Have We Reached Peak Vinyl?
Some worry the format's nearly decade-long revival is a bubble about to burst.
Stewart Anderson has had enough. The frontman for noise-pop veterans Boyracer and head of likeminded label 555 Recordings has been releasing music on vinyl since 1991. But the well-documented manufacturing delays that have gone hand in hand with the format’s unlikely resurgence have finally pushed the artist/entrepreneur to the point of wanting to break it off with analog discs.
It’s early June, and Anderson has just heard back from a pressing plant about an order he made — and, he says, paid for in full — last December. The plant’s expected completion date: October 30, a full 10 months after his payment. “Clearly small labels can’t operate with money tied up for that length of time,” Anderson tells me. “I’m going back to doing cassettes and CDs. Everything about vinyl pressing is just awful right now. From poor quality [to] lack of customer service. Not to mention even distributing/selling the darn things!”
After an almost decade-long don’t-call-it-a-comeback, vinyl looks poised for a comeuppance. The capacity limitations troubling Anderson have been covered extensively over the past year. Another focus of criticism and backlash has been the vinyl shoppers’ annual holiday: Record Store Day. Amid growing acknowledgement that vinyl may not sound discernibly better than other formats — just different — the next targets of (self?) mockery have been vinyl enthusiasts themselves; as evidenced, for instance, in a recent New Yorker cartoon, captioned, “The two things that really drew me to vinyl were the expense and the inconvenience.” See, it’s funny because … well, you know.
Vinyl’s rebound has lasted long enough to raise questions about how much further it can go. The pace of growth remains remarkable. After bottoming out at less than 1 million copies in 2005, sales of new vinyl albums soared to 9.2 million copies last year, according to Nielsen Music. And yet vinyl still makes up only a small niche: 4.5% of the overall U.S. album market last year, according to the Recording Industry Association Of America. Prices, meanwhile, have been climbing: The average vinyl LP grossed $23.84 last year in current dollars, based on RIAA data, up almost 40% from an inflation-adjusted $17.20 in 2005. Let’s see: rapid sales increases. Rising prices. All for a product geared at a relatively small segment of consumers who will pay for a commodity, music, that’s generally available for less — or even, legally, for free — in other formats. It doesn’t take an economics whiz to see the makings of a potential market bubble. If it pops, some indie labels, stores, and artists who helped foster the format during in its lean years worry they could be collateral damage.
For the darkest possible harbinger of vinyl’s future, one need look no further than the bargain CDs currently cluttering thrift shops and used music stores. “The vinyl revival is brought to you by the same industry that wanted everyone to buy their record collections AGAIN on cd/tape,” wrote Kip Berman, singer/guitarist for the indie pop band the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, in a recent series of tweets. “I can’t justify spending $25-$30 on a new record when I can just stream it free. Spotify isn’t killing artists, vinyl fetishism is.”
Is it any wonder that” indie” music has an audience of upper middle class consumers when its most prized artifact costs $30 more than free?
— Kip (@KipBerman) May 4, 2015
Asked to explain, Berman acknowledges his views are more nuanced than the 140-character format might imply, but he maintains that, essentially, vinyl’s revival is mainly down to labels pitching LPs as somehow “more legitimate” — much as they did with CDs — so people will spend more money on music they already own. “‘Man, if you have Flaming Lips’ Clouds Taste Metallic on your iTunes, you’re not really experiencing the double gatefold beauty, analog warmth, 180g quality, yada yada yada experience,'” Berman tells me, parodying what he sees as an element of the industry’s vinyl strategy. “‘So please can you give us $30 to listen to the same songs you already have?’ But yeah, I sometimes do that. And I hope Wayne Coyne appreciates it.”
