(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
I see that Omni Hotels will build an 800-room hotel in downtown Nashville, next to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and adjacent to the new convention center. That’s good news for Nashville, and it reminded me of a recent visit I made to a relatively unknown, sort of surrogate hotel here.
United Record Pressing, this nation’s largest vinyl record pressing plant, is near downtown Nashville. It was formed in the late 1940s as Southern Plastics. In the early 1960s, when the company became United Record Pressing and began pressing records for some black-owned and managed record companies (particularly Motown and Vee Jay), the black executives and artists of those companies could not get hotel rooms or eat in restaurants here when they came in to oversee the pressing of their records, due to lingering Jim Crow attitudes.
So, United turned most of the uppermost floor of their main building into a large, comfortable apartment for its visitors, complete with a big party room. They named the apartment the “Motown Suite.” It has all been preserved mostly just as it was back then, with the original 1960s blond wood paneling, chrome dinette set, Art Deco lamps, vintage furniture and TVs and large console stereos. When I toured the United plant recently, it was a very odd feeling to sit at the same kitchen table where Berry Gordy and Smoky Robinson and other Motown notables sat and had breakfast because they weren’t welcome in Nashville’s downtown hotels or cafes.
The pressing plant itself today is very impressive to watch in action. Making phonograph records is an incredibly complicated process and is very labor intensive. This is not an automated record plant where you push a button at one end and get widgets popping out at the other. Human beings are very involved with every step, all down the line. You start with huge boxes of tiny pellets of vinyl, black or white or colored, you melt it down, you make a master of the original recording and use that to press records from the melted vinyl. That’s the simple explanation, but there are a lot of intricate steps along the way involving things like molten nickel and acid. The huge cast-iron presses themselves are no longer manufactured, so United has a full-time machinist on staff to make new parts when something breaks.
The place turns out thousands of records daily by artists ranging from Willie Nelson to Jamey Johnson to Jack White to Lady Gaga to Ray Price to Beyoncé to the Monkees to U2 to Elvis Costello to Beatles reissues. (Historically, it’s interesting to note that the first Beatle records released in the U.S., on Vee Jay Records, were pressed here.) It makes seven-inch, 10-inch, and 12-inch records in black vinyl, colored vinyl, transparent colors and multi-colored vinyl. Not surprisingly, most in demand are 12-inch hip-hop and dance singles for radio and clubs since the grooves are farther apart, making mixing and scratching easier. Also very popular are 12-inch LPs (LP for “long-playing”). Black vinyl is the usual choice for albums, because its fidelity is superior to colored vinyl. That’s due, apparently, to the fact that black vinyl contains a very small amount of lead, and it has no color additives.
I have an iPod, which is great for travel, but I like to sit down and really experience a great record. I am not a vinyl fanatic, but I love vinyl records. I especially love the look and the tactile feel of a big 12-inch LP, with the large cover art and all the room for liner notes and inserts of photographs and fold-outs and musician and songwriter credits and everything else that can be thrown in. And the enveloping, warm sound of analog recording itself. No ear buds for this old fart. Even on an airplane, I’ll pack my earphones. I know that CD sales continue to fall and vinyl sales continue to rise every year. But I also realize the vinyl numbers are still miniscule by comparison. Still, whatever you like to listen to and however you like to listen, more power to you. Listen to the music.