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United Record Pressing's Jay Millar Looks Back on Nine Years at the Center of the Vinyl Explosion
Jay Millar is a 20-year veteran of the music industry, spending past 8 years as the Marketing Director for Nashville, Tennessee's United Record Pressing. The previous 12 years were split between PolyGram, BMG, SonyBMG, and Universal. July marks his start as Creative Director & Catalog Development for Sundazed Music.
In August of 2006, I made my first-ever trip to Nashville. Tom Waits was touring that year but not playing New York, so I took a solo vacation to see him at the Ryman. I quickly fell in love with the city, visiting one more time before deciding it was place we could call home.
I was doing marketing work for Universal Music Distribution at the time, and my wife (girlfriend at the time) Marcia was doing production for Warner Music Group’s Independent Label Group. We were both watching the industry rapidly contract, and knew that at any time we could be next. Most people are about two paychecks from being homeless in New York, so we decided if one of us could find a job in Nashville, we’d do it.
At that point, Nashville wasn’t quite where the music industry comes to retire -- as I like to think of it now -- and vinyl wasn’t much of a buzzword. In fact, working at a record pressing plant, let alone in a marketing capacity, was so under the radar at the time that I found the job on Monster.com. (I may be the only person outside the food service industry who has actually found work on Monster.com.) I put "record company" in as my search criteria, and it was then that I discovered the existence of United Record Pressing.
The fact that Nashville had a pressing plant (that was hiring!) was too good to be true. I threw myself at them, and it worked. They replied to my Monster.com correspondence almost immediately.
Marcia was even invited to the interview, which took place in a '60s kitchen -- not just any '60s kitchen. It was part of United’s "Motown Suite." The Motown Suite is an apartment above the plant built by the company (called Southern Plastics at the time) to host customers of theirs who were otherwise denied accommodations due to the color of their skin. We had the interview, then toured what to me felt like Wonka’s chocolate factory. Everything was beautifully antiquated. It seemed every wall was either a shade of green, or wood paneling, and all of it was covered in decades of heavy cigarette smoke.
After I was hired, URP wanted me to help modernize things, open a vinyl one-stop, and use my industry contacts to rope in some new business. Given a modest moving budget, Marcia and our three cats Doris, Simon, and Seymour, along with all of our possessions, stuffed ourselves into a U-Haul, and after 14 hours of driving, made it to Nashville with just enough time to catch some rest before starting work at the chocolate factory the next morning.
My first day at United Record Pressing was September 1st, 2006, the first day of the smoking ban in Nashville. The smokers were gone (secret hiding spots aside) but the leftover smoke from the previous 45 years still lingered. It was a mostly older, bare-bones crew of folks. The customer service team was four people, and the plant typically ran one shift, sometimes two if things got busy.
Walking the plant in those days, you’d see almost exclusively 12" singles on the presses, along with their standard row of 7" presses. United didn’t do much full-length LP work then, in part due to LPs being the quieter side of business, mostly occupied by audiophiles and indie labels, and partly due to the niche that United had carved out for themselves: they were the place to go when Jay Z needed 50,000 12" singles, fast. Almost everything pressed at that time was packaged in a generic jacket with an in-house printed 3x9 sticker telling you when T.I.s album was gonna drop, or that this was yet another single featuring Akon.
Around 2007, the vinyl market began to shift around the same time United’s focus did. As the iPod seemed to usher in a resurgence of the LP, Serato and other mixing software was helping to kill the 12" single market. New hardware and software created options for DJs where they could mix and scratch at a club without have to lug in 50lb crates of records. Traditionally, 12” singles were market drivers; they would be sent to every club, roller rink, and bar mitzvah DJ in advance of an album's release. Label reps would be loaded up with them to use promotionally as well. It seemed like overnight this all shifted to digital files. They could get music out to DJs quicker and cheaper. A digital track could have came and went in the public’s eye in the time it would have taken that same song to get through the vinyl production process. I’m sure the 12” single will have its resurgence too, but right now that market is a fraction of what it once was.