Other signs the vinyl market might be overheating aren’t hard to spot. A Kickstarter-funded service called VNYL emerged late last year, billing itself as “Netflix for vinyl” (it has thus far been a fairly spectacular distaster). The lavish deluxe-edition packaging of rakish singer/songwriter Father John Misty’s 2014 album, I Love You, Honeybear, actually warped the vinyl within, illustrating how buyer-enticing extravagances can go too far. The boost in sales from certain reissues, such as Led Zeppelin’s recently repressed discography, can only happen so many times — once, presumably, though never underestimate the record industry. From a retail standpoint, the largest brick-and-mortar U.S. vinyl seller is now trend-chasing Urban Outfitters, according to Billboard. And the selection of records being pressed has followed suit, from a “dilophosaurus”-colored Jurassic Park soundtrack LP to a black-and-yellow plaid Clueless soundtrack LP. “All About That Bass” singer Meghan Trainor has been selling $30 turquoise picture vinyl. (No treble? “Reproducing bass on vinyl is a serious engineering challenge,” wrote Pitchfork in 2013.) Independent music store chain Amoeba Records recently posted about the most expensive record it has ever had for sale. A vertical vinyl turntable just completed a $57,000 Kickstarter campaign.
Some smaller indie labels and emerging artists are already experiencing a negative side of the vinyl revival. On May 19, Joanna Gruesome released their sweet-toothed fuzz bomb of a sophomore album, the endearing Peanut Butter, via venerable Oakland, California-based label Slumberland Records (which has released music by Boyracer and Berman’s Pains, among others). The world, though, would have to wait a while to slap Peanut Butter on its turntables. The vinyl was delayed by at least several weeks.
Joanna Gruesome’s vinyl problems aren’t unusual. As Noisey pointed out, modestly scaled artists and labels are seeing turnaround times for records grow longer and longer. It creates problems when it comes to coordinating tour dates and other promotion. “It’s really frustrating for labels like mine,” Slumberland founder Michael Schulman explains. “The reality is we might only have two titles a year that have that kind of energy behind them. I love all the records of course, but most of them aren’t going to quite claim that amount of headspace with people, and to have one of those titles fall into this product trap, it’s a huge problem for me. This is going to impact the label for the next six or eight months.”
Schulman says labels like Slumberland “definitely” aren’t benefiting as much from vinyl’s renewed prominence as people might think. “I’m not personally seeing sales go up,” he tells me. Retailers are overwhelmed, he observes, and because unlike with CDs, they can’t return unsold vinyl, they have to be risk-averse and stock up only on releases that will obviously sell. There are hardly any distributors left, and the ones that remain are so busy they can only really push so many titles to the stores. Direct sales are up, but that’s more work.
What happened to vinyl during its dark ages, in other words, is still casting a long shadow — and beyond just the lack of enough vinyl presses. “Yeah, there’s people buying records, but the whole ecosystem is just kind of fucked up,” Schulman tells me with a laugh.
Trev McCabe, who owns London label Odd Box Records, tells a similar tale. “When I first pressed a 7″ record in 2007, it took four weeks from start to finish if everything went smoothly,” he tells me. Over the past few years, he has had to wait as long as nearly six months for a batch of 7″s. Fewer suppliers offer runs as small as the 100- or 500-copy editions that are his label’s specialty.
The delays also mean fielding questions from people who pre-ordered the records, and wonder, understandably, where they are. If the hassle and uncertainty leads them not to pre-order again next time, that affects a shoestring label’s finances. McCabe says that “pressing a record has gone from being something that you could fairly reliably plan to it being total guess work” for the label “and a major inconvenience for the bands.”
If vinyl is inherently a niche item, then some of the labels most representative of that spirit — the do-it-yourselfers expecting only limited appeal — are also the ones feeling pains as the niche grows.
Unease about the state of vinyl can also be found among individual record stores. For instance, let’s say you’re in Athens, Georgia, and you heard about the fantastic new album by Australia’s Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit. Mike Turner, who manages the downtown area’s Wuxtry Records (and runs the HHBTM label), tells me he ordered 25 copies of the Barnett LP in advance. After an avalanche of positive reviews, he was able to get 10 more. After that, the record — released on March 24 via Mom+Pop Music — was out of print, says Turner, who estimates he could’ve sold 100 copies if they’d been available.
There’s this other world of vinyl being made for the passer-by, the vinyl tourist … The bubble’s definitely going to pop.
