Aretha Franklin Dies
United Record Pressing's Original Nashville Plant, Steeped in Music History, to Cease Operations
The end, sort of, of a long era.
Down an industrial road in southeast Nashville, framed by yellowing, beige-box warehouses, is a building dressed in incongruous, deep-ocean-blue tiling. A burnt-orange sign above its steel-and-glass doors reads UNITED RECORD PRESSING. Inside is where the first Beatles record in America was pressed, where Wayne Newton was fêted as a 16-year-old whippersnapper with an unfathomable jawline. Berry Gordy, founder of Motown, was provided an apartment there. Racist hotel owners didn't want his money.
After more than five decades, vinyl records won't be made there anymore.
In a post yesterday on Instagram, United Record Pressing wrote: "Spending the last workday at the historic United Record Pressing roaming the rooms of Motown Suite before moving to the new facility." Historic Nashville, an organization that looks to preserve spaces exactly like United Record Pressing, called the news "shocking and sad."
United Record Pressing's operations may be moving to a new space -- in a statement to Billboard, a company spokesperson calls the company's new digs "a game-changer" -- the size of which can conservatively be estimated at two football fields, but the history of its original location is, probably, not going anywhere. Its owners write of having "every intention to honor and preserve it," and a recent push to save Nashville's classic spaces, in no small part owed to Historic Nashville's lobbying, has been successful.
When it was in operation, United Record Pressing bore the yoke of vinyl's recent and steep fiscal ascent very visibly; every room around every narrow hallway at capacity -- jammed with desks and papers, a steaming, plastic-and-nickel scented pressing room with SMT and Lened machines all-but on top of each other, smooshing lumpy 'biscuits' of vinyl into playable discs of music beneath 6,000 pounds of pressure. The acrid chem-stench in the workspace of Dale, resident mad scientist. Every hallway and spare square foot piled with boxes of labels or sleeves, countless shelves containing files, within them the internal organs of music history. Jay Millar, former spokesman for the company, pulled one of these files out at random during a visit two years ago -- Howlin' Wolf's Moanin' In the Moonlight from 1959. In it was everything needed to make Moanin' come to life, the labels, the sleeve and, center stage, metal stampers, a record's template and soul.
Upstairs from the main works of the plant is Gordy's Motown Suite, with two twin beds in a room of wood-paneled walls and a small bathroom a few feet down the hallway. Motown and Vee-Jay were the principal clients of United Record Pressing (Southern Plastics at the time). They were black-owned labels responsible for some of the century's best music. "There wasn't anywhere in town willing to host these individuals," Jay Millar, United's former spokesman, said at the time. Southern Plastics was the only pressing company willing to extend a line of credit to Gordy. "You could make the case that Motown wouldn't have existed if it wasn't for Southern Plastics," Millar said.
There were a lot of people at URP's original plant -- too many, really. But it takes a lot of hands. URP went from 12 employees in the late '90s, as bad a time for vinyl records as ever in history, to over 160 now. Four-hundred-and-twenty-plus-odd hands.
Beth had been with the company for 27 years when Billboard visited the plant. At the time, she oversaw the company's customer service for everyone from labels to ambitious, garage-borne teenagers. "I do not listen to any music ever. I like the people," she told me. "I've got kids that were 15, 16, in their little punk rock bands. One just emailed me saying he's having a little girl." When she says she's got kids, she means customers. Artists and the people who facilitate them. "When I started," she says, back when she was doing everything from bookkeeping to running the front office, "I had just come back from Texas. I thought I was in love... The funny part was, I came back and married my boyfriend from Texas' best friend."
Greg, a tall, flush-cheeked and brick-handed polymath of a machinist who spoke in a rapid, overlapping stream, is the one who keeps the company's hulking beasts breathing. He can summon practically anything from metal, and creates the parts that can't be replaced by hand from his basement workshop. He's covered in glittering shavings of metal. (He had a hand in building a machine that attempted to automate the mustard and ketchup operations at McDonald's. The company's executives, in from New York, decided to pass, he said with a laugh.) Greg estimates that a new record press, from scratch to being workable, could cost one million dollars. Many, seemingly most, of URP's machines bear the mark of his work: shiny new dark grey weldings and replaced odds and ends, conjoined to the weathered old machines.
Since the mid-aughts, vinyl has been within an ever-increasing growth spurt following a decade-and-change of spurn and silence from listeners newly beholden to shiny discs of ones and zeros that were as sturdy as balsa wood airplanes. The refrain is so common it barely needs to be mentioned. Digital world seeks physical beauty, haptic connection. Objets de l'art aux millennials. The only thing that matters though, really, is that those silvered stampers don't get lost.