It was only the beginning of White’s latest streak of vinyl whimsy. In June, he packed the LP version of Lazaretto with all sorts of ear- and eye-candy including hidden tracks beneath the label; engineering side A to play from the inside-out; a matte finish on side B; a hand-etched hologram, and more. Fans were excited about the extras, which led to record-breaking sales: Not only did the album reach #1 on the charts, it also set a new high for the most first-week vinyl sales since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking data in 1991. White sold more than 40,000 copies of the Lazaretto LP in its first week.
Which is great news for the vinyl industry. Mostly.
“Every time I see a headline about Jack White’s latest gimmick, it’s kind of maddening,” one indie-label employee who declined to be named tells me. “While he’s making records ‘in one day,’ normal customers can go weeks not knowing the status of their orders.”
More and more people are buying vinyl; sales hit a record 6.1 million units in the U.S. last year. But as demand increases, the number of American pressing plants remains relatively fixed. No one is building new presses because, by all accounts, it would be prohibitively expensive. So the industry is limited to the dozen or so plants currently operating in the States. The biggest is Nashville’s United, which operates 22 presses that pump out 30,000 to 40,000 records a day. California-based Rainbo Records and Erika Records are similarly large outfits, and after that come mid-size operations like Record Technology, Inc., also in California, with nine presses, and Cleveland’s Gotta Groove Records, which turns out between 4,000 and 5,000 records a day on six presses. Boutique manufacturers like Musicol in Columbus, Archer in Detroit, and Palomino in Kentucky operate between one and five presses.
“You used to be able to turn over a record in four weeks,” says John Beeler, project manager at Asthmatic Kitty, the label home of Sufjan Stevens. “But I’m now telling my artists that we need at least three months from the time they turn it in to the time we get it back.” Across the board, lengthy lead times that were once anomalies are now the norm. “They’ve been longer this year than they were even nine months ago,” says Nick Blandford, managing director of the Secretly Label Group, which includes prominent indie imprints Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, and Dead Oceans, and artists including Bon Iver and the War on Drugs. “We crossed our fingers and hoped that turn times would improve after Record Store Day in April, but they’re still about the same. We’ve just accepted this as the reality.”
So when it comes to the current state of the vinyl industry’s unlikely resurrection, everyone is happy. And everyone is frustrated.
Vinyl’s sharp rise began in 2008, when sales nearly doubled from the previous year’s 1 million to 1.9 million. The tallies have gone up each year since, and 2013’s 6.1 million is a 33 percent increase over 2012’s 4.6 million. (Those numbers are even larger when you account for releases that fall outside SoundScan’s reach.) The resurgent format’s market share is still far smaller than CDs, digital, and streaming—vinyl accounted for only 2 percent of all album sales last year, compared to 41 percent for digital and 57 percent for CDs—and no one expects it to regain dominance. But it’s more than a trend, and it’s not going away anytime soon. “Four years ago, maybe half our releases would get an LP option,” says James Cartwright, production manager at Merge Records. “Now every release we do has a vinyl format.”
Mounting today’s LPs side-by-side on a giant wall would offer a particularly kaleidoscopic display since a significant chunk of sales now come from colored discs. While some purists claim these sorts of limited-edition releases and Record Store Day exclusives are leading to the cartoonization of a format, it’s apparent after speaking with pressing plants, labels, and record stores that artists like Jack White are giving people what they want. As vinyl sales have climbed, so has the demand for exclusives. Musicol’s two-press operation in Columbus, Ohio, has been pressing vinyl since the 1960s, and though the place used to press about 90 percent black vinyl, color vinyl now accounts for about half of its orders. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s five-year-old Gotta Groove Records presses about 40 percent of its LPs and 45s on colored vinyl.
And White isn’t the only one upping the ante with quirky embellishments. On a recent tour of Gotta Groove’s operation, sparkling specs littered the ground near the 7” machine after a just-completed run of 100 45s were pressed on clear vinyl with glitter. Covering the walls of a listening room were more custom orders that ranged from impressive to confounding. One band pressed coffee grounds into their records. Another incorporated the ashes of a 19th-century Bible. And an upcoming order will include shredded cash. The plant has to draw a line when a client’s order includes bodily fluids. “At least once a month a band wants to press their blood into the record,” says Gotta Groove VP of sales and marketing Matt Earley, who always says no.
