Vinyl sells so well that it becomes difficult to sell vinyl

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Within the Indianapolis office of Joyful Noise Recordings, a specialty label that caters to vinyl-loving underground rock fans, is a corner that employees call the “tour cave.”

There’s a Presto 6N record lathe – a vintage 1940s microwave-sized machine that makes records by cutting a groove in a blank vinyl platter. Unlike most standard discs, which are pressed in the hundreds or thousands, each spin-cut disc must be created individually.

“It’s incredibly laborious,” said Karl Hofstetter, founder of the brand. “If a song is three minutes long, it takes three minutes to do each one.”

This ancient technology – scuffed and battered, the ride looks something like a WWII submarine – is a key part of Joyful Noise’s strategy to survive the wave of vinyl popularity the label has contributed. to feed. Left for dead with the advent of CDs in the 1980s, vinyl records are now the most popular and profitable physical format in the music industry, with fans choosing it for its collection, sound quality or simply the tactile experience of music in the age of the digital ephemeral. . After growing steadily for over a decade, LP record sales have exploded during the pandemic.

In the first six months of this year, 17 million vinyl records were sold in the United States, generating $ 467 million in retail revenue, nearly double the amount for the same period in 2020, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Sixteen million CDs were also sold in the first half of 2021, valued at just $ 205 million. Physical recordings are only a fraction of the overall music industry – streaming accounts for 84% of national revenue – but they can be a strong indication of fan loyalty, and stars like Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo are making the cut. vinyl an important part of their marketing.

Still, there are worrying signs that the vinyl windfall has exceeded the industrial capacity needed to maintain it. Production bottlenecks and the reliance on unstable, decades-old baling machines have resulted in what executives see as unprecedented delays. A few years ago, a new record could be overturned in a few months; now it can take up to a year, wreaking havoc on artists’ release plans.

Kevin Morby, a singer-songwriter from Kansas City, Kan., Said his latest LP, “A Night at the Little Los Angeles,” barely arrived in time to sell out on his fall tour. And he is one of the lucky ones. Beach Boys artists at Tyler the creator recently had their vinyl blocked.

“It’s almost what I feel when playing live music,” Morby said in an interview. “I now consider every show a success. “Wow, we made it – no one had Covid.” Now I know what it’s like when the world comes to a complete stop. So even though it’s going to be a bit late, I’m still grateful for it.

For Joyful Noise, the vinyl crunch was also a confusing issue. Up to 500 VIP clients pay the label $ 200 per year for special editions of every LP it makes. But production delays mean the label can’t predict which titles will be ready in 2022.

“How can we in good conscience sell this for next year,” said Hofstetter, “if we don’t know when these records will appear? “

The label’s solution is to do tour singles for each of the eight albums it plans to release next year, as a placeholder bonus while its customers wait. It will cost Joyful Noise money and time – Hofstetter moaned as we calculated that eight records with five minutes of music per side, cut 500 times each, would require 666 hours of lathe work – but the label considers it a necessary investment.

Others are equally frustrated. Thrill Jockey, a Chicago label for indie rock connoisseurs, wants to celebrate its 30th anniversary next year with a series of reissues, but its founder, Bettina Richards, has said she has no idea what tracks can be made. done on time. John Brien of Important Records, which publishes works by contemporary composers, recently said online that “vinyl is dead”, But clarified in an interview that the format is too essential to be abandoned.

Even the biggest stars are not immune. In an interview this month with BBC Radio, Adele, whose album “30” is slated for November 19 – and is sure to be a blockbuster on LP – said her release date was set six months ago. to get vinyls and CDs on time. .

“There was a delay of about 25 weeks! She exclaimed. “So many CD factories and vinyl factories, they closed even before Covid because nobody prints them anymore.”

