With the advent of the compact music disk in the 1980s, the vinyl record went in to rapid decline and all but disappeared here in the United States. An entire generation of Americans has never enjoyed the experience of slipping an LP out of its sleeve, centering the record on the spindle, and carefully dropping the needle on a favorite cut. But LPs and 45s entirely disappeared just yet.
Vinyl records are still being pressed and are even enjoying something of a renaissance.
There's really not much to see when you visit a plant where compact disks are manufactured. Computer-controlled robots burn hundreds of disks per minute in almost total silence, isolated behind glass in sterile clean-rooms. Visiting a vinyl record plant is a very different experience.
At United Record Pressing in Nashville, the entire building vibrates in time to the thump and hiss of giant presses, you have to shout to be heard and the smell of burning plastic permeates everything.
Company President Chris Ashworth noted on a tour of the plant floor that there a quite a few employees who have been at the plant making records for at least 30 years. All that experience is essential because producing a quality vinyl record is a complex, exacting task.
"The first thing that happens is the extruder's got to go ahead and heat up the vinyl, and it comes out of the extruder and looks like a hockey-puck of vinyl," he said. "Then it's put on a spindle, with a label on the top and a label on the bottom; in other words, the 'A' side on the top and the 'B' side on the bottom. Then the press comes together. You then go into 'high-squeeze' with more steam, and then you go into cold water, you allow the vinyl to chill out and the record then slides out of the press. It's then trimmed, making it perfectly round… and it does that about every 34 seconds."
In the late 1970s Nashville companies produced nearly a million vinyl records each week. Today, United is the last of Music City's pressing plants but by far the most famous. United had a hand in the early success of Motown Records in the late 1950s, waiving up front fees when legendary Producer Berry Gordy couldn't afford the cost of pressing his first singles. Directly over the plant is a second floor party room where visiting artists and executives would celebrate the pressing of a new record.
"The last party that was here was Wayne Newton's 16th birthday party! He had a new record coming out, and he flew on into town, and the record was being pressed downstairs, and they were having a wild and crazy party up here for the release of that record," Mr. Ashworth said.
United Record Pressing was a gamble for Mr. Ashworth. He purchased the business just five years ago when the vinyl record seemed all but extinct. "I did do some homework. I went to a local bookstore here. They had every music magazine you could imagine. And I spent the whole day thumbing through the magazines trying to figure out what was going on with vinyl records," he said.
Mr. Ashworth's research convinced him that demand for vinyl should remain stable in several markets for years to come. Jukeboxes spinning seven-inch singles are still widely used. Record reissues remain surprisingly popular, with commemorative Elvis sets one of United's biggest sellers.
Many audiophiles remain fiercely loyal to vinyl records, believing they have a much warmer sound than digital recordings. Recording engineer Spencer Secoy has a personal collection of more than 700 vinyl records, ranging from early country music to psychedelic rock.
"The warmth, I think comes from the physical nature of a record. You have a physical groove, you have a stylus, or needle as some people call it, that passes through the groove, and I think just through the mechanics itself leads itself to the warmness," he said. "It's not that you can't make digital warm, it just takes a little more effort on the recording engineer's part."
But there's more than sentimentality at work here. Pop, rap, techno and independent labels all promote their new releases by pressing them to vinyl and shipping them to nightclub DJ's worldwide...fueling a steady growth in the market.
"Certain DJs who are a little more high-profile will have access to songs before they are out there for mass consumption," said DJ Clark Warner, who works dance clubs throughout North America and Europe. "So it's like a test-bed. It's a piece of vinyl that you can turn around quickly. This is something that United does for us all the time."
Mr. Warner said most DJs are technology sponges, always into the latest equipment or medium, but they can't seem to resist old-fashioned vinyl. "I think it's the hands-on tactile-ness of the record. People still want to touch and work and mold sound, either by a knob or by guitar strings or a piano key. And this is where a vinyl record comes into electronic music and definitely DJ culture or club culture," he said.
And the wider music buying public seems to be following that lead. Mr. Ashworth has seen his United Pressing's business double in the last five years and he recently noticed vinyl records on sale at a Nashville record store for the first time in decades. But while Mr. Ashworth is pleased that his investment gamble paid off, he seems more intent on preserving a small slice of music history while also simply having a good time.
"I was with a friend of mine who I've known for about 20 years who's from Dallas yesterday," he noted. "And he said, 'What are you doing today, Chris?' And I said, 'I'm making vinyl records.' And he said, 'Ah, you've got you a fun business!' And I said, 'Yeah, I've got a fun business!' And he said, 'That's a good thing to do right now.'"
Photos by M. Osborne