Now, you might think adding blood or coffee to vinyl is a sign that the format has officially crossed the line from cultural commodity to tchotchke—and there are certainly bands that would agree. In fact, Beeler at Asthmatic Kitty says some of his label’s artists are beginning to resist colored vinyl and other exclusives. But Asthmatic Kitty and others still do it, because consumers demand it, and those limited-edition releases drive sales. (These sorts of exclusive releases also often bypass distributors and record stores, driving sales directly to a label’s web store.)
“We are doing more multiple-color pressings than ever,” says Matt Lunsford, cofounder of Polyvinyl Records, whose roster currently includes Japandroids and of Montreal. At this point, Polyvinyl presses limited-edition “Early Bird” versions of releases, as well as picture-disc pressings, and a 7” subscription series—which this year sold out before the first month was mailed.
So who’s buying? Anecdotally, it’s a broad range. On a recent visit to Columbus shop Lost Weekend Records, owner Kyle Siegrist had just helped three customers who were purchasing vinyl for themselves and also for their dads for Father’s Day. The cycle seems to have gone something like this: Twenty years ago, diehard vinyl fans were still buying LPs and saying, “The kids don’t get it.” Then, about five years ago, the younger generation started buying vinyl, and their parents were flummoxed. Now, millennials and boomers are all together in the same stores buying LPs.
Marc Weinstein, the 57-year-old co-owner of California’s Amoeba Music stores, has seen many of his friends dust off their old turntables as vinyl sales at Amoeba have doubled over the last half decade. Simultaneously, young buyers are purchasing new releases alongside a handful of classics. (“College kids still listen to Bob Marley and Pink Floyd, and they probably will forever,” Secretly’s Blandford says.) Demographics can trend even younger than that: Teens are buying vinyl, too. “I coach a high school wrestling team,” says Dayton-based Misra Records manager Leo DeLuca, “and freshmen are buying record players and asking if we press vinyl.”
Vinyl buyers are unique in their purchasing habits. In the first week of June, just before Jack White stormed the charts and skewed the numbers, Sharon Van Etten’s latest Jagjaguwar release Are We There took the #2 spot on the vinyl chart, selling 2,115 LPs of the total 8,930 copies sold that week. Which means vinyl sales accounted for more than 20 percent of the singer/songwriter’s first-week sales, a number that’s consistent with most of Secretly Label Group’s releases.
The top 50 year-to-date vinyl albums as of June 1 included a mix of indie rock, alt rock, folk rock, and classic rock. So, yes: Vinyl is still very much a rock format. A few hip-hop releases are sprinkled in—Kendrick Lamar’s good kid: m.A.A.d city at #18, Kanye’s The College Dropout at #45, Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) just beyond at #59—but even those are rap albums that have noted indie crossover appeal. Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories makes an appearance, as does Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and radio mainstays like Justin Timberlake and Lorde. But the rest is dominated by indie- and alt-rock faves (Vampire Weekend, Mumford & Sons, Arctic Monkeys, Bon Iver, Beck, Neutral Milk Hotel), classic-rock heavyweights (the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley), and all three of the most recent albums by the Black Keys, who have managed to corral both indie- and classic-rock fans. The chart reads like a required-listening syllabus for a course in indie rock of the recent past and baby boomer classics.
“Once the album is in the canon, it’s constantly being rediscovered,” Blandford says. This holds true not just for ‘60s and ‘70s essentials, but for newer touchstones as well. “If you’d told me when we put out [Bon Iver’s 2007 debut] For Emma, Forever Ago that we would sell almost 100,000 copies on vinyl, I would think that was just absolutely insane.”