Music and manufacturing experts cite a variety of factors behind the heist. The pandemic closed many factories for a while, and global supply chain problems slowed the movement of everything from cardboard to polyvinyl chloride – the “vinyl” from which records (and hoses). plumbing) are manufactured – to finished albums. In early 2020, a fire destroyed one of only two factories in the world manufacturing lacquer discs, an essential part of the disc manufacturing process.

But the biggest problem can be the simple supply and demand. The consumption of vinyl records has grown much faster than the industry’s ability to produce records. The business relies on an aging infrastructure of baling machines, most of which date from the 1970s or earlier and can be expensive to maintain. New machines have only appeared in recent years and can cost up to $ 300,000 each. There is also a backlog of orders for these.

Exotic issues crop up that would never interfere with a release on YouTube or SoundCloud. “We had a raccoon infestation,” said Caren Kelleher of Gold Rush Vinyl, a boutique in Austin, Texas. “It put us back a week.”

The limits of this infrastructure are being tested as big artists – and super-retailers like Walmart and Amazon – increasingly push vinyl. It’s not hard to see why: in an era when CD sales are dying and streaming has left artists complaining about tiny payouts, a new LP, especially if offered in eye-catching colors or in Collector’s bait design variations, can sell for $ 25 or more. As some see, the releases of the best pop groups spoil the production chain, crowding out the smaller artists and labels that have stuck with the format from the start.

“What worries me more than anything is that the majors are going to dominate and take over all the capacity, which I don’t think is a good idea,” said Rick Hashimoto of Record Technology Inc., a factory medium in Camarillo, California. ., which works with many independent labels.

Others say the big labels are just a convenient target. The real problem, they believe, isn’t that celebrities are jumping on the vinyl bandwagon, but that the industry network just hasn’t grown fast enough to meet growing demand.

“Am I angry that Olivia Rodrigo sold 76,000 vinyl copies of her album?” Said Ben Blackwell of Third Man, the record label and vinyl empire that counts Jack White of the White Stripes among its founders. “Not at all! This is what I would have dreamed of when we started Third Man – that the biggest frontline artists all push vinyl and that young children are interested in it.

“If anyone’s crazy that it keeps another title from being in a hurry,” Blackwell continued, “it seems a bit elitist and guardian.”

Still, some fear the rebirth could be threatened if further delays frustrate consumers and artists – or if vinyl is treated as just another item, like t-shirts or keychains, which fickle fans will simply skip over. to something else.

Among the old-school types of records, it has long been suspected that many new fans will buy vinyl for a collectible thrill but never let go of a needle.

“We noticed during Covid that we were getting a lot more mail-order complaints like ‘The jacket has a 10th-inch bend at the corner,'” said Brian Lowit of Dischord Records, the Washington label behind the post-punk. icons like Fugazi. “We ask them if the record is working well and they’ll say, ‘I don’t know, I’m just keeping it in the shrink wrap. “”

For artists, especially those without the backing of a major record company, sticking to vinyl has now become a question of whether it’s worth it.

“Right now, vinyl feels legitimate,” said Cassandra Jenkins, a Brooklyn singer-songwriter whose latest album, “An Overview on Phenomenal Nature,” was a surprise vinyl hit – it started with a pressing of 300 copies and eventually rose to 7,000.

“It’s an investment for an artist,” she added. “I want these items that I can sell, so I’m going to invest in them. “

For some musicians like Jenkins, this investment has now started to affect the creative process. After releasing her latest album in February, she started working on follow-up material. But the long lead time for vinyl meant she had to start immediately, with a tight deadline, to get her music into the manufacturing pipeline.

In Jenkins’ case, the pressure had a positive effect. She recorded an EP of new tracks, expected by the end of the year on vinyl only. Another release, “(An Overview on) An Overview on Phenomenal Nature”, complete with clips and a new track, will be released on CD and digital formats next month – with vinyl to follow in April.

“It curiously prompted me to make more music than I would have done with the more luxurious time frames of old,” Jenkins said.

And his next project?

“This year it was really important for me to have vinyl,” she said. “Maybe next year it won’t.”

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