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Columbia record factory in Santa Maria used to produce 100,000 albums a day

Columbia Records plant in Santa Maria.
Columbia Records plant in Santa Maria. Telegram-Tribune archive

Before Weird Al, there was Homer and Jethro.

Henry (Homer) Haynes and Kenneth (Jethro) Burns were accomplished musicians who played hayseed song satirists, wisecracking between songs.

One of their bits poked fun at record clubs that sold six albums for 99 cents in return for the promise to buy six more at full price. The setup was “Hey, guess what? I just signed a record contract with Columbia!”

Columbia Records used to have a giant manufacturing plant next to Highway 101 in Santa Maria, now the Costco Power Shopping Center.

With the invention of the phonograph in the early 20th century, music became a commodity sold by units.

Though an occasional hipster still buys vinyl records, the high-profit, high-volume recording industry has imploded as consumption has moved from plastic platters to CDs to digital downloads to streaming.

Gilbert Moore wrote about the Columbia Records plant in the Sept. 14, 1968, issue of The Telegram-Tribune.

Columbia Records in Santa Maria

The big stars go through the stamper and onto plastic every day on Stowell Road in Santa Maria.

What big stars? Why, Frank Sinatra, Donovan, Barbra Streisand, Roy Acuff, Big Brother and The Holding Company, Dean Martin, Roger Williams, Petula Clark, Rowan and Martin.

And scores, scores more.

Columbia Record’s Central Coast manufacturing plant turns out 100,000 or more album records every day, and another 50,000 singles.

At the moment, three shifts are working seven days a week in preparation for the Christmas season.

That’s when a big chunk of the multibillion-dollar record industry’s sales and profits are made.

In the warehouse and storage areas, there are more than 3 million records waiting to go to record club members, retailers and distributors all over the West.

Santa Maria’s plant is one of three U.S. operations run by Columbia, the giant of the business. There are others overseas.

The labels of Columbia and its subsidiaries are not, surprisingly, the only ones on the premises.

Only the biggest record companies actually manufacture their own — others just record and farm out the work to firms with plants.

For instance, Sinatra’s “Reprise” label, Herb Alpert’s “A&M” signature, Mercury, Kapp, Liberty and others are made exactly like Columbia’s own in Santa Maria.

Joe Kroll, production superintendent under manager Bob Norwood, says there’s a bit of a problem these days with a label nobody ever heard of — “Plantation.” Seems a lady named Jeanie C. Riley recorded “Harper Valley PTA” on it.

Yes, that’s the one that sold 3 million copies in three weeks. Every spare record press in the country is working double time. Columbia managed to squeeze 250,000 into its production schedule. (That’s probably about a two-hour supply in the record shops.)

The big record stars don’t show in person at Santa Maria.

They do their studio work in New York, Hollywood, Chicago, Nashville.

Then, the transcription comes here on records called “lacquers” — which are copied in zinc to “masters” to “mothers” to “stampers.” The latter go on the presses.

Your 12-inch records are made by three score machines which automatically squeeze hot vinyl plastic into a cookie which is fat and the size of the attached center label.

Then it is compressed into the big record, grooves all in place, automatically trimmed, stacked, double-checked for quality control, sent off to be packaged and shipped.

Some of the singles are made of polyethylene plastic injected into molds.

Almost two-thirds of the 550 employees are women. The wages aren’t that high, and women are also better at the skilled and delicate work required.

Columbia record clubbers don’t know it, but their personal selections are picked for the mailing folders by women who zip around the storage areas on roller skates. The work goes faster that way. And once the girls are in shape as skaters, they find it isn’t as rough on their feet.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp

Visit www.sanluisobispo.com/photos-from-the-vault to see old photos and read selected archives.

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