Vinyl fantasy: Is the record boom bad for new music?
As we gear up for another Record Store Day this weekend, shelves across the world’s boutique stores will fill with lurid colored vinyl editions of nostalgic classics and 180-gram represses of sought-after gems. But if the vinyl industry is booming, why is it so hard for labels to sell new music? Oli Warwick investigates.
From ham-fisted placement in nostalgic movies to adding hip kudos to unrelated product advertising, vinyl records are ubiquitous in these retro-fetishistic times. Sales are the highest they’ve been for 25 years, and we’re told that “vinyl is set to become a billion dollar industry,” but in the face of reissue hype and 12” sleeves as mantelpiece decoration, new independent music is suffering.
When a label as stoutly vinyl-focused as long-running Detroit techno outpost Underground Resistance is publicly lamenting the struggle to maintain the format in view of pressing plant delays and tricky payment terms, can the vinyl boom really be benefiting the music that kept the format alive all these years?
Record Store Day itself is seen by some as a vessel for pointless reissues of easily available back catalogue material, while Thaddeus Hermann pointed out in his 2015 feature the technical problems pressing plants have been facing in wake of the surge in demand. While the headlines paint a rosy picture, some argue the vinyl industry is becoming the preserve of major labels, leaving the independents struggling to compete with spiraling costs in a more competitive market.
“The vinyl boom is only relevant for reissues” Markus Detmer, Staubgold
“A lot of our hardcore customers are excited first and foremost by all these amazing reissues coming out,” says Marc Weinstein, co-founder of Californian indie store chain Amoeba Records. “We sell a lot of jazz reissues, for example, to customers who already own copies of those records. An ultimate 180-gram vinyl version means they can archive their original copy so they don’t have to listen to it any more.”
Ton Vermeulen confirms that at least 50-60 per cent of the jobs currently passing through his leading European pressing plant Record Industry are back catalog represses. Weinstein also suggests that current demand for represses outstrips supply, adding, “With new artists it’s a little more spotty. It’s so nuanced as to whether a new artist will do well selling vinyl.”
The lure of the reissue isn’t just the preserve of the majors. Most established independents with out-of-print back catalogs are capitalizing on the rabid second-hand prices of their most prized releases. Sam Valenti IV from Ghostly International suggests the label might repress a classic album when one of its acts is releasing new music, while imprints such as Dark Entries and Death Waltz have forged their reputations on lavish reissues of old material.
“Up until 2006 our physical sales had been constantly rising and the CD was our strongest format,” explains Markus Detmer from Staubgold, a German-French label that has struck a steady balance between new music and obscure reissues for nearly 20 years. “Then sales went continuously down until around 2012. Now sales are stable concerning reissues, but very low concerning new music. The vinyl boom is only relevant for reissues. It doesn’t seem to have an effect at all for new or unknown artists.”
Physical pressings are still standard practice for labels in certain corners of dance music, and there are still plenty of record shops that predominantly stock club music, but is the vinyl boom felt in the part of the industry that arguably kept the format alive when most consumers had moved on to tapes, CDs and ultimately downloads and streaming?
Jason Spinks runs Kristina Records, a specialist shop in London that mainly sells dance music vinyl. “I have not noticed the vinyl ‘boom’ having a positive impact on my shop or the industry in general,” he says. “I am pretty sick and tired of hearing the news stories of increased vinyl sales, as whilst it may be true, my assumption is that this is being driven by major label artists now pressing on vinyl and completely unnecessary back catalogs being repressed, with the core of these new sales being with big online retailers and high street shops who had previously abandoned the format.”
“When I took over Record Industry in 1998 the total world market was still about 250 million,” says Vermeulen. “The lowest point ever we had was eight or nine years ago, where the total production was about 40 million. DJs were getting out of vinyl so there was a huge decrease in sales. I’ve seen a steady growth for the last five years now, but it’s more LPs and not the 12″ singles. Around 2000, about 90 per cent of what we were pressing was dance music and 10 per cent was an LP or an album. Now, it’s the other way around.”
In January, Somewhere In Detroit, the Underground Resistance-affiliated mail-order and walk-in record store, posted a heartfelt message about the challenges facing its labels in view of pressing plant queues and distributor payment terms. While it said nothing about moving away from vinyl entirely, it was enough to move it to announce its first official digital releases, due to hit Bandcamp soon. A sign of the times and technology moving on, perhaps? That’s how Alex Sushon (aka Bok Bok) of Night Slugs sees it. His label still puts out vinyl intermittently, but many of its new releases are digital-only.
“If we could get a record turned around in just a few weeks, maybe I would keep producing 12″s for every release” Bok Bok
“Vinyl was extremely important to us at the start of [Night Slugs],” says Sushon, “but at this point it feels really esoteric. We still produce it for some releases, but as a club DJ I went from hardcore vinyl head to Serato to just CDJs with USBs, and I can’t imagine going back. It’s just not practical. Since I and my friends no longer use the medium, it just isn’t very inspiring to me for new music any more.
