How Blue Sprocket Pressing put Virginia on the vinyl map
Central Virginia has been an incubator of music and culture amidst the Blue Ridge Mountains for decades – look no further than the success of veterans like Dave Matthews Band, the breadth of lo-fi poetry from Stephen Malkmus and David Berman, the deep tradition of bluegrass, or the rise of a new generation of indie stalwarts like Lucy Dacus.
Charlottesville, Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley boast no shortage of recording studios and treasured venues, but it's a vinyl manufacturing operation in Harrisonburg that's put Virginia' s music scene on the map in a whole new way: WNRN in Central Virginia met with Chris Jackson, the founder of Blue Sprocket Pressing, to learn how a local, independent plant achieves international success while still serving its community.
Chris Jackson has an ear for minutiae. Some of his earliest childhood memories of growing up outside of Harrisonburg, Va. involve dropping the needle on a newly procured vinyl record and settling into the groove, honing in on the different touchstones of some of rock music's greatest producers and engineers — the sound of the drums on an album by The Police, for instance, or the way Paul Simon's guitar line was captured.
"I not only had this love of the music, but also this fascination with how these recordings came to be in my home," Jackson recalls.
His interest in music and technology only deepened in adolescence.
"I was the kid that was setting up the sound system," Jackson recalls, "and trying to build little home studios out of [stuff] I could get out of Radio Shack and little cheap multitrack recorders — whatever I could get my hands on."
Jackson's musical pursuits came to fruition, eventually opening his own recording studio and a vinyl pressing plant right in his hometown. Since its establishment in 2018, Jackson's Blue Sprocket Pressing has carved out a niche in the vinyl pressing industry for producing specialty records. While larger pressing plants in North America run commercial releases for major labels, Blue Sprocket Pressing prints exclusive colored vinyl for indie labels, fan clubs and subscription services, like the limited-edition blue vinyl of Sturgill Simpson's Cuttin' Grass Vol. 2 for Vinyl Me, Please and a compilation of work by the late John Prine for a Record Store Day drop last year.
"We didn't come at this immediately just from the manufacturing side, like, how can we make as many flat round discs that will play music back on a turntable as humanly possible in a day," explains founder Chris Jackson. "We wanted to know what it would take for us to make a consistent, quality record."
As Blue Sprocket's reputation has grown, they've pressed records for Alanis Morissette, The Lemonheads, Morgan Wade and one of Jackson's favorite artists, Edie Brickell.
"It's an amazing feeling to make something and flip it over and remember, 'Oh yeah, I've been listening to this artist my entire life,' " he says. "There's a lot of nostalgia there."
After high school, Jackson began working live sound gigs with engineers and sound companies around his hometown, before moving to Nashville to pursue his interest in recorded music. After meeting his neighbor, Dave Piechura, Jackson's world opened up. With a background selling high-end recording equipment to studios at a company called Vintage King, Piechura's connections ran deep, and he introduced Jackson to facilities around town. Jackson began working in the tech side of the studio industry, most notably at the well-known Blackbird Studio, maintaining equipment and getting a crash course in how records are made.
Around 2008, Jackson moved home to Harrisonburg, helping a few friends record an album. He enrolled in a telecommunications program at James Madison University while building a studio in his basement, anchored by a console that he brought back from Music City. By 2013, Jackson was married and he and his wife decided to dig in their roots and expand the home studio.
"Harrisonburg had this really diverse community that we loved, and there was a lot of music here," says Jackson. "The town had been growing for quite some time and I'd been wondering for a while if a studio more similar to what I had grown accustomed to working in in Nashville was viable here."
Jackson called the new studio Blue Sprocket Sound.
"The Blue Sprocket name comes from being in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley and wanting to pay homage to that," he explains, "And around here, there's this huge community around cycling. This idea that a sprocket on a bicycle is a small thing that takes the power from your legs and moves the wheel and propels you forward – it's this small part that's part of this whole system, and that's how our studio felt."
Jackson worked with a variety of artists, always leaving room for bands from Central Virginia, like The Steel Wheels, Illiterate Light and Dogwood Tales.
"I love being a part of that process, of figuring out how to get an idea out of someone's head and eventually into someone else's hands," Jackson says. "Even as streaming has become more and more popular and entrenched in the way that we connect with music, there is still this need for a physical vehicle."
Before long, Jackson noticed that artists he was working with were all running into similar issues when trying to press their albums to vinyl: lead times would be extremely long, or small bands would dole out a significant portion of funds only to be disappointed in the product. Vinyl had largely fallen by the wayside with the advent of the compact disc, but with the format's resurgence in the late aughts, facilities in the U.S. became backed up trying to meet the demand.
So Jackson had an idea: why not start a vinyl manufacturing operation next to his studio?
"There were a lot of North American plants doing exceptional work, but we knew some of the issues that artists we were close to experienced, and we wanted to build a place that addressed those issues," he says.
Along with his studio colleague, Logan Stoltzfus, Jackson secured a vinyl record press made by the Toronto company Viryl Technologies, and launched Blue Sprocket Pressing in 2018. Stoltzfus took on the role of operations manager at the pressing plant, and hired Taven Wilson as their first press operator. With family backgrounds in construction and manufacturing, the trio got to work putting up walls, pulling wire and hoisting pipes for infrastructure.
Word spread fast in the region's close-knit music community, and what began as the little-pressing-plant-that-could has put Central Virginia on the map in a whole new way. Blue Sprocket continues to press records for major label acts and unsigned artists alike, shipping records all over the world while maintaining its homegrown status as a hub for local artists.
Harrisonburg duo Dogwood Tales turned to Blue Sprocket for the vinyl run of their first LP, Too Hard To Tell.
"It was truly a magical moment heading over to the plant for the first time, seeing the sleeves of our record all ready to go, and watching the pressing of our record as it was happening," says Kyle Grim of the Harrison-based band Dogwood Tales. "Having Blue Sprocket in Harrisonburg has been huge for a lot of bands in town that have wanted to release physical media instead of just doing things the digital route. Blue Sprocket has also given so many musicians in town a place to work and continue to live within their passion."
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