Along with the success of Record Store Day as a reliable gateway for young vinyl buyers, record stores also point to the ubiquity of download cards that come with new vinyl LPs as a sales driver. The claim makes sense given another aspect of young consumers’ buying habits that stores and labels didn’t anticipate: Recently, London-based ICM Research found that “15 percent of those who buy physical music formats such as CDs, vinyl records, and cassettes never listen to them—they buy them purely to own.”
“Consumers who maybe weren’t analog, record-head types, but still want to support artists they love, were underestimated,” Blandford says. “They want to put something on their shelf that they or their friends can see—a physical signifier of their fandom.”
In the old days, when vinyl was the dominant format, Amoeba’s Weinstein recalls that everyone had an altar to their music in their homes—a stereo, speakers, and LP rack readily visible—and that altar has now come full circle for younger vinyl buyers. “It’s a topic of conversation,” Weinstein says. “You’re showing off what your tastes are as a way of defining what’s important to you.”
But in 2014, the trickiest part for record stores is keeping those LPs in stock. One of the dirty secrets of music retail is that most distributors allow record stores to return unsold CDs—but usually not vinyl. If shop owners buy too much of a particular release, they’ll end up marking it down and then eating the cost. Order too few copies, and stores miss out on sales. Plus, independent record stores are competing with the internet’s infinite warehouse; if a shop runs out of the new War on Drugs record (as many did earlier this year), chances are someone has it online. Once the shop gets the LP back in stock, potential buyers have often moved on. And because of the long lead time at pressing plants, it can sometimes take months, not weeks, for a store to get a new pressing of a record back in stock.
Making vinyl records is more art than science. CDs are duplicated, but an LP is made from scratch with PVC pellets and paper labels in a multi-step process that’s prone to error. When Vince Slusarz, the 57-year-old owner of Cleveland’s Gotta Groove Records, tried to get his presses running in 2009, it took two weeks to press the first LP. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” he admits.
Slusarz didn’t start out thinking he wanted to press records. A former manufacturing executive and corporate attorney, he knew he wanted to start his own business in Cleveland, but he didn’t know what kind. “I’ve always enjoyed music and, in late 2008, I saw my older daughter buying vinyl records,” he says. “That resonated with me.”
Slusarz began looking around for equipment but couldn’t find any. He’d just about given up, but as a last-ditch effort he emailed four pressing plants to see if they had anything for sale. Two didn’t respond. One wasn’t selling. But the fourth — Sun Plastics in Newark, New Jersey—was looking to get out of the business; in fact, the plant had to be out of its space in two months. Slusarz flew to Jersey, made an offer, and in March of 2009 the equipment was loaded onto four flatbed trucks to make the precarious journey to Ohio. (One press was dropped and damaged en route.)
Five years in, vinyl manufacturing is still full of surprises. Gotta Groove operates six presses and is currently restoring another that came from Cleveland’s famed Boddie Recording Company. Though the plant cranks out between 4,000 and 5,000 records a day, there’s no secret formula or process that ensures a perfect record every time. The same settings on the same machines don’t produce the same results as the day before, or even the hour before. Something as simple as a paper label can cause all sorts of problems—the paper has to be baked for about 24 hours to remove any moisture, which can gum up the process.
The learning curve isn’t just on the manufacturing end. Some bands and labels are releasing LPs and 45s for the first time. Sales and marketing man Matt Earley says he gets calls weekly from bands who think vinyl manufacturing involves pressing the music onto a blank vinyl disc like a CD. Or they don’t realize that the music should be mastered specifically for vinyl. Eventually, Earley came up with a special record jacket for test presses that explains the purpose and procedure of test pressings.
In Gotta Groove’s listening room, 33-year-old Tim Thornton drops the needle in several spots on a record to check for inconsistencies, then visually inspects for off-center labels, chipped edges, and color impurities, which is particularly challenging on the current batch of white vinyl he’s working on. Thornton repeats this process every 20 minutes for one pressing.
“We do a disproportionate amount of weird, ambient, sparse music, which has a worse track record for scratches because it doesn’t hide them,” Thornton explains. “If there’s a scratch in the middle of a heavy metal record, the only way you’d know it’s there is to analyze the waveform and find it, but if it’s a guy field recording crickets, you’ll hear it immediately. We’ve got a reputation for doing that thing well, so while we get more business, the records are harder to do.”
