Eighty-one years ago, when Asheville had two daily newspapers, the new art deco building that housed them across from the Grove Arcade featured tall ceilings, glass block windows, frosted light sconces and vast, marble floors with custom inlays. On the third story, long ago hidden beneath asbestos tiling, there was another unique floor.
“And you see all these pock marks?” Gar Ragland said, pointing down. “These are cello stands, these are mic stands, I mean, who knows?”
When Ragland learned this was also the one-time home of WWNC-AM Radio, he knew he’d found the home for his own dream—of resurrecting an artifact from a bygone musical era while giving Asheville something altogether new: A vinyl records pressing plant.
“We had seen this in some of the historic photographs,” he said of the neglected confines on the former radio studio. “This is unbelievable. We have this opportunity, both a privilege and responsibility, to incorporate this into our new startup story.”
While the building still houses the Citizen-Times staff, all the energy is flowing in the direction of a new enterprise, called Citizen Vinyl. When it opens to the public Oct. 8, Citizen Vinyl will house the only production-scale vinyl record pressing plant in North Carolina.
“Our plans are to be a vinyl pressing resource to the local busker who may want to get 300 copies of his or her record made for the first time,” Ragland said. “But we’re also catering to also being a service-provider for the major labels and doing a 10,000-unit reissue of the Jimi Hendrix record.”
Vinyl records have seen a dramatic resurgence over the past 15 years and, up until the pandemic, are singly responsible for the nation’s record store renaissance. New records sell anywhere from twice to five times their price just a decade ago, and the demand from artists and record labels to satisfy those buyers has created months of backlog for the nation’s existing presses.
Proximity to Nashville and Atlanta is certainly a strategic asset for Citizen Vinyl. But while orders and projects are already on the books, Ragland said it would take years to turn a profit solely as a pressing plant.
To offset that on-ramp, there will also be a bar and cafe, artsy gift shop and boutique record store. There will also be a small stage for in-store performances. Managers and craftspeople with experience working with Sovereign Remedies, OWL Bakery and the Horse and Hero are spearheading specific niches under the Citizen Vinyl roof. Ragland will also record artists in the third-floor studios.
Total costs to date are about $1.5 million, said Ragland, who is still seeking investors. He views Citizen Vinyl as a true collective.
“It does add complexity. We’ve got a lot of stuff going on,” he said. “But it affords us the opportunity to have multiple streams of revenue to help invest in the growth of the manufacturing aspects, which we knew going into this it’s going to take a few years to ramp up the business.”
Ragland grew up in Winston-Salem and went to the New England Conservatory, first as a musician and composer, but soon detoured and dug into music production. He moved his family to Asheville eight years ago to rent an office at Echo Mountain Studios and launch the New Song Music record label and artist competition.
“If you want to be a good songwriter, you really need to commit a lot of your mental, creative, intellectual energy towards refining that craft,” Ragland said. “I actually enjoy pulling back a little bit and have opportunities every day to learn about some new aspect or some trend. I’m more inclined to think macroscopically and not microscopically.”
Ragland insists he’s not merely inclined to think nostalgically, at least in terms of vinyl and his commitment to this enterprise. He will continue with New Song Music and independent studio production while growing Citizen Vinyl.
Ragland points to a healthy base today of young buyers for vinyl, tying it to what he calls a digital fatigue that has also paved resurgences in board games and physical journaling.
“There’s something to be said about opening your grandmother’s backgammon set and the smell and experience and feel of the die in your hand. We still hunger for that,” he said. “We still want these tactile things and if we’re lucky enough to have some time in our busy lives to listen to music, I would say those analog experiences offer more value and are more enriching to us than their digital counterparts.”