Where’s The Ceiling on the New Vinyl Market?

An ever-increasing amount of people are buying vinyl records these days.  What some considered to be a quick, passing fad has turned out to be a long-term trend.

In fact, sales hit a record 6.1 million units last year… in the US alone.

This resurgence has been present, and upwardly-trending, since 2006… and in 2007, an annual day dedicated to record stores was founded.  While vinyl still only encompasses a little over 2% of the music market share, overall, records are more popular than they have been since the late 80s.

But a market who did not predict or expect such a huge revival is having quite a bit of trouble keeping up.

New Records, Old Machines

As demand for records increases, the amount of pressing plants remains basically the same.  As it turns out, even though physical record sales are on a massive upward trend… building new pressing machines to keep up with the demand is prohibitively expensive.

The biggest press in the US is Nashville's own United, which has 22 presses in operation and manages to crank out 30-40k copies per day by operating 24 hours per day.  They are looking at bringing 16 more presses online.

These new presses have been acquired, not built… because nobody builds them anymore.  Building a new press would cost somewhere in the hundreds of thousands.

“Our machinist keeps things running. If something breaks, he's either got to fix it or make it.”

Source: Jay Millar via Billboard.com

In the world abroad, the largest vinyl producer is GZ in the Czech Republic.  They reported their busiest day ever this year in February, having produced 42,000 pieces of wax in a single day.  They too are working on adding additional presses: six aging machines, half of which they reportedly can get working.

But this is not the state of operations for most pressing plants.  More typically, plants operate between one and five presses.

When it comes to the industry's resurrection, everyone is equally excited and frustrated.  The demand is increasing, but there's an apparent supply cap.

Record Sales
Vinyl Record Sales, USA

 Everything is the New Black

Let's step back for a second and think about why this resurgence is occurring.

There are many different kinds of people that buy vinyl records.  We are now seeing a scenario where millennials (who didn't grow up with the format) are shopping at the same record stores as baby boomers.

And while there's no shortage of vinyl purists out there in the world, claiming sonic superiority and “analogue warmth”… sound quality is hardly the driving force behind this movement.

The world is quickly shifting away from media formats which are tangible; that is to say, collectible.  While much of the current record-purchasing demographic may not have grown up on records, they did grow up on physical media of some kind.  The whole mp3/streaming/cloud thing is still a comparatively young method of consumption.

In other words, today's craft beer drinking, beard-sporting 20-somethings grew up on CDs and mixtapes that they made from the radio.  They still get it.  They have the urge to collect.

This is reflected in another kind of demand.  Not only do artists and labels want to release on wax, but they want to release on wax that is very customized.

colored vinyl

It seems that a plain black circle isn't quite enough anymore.  Requests abound for colored, marbled, glittered, translucent, and picture-disc pressings as labels attempt to capitalize on this compulsion to collect something limited.  Bands are even requesting records infused with things like coffee grounds, shredded cash, and bodily fluids.

Multiple pressing plants have reported that around half of their orders are for colored or customized vinyl.  This comes at its own cost.  Not only are these over-stressed plants expected to spit out more records than they can actually mathematically accomplish, but they are required to build them to order.

“The problem is everyone wants colour, picture or splatter vinyl and it’s very time consuming to make.”

– Source: Spencer Hickman via The Independent 

People want something that can be damaged, get worn out, get lost, and only be held in the hands of 100 – 500 owners in the entire world.  People are craving scarcity and exclusivity.

Don't believe me?  London's ICM research discovered that 15% of