Vinyl delays for Björk and D’Angelo also cost the store sales, Turner figures. “There’s only so many times you can get that person walking in, ‘Do you have any Courtney Barnett? Do you have any D’Angelo?'” he says. “It makes a difference.”
Turner rattles of a long list of concerns. Labels keep raising the prices for vinyl, which leaves stores with less room for markup. Big chains can afford to sell records for less than mom-and-pop outfits, though their employees lack the knowledge of record store clerks. The presses are getting bogged down with novelty items instead of actual new music. “There’s this other world of vinyl being made for the passer-by, the vinyl tourist,” Turner observes. He has seen vinyl quality control suffer, with an increase in defective records arriving in the store. Major labels are missing opportunities to press vinyl editions of high-profile albums such as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, and bootleggers have wasted no time filling the void. As a label head, Turner has watched record-manufacturing delays force bands to cancel tours; from the moment a band turns in an album, he expects another four to five months before they’ll have it on vinyl. “The bubble’s definitely going to pop.”
Such generalized vinyl discontent coalesced earlier this year around the eighth annual Record Store Day. The U.K. wing of the event prompted British labels Sonic Cathedral and Howling Owl to protest with a manifesto of sorts titled “Record Store Day Is Dying.” Cleveland store Blue Arrow withdrew from the annual festivities, as owner Pete Gulyas recounted a horror story about failing to receive the previous year’s shipment of exclusive releases as promised. Pitchfork’s Eric Harvey wrote an essay exploring his fundamental “ambivalence” about Record Store Day despite how passionate he is about record stores. Mike Sniper, whose Brooklyn label Captured Tracks didn’t participate in this year’s celebration, likes to compare the day’s various limited-edition vinyl specials to “Beanie Babies, Pogs, or Pokemon.”
Record Store Day 2015 was a flashpoint for vinyl angst. But it also indicated how strong the format remains overall, defying insider detractions. As Billboard reports, some retailers said this year’s event was their biggest sales day ever; indie stores tracked by Nielsen posted a 12-year sales high. If this is dying, imagine what living must look like.
Record Store Day bills itself as format-agnostic, meaning it embraces all physical media, not just vinyl. In fact, this year’s best-seller was a cassette. Carrie Colliton, a U.S. co-founder of the event, hears the naysayers. “The very first Record Store Day that we aren’t up by 20%, I can see the headlines,” she tells me. “The first year that vinyl sales dip at all or even plateau, I can see it.” But she firmly maintains that, while all things must pass and the future of technology is unknowable, the growing fascination with vinyl is no mere fad. She remembers making the giant fuzzy letters that called out the vinyl section when she worked for a store in North Carolina that moved locations in the ’90s, when vinyl was out of the spotlight, and she says most of the record stores she knows of still stocked vinyl all through the format’s less-ballyhooed years. “There’s going to be people who, once it’s not cool, are going to go out and sell their record collections, which probably aren’t that big, and that’s fine,” she says. “They are probably passionate about something else that I don’t care that much about. The idea of it being just hype is wrong.”
Vinyl’s ongoing sales surge isn’t limited to Record Store Day. Through the first six months of the year, sales of vinyl albums were up 38% over the same period of 2014, to 5.6 million units, according to Nielsen. Vinyl sales now make up almost 9% of physical album sales. Nielsen analyst David Bakula tells me, “I don’t see any end in sight here.”
Smaller indie labels may not be benefiting from renewed interest in vinyl, but indies in general are. While the Beatles’ Abbey Road tops a recent Nielsen list of the best-selling vinyl albums since 2010, the next four LPs are all nominally indie: Mumford & Sons’ Sigh No More (via the Universal-distributed Glassnote label), Bon Iver’s For Emma Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar), Jack White’s Lazaretto (Third Man), and Arctic Monkeys’ AM (Domino). Another of the top 10, the Black Keys’ Brothers, is by a band that records for an indie-like Warner subsidiary, Nonesuch Records, and formerly of the indies Epitaph and Fat Possum.
