Can Tennessee Solve America’s Vinyl Shortage?

For the record… We’re hiring!” reads the lawn sign in front of Nashville’s United Record Pressing, the largest vinyl pressing plant in the United States. With an expansion underway that will bring in 48 new presses — upping the manufacturer’s count to nearly 100 and more than doubling its total output from approximately 40,000 to over 100,000 units of vinyl per day — the need to staff up is crucial. And URP isn’t the only Tennessee plant on the prowl.

As the vinyl boom continues — the format generated $570 million in revenue through June 2022 (up 22% year over year), according to the Mid-Year 2022 RIAA Music Revenue Report — pressing plants around the world are not only striving to keep up with demand but planning how to get ahead of it. Tennessee is aiming to take the lead, increasing its number of plants from two to five in 2022 and planting a flag as the U.S. vinyl hub. The state offers advantages in distribution, in taxes and, most notably, in culture.

“All music resonates from Tennessee,” says Brandon Seavers, CEO of Memphis Record Pressing (MRP), which was founded in 2014 and is undergoing its own $30 million expansion. “We really take pride in our musical heritage.”

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“We’ve got wine country in California,” adds Drake Coker, CEO of Nashville Record Pressing, one of three new manufacturers that have come online in the past year in Music City. “Tennessee is going to be vinyl country.”

The growth in Tennessee’s vinyl production capacity is substantial. MRP — owned by Czech Republic-based GZ Media, the world’s largest vinyl record manufacturer — is adding 33,000 square feet to house 36 new presses to be up and running by early 2023; NRP, also owned by GZ Media, opened in June. Physical Music Products, a smaller plant with three presses currently online (and five more expected by early 2023) that was founded by Nashville-based mastering engineer Piper Payne, opened in March, and The Vinyl Lab, a music venue and boutique two-press plant, has been operational since April 2021.

“Nashville is exploding right now,” says URP CEO Mark Michaels. He cites everything from “attractive” economics and state tax rates to the presence of tech giants like Amazon and Oracle as drivers for the city’s growth.

And, as Coker points out, an estimated 75% of the U.S. population lives within a 24-hour drive of Nashville, making it what he calls “a distribution heaven.” (Nashville and Memphis are centrally located to two of the country’s major distributors in Franklin, Ind., and La Vergne, Tenn.)

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It’s not just proximity to distributors that makes Nashville and Memphis ideal cities to house a pressing plant. The Vinyl Lab founder Scott Lemasters believes it’s about proximity to everything. “The components that you need to make a record: the mastering houses and studios, the people who cut the lacquers. There’s even a plating facility in town. Everything is within a 10-minute radius,” he says. “Half our jobs are just running around town.”

But not everything can be done locally, and surely not everything can be sourced locally. So how did so many plants within one state manage to break ground on expansions or entirely new facilities all at once — and during a global supply-chain shortage?

Michaels believes URP, which was founded in 1949, had a bit of luck on its side. After the plant relocated to its current, larger facility in 2017, Michaels never thought it would need to further expand. “And then, as we saw 2020 and the growth of vinyl, it created an incredible acceleration and demand,” he says. “All of our customers were just crying for capacity.” By the top of 2021, URP decided to grow its operations yet again — fortuitous timing, with Michaels noting that supply-chain challenges got much worse soon after.

It’s something Seavers can attest to as well. At the start of 2021, MRP booked three-and-a-half months of work in five weeks. “It was more than a flood,” he says. “It strained every system that we had.” With the financial support of GZ Media, MRP added another 36 presses to its facility for a total of 52, which will eventually boost its vinyl units per day from 36,000 to 130,000. “Having GZ behind it all really has been key,” says Seavers.

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The hustle to get GZ-backed sister plant NRP operational is further proof of how essential that kind of backing can be for a plant at any stage and of any size. For decades, GZ has been building a family of plants across North America, including Precision Record Pressing in Ontario. It was that plant’s president, Shawn Johnson, who approached Coker about relocating to Nashville to head up the newest sibling. Coker arrived in fall 2021, secured a space for NRP by December (because of Nashville’s current growth, he says commercial real estate was hard to come by) and started construction and operations in March. He compares the process to a plane leaving the runway as it’s still being built.

Capital and technological support from GZ have allowed that plane to take off, fueled by already existing customer relationships. “Every record that we can make in the next four years is already presold,” Coker says. “Who gets to start a company and not worry about sales?”

The Vinyl Lab — a multifunctional space that includes a pressing plant and a venue that will open in October — has enjoyed a similar safety net from the start. Scott first conceived the idea for The Vinyl Lab in 2015 and, after a series of setbacks, leased its space in January 2020. The following December, the Grand Ole Opry called. The Opry had continued holding shows in an empty hall during the pandemic, recording each one and eventually choosing 12 performances to release as an album — which it wanted on vinyl. “They called us, and we were like, ‘Our machine is not even in its final resting spot yet,’ ” he recalls with a laugh, noting he secured the company’s first Phoenix Alpha press in 2019. “We were fully transparent with [the Opry]. That order was due on June 3, and we delivered it on June 2.”

Lemasters, who operates The Vinyl Lab alongside Clint Elliott and Heather Gray, says their orders have mostly been word-of-mouth (in addition to ads they posted in bathroom stalls). He praises both the city and the vinyl community as a whole for the eagerness to help one another, recalling the time Jack White and Ben Blackwell of Third Man Records referred Dualtone Records to The Vinyl Lab, which led to a steady flow of work early on.

“That’s what’s great about the industry right now, is that we are still in a very collaborative phase,” says Seavers. “We would never be where we are if we hadn’t had that.”