Day 5: United Record Pressing
On Friday, we took a tour of the United Record Pressing plant- the premier record company in the world. The tour was fantastic, old school and casual. For a company that presses 30-35,000 records every day and holds 40 percent of the market share, this was totally unexpected and one of my favourite parts of the trip.
The Evolution of the Vinyl Revolution
Along with the phonograph, the lightbulb and the carbon microphone, Thomas Edison also invented the first way to play back sound and thus the first artifact that we can refer to as a record. Edison created the phonograph cylinder when he was attempting to create a primitive answering machine. It was made out of wax and was very fraglie but nonetheless created a total sound revolution.
Next, records were made out of shellac which was a large step up in durablity from wax records. To have a song played on these records however, the grooves had to be carved in real time. That means every single record took about thirty minutes to create.
Finally, in 1949, vinyl was born as there was a large switch from shellac to a vinyl compound that came in pellet form. This is the same material that PVC piping is made out of. This was a huge improvement as it can be heated and then cooled down very quickly without warping or breaking. This meant that records no longer had to be carved in real time. This method is still used today!
Also in 1949, a company called Southern Plastics (now URP) came to its current location. It quickly became an unprecedented place for musical talent to have vinyl pressed. Almost every great artist you can imagine has been a client of United Record Pressing or Southern Plastics at one time. This includes those artists with Motown Records. The halls have been walked by legends like James Brown and Hank Williams but also by new stars like Dave Grohl and Jack White (our tour guide was very happy to tell us about THAT)!
The Record Release Room
We started our tour in the record release room, where many-a-historic parties have been thrown. Traditionally, upon an artist’s record being released, they would throw a release party and invite friends and industry executives. The room at URP is incredibly retro and reflects the time period (1960s) when these parties were the norm. They really haven’t changed it at all, including the furniture.
Hank Williams signed his first recording contract on this couch!
The apartments were the absolute BEST part of the tour. In the 1960s, URP worked with a number of amazing African-American musicians from Aretha Franklin to The Supremes. However, when visiting Tennessee these musicians faced incredible hostility and harrassment because of their race. Finding a hotel room was nearly impossible. To solve this, URP (then Southern Plastics) built the “Motown Suite” to house musicians in. This was complete with a full kitchen, bedrooms, and living space. It also included an additional bathroom (there was already one out in the hall) which was required by Tennessee law at the time whereby African Americans had to use separate bathrooms and showers.
URP has done a wonderful job preserving this history. In the kitchen, employees sit down to lunch and cook on the original appliances, eat with the original silverware and sit on the original furniture. Although as a historian I should probably advocate for propper preservation techniques, I think this is so cool and amazing to have at all. The bathroom, bedrooms and living spaces have also been preserved to the same degree.
Last, we were taken for a tour of the pressing plant itself. It’s a complicated process that I won’t explain on here but one thing that really surprised me was the antiquity of it all. URP’s most recent machine was purchased in 1989. Apparently, presses are incredibly difficult to come by and nobody makes them anymore. Talk about an open market opportunity!
Overall, our URP tour was fantastic and a great “record” of history. Thanks for taking photos Ryan and thanks to the staff for a great tour!