“We’re bullish on vinyl,” Rich Bengloff, president of the American Association Of Independent Music (A2IM), which represents many well-known indie labels, tells me. “It will keep growing.”
Nor has confidence waned yet at vinyl sales heavyweight Third Man. “People keep talking about it leveling off and I disagree,” says Ben Swank, a co-founder of the label with White. “It’s put forward in a way that [vinyl] is just this gimmicky thing that the labels are pushing, but labels are just reacting to what people want now. Talk about it leveling off is going into it with the attitude that it was just a fad to begin with. And it doesn’t seem that way to me. It’s a fad that’s been around for over 100 years.”
For independent record stores, too, the relevant business group is solidly optimistic. Michael Kurtz, a Record Store Day co-founder who runs the Department Of Record Stores, which represents small indie regional chains in Canada and the United States that together run about 100 stores, points to the Sound Garden, which recently built a major addition to its Baltimore store. Based on such investments, Kurtz says, he envisions vinyl’s growth continuing “at least five years.” He tells me, “The people who talk about it being a fad are the people who are out of touch.” He also questions the idea that stores’ markups are dwindling, saying it depends on the records.
More surprisingly, perhaps, the same people who champion independent record stores say they’re not fazed by corporate interlopers such as Urban Outfitters and Amazon. “The more people who sell physical music the better,” Kurtz says. “I wish everybody would get into it. It would make the music industry stronger.” Fellow Record Store Day co-founder Colliton says, “We love the idea of physical media existing in as many places as want to sell it.” She adds that even if retailers such as Hot Topic or Urban Outfitters eventually ditch the format, she suspects some of their customers will keep buying records. “There’s still going to be a section of those kids who will come to the physical format and never leave it.”
It’s a matter of supply and demand, and the problem is too much demand.
On May 20, the indie label group A2IM announced Record Store Day and the Department Of Record Store Days would be organizing “Vinyl Tuesdays.” This weekly event will offer several types of vinyl releases. As with Record Store Day itself, the event encountered criticism on social media, specifically around a “bubble” or further manufacturing delays, to the point that Record Store Day’s Twitter account offered a slightly peevish three-tweet response: “What it is: a day of the week when physical musical releases will be released at record stores. Some exclusive, some not … What it is: a day during the week you can go check out what might be hitting the racks at your local record store … What it isn’t: A weekly Record Store Day. Or some of the other things some people who never bothered to ask us say it is.” It’s perhaps no coincidence the event comes as the recording industry moves to a Friday global release day, a shift that U.S. indie labels and stores unsuccessfully opposed.
Turntable sales are down from where they were before the vinyl boom, but that’s a bit misleading. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, manufacturers sold 69,000 turntables to dealers last year at an average unit price of $139, compared with 138,000 in 2005 and 2.1 million when tracking began in 1980. But that doesn’t include used decks, and it follows a shift away from turntables among professional DJs, not just home listeners. “Really, the non-sarcastic answer I would give is that any sales are remarkable, considering where they were,” says Sean Murphy, an analyst with the trade group, when I ask him about the numbers. “Are we going to be talking about this in a couple of years? Absolutely. In 10 years? Who knows.”
Vinyl right now is at a point of multiple paradoxes. One of the biggest involves the manufacturing side. For all the headaches caused by pressing delays, the backup at the plants is a sign there’s demand for more records, not fewer. It’s a matter of supply and demand, and the problem is too much demand. While that isn’t economically ideal, it’s surely better than the alternative.
And slowly but surely, more supply is coming online, just as the textbooks say it should. Nashville’s United Record Pressing, which announced in January it could no longer take new customers, plans to open a second plant any time now. Indie-label stalwart Fat Possum Records last year opened up its own Memphis Record Pressing in Tennessee. New vinyl plants are opening in Vermont and Oregon; New York’s own new Brooklyn Vinyl Works recently launched a Kickstarter funding campaign. And given the considerable expense required to buy, refurbish, and run vintage vinyl presses — a plant’s worth of record manufacturing equipment in Zimbabwe was listed on eBay earlier this year for the equivalent of about $250,000 — none of these manufacturers are making short-term investments. (Building new vinyl presses would so far be prohibitively expensive. UPDATE: Or maybe not so prohibitive: San Francisco-based independent vinyl manufacturer Pirates Press and Czech-based GZ Media tell me they’ve built “several” new — not refurbished — vinyl presses.)
