Wax and Wane: The Tough Realities Behind Vinyl’s Comeback



If we’re talking about vinyl in 2014, we have to talk about Jack White. In April, rock‘n’roll’s self-appointed analog evangelist celebrated Record Store Day by teaming up with United Record Pressing in Nashville to put out the“World’s Fastest Released Record.” At 10 a.m., White and his band recorded a live version of his new album Lazaretto’s title track at his own Third Manstudios, then drove the masters to United, where it went immediately onto a 7” press, before ending up in fans’ hands at the Third Man store. From start to finish, the process took 3 hours, 55 minutes, and 21 seconds.

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-candyincluding 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, andPalomino 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 imprintsSecretly CanadianJagjaguwar, 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 Musicstores, 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.


Contnue reading at…



The coolest record stores in the UK



The coolest record stores in Britain

Spotify and Pandora may be booming, but you can’t beat the atmosphere of an independent music store. Ben Travis picks Britain’s best

Sound It Out, Stockton upon Tees Photo: Tom Butchart

Despite Spotify, Deezer and the like offering free streamed music, vinyl is back in fashion, with sales in 2013 reaching a fifteen-year high. Where better to buy old-style records than one of these community-driven cultural institutions?

1. Rough Trade East – London
Dray Walk, Brick Lane, E1; roughtrade.com

Photo: Kathy deWitt / Alamy
The daddy of UK record shops. London’s Rough Trade East, which opened in 2007, may be the younger brother of Rough Trade West, but is also one of the biggest independents in the country. The store sells predominantly new stock of vinyl and CDs, racked up across a huge 5,000 square-feet, and has a handy cafe at the front. Rough Trade is more than just a shop – it’s also one of the most influential labels in the UK, and has put out influential records by The Smiths, The Fall, The Strokes, Arcade FireBelle & Sebastian and more. Rough Trade East also plays host to in-store gigs, film screenings, and talks on film, music and literature.

2. The Music Exchange – Nottingham
Stoney Street, Hockley; themusicexchange.org.uk

Photo: Mark Richardson / Alamy
The Music Exchange is more than just a music store – it’s also a social enterprise, and works with homelessness charity Framework to offer vulnerable people the opportunity to gain retail experience by volunteering behind the counter. Since opening in 2009, The Music Exchange has evolved from a tiny second-hand music shop in Nottingham’s West End Arcade to a bustling outlet in the trendy area of Hockley. The shop has gone some way to filling the void left when Nottingham’s legendary Selectadisc closed.


3. Probe Records – Liverpool
The Bluecoat, School Lane; probe-records.com

Photo: The Bluecoat

In a city with such a fine musical pedigree as Liverpool, it takes a lot to stand out. Though it’s moved premises through the years, Liverpool’s Probe Records has been going strong since 1971. Pete Burns and Paul Rutherford of Frankie Goes to Hollywood have worked there, and in the wake of punk, Probe became Liverpool’s go-to record shop, attracting clientele from Echo and the Bunnymen and OMD. The shop launched its own record label Probe Plus in 1981, which has released work by cult Merseyside act Half Man Half Biscuit.

4. Sound It Out Records – Teesside
Yarm Street, Stockton-on-Tees; sounditoutrecords.co.uk

Photo: Tom Butchart
The last remaining record shop in the Stockton-on-Tees area is a focal point for the community, welcoming everyone from teenage metal fans to wannabe rappers and stragglers from local pubs through its doors. Filmmaker Jeanie Finlay’s documentary Sound It Out perfectly encapsulates what the store means to locals, while owner Tom Butchart has the last word on the enduring appeal of vinyl: “records hold memories”.



5. Pop Recs Ltd – Sunderland
Fawcett Street; poprecsltd.com

Photo: Paul Alexander Knox
Sunderland band Frankie & The Heartstrings had a novel idea when it came to the release of their second LP, The Days Run Away – they set up a pop-up record shop for two weeks to promote it. Over a year later the shop still stands, and has made more of an impact than the album that inspired it. Pop Recs Ltd has been a major boost for Sunderland, galvanising local music fans, and promoting inclusiveness and enterprise by selling locally produced coffee and hosting art exhibitions. Maxïmo Park and The Ordinary Boys have already played there for free, while Franz Ferdinand did a gig for a fiver (or £2.50 for those receiving benefits).

