Fat Possum Opens Its Own Vinyl Pressing Plant to Meet (Its Own) Demand

Memphis Record Pressing, a new vinyl pressing plant dreamed up and run by Fat Possum founder Matthew Johnson, in partnership with Bruce Watson and AudioGraphics Masterworks owners Mark Yoshida and Brandon Seavers, is ready for business 10 months after construction began in March of this year. Its first release was a re-print of Youth Lagoon's 2011 LP Year of Hibernation in the beginning of last month, a process you can see in the below video. 

"I’ve had 3,000 Modest Mouse records stuck in customs that’s cost me a lot of money at Christmas," Johnson tells Billboard on a frigid night at an East Village bar. "I’m tired of all that shit. I hate this business. It's getting so bad. If I want to sit down, I feel like I have to cut a tree down, cut it into boards, make a chair -- it’s ridiculous. You used to not have to worry about manufacturing. Now you do."

Not one to mince words unless it's to speak in metaphors, Johnson is referring to one of the most pervasive problems in pressing records: backorders. Though the recent vinyl boom has been a boon for manufacturers like Nashville's United Record Pressing or Canoga Park, Calif.'s Rainbo Records, it's also resulted in a sales surge that often overwhelms the country's existing 16 plants, as Vice's Motherboard pointed out earlier this year. "United is five months backordered, and everyone else is that or more," says Johnson. "We used to be able to get these turned around in seven weeks."

On the plus side, Johnson opened the pressing plant specifically to release records from Leeds punks Fat White Family and promising relative newcomers the Districts, whose debut LP, A Flourish and a Spoil, arrives Feb. 10. Also, backorders are, on the one hand, an embarrassment of riches: though Johnson is skeptical the vinyl resurgence will last, since it first began in 2008, vinyl sales have increased 223 percent, to 6.06 million units last year, and are gaining momentum, on track to surpass 8 million units this year (sales grew 1.5 million last year and 2 million this year), according to Nielsen Music. 

With nine presses, Johnson hopes to churn out a minimum of 7,000 records a day and "hopefully" 13-14,000. Though that's well below United's 30-40,000 a day, Memphis Record Pressing's advantage lies in its speed: the smaller plant cycles 37 seconds per record as opposed to the usual minute-per-record at most plants. The machines themselves were fixer-uppers -- Johnson bought them when they were essentially scrap metal from a gentleman who sold all of them for $100,000 when he estimates each of the presses should have cost $50-60,000 in their current state (a press that needs no work, by comparison, is about $200-250,000) -- and he refurbished and installed the presses at the AudioGraphics Masterworks building in Bartlett, Tenn. 

Memphis Record Pressing will also be making records for additional companies, including some of the labels working with Sony's RED Distribution. "[President] Bob Morelli and [svp product development] Alan Becker have been very supportive and patient of our complete lack of financial planning," says Johnson, "so obviously we'd like to reciprocate and give them all the manufacturing capability we don't use." (Johnson adds that RED wound up "sorta involuntarily" financing the pressing plant, which went $400,000 over budget.)

Johnson doesn't know how much money he'll save with his own pressing plant -- or rather, he doesn't care to speculate for fear of jinxing the operation -- but he does know it will save him a lot of travel time. Previously, Fat Possum records would be pressed through San Francisco-based Pirates Press Records' manufacturers in Czechoslovakia, GZ Digital Media; then, they'd be shipped to Sony's warehouse in Franklin, Ind. before being distributed. Now, he keeps it all in-house. 

"I don't want to say our shit is perfect," says Johnson, "but I think it's better than anyone else's." 

This article has been corrected throughout.