Tucked away on an anonymous Hayes industrial estate sits perhaps one of the most important relics of the British music industry. The old EMI manufacturing plant in Blyth Road has been pressing records since the turn of the last century. JACK GRIFFITH went to visit the factory, still the biggest in the country, to find out how The Vinyl Factory has breathed new life into the format
AT A time when music is readily available for next to nothing to anyone with a computer or even a mobile phone, you could be forgiven for thinking that vinyl, a relatively expensive, cumbersome and outdated format, had died a death, gone the way of the Betamax video casette or 8mm home movie camera.
But The Vinyl Factory has seen good times since its acquisition of the plant from EMI in 2001.
"EMI didn't believe there was much of a future for vinyl and sold its manufacturing arm to us," said Vinyl Factory creative director Sean Bidder.
"Obviously, we had a different view.
"It became clear that digital music would take over but we also believed that there was a market for the 'physical form' of the music.
"There will always be collectors and enthusiasts that would make more of the artwork and the product.
"People want to own music when they hear something that strikes a chord, and they are prepared to pay a little bit extra for something special."
Blyth Road first opened in 1907, making the relatively new gramophone records which were just then beginning to overtake the phonograph cylinder in popularity.
Back then, the '78' was yet to dominate and revolution speeds varied widely, as did the materials in the discs: shellac, wax, slate and even a sort of paper compound were used in the production process.
By 1939, the vinyl that became the standard was starting to make an appearance, and EMI - formed out of a 1931 merger - was busy experimenting with stereophonic sound.
Everything went on to the back burner for the duration of the Second World War, as EMI did its bit developing radar equipment and ammunition.
So it was not until the 1950s that EMI developed the first automatic pressing machines, and it is the descendants of these revolutionary bits of kit - still bearing rusted EMI stamps - that remain in the factory to this day.
Of course, no matter how much aficionados might love their vinyl, and its unique smell, feel and sound quality, the shiny black discs would be nothing without the music.
Back in 1931, EMI had opened a recording studio in a quiet corner of St John's Wood. Abbey Road was to become one of the most important and iconic locations of modern popular music.
The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Cliff Richard - it is utterly pointless trying to list all the names of the greats who have recorded here. EMI Studios, as it was known until 1970, has seen so many, and their carefully-crafted output would quickly find its way to Hayes for pressing.
Buried in the endless shelves of records that line the plant are the priceless master discs from years gone by of some of British music's most celebrated 20th century artists, a truly mouthwatering experience for the collector or fan.
Roy Matthews, head of production at the plant and a loyal EMI employee of more than 40 years who also played a part in the development of the pressing machinery, said not a lot has changed in the way records are produced.
Cutting-edge technology and formats may have moved on, but if you want something from a bygone era then it has to be made in the same old-fashioned way.
The Vinyl Factory is happily riding the wave of retro chic and rarity, manufacturing limited edition box sets for clients - the Antiques Roadshow 'finds' of the late 21st century.
For example, last week's release of One Life Stand by the dance group Hot Chip was first published digitally (nothing physical, a computer file), then in CD format and finally as a limited edition, 12in disc, with accompanying gatefold sleeve - remember those? - and 'exclusive artwork', courtesy of The Vinyl Factory (TVF).
According to the band's web-site, it is limited to 1,000 hand-numbered editions of two, 200g vinyl records, and is tipped to become 'an instant collector's item'.
But aside from owning a rarity, some of the special editions released by TVF have already proved to be a shrewd investment.
The special edition box set of The Pet Shop Boys 'Yes' LP, voted the most collectible product of the 21st century by Record Collector magazine, recently fetched more than £3,000 at auction - 10 times its original price.
It is the emphasis on the whole package that has seen TVF carve out its own market, with customers clamouring for the limited runs and artists keen on marking themselves out from the crowd by using the company's services.
The company has developed over the past decade into a prof-itable business that has rejuvenated the vinyl market. But despite the commercial success, TVF continues to be committed to the preservation of the original factory.
Mr Bidder said: "We were very much interested in the heritage of the site. This plant tells the history of British music; its legacy still lives on today and we are committed to preserving the unique history and character of the factory itself."
Mr Matthews said: "We don't get many visitors but when people do come to have a look, they are often interested and surprised that something like this still exists. It's a reminder of how industry once was."
Heavyweight machinery, silver pipes and stacked records dominate the 30,000sq ft of the factory floor. Front and centre are the EMI Type 1400 presses.
Any preconceptions of a computerised production line churning out records at a rate of knots are quickly dashed. An ultra-clean, hermetically sealed CD factory this is not.
It is an arduous, complicated and time-consuming process that is nevertheless seeing something of a resurgence thanks to the repopularisation of the format among music lovers who want more than just an MP3 file - something to touch, something to smell, something to put a needle on.