Gotta Groove is contemplating adding a third shift to press more records, but even so, the hands-on attention vinyl requires is a built-in hindrance, ensuring that as vinyl continues to grow, the time it takes to produce the final product is fairly static. “You can pay a rush fee for almost anything you want to buy in the world,” Earley says. “But when it comes to vinyl pressing, it just doesn’t work that way. It’s an old-world technology. Not a whole lot has changed in the past 60 years.”
Making vinyl is a labor- and time-intensive endeavor, but much of a record’s lead time is spent waiting in the queue. And though label reps I spoke with are frustrated, they also sympathize with pressing plants. “They’re doing the best they can” is the prevailing mentality.
Any specific complaints that do come up from record stores and labels tend to be lobbed in two directions. United does the highest volume of pressings and is not immune from targeted criticisms, especially when it comes to communication with clients. (United marketing director Jay Millar says the plant’s newly implemented computer system will give customers “more visibility to their orders,” and by the end of the year, the company plans to open a second location in Nashville with 16 additional presses.) The other targets of criticism are the major labels. As the majors repress more and more releases from their back catalogs—not to mention newer releases from top-selling vinyl artists like Beck, Lana Del Rey, and the Black Keys—they’re taking up more and more space on the presses. But while it’s tempting to derisively point to the deluxe, triple-LP edition of the Frozen soundtrack or a 180-gram reissue of Hotel California, blaming it all on the majors is an oversimplification. Everyone is competing with everyone to get their records made and, at this rate, there won’t be enough presses to meet demand for some time, if ever.
Back in the ‘70s, if you wanted to own music, you bought LPs or 45s. In the ’90s, if you wanted to own music, you bought CDs or cassettes. There were no other ways to do it. Now we have options. You can decide not to own music at all but still listen to whatever you want through a variety of streaming services. You can download audio files in MP3, WAV, or FLAC formats. You can buy CDs for your car and also rip the files to your computer. You can buy vinyl. Or all of the above. The decision to purchase LPs now is an aesthetic choice as much, if not more, than a sound preference. As Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson noted in his piece “Does Vinyl Really Sound Better?”, “Listening to an LP involves a lot more than remastering and sound sources. There’s the act of putting a record on, there is the comforting surface noise, there is the fact that LPs are beautiful objects and CDs have always looked like plastic office supplies. So enjoying what an LP has to offer is in no way contingent on convincing yourself that they necessarily sound better than CDs.”
So if it’s less about sound, then vinyl is a badge as much as a format—a way listeners can self-identify as true music fans. And when assessing the current state of vinyl, perhaps the harbinger of its eventual decline or plateau is the durability of that badge status: If enough music fans decide vinyl’s perceived authenticity has been compromised, will it become a hollow gimmick? And if vinyl fatigue sets in, will consumers be satisfied to stream or download? If they still crave something physical, will they revert to CDs? Or cassettes?
“Vinyl was a physical format that defied the baskets of CDs that you’d see at the mall or in record stores, but now you go into Urban Outfitters and there’s a whole wall of vinyl… it’s become co-opted,” says Beeler at Asthmatic Kitty. “It’s something that belonged to the independent music industry for a long time, but it no longer does. It feels like cassettes are now what vinyl was 10 years ago.”
The numbers don’t show cassettes catching on widely just yet, and CDs still outsell vinyl by a hefty margin. But the so-called vinyl resurgence isn’t a brief blip. According to Nielsen’s mid-year report, album sales are down 14.9 percent in the first six months of 2014, but vinyl sales are up 40 percent, to 4 million units. If things continue at the same rate (and they likely will), vinyl sales could reach a record-high 8 million units by year’s end—2 million more than last year. Despite the growing pains that come with high demand and fixed production, the resurgence is still surging.
“There’s clearly a ceiling on this market,” Secretly’s Blandford says. “But we haven’t found it yet.”
Bron: pitchfork 28-07-2014