6. Rise Music – Bristol
Queens Road, Clifton; rise-music.co.uk

Photo: James Hankins

After growing Fopp from a market stall into a chain of over 100 stores over 25 years, Gordon Montgomery founded Rise in Bristol. The store is impressively diverse, selling a carefully curated selection of books and DVDs alongside CDs and LPs. Now with two more stores in Cheltenham and Worcester, this regional chain continues to grow, and has hosted live shows from acts like Peace and Slow Club as well as film nights and DJ sets. The Bristol store includes a Friska cafe, while the shop even has a vintage clothing arm called Rise Revival.

7. Good Vibrations – Belfast
North Street; Good Vibrations Record Shop – Facebook

Good Vibrations, as depicted in the film, with Richard Dormer as Terri Hooley. Photo: Steffan Hill

The film Good Vibrations, named after the legendary Belfast record store of the same name and released last year, was brilliant. It told the story of local music lover Terri Hooley’s attempt to expand his store into a label that would go on to release Teenage Kicks by The Undertones in 1979. But the film’s popularity also sparked the store back into life. Now in its 13th incarnation, and proclaiming itself as “Belfast’s poorest record shop”, shoppers can still bump into Hooley, now 65, working behind the till.


8. Spillers Records – Cardiff
The Morgan Arcade; spillersrecords.co.uk

Photo: Polly Thomas
Lots of record shops claim considerable heritage, but Spillers Records in Cardiff takes longevity to the next level – established 120 years ago, it’s the oldest record shop in the world. Opening in 1894, “H Spiller” originally dealt in phonographs, wax cylinders and shellac discs. As the decades passed, the shop evolved along with the music formats, and it now stocks a selection of CDs and LPs, and hosts in-store gigs.

9. Banquet Records – Kingston upon Thames
Eden Street; banquetrecords.com

Photo: Banquet Records
Some record labels have emerged from record shops. Banquet Records is a shop that emerged from a label that itself emerged from a shop. In 1973, record shop Beggars Banquet opened in Earls Court, with an accompanying label launching in 1977. The label has since grown into the Beggars Group, which owns or distributes some of the most respected independent record labels around, including 4AD (Bon Iver), Matador (Queens of the Stone Age), Rough Trade (Jarvis Cocker) and XL Recordings (Adele). A second store, Banquet Records, opened in 2002, but became independent of the Beggars Banquet shop in 2005. It runs successful club night New Slang and has hosted in-store performances and signings from FoalsLaura Marling and The Vamps.

10. Jumbo Records – Leeds
St Johns Centre; jumborecords.co.uk

Jumbo is appropriately named, given its history of upscaling. The shop took its first proper residence in Leeds’s Queens Arcade in 1972, before moving to the Merrion Centre shopping complex partly due to a lack of space. In the late Eighties even more space was required, prompting a move to the St Johns shopping centre where the shop remains today. In recent years the shop has held gigs from Hot Chip, We Are Scientists and Lily Allen. Last month Jumbo’s founder Hunter Smith and his wife Lornette stepped down from running the store.


Further recommendations:

11. Sister Ray Records – London
Berwick Street, W1; Sister Ray Records – Facebook

An excellent store in central London, just off Oxford Street, Sister Ray was originally an offshoot of the London branch of the sadly defunctSelectadisc. A new vinyl-only branch will launch in Shoreditch’s Ace Hotel on July 29.


12. Piccadilly Records – Manchester
Oldham Street, Northern Quarter; piccadillyrecords.com

Piccadilly Records is one of many record shops in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. The stock is nicely varied across several genres, though their rock / pop / indie selection is particularly strong.


13. Love Music, Glasgow
Dundas Street; lovemusicglasgow.com

Formerly the Glasgow branch of Edinburgh’s Avalanche Records, Love Music specialises in rock but caters for a wide range of tastes. The shop stocks a mix of LPs and CDs, with a particular focus on Scottish artists.


14. RPM Records, Newcastle
Old George Yard; RPM Records – Facebook

Down one of Newcastle’s artsy back alleys is RPM Records, a true treasure trove and stalwart of the local music scene. It holds a great selection of old and new records, has extremely friendly staff and also sells an array of classic record players.


15. BM Soho, London
D’arblay Street; bm-soho.com

If dance music is your thing, you can’t go wrong at BM Soho. Covering every sub-genre you could ever wish for – funky house, liquid drum and bass, dubstep, you name it – it’s the place to go for new 12″s.


16. Groucho’s Record Store, Dundee
Nethergate; grouchos.co.uk

Groucho’s in Dundee has been running for 38 years and is well-loved by the locals – it has been a frequent winner of the city’s Independent Retailer of the Year award. Be careful what you say in the shop though – the hilarious ‘Dinna ask’ page on the website highlights “choice words from people ‘two tracks short of a single'”.