April 19th (coincidentally, my birthday), 2008 marked the start of another major game changer, Record Store Day. For United, that first RSD basically just meant they had three of their largest orders in some time, RSD branded comps for Sony, Universal, and Brushfire. In 2009 it seemed more people were taking it seriously as United got pretty busy leading up to it. By 2010 it had become a busy season for United, bringing with it a monthslong stretch of 24-hour days and the feeling of elves in Santa’s workshop in late November. Speaking of November, 2010 also brought on the debut of Record Store Day’s Black Friday, which gave United an additional busy season. Combined, this meant about 6 months of the year, three for each season, which became United’s busy season(s). By 2013, there was no busy "season" -- every day was busy. Record Store Day no longer meant United was going to be slammed, it just meant that most of the records pressed around those times had RSD stickers on them. As the new cliché goes, every day is Record Store Day.
Gone are the single-shift days, and even the two-shift days. For what seems like a couple years now, United’s been running 24-hours-a-day, six days a week, with 28 presses. Not only that, but on the horizon are 18 more presses at a newly created second location here in Nashville. The vinyl only one-stop is still going too, and thriving, not only functioning as a one-stop for all vinyl releases, but carrying exclusive titles and becoming an official Record Store Day distributor.
At that time, if you wanted to know the price list, they could mail you a copy, and when you were ready to send in your label artwork, you had to send it in "camera ready." This literally meant an old-timey, accordion style camera would be used to take a photograph of your album label art in order to make a photo negative to then use to make metal plates which were then bolted into a '50s-era Davidson 500 to print each color one at a time. And you certainly couldn’t send in your masters digitally; those too had to be mailed in, along with any order forms, and while you were at it, it would probably be best to send in a check as well since there was a 5 percent service fee if you wanted to pay with a credit card. And once you got your test pressings and wanted to approve them, just sign and mail back the postcard that shipped with them; then they’d get your job in the queue.
Thankfully, these things and many more have changed and continue to do so. In my eight years there, United started offering CMYK labels, 180-gram records (initially only in black but now in any color) and began brokering jackets and inserts. Those 12" singles with generic jackets and gaudy stickers are now a rare site. To the best of my knowledge, United was the first vinyl manufacturer to offer and host digital downloads to include with the LP via download cards.
Innovations continued to happen, often as a result of the wonderful imaginations of Jack White and the crew at Third Man Records. When I started in 2006, United only offered large or small center holes for 7" records (and oddly charged a premium for small holes when large holes are harder to make), before eventually coming around, being the first to reintroduce "UK-style" centers: a small hole that can be broken out into a large one. To push it even further, they have even offered large hole 12" records too. Eventually they started offering split-color records as an "off-the -menu" item (they are labor intensive). For each split-color record, two biscuits (the molten pre-formed vinyl blob) would need to be made, manually cut in half, then hand assembled with the opposite color piece. This lead to United making tri-color 7" records for Third Man, and eventually creating the world’s only automated split-color press. (Third Man wanted a large number of split-color LPs for the first Dead Weather record and that led United to fabricate a press that could draw from two separate color sources to make split-color records faster, and cheaper.)
United also made tremendous steps forward in regard to their cultural identity, creating a logo bands wear on stage, garnering a large social media following, and even releasing their own series of live recordings done above the plant. The Upstairs at United series is a collection of 45 RPM 12" EPs from Brendan Benson, Cory Chisel, The Smoke Fairies, Jeff The Brotherhood, Keane, North Mississippi Allstars, Willy Mason, Henry Wagons, Chuck Mead, The Cults, and Bobby Rush.
The amount of changes over the past 8 years at United Record Pressing has been staggering to think back on. I’m so proud of my time there, the things I’ve witnessed, and the people I’ve met. But now I’m excited to move on to my next vinyl adventure joining a label I love very much, Sundazed Music, a fantastic vinyl-centric label that's been curating and putting out great records since 1989. I’m not sure if it’s out of respect for me or our cats, but they’re letting me stay in Nashville too.