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 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 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.
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