came in late, like Smogvale Records out of Cleveland, we were able to get out a 250-unit order in like three weeks to make Record Store Day. People were saying 'If you're a small label or small order, it's not happening' which seemed false from my observations here. I think a lot of that international criticism came over here.

For someone who's been there for 20 years, what was their experience like in the mid-'90s, when vinyl was considered 'dead'?
Yeah, that's a false perception of a lot of people. When they think vinyl was "dead" in the '90s, they're overlooking the fact that at that point CD jukeboxes were still a new thing. The 7" vinyl jukebox was [still] huge. And from my time working at labels at that point, I always had stacks of 12" singles behind my desk. Most radio stations were using 12" singles, every birthday party DJ, every roller rink, every discotheque, and record stores in general. This company at that time was really structured for 12" singles. It's been within the last seven years that it's shifted to the LP market, offering things like download cards, custom jackets, all the bells and whistles that go into full-length LPs. In the '90s it was structured more towards things going into generic jackets with a sticker saying 'the new single from Jay Z' or whatever.

They weren't necessarily running 24 hours a day six days a week, but they were by no means slow. From talks I've had here, it was rarely less than two shifts. The company's pretty much always been at two shifts a day.

So you would say that vinyl never died.
Correct. It's just been a shift in the public's perception. It's been a wonderful, chance happening that the rise or emergence of digital slowed down the 12" jukebox single, and also brought the renewed interest in something tangible. While it hurt what was keeping the plant running in the '90s, the LP market exploded as people wanted a deeper connection to their music than they were getting from a digital file.

Is it fair to say that the rise in vinyl is directly attributable to Record Store Day, or is Record Store Day a result of the rise in vinyl?
I would say Record Store Day is a result of the rise in vinyl. From my own experience, it was the emergence digital music players that brought on the rise in vinyl. It's people wanting to have that "deluxe" experience. I compare it to going to the movie theatre versus the DVR.

I think the vinyl resurgence was definitely already happening, and it brought on Record Store Day, which greatly enhanced it. It's amazing how it keeps growing year-over-year.

When will the new presses be operational?
It's hard to say. As specific as we can get right is 'this year.'

Courtesy of United Record Pressing

Who built the presses? Obviously there isn't an assembly line somewhere.
When you were asking earlier about the margins, that struck me as a question that might've been geared toward new presses. Nobody makes record presses anymore. There are people who have the ability to; we have a machinist in-house who says he can. The investment in making new presses is probably not feasible, in terms of profit margins. Some of these are presses we've had, some we've gotten from plants that are no longer operational. Of the 22 presses we have running, they're a mix of SMT -- Southern Machine & Tool -- and the others are Leneds. The 16 we're looking to get online this year are Lened presses.

The similar question that comes up is what we do for parts, but our machinist keeps things running. If something breaks, he's either got to fix it or make it.

How much would a brand-new press cost?
It's in the hundreds of thousands, I can tell you that. And you'd still need to spend about the same amount getting a boiler set up, the regulations... it's very costly and difficult to go in from scratch.