Mike on America

Vinyl Records: Old Sound Is New Again

It's Music City. So where else would you expect to find the biggest, and one of less than a dozen in North America, record plants?

Yes records, as in black vinyl, round, 45 and 33 rpm's. And you thought they'd disappeared forever!

The place is the United Record Pressing facility not all that far from downtown. 20 to 40,000 records a day can, and are, turned out here. From the 'oldies' you'd expect--to the current hits you might not. In fact of the top 50 or so hits of today, two thirds are on vinyl, and those are pressed here.

It is Cris Ashworth's company now, he bought it 9 years ago. But it began in 1962 and if you've ever listened to a Motown song, or group on a record--then it's likely to have been pressed here. This is where the 'Motown Sound' was made real--tangible-saleable. And in a way it's reminder of where we've been. But, back to that 60's furniture in a second.

First the market--last year 858,000 LP's were sold. A big number, but nowhere near as big as the over 550 million CD's. No count on downloads. So who's buying the 'old' vinyl stuff? The core consumer, market, are club DJ's. They use vinyl so they can 'spin' it, 'scratch' it. Record labels press their latest release in vinyl to get it to the clubs as fast as they can. Ashworth can turn almost anything in 48 hours. Often they press four versions of the same song---instrumental, acapella, radio and club mixes. Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, Black Eyed Peas--are all on vinyl. So is Elvis.

In Ashworth warehouse he has a whole wall of Elvis---album covers, 45 covers, all the art, masters of most of Elvis' career. Those Sun recording days of the King---pressed right here.

The nostalgia market is a natural for vinyl and allot of the product goes that route---'I want 'My Girl', and I want it on a record.'--Calls like that come in all the time.

For Ashworth it's more than a business. It's a change of life, direction. A corporate executive, his last gig as CFO of Nashville Gas, he frankly just wanted out. Wanted to do something. Make a lasting mark. He bought United. And now has plenty of ideas on how to marry vinyl to digital and keep the music alive forever. Just ask him.

When you visit, and you can thanks to a new Greylines Tour of the place, you'll see records being made, but you'll also see a bit of history and social commentary.

Upstairs you'll see the 'party room' where Wayne Newton celebrated his 16th birthday, they pressed his records here, and you'll see an apartment--still decked out in 'vintage' furniture. You know, 'vintage'--the 60's and 70's. The apartment--kitchen, pink bathroom, bedroom with two single beds and record player--was where Motown executives would stay when they came down from Detroit to check on the manufacturing, or to bring down the latest master recording of The Four Tops, or Stevie Wonder, or The Supremes.

Why did they bunk at the plant? This was the 60's. They were from Motown, they were black, this was Nashville, Tennessee. It was a good place to stay.

Vinyl--yes, you can still spin a record--and learn a little something along the way.

See you along the road.Questions?  Comments?  mikeonamerica@nbcuni.com