Hidden in the hills of North Carolina lies the city of Asheville – a cultural hub of bountiful delights. Thriving from a recent uptick in tourism, the town is bustling with independent artists and venues. A rich history seeps through the music scene, closely tied to the Appalachian traditions on which the city was raised.
In the heart of the downtown district is a grand, three-story art moderne building that previously served both the Asheville Citizen and Asheville Times newspapers and WWNC. The radio station, “Wonderful Western North Carolina,” began in 1927, welcoming the “Father of Country Music,” Jimmie Rodgers, on stage that same year. Over the next decade, regional music traditions spread down with their purveyors as they fled Appalachia in masses, seeking work in larger cities. Bill Monroe made his debut on the third floor of the building in 1939, introducing the world to a new sound he popularized as “Bluegrass.”
CEO and music industry veteran, Gar Ragland, announced the revitalization of this iconic space this month, unveiling its new identity: Citizen Vinyl. The historic site will serve as a boutique vinyl pressing plant, record store, and locally-focused bar and cafe. Citizen Vinyl is proud to become North Carolina’s first record pressing plant, though its mission extends past superior manufacturing.
Ragland, a native North Carolinian, brought his career full circle with a move from Brooklyn to Asheville eight years ago. The relocation was prompted by invitation to join the community surrounding Echo Mountain Recording, the first-class studio in town. The record producer and owner of NewSong Records, partnered with NPR’s Mountain Stage 19 years ago, co-founding the NewSong Performance and Songwriting Competition.
From Charlottesville’s Dave Matthews Band days to his post-graduate work at the New England Conservatory, Ragland has grasped the industry holistically. After so many years, he’s found his passion lies in artist development. His ranking exposed him to challenges and frustrations surrounding the distribution of vinyl records and set him forth on this all-encompassing path.
Ragland and his “dream team” of professionals and craftsmen are determined to streamline record production in a manageable and accessible way. Their goal is to reach independent artists and major labels in a similar capacity. The production minimum of 300 is unimaginably low considered to overseas competitors. Citizen Vinyl’s dynamic in-house approach creates new opportunities for emerging artists at a friendly price while fulfilling the needs of larger labels up to 35,000.
Ragland’s plan to domesticate the demand for vinyl amidst a global pandemic is not as damning as it sounds. From his perspective, Citizen Vinyl is coming to life in the midst of what he believes will be a modern, creative Renaissance. According to his extensive market research, vinyl sales are up 11% just this year. Ragland attributes the increase with the isolation-driven rise of hobbying. He correlates the broader resurgence with what he described as “digital fatigue.”
“We as human beings are starting to accept that we can do almost anything online, which offers convenience,” Ragland described. “We are also starting to recognize that just because you can do it on a device – the convenience doesn’t guarantee satisfaction.”
This conclusion is backed by data displaying an upturn in boardgame sales and Moleskin journals. In the same light, he discussed a spike in farmer’s market attendance. Ragland’s primary concern, however, was determining whether or not this movement was a trend.
“I knew it was making a comeback but wondered how much longer it would be ‘in vogue?” he recalled about his initial hesitations. “I’m firmly convinced that vinyl will be the primary physical music product of choice, at least for the foreseeable future,” Ragland continued confidently.
He explained the demise of the CD with no sonic competitive advantage to the convenience of streaming. As a physical product with a utilitarian look, the consumer is not motivated by the artistic element either, so demand has evaporated. While some feel the modern world is a solely streaming-society, Ragland does not feel threatened by the services. Instead, he sees it as a contributor to vinyl sales.
“Streaming allows for an opportunity to preview an album and decide whether you’re willing to take that experience to a deeper level,” he discerned. “I’m a proud user of Spotify – I never apologize for that. I use it admittedly more for my listening needs than I do for vinyl,” he continued, adding, “I’m not a purist by any means. But there is a very important place in my life and my lifestyle for listening to vinyl. That is when I want to have an experience that is a more tactile and engaging relationship to the music and the artists.”
He described the process of bringing home the vinyl record, ripping through the shrinkwrap, and carefully placing the needle down as a “rite of passage.” To sit down and look at the photos, unfold the sleeves’ artwork while the record plays through the intentionally selected setlist.
“It’s a full immersion into this multi-sensory experience that streaming doesn’t offer, and CDs certainly don’t offer,” Ragland insisted. The increasing demand points less to vinyl as a medium, and more to a broader cultural trend coming on the descent of the 21st century’s romance with the digital technology.
The growth in popularity has outpaced the capacity for the industry to make records. Ragland saw this business opportunity as the “project of a lifetime.” “Clearly there is a need in the industry for good quality record pressing, and Asheville is a wonderful place for it. Our community has a homegrown love of music – going to shows at our great venues and shopping at local record stores. The tourists we attract are culturally adventurous.”
The team plans to capitalize on Asheville’s annual pull of about 12 million tourists by offering factory tours. Retail components will include an on-site record store, a Hi-Fi craft cocktail bar, and a farm-to-table cafe. Citizen Vinyl and Session bar/cafe plans to open on a limited capacity basis starting mid-September.
In the wake of turbulent times, Citizen Vinyl hopes to serve as a community hub for independent artists. Plans for the multifaceted building are complete with album listening parties, rotating art installations, and music history lectures and seminars.