Robert Roczynski, who runs Record Products For America, Inc., one of the last remaining suppliers for the vinyl pressing industry, tells me the manufacturers he hears from expect the vinyl wave to keep up for at least 10 to 15 years. “That’s a good call,” he says. “It’s possible. But I don’t think anyone knows for sure.”
United, which pressed the biggest-selling vinyl album of 2014 in White’s Lazaretto, anticipates going from one building housing 28 presses to two buildings totaling 44 presses after its imminent expansion. “It’s definitely a calculated move in seeing that things would continue to grow,” United Marketing Director Jay Millar told me. “It’s just a question of how long. Realistically I don’t see it going down. Worst-case scenario at this point would be a plateauing. Even if it plateaued, I think it would still be viable, though.”
Millar compares the future of vinyl to the current state of the film industry. “Vinyl’s not the most convenient thing, and neither is going to the movies,” he says. “But people still love it because they can experience the medium more. It’s just going to then be based on the quality of the music.”
In the recent FACT piece on vinyl, the German electronic musician and City Centre Offices label owner Thaddeus Herrmann warned, “One of the steps in the production process will fail eventually.” Millar calls such concerns “overblown.” He says it doesn’t make any sense to complain about, on one hand, a lack of companies that produce lacquers — an essential in the early phase of vinyl production — while also criticizing the resurgence that has provided the remaining lacquer makers with business. If the lacquer companies did go out of business, Millar adds, pressing plants would find other ways. That might involve new companies stepping into fill the void, as happened when Kodak got out of the photography business, or it might involve the alternate technique known as direct metal mastering. In any event, he says, the presses aren’t as complex as they might seem.
“While they are finicky, and they have personalities, and it’s a very delicate thing, there’s so many analogies that can be drawn to a classic car,” Millar, who since our interview has left United to join reissue-oriented indie label Sundazed Music, explains. “Or the more dramatic analogy would be looking at all the ’57 Chevys in Cuba that are still running today, despite the fact that those parts aren’t made anywhere. It’s just that they’re relatively simple machines, and as long as there are machinists, these machines can be maintained.”
Another of vinyl’s current paradoxes is between the yuppie elitists of the New Yorker cartoon and the broader public represented by Trainor picture discs and the idea of the “vinyl tourist.” Are these really the same people? Or is it possible that the vast majority of citizens, who don’t buy vinyl, can enjoy dismissing those who do as silly hipsters — while at the same time longtime vinyl connoisseurs are bristling, as in other areas of American life, at moneyed newcomers who don’t share their taste? It’s strange to think it was only five years ago that Seth Meyers made a Record Store Day joke on Saturday Night Live about how there are no record stores anymore. Now the joke seems to be that records are back and my, aren’t those trendies who buy them silly? Neither portrayal fully captures reality.
Between vinyl buzz and vinyl buzzkilling, an appealingly unassuming view comes from Captured Tracks’ Sniper, who also owns Brooklyn’s Captured Tracks Shop. Though critical of Record Store Day, saying that “it could be so much better,” he’s moderately upbeat about vinyl, predicting that sales growth will slow as labels run out of classic-rock basics to reissue, though not plateau. As he sees it, pessimists who watched vinyl sales tank the first time, then endured the CD’s boom and bust, are “prepping for the total abandonment of physical media.” He adds, “I think people have already made that choice, whether or not to buy at all, and younger people will continue that.”
Sniper questions whether the size of vinyl’s comeback might be overstated, considering how many small-label sales may have gone unreported to the data trackers in the past — a point that by its nature is difficult to confirm, but is logical considering some cassette sales continue to fall through the cracks. When I ask whether a younger population moving to dorms or small apartments will have space to keep their LPs, he points out that records only come 12 inches off the wall — they don’t take up that much space. “I’ve had very small apartments with large record collections without seeming like hoarder,” he says. He warns that expensive, limited-edition reissues could prompt “buyer’s remorse” if they turn up used for much cheaper in a couple of years, but he’s not alarmed about vinyl’s future more generally.