“If it was like the old days and we could get a record turned around in just a few weeks, maybe I would keep producing 12″s for every release,” he notes. “But the process is slower than ever, and is totally out of sync with the rate of music dropping and developing online.”
“The movement from a DJ culture to a collector culture has been noticeable,” adds Valenti. Ghostly International still releases some dancefloor 12”s from acts like Recondite, while the Spectral Sound sub-label continues to focus on club sounds. “LPs sell more easily than singles, but with the advent of low-pressing/hand-stamped editions, many artists and labels have found a good balance.”
While the climate may feel uncertain for dance music vinyl, there’s a sense of optimism throughout the wider industry, although the motives behind consumers’ adoption of the format seem like a mixed bag. Many people I spoke to were confident that the current boom was in part a backlash against the disposable, low-quality nature of listening to music via MP3 or streaming services, but evidence also suggests some consumers are buying vinyl for its purely ornamental qualities.
“I’ve been asked if an LP was the right size to play on the turntable they bought from Urban Outfitters”Jason Spinks, Kristina Records
“Fans now tend to listen casually on streaming services – but also want some sort of artefact to collect, which is where vinyl comes in,” says Mark Meyer, international product manager at French indie giant PIAS. “There is some statistic that 40 per cent of vinyl never even gets played. Albums with elaborate packaging can be very popular depending on the artist, and price doesn’t seem to be a barrier.”
“I do notice a different demographic coming into [Kristina Records],” says Spinks, “and I’m often happy to help them find something, and that’s positive for all, but we also have people completely disrespectful of the products or the equipment. I’ve been asked if an LP was the right size to play on the turntable they bought from Urban Outfitters.”
Spinks isn’t the only one to take aim at the popular high street lifestyle store’s adoption of vinyl. “At this point the format feels like the preserve of Urban Outfitters selling iconic records to display behind glass,” Sushon says. “It’s been made quaint.”
There’s no doubt the black gold rush is on. David de la Bruyere from London-based vinyl pressing company Disc Solutions revealed that even turntable manufacturers and distributors are starting record labels to showcase their product, from Loud & Clear reissuing Earth, Wind & Fire and Salsoul Orchestra to Vertere Acoustics working with former members of ‘80s Scottish pop-rockers The Silencers.
As mentioned previously, the waiting time at pressing plants has been cited as one of the key challenges for independent labels with limited cash flow. While no plant will admit it, there are rumors of major labels buying up capacity on presses in advance to make sure their stock takes priority. The waiting times may be higher now than they were when the industry slumped in the mid to late ‘00s, but it seems like the plants might now be on top of the bottlenecking crisis.
“Everyone jumping on the vinyl bandwagon has meant big strains on the limited number of pressing plants that exist,” says Meyer. “Lead times are particularly bad in the period leading up to Record Store Day, although this seems to have eased off a bit this year.”
Vermeulen explains that the amount of vinyl pressed at Record Industry has increased by 25 per cent annually for the past five years, and that the projected figure for worldwide pressing in 2017 is between 110 and 120 million records.
“Before September 2014 we were running only one shift,” Vermeulen says. “By the end of 2014 and early 2015, there was a huge load of orders, and not all the plants in Europe were ready to absorb them. Now for one-and-a-half years we’ve been running a full second shift, so we’re able to almost double our daily output. The waiting times are a bit shorter now, that’s for sure.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those on the pressing side of the business talk positively about the way the plants have responded to the increased demand – but it does seem like tangible progress has been made to give everyone a better chance of getting their records pressed in a timely fashion. The industry seems to have addressed some of the issues that Hermann flagged up in his article two years ago, such as processing metal master discs and the pitfalls of antiquated machinery.
“Many pressing plants are now running 24/7,” points out de la Bruyere. “They’ve also increased capacity in their galvanics [metalwork] departments, along with refurbing existing pressing machines.” He also reveals that Swedish company Toolex is resurrecting its Alpha press, a famously high-speed, automatic machine that should speed up production for plants that use them.
“Seemingly, the vinyl beast is becoming tamed with a sustainable supply chain,” de la Bruyere muses.
“The moment vinyl pressing becomes inaccessible is the moment that it ceases to be interesting” Ben Blackwell, Third Man
Nothing says optimism in the vinyl industry like the opening of a new plant. In America, Jack White’s Third Man Records empire has expanded to bring a new pressing plant to Detroit. The high-spec venture features eight brand new presses developed by Newbilt in Germany, designed to handle niche requirements such as split color and splatter-effect vinyl.
“We’d experienced the backlog at pressing plants and we wanted to be part of the solution,” says Ben Blackwell from Third Man, who has been overseeing the plant’s development. “There are major benefits to running brand new machinery. There are 20 pressing plants in the United States at this point, and at least two companies making new vinyl presses. I think one plant in Texas is running new presses made by Viryl Technologies, but all the other 18 or so are running antiquated machinery that’s at least 40 years old, and that’s a struggle every day.”
