The recent resurgence in vinyl production has been great news for indie labels and fans, but there are signs that there might be trouble in vinyl paradise…
A recent think piece on The Guardian laid bare the issues faced by small labels, as the greed of the majors starts to bite back. Leading in some cases to production queues not seen since the peak of the pandemic, as well as rising costs that make it significantly less affordable to do the kind of small production runs that helped to kickstart the resurgence in the first place.
A staggering 5.5m vinyl records were bought in the UK alone in 2022; rising to 41m worldwide and dwarfing the number of CDs sold over the same period (33 million).
It all points to a permanent return for a format that had been all but rendered obsolete by streaming trends and the closure of most of the world’s major pressing plants.
So why does it still cost so much to press a record?
‘The Holy Grail’
There’s no doubt that for many artists, having their work pressed to vinyl remains a holy grail – not just in terms of visual presentation, but also as an audiophile experience.
For Belgian artist, Zer0 れい, vinyl is still the medium of choice for a number of reasons.
“There’s this delightful ritual and care that’s taken when listening to a record. In stark contrast to the mundanity of pressing play on a playlist or the practical simplicity of popping a tape in, you take real care and focus to drop a needle onto a vinyl record.
“It’s the ‘real deal’ format that makes a musician an undeniable part of the craft; part of a lineage that goes back decades and gives them that rightful spot in the listeners record collection alongside their heroes and inspirations.”
However, despite the rise in worldwide vinyl sales there are signs that smaller labels are feeling the pinch – and that might not be a good thing for everyone.
With an audience now firmly established and a new generation of collectors hooked, it seems that the artists and labels that helped to kickstart the revival are starting to find themselves (at least partially) frozen out.
Or, at the very least, facing significant challenges to maintain a foothold in vinyl.
‘Harder for smaller artists to break through’
We spoke to the Dutch Vaporwave legend, Catsystemcorp who owns and runs Hiraeth Records. He argues that for a number of reasons, mainly economic, it’s no longer possible to make some smaller runs viable.
As he points out, spiralling costs are decimating profit margins with a knock-on effect on the kind of albums he can release on his label.
“It’s almost impossible to compare the current state of vinyl to pre-Covid times.
“Costs have risen so much that it’s got to a point where it’s much harder to justify smaller projects from an economic point of view. That’s also sad from an artistic viewpoint and makes it much harder for new artists to break through.
“This is still very much a DIY industry at our level, and we don’t have the resources to put into marketing, especially on top of how much it now costs to press records.
“It’s not ideal for anyone to have lots of stock sitting around that won’t sell. I would love to release everything I like, but I have to be realistic and fair to the artists.”
It points to a wider issue in the Vaporwave scene – and other micro genres – that as choice and competition expands, it gets harder to make the profits that will enable you to reinvest in new projects.
Especially when you can’t always afford to cut your prices to be more competitive.
“There’s a level of saturation in the Vaporwave scene now and that’s good for the fans because the choice is there, but with the price of vinyl production now so much higher you end up having to turn down projects that you would love to do simply because you can’t make the numbers work.
“There are pressing plants out there which are expanding their capacity, but because no-one can say for certain how sustainable the demand for vinyl is, it’s not leading to a reduction in costs – despite major labels ramping up their own production”.
For Stratford Court owner, Andrew Walker, these cost pressures have driven him to be as creative as possible with packaging and aesthetically pleasing vinyl variants.
“Rising costs are definitely an issue. With inflation on the rise and most of the economy hurting it’s becoming harder for the majority of our customers to afford a vinyl buying habit.
“I find the need to make the vinyl offering more and more desirable, with new effects and extra bells and whistles, which at the same time increases the price of the final product.
“It’s never a guarantee, but usually if I have a finished product where I think… damn that’s nice… it does end up selling well.”
‘Record levels of production – and yet record costs!’
My own anecdotal experience with MPF and TimeSlave confirms this.
A quick look at some of our early invoices for vinyl production back in 2018 (when we did our first vinyl runs on TimeSlave Recordings) shows that costs have risen by more than 60% since we started pressing records; and like most labels we’ve had to hold prices at the same level in order to retain customers who are now spoiled for choice; even in a scene as niche as Vaporwave or Synthwave.
Don’t get me wrong, choice is a great thing. As is the availability of mainstream albums on vinyl, not least because it’s often those releases that keep people committed to records as an everyday format of choice.
But it’s not only production costs. The pandemic also drove up international shipping costs, which have never returned to pre-pandemic levels, and as the fashion for vinyl has continued to outstrip the emergence of new capacity in the industry to make and press the records themselves, queues for vinyl are in some cases as long as ever.
