hen the CD system was launched in 1983, discs were pressed in multi-million dollar factories with air and water filtered to higher standards than an operating theatre. Reject rates were over 90%. Demand exceeded supply and the factories charged £2 per pressing.
At that time there were three huge record shops in Central London, all claiming to be the biggest and best in the world; Tower in Piccadilly, an HMV emporium in Oxford Street and the Virgin Megastore a few doors away. Minds boggled in 1987 when (Sir) Richard Branson – always the publicity king – announced that he was going to install a CD pressing plant in the public basement of his London Megastore.
Virgin had bought one of the world’s first ‘monolines’; a sealed room with robot arms to move discs between a press, vacuum chamber which deposits reflective metal, and machines to add protective lacquer and print a label. Glass walls kept the air inside clean while shoppers watched the press working.
On September 29 the Megastore pulled back some screening from the bottom end of the basement to reveal a fully-fledged CD factory. It cost £0.5 million to build and was in theory able to churn out CDs at the rate of one every ten seconds, in full view of shoppers. The first CD to be pressed was Virgin’s new Mike Oldfield album, “Islands”.
Video screens explained the process. In theory Virgin store staff just poured raw polycarbonate plastic in one end of their monoline and got finished discs out the other,
In reality, and like a scene from a Jacques Tati movie, the line was tended by white-coated staff with worried looks, trying to stop the robots throwing half-finished discs into a scrap bin. Virgin remained tight-lipped but in 1989 an engineering company blew the gaffe by boasting how it had sealed a leak in the vacuum chamber. By then Virgin had given up, ripped out the Tati line and replaced it with a sales counter for Virgin Atlantic.
An investment trust flogged the monoline to a company called Sleeveprint, in Bedford, who unsurprisingly printed record sleeves. But Sleeveprint also gave up on the ex-Virgin monoline and in 1991 it was sold for a song and shipped back to London and a pressing plant in Hayes, called Damont.
As so often happens when pioneers get arrows in their backs, others learned from Virgin’s unhappy experience; within a few years there were several hundred monolines round the world, many in China and ex-Soviet bloc countries. They worked so well that there was a pressing glut and prices fell down to around 20 p per disc. Some of the foreign lines existed only by pressing counterfeit discs.