Article in today's Philly Paper (but from a wire service) which I thought
others might find interesting.
Posted on Sat, Feb. 24, 2007
Records still retain appeal - and sales
By John Gerome
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Those dusty records in your parents' basement? They're
not as retro as you might think.
Many record collectors, DJs and music junkies still consider vinyl to be the
gold standard of recorded music - scratches, pops and all.
That enduring appeal has helped Nashville's United Record Pressing, which
cranks out 20,000 to 40,000 records a day, making it one of the largest - and
last - vinyl-record manufacturers in the country.
"Folks thought we had disappeared," owner and chief executive officer Cris
Started in 1962, the plant is as much a throwback as the shiny black discs
it produces. The interior is dingy, the '70s decor looks like a vintage garage
sale, and the air is a stale blend of ink and cigarette smoke.
Ashworth, 56, sat down for a recent interview with an ashtray and pack of
Merits by his side. He hardly looked the part of dance-music guru, but 60
percent of his company's records are by rap, hip-hop and R&B artists such as
Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, Black Eyed Peas, Christina Aguilera, Ludacris and
Most of the discs are 12-inch singles destined for professional DJs at radio
stations and dance clubs who still use vinyl records and turntables to mix,
scratch and blend music.
"The record labels use us as a marketing tool to get that new track out
there," Ashworth explained. "They'll come to me on a Monday, want it out on
Wednesday and played Friday or Saturday night at a club or radio station."
Typically, the company will press four versions of the same song: a radio
and club mix, as well as an instrumental and a cappella version so DJs can mix
and manipulate the sound.
Another portion of United's product goes to retail stores, where vinyl is
preferred by amateur DJs, collectors and purists convinced that the sound is
superior to that of CDs.
"Vinyl has a distinct sound," said Doyle Davis, co-owner of Grimey's New &
Preloved Music, a Nashville store where 15 percent to 20 percent of sales are
vinyl. "You hear people use adjectives like 'warmer' and 'more round.'
"And there are other things beside sound quality. People know what the song
titles are. It's not like, 'I like track 5.' You put the needle on, and let
it play through - not jump around. You have more of an intimate relationship
with the music."
Vinyl records use analog technology, whereby a physical groove is etched
into the record mimicking the sound wave. CDs, on the other hand, transform
sound into digital packets of information.
"No one ever doubts the quality of vinyl over any other format that's ever
existed," said George Sulmers, a Nashville-based club DJ who spins classic
funk and soul discs under the name Geezus. "I understand why change happened,
but I don't think there was a valid need for the change."
The means of music delivery continues to evolve. Digital downloading has
eroded CD sales. Some artists are skipping CDs entirely and releasing new music
online for the casual listener and on vinyl for DJs and hard-core fans.
But vinyl still accounts for a small percentage of total music sales. Last
year 858,000 LPs were sold, compared with 553.4 million CDs, according to
Nielsen SoundScan. While the 2006 figure was up slightly from 2005, the overall
trend has been down from 1.5 million in 2000.
Ashworth said he believes the data are skewed, though, because a lot of
vinyl is sold in mom-and-pop stores not reflected in the SoundScan numbers.
His company has managed to thrive by picking up business from competitors in
a shrinking market. Today, he has only 13 competitors, compared with several
dozen before CDs took over in the '90s. Revenue hit $5 million in 2004, and
grew to $7 million in 2005. Last year saw significant growth over 2005,
And yet the plant remains a timepiece, with its rumbling presses that jar
the floor, noisy blasts of compressed air, and vats of blue nickel solution
used to create the master discs.
Ashworth regards it a relic of Nashville's past, every bit as important as
the old RCA studio where Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers recorded, or
the Ryman Auditorium where the Grand Ole Opry enjoyed its heyday. "We want to
be the last vinyl plant standing, no matter what," he said. "There is no other
plant that looks like this in the country. This is an antique."
Indeed, it still has the furnished apartment where Motown Records executives
stayed when they came down from Detroit during segregation. The apartment
adjoins a party room where Wayne Newton celebrated his 16th birthday.
Most of the major labels and many of the independents contract with United.
Elvis Presley's reissues are pressed here, as well as recordings by Bob
Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Rod Stewart, Alan Jackson, John Mayer and
"If you look at the Hot 100 singles, we represent about 80 percent of what's
on the chart," Ashworth said.
Ashworth is something of an oddity. A longtime corporate executive and
former chief financial officer at Nashville Gas Co., he bought this place in 1999
with no experience or knowledge of the industry. At the time, the
vinyl-record business seemed doomed.
"My son was very worried about whether he was going to be able to go to
college," he said with a laugh, adding, "Thank the Lord for a trusting wife."
But Ashworth made a go of it, and then some, boosting employment at United
from 10 to 60 people and fulfilling his own need to create something.
"A lot of people spend their lives doing something as opposed to making
something, and I wanted to make something," he said. "I wanted something tangible
in my hands at the end of the day."
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