“It’s still not a common thing and it’s not going to be a common thing,” Sniper tells me. “There’s always going to be music maniacs who are going to buy vinyl. It’s not going away. The community is so strong in terms of archiving and collection that it’s a niche, but it’s a large niche. If you’re super interested in music, more likely than not you’re going to have a vinyl collection.”
Hannah Silk Champagne, a project manager at Captured Tracks, says labels like theirs have been releasing vinyl since before it was a growth industry, and “we’ll all still keep doing it after the major labels see that making 100,000 picture discs isn’t going to be profitable for them.”
Those younger listeners Sniper mentions will be the key. As Sean Forbes, of London’s famous Rough Trade shop, sees it, the current 14- to 18-year-olds might be the final age cohort of vinyl buyers. “It’s now gone to a generation who, the young people only either steal music off the Internet or they buy an LP,” he tells me. “I think they might be the last generation that do that, because the ones after might not even care at all. There’s loads of friends of mine’s kids, they don’t care about owning anything. They’ve got the music on their phones, and that’s all they want. I don’t think there’s much more growth. The growth will have to come from new people rather than old people.”
Elizabeth Morris of London indie-pop band Allo Darlin’ tells me, “In reality I don’t know where this is going, but I do know that students I teach who are the generation younger than me have never paid for music and find that idea really bizarre.”
Cassettes and CDs are another physical option for smaller indie labels and artists. While the tape revival is real — and a future CD revival has been posited almost as long — both options are currently akin to a Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley to vinyl’s Hillary Clinton. Anderson’s 555 Recordings aside, examples are relatively sparse so far of labels ditching vinyl altogether lately; Sonic Cathedral and Howling Owl, the two U.K. labels that protested Record Store Day, still release vinyl. More common may be the mixed feelings of the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s Berman. “Vinyl isn’t going to change the world, it’s going to make a bunch of mostly privileged music nerds feel great about their John Cale and Margo Guryan fandom and keep indie bands that are struggling to break even on tour have a few extra bucks to put in the gas tank,” Berman says. “Or at least, that’s what it does for me.”
A foundational paradox of the vinyl resurgence is the idea that the inconvenience and expense of records really are a part of the appeal. At a time of instant access to plenitude, some of us relish the ritual of concentrating on a record chosen from a finite collection; the once-obsolete LP has grown curiously more relevant, not less, as it has become one option in many rather than a zero-sum competitor to the cassette or CD. And that’s not limited to vinyl. As the The New York Times reports, small bookstores are doing surprisingly well in this era of the Kindle and iPad; the American Booksellers Association tallied almost 2,100 member stores in 2014, up from 1,650 in 2009. Friends have told me they’re enjoying learning how to cook Chinese food at home rather than order takeout. “A big component of the vinyl trend is the same thing that’s part of the resurgence of bookstores, and even a part of the growing interest in cooking your own food — people like to disconnect from the digital world,” Record Store Day’s Colliton tells me.
The history of the record industry underscores that music sales are difficult to separate from broader socioeconomic forces. The Great Depression tanked record sales. The drop-off in CD sales after the industry’s 1999 peak coincided not only with Napster but an early-2000s U.S. recession; meanwhile, real wages for Americans on average have barely budged in decades. To a degree, the fate of the current vinyl boom is inextricable from what happens to the broader economy. Music matters, too: The baseball card boom in the late ’80s and early ’90s, to cite another famous trend of speculation over artificially scarce items with arguable inherent monetary value, ended with the 1994 Major League Baseball players’ strike. Notably, the most prized items, such as the famous T206 Honus Wagner, continued to surge in price for years after the crash. The closest recorded-music equivalent might be the type of ultra-rare 78s chronicled in Amanda Petrusich’s 2014 book Do Not Sell At Any Price. Vinyl may not have yet reached its peak. Could shellac be the new vinyl?