Aside from the laborious time factors in releasing music on vinyl, the format is costly to manufacture. At a time when vinyl is in some circles considered the ‘official’ means of releasing music, it could be seen as creating a barrier to entry into the music game for those without the funds to get their music pressed.
“It creates haves and have-nots,” Weinstein says of the vinyl hype. “A lot of artists can’t really afford to press vinyl so they’re confined to a different kind of market. In some ways [pressing] is more accessible, but it costs so much to do it that you’re creating a product that people have to spend some serious money to get, and you better have a market for it if you’re gonna spend that money.”
While Third Man hasn’t announced its prices yet, Ben Blackwell describes the new pressing plant as a “boutiquey” operation aiming to support smaller print runs and more niche kinds of vinyl pressings. Aaron ‘Fit’ Siegel, a DJ and producer who runs Detroit’s Fit Sound label, believes that it will help the indie labels of the city, and that’s certainly the message Blackwell wants to convey.
“I’m not going to say we won’t press any major label projects,” he explains, “but the idea is more to help the bedroom labels and independent artists who were the first ones elbowed out when major labels started taking up a lot of pressing capacity at the pre-existing pressing plants. The moment vinyl record pressing becomes an inaccessible ivory tower is the moment that it ceases to be interesting.”
While there’s a high price tag attached to the vinyl game, production is ramping up and the industry continues to swell. With 2017’s projected 120 million pressings looking set to increase exponentially over the years to come, there’s also the environmental impact to consider. Vinyl, made from PVC, is an oil-based product as well as a weighty physical commodity to be shipped around the world, and the upturn in production will only increase the format’s carbon footprint. Digital formats are far from squeaky clean in the eco stakes themselves, but is it reckless to be reinvesting in vinyl?
“Unsold stock is a problem,” Meyer admits. “PIAS has vinyl held in warehouses around the world. As orders [with pressing plants] need to be placed so upfront, orders are made on gut feeling rather than based on actual media reactions. In some cases, overly optimistic orders mean we are lumbered with excess stock.
“We have become a lot more scrupulous with our pressing numbers,” he adds. “For any stock that really isn’t shifting anywhere, we will delete the line and officially destroy and recycle it, as required by the MCPS [Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society]. Thankfully, the level of wastage with vinyl is much less compared to the wastage at the height of the CD era.”
At this time however, the vinyl industry’s full impact on the environment is hard to determine. Julie’s Bicycle is a non-profit organization bringing environmental sustainability into the creative industries, and they suggest that there has been little research done into the matter.
“Vinyl’s an oil-based product, so it’s not the greenest material”Ben Blackwell, Third Man
“There isn’t currently any reliable information on the environmental impact of vinyl records,” says project manager Chiara Badiali. “While we’d love to have the data, the overall market share doesn’t seem sufficient to dedicate the necessary resources to start analysing this.”
She does however have a positive outlook on vinyl’s ornamental appeal. “As long as the vinyl market resurgence is still based on emotional attachment then it’s (hopefully) less likely to be wasteful because vinyl won’t be seen as a disposable thing for most consumers. If the resurgence gets to the point where we start seeing loads of new pressings of novelty Christmas records, then it’s definitely time for a more serious conversation.”
Third Man is also considering ways to counteract the environmental impact of its new plant. “We’re definitely environmentally aware of our plant and our process,” admits Ben Blackwell. “We’re minimizing water waste with a closed loop system to heat up the presses and cool them off, and we’re recycling all paper waste. You have to remind people that vinyl’s an oil-based product, so it’s not the greenest material.”
Considering the unpredictable nature of the format’s life cycle so far, it’s hard to tell where vinyl is heading in the future. The relationship with dance music culture seems to be increasingly fraught – mixed messages from Technics suggest it was thinking more about audiophile consumers than DJs when designing its new products. Although vinyl is still entrenched in the DJ community, the reality for dedicated labels selling their wares is less upbeat. Jus-Ed recently took to Facebook to explain the challenges of selling music online when fighting against social media algorithms to reach his 7,000 page likes. “About music sales… really it’s bad right now,” he wrote.
“I imagine we will see a peak in the UK over the next few years,” Meyer suggests. “With the majors and the supermarkets getting in on the action, and constant media reports of the so called ‘vinyl revival’, I fear the market is getting too saturated.
“Internationally, the trends differ somewhat. Germany has had a very buoyant vinyl market for many years, and I predict that will be steady for years to come. The US has a healthy market, which I don’t see dying in the near future. Curated subscription services like Vinyl Me, Please do a roaring trade for people who want to live the vinyl lifestyle without doing the legwork digging the crates.”
So the global outlook looks rosy for high-profile album projects and the relentless surge of reissues, but in more niche corners uncertainty looms as large as it did when online piracy was at its peak. In practical terms for dance music DJing, there is an ever-increasing generation for whom digital formats are the norm, but if more and more high street consumers are getting turned onto vinyl, that can only mean more potential devotees looking beyond the stacks of Rumours and Legend in their local supermarket to support new, independent music. Whether the small-run labels can weather the financial pressure while the market grows remains to be seen.
Oli Warwick is on Twitter