It’s a heady cocktail, not helped by the much-memed Adele release (30) in 2020, which allegedly saw 500,000 copies pressed, with production capacity at many pressing plants completely halted to meet Sony Music’s gargantuan order.
[Note: you can now pick up a copy of that particular record for a bargain bin price of around £12.00 online!]
And yet despite the rise in demand, costs show no sign of falling as a consequence.
‘Huge upfront costs’
For our part, we’ve always tried to limit pre-orders on the basic principle that it’s preferable for everyone involved to have items in hand when they go on sale. But there are huge upfront costs involved doing it this way.
It reduces waits for customers, minimises the likelihood of stress caused by unforeseen delays, and enables customers to retain the insurance policy of PayPal’s ‘Buyer Protection’ programme.
Recently though, we’ve seen that system bite us on the arse in a big way because of problems with one supplier.
Having invested in six vinyl projects upfront, committing around £20,000 in production costs, we faced sudden, unexplained delays with one broker (no names named) that we have used for around 100 releases.
We were given shipping dates for the first two of those projects, only to be told at the last minute that there was a slight delay.
In good faith, and with a history of trusted interactions behind us, we put two of those records on sale – New Arcades (Leave Something Behind) and Vincenzo Salvia (They Speak Italian) – only to see a short delay become several months of stress and anguish.
Fortunately for us, the first of those has now shipped, with the remainder of that batch of orders now heading in the same direction. But it does call into sharp focus what could have happened if we had engaged in a ‘traditional’ pre order and placed those albums on sale at the very start of the process…
It’s easy to see how a three-month delay could have become six or seven months of panic.
It does rather beg the question, what the fuck is happening in the supply chain to cause all these issues? And how can the issue be fixed?
One pressing plant has been set up, in part at least, to help smaller labels to overcome the challenge.
Enter, stage left, Press on Vinyl – a UK plant dedicated to supporting small labels, with a monthly capacity of around 50,000 copies a month.
David Todd, Commercial Director at Press on Vinyl, says the aim of the plant is to “help as many artists get their records in the hands of their fans as possible”.
“We started Press on Vinyl to help artists and labels of all sizes to gain fair access to pressing capacity at the highest quality standards.
“It is important to us to treat a run of 100 for an emerging independent artist exactly the same as we would an established artist doing 10,000 copies”.
In order to make that process easier for smaller labels, they’ve set up ‘Fairsound’, an initiative which offers zero upfront cost pressing and direct-to-fan fulfilment.
“We believe this helps break down the financial barriers some artists face when releasing their music on vinyl”.
Their stated focus on working smaller labels and artists opens up opportunities for labels like us, tired of being treated as less of a priority.
They also offer competitive rates – as well as the ability to make decisions on the quantity of records being pressed later in the process; something that may help smaller projects get off the ground.
So, how do these issues affect us at MPF or TimeSlave?
In the short term at least, the issues with delays that we have faced are going to lead to a slight change in the way we deal with vinyl releases in order to recover a slightly precarious position.
Working with a couple of trusted partners, including Press on Vinyl and DMS, we are going to be taking production through to cutting and test presses, as well as signing off the artwork side of things before having a short weekend of open pre-orders – with the main run then arriving within 4 to 6 weeks of items going on sale.
If you’re wondering why I’m laying it all bare in such minute detail, it’s simply because a lot of people don’t understand quite how long and involved the process is. Whereas cassettes, CDs and MiniDiscs can be turned around in a week or two, vinyl lead times are often as much as four to five months long.
Our short-term strategy will enable us to reduce the funds we have to commit upfront, whilst ordering enough stock to satisfy demand, with the only compromise on the customer being a short wait of around a month until items are ready to ship.
It also means that we can continue to support smaller projects from an artistic perspective, without having to over-commit to stock that sits on shelves for months on end simply so that we can access reasonable prices. It’s our solution, but it might not work for everyone.
In the meantime, we can only hope that more new pressing plants will continue to be established with a focus on the independent labels and artists that helped to foster growth in the first place.
It’s all good and well having so much mainstream interest in vinyl production, but in an ideal world an expansion in demand as well as capacity would lead to falling costs for everyone – from the labels to the consumers.
Making it an affordable hobby is the way to future-proof demand for vinyl, and at the moment that simply isn’t the case; with a standard black pressing of mainstream releases costing as much as £30 in the shops – despite the high quantities available.
As John Harris argued in his piece for The Guardian, the mainstream music business ought to be committing its resources to opening its own factories. Only then, will we see some kind of balance restored to an industry that seems “as addicted as ever to short-term windfalls and a grim cycle of boom and bust”.
And no, we’re not only looking at you Adele 😉
Written by Enzo Van Baelen