Urgent issues: vinyl revival hampered by production capacity, Brexit and more | Vinyl
The second Record Store Day (RSD) of 2021 arrives Saturday, following an event on June 12. A host of special edition records will be distributed among some 200 independent stores across the UK, and the event will generate much-needed revenue after more than a year without live music and frequently closed stores. There is, however, an accelerating crisis behind the scenes. The UK’s BPI recorded 4.8 million vinyl record sales in 2020, the format’s 13th consecutive year of growth, but the ‘vinyl revival’ of recent years is now under threat.
Vinyl pressing factories are struggling to keep up with demand, and well-funded labels are trying to skip the line. There is a global PVC shortage and Brexit brings its own problems. Jeff Bell of Partisan Records – home to Idles, Laura Marling and Fontaines DC – describes the scale of the problem: “The global demand for vinyl is two to three times greater than the supply.
Karen Emanuel, managing director of the Key Production Group manufacturing company, which runs the pressing factories on behalf of labels, says vinyl manufacturing times are getting longer. When she first started in the business over 30 years ago, it typically took three weeks to produce and ship vinyl albums, and as little as 48 hours for singles. Four years ago this process took three months and no one thought it could get worse. “Most factories are now running for six months,” she sighs.
According to Drew Hill, head of Proper Music Distribution, which provides sales, marketing and distribution services to labels and artists, delivery times can be double that of special releases, such as limited edition records that bettors wait on RSD. As RSD records must first be submitted to its organizers for approval, he reports that labels are urged to reserve in their RSD releases for next year now. “Things are going to have to change in the way we promote, market and sell records,” he says.
Many versions of RSD use eye-catching colored vinyl, but “it’s much slower than black vinyl. [to make] because the machines have to be cleaned with each color change, ”explains Emanuel. And as with toilet paper rolls and pasta in the early stages of the pandemic, there is now vinyl “panic buying” by labels. “Everyone is doubling or tripling their orders so they don’t run out of stock,” says Bell. “It congests the pipeline. “
There are other components to the crisis. The first is the small number of active factories, a problem inherited from the 1990s, when many labels withdrew from vinyl production. As baling factories closed or rationalized, experienced staff left the industry and a recruitment delay means there aren’t enough qualified people for everyone. “These are skilled operators that need to be brought in,” says Bell. “[Vinyl production] is a profession and a science, a set of specialized skills.
While major labels have joined the vinyl gold rush over the past decade, they initially focused on re-releasing classic albums, but now they are also putting out new releases on vinyl to help increase sales. positions in the charts. Successful recordings of acts such as The Killers, Haim and the 1975, which were initially delayed in the early stages of the pandemic, contributed to a blockage. Some factories remain reluctant to make the huge investment required to add new presses and warehouses, fearing this current boom may prove temporary. “This is something that a lot of companies are unwilling to do until they know that this dynamic of supply and demand is going to continue for many years to come,” Bell said.
Social distancing means factories have had to reduce the number of employees on production lines. And the irony is that fans, keen to support struggling acts during the pandemic, have bought more records, exacerbating production complications which are also made worse by the shortage of PVC, the raw material for vinyl records. “The construction industry, the auto industry, everywhere has a problem with a PVC shortage,” Emanuel explains.
Artists such as rising jazz star Emma-Jean Thackray and at least one prominent pop star, according to a source at their label, have all recently postponed album releases due to production issues. Stories abound of labels offering big orders but demanding to skip the line. An anonymous label source, when asked about it, replies, “I would like to say it isn’t …” leaving the rest of the sentence hanging. They add, however, that some factories refuse to bow down.
Brexit has caused complications with orders returning to the UK after they were rushed in mainland Europe, with Emanuel telling horror stories of “things that just disappeared in transit”. She adds that post-Brexit VAT is the real hidden threat for many UK labels. If they are registered for VAT at home but, say, they put pressure in Germany and use distributors in France, they are “hit by a VAT which they would not have been touched before”, when the Kingdom -Uni was in a VAT union with the rest of the EU.
Everyone agrees that over-demand is an interesting problem, because it shows that people, especially young consumers, want to buy physical products. But even new factories ready to take the gamble could take a year or more to become fully operational. Factories switching to injection molding may speed up production slightly, but by then vinyl sales – so critical to graphics performance and artist earnings – will be severely compromised.
“We’re going to see an increase in split-format releases where an album is released digitally, but physically won’t be available for months,” Bell said. The tactic has seen artists like Taylor Swift and Bring Me the Horizon return to the top of the charts when their vinyl editions become available, but Bell says less famous musicians will be the ones left out of the vinyl renaissance. “This will slow down the first sales which gave a boost to young artists,” he says.