Sony's NJ Manufacturing Plant Closes

Company cites 'current economic environment and challenges facing the physical-media industry' for closing and plans to move its CD manufacturing to Indiana.

PITMAN, N.J. (AP) -- For Jim Jones, the shuttering of the Sony CD manufacturing plant in Pitman will be more than the end of a livelihood that began soon after high school and carried him comfortably into middle age.

It will mark the end of an era.

During his nearly three decades at the plant, once among the largest employers in Gloucester County, Jones witnessed a tumultuous change in the recorded-music industry as consumers gravitated to new formats and ways to buy them.

Sony Corp. of America announced this month that the 50-year-old plant will cease operations between March 18 and 31. A downturn in CD sales began in the age of file-sharing and CD burning and accelerated with the advent of digital downloads.

Digital sales -- full-album downloads and their single-song equivalents (the industry considers 10 song downloads equal to an album) - accounted for 47 percent of albums purchased in the United States last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks the recorded-music industry.

"The CD is in turmoil," said Ed Christman, who reports on music sales for Billboard.

Hired as a maintenance mechanic in late 1982, when Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album was flying off the presses, Jones saw the boom and bust of the vinyl-record industry. Manpower at the plant -- then owned by CBS Records, which purchased it from Columbia Records -- already was half of the 2,000 it had been at its peak.

In the spring of 1988, the Pitman operation converted into CD production. It was the company's first venture in the new format. Later that year, Sony, then the world's largest CD producer, acquired the plant. In 12 years, the crew there churned out a billion CDs, according to an Inquirer report. Recent manufacturing capacity was 600,000 CDs a day, a company spokesman said.

"We had a lot of hot sellers," said Jones, 50, rattling off the names: Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, Judas Priest, Pat Benatar. Production was round-the-clock and overtime was plentiful, he said in an interview at his Deptford home, which is filled with Sony products and mementos.

Now there are only 350 employees in the nearly 500,000-square-foot complex off Woodbury-Glassboro Road. In a statement, the company cited the "current economic environment and challenges facing the physical-media industry."

Sony DADC (Digital Audio Disc Corp.) plans to move its CD manufacturing to Terre Haute, Ind., according to its spokeswoman.

In Pitman, all but 50 workers will be laid off. The rest, who are in customer service, information technology, and finance, will move to a rented office nearby. Sony plans to put the plant up for sale.

Jones is not the first in his family to be hit by Sony's manufacturing consolidation.

His son, Joshua Jones, was laid off from the plant last February, when the company eliminated 160 positions and sent the work -- making DVDs and video game discs -- to Indiana. Joshua Jones joined the company right out of high school and made $20 an hour working with computers. In a year, his father said, he saved enough to buy a car in cash.

"It was a good company to work for," Jim Jones said.

"I'm still in a daze," said Jim Jones, who met his wife, Cindy, a former plant employee, when both were forklift operators there. His brother, three sisters, a few cousins, and a neighbor have been on the payroll at various times.

"My son just burned me a Fleetwood Mac set," Jim Jones said with a shrug, aware that the practice had helped put him out of work. "If you can just go upstairs and burn a CD on a computer, you don't have to go out and buy one."

Rumors of the plant's closure circulated as far back as 10 years ago, said Jim Jones, who now works in shipping. But then business would surge and employees' fears would subside. Recently, he said, the demand for Taylor Swift CDs had his department working all hours of the night.

Still, he said, employees were always "wondering how long we were going to last."

Mayor Michael Batten said the closing might affect Pitman's tax revenue, sewer and water rates, and businesses. The Borough Council is trying to decide what to do next.

The Bus Stop Music Cafe, a hot spot in Pitman's little downtown, has rows and rows of old vinyl records and CDs hanging on its walls. It's a nod to the company's history in the 10,000-resident borough.

Timothy Martz, the inventory manager of the 5,000 records and 1,500 CDs on display, predicts that Sony's departure will have a ripple effect on local businesses. And he worries about acquaintances who were relieved to find employment with Sony when another area manufacturing plant was shut a few years ago. His friends will be back on the unemployment line, he said.

Jim Jones recalls standing in a different kind of line almost 29 years ago. It was 100 applicants deep, when the Sony plant was "hiring like crazy."

Jackson's "Thriller" was in such demand that its serial number at the plant, No. 38112, is ingrained in Jim Jones' memory. Later, he got a souvenir copy of the last vinyl pressed in Pitman, a Bruce Springsteen hits collection.

When Sony gathered workers in the cafeteria two weeks ago to inform them of the plant's fate, "you could see some watery eyes, and I started to get watery myself," Jim Jones said. "Then we all just walked out."

In the fall, Sony held a 50th-anniversary shindig in tents set up around the 72-acre site, he said. There was a big spread, and guests were given tours.

"I'm not sure if management knew the plant was closing. I think it just came up on everybody," he said, wistfully.

The company spokeswoman said she did not know if managers knew at the time that the picnic would be the plant's last.

At the celebration, a photo collage of hundreds of grinning employees was displayed. Jim Jones found his picture, taken soon after he was hired. "I had long hair," he said, chuckling.

Jim Jones' last day will be April 18, after manufacturing has ceased. He anticipates he will help to ship everything out. Most likely, he will be among the last to leave, when the place is empty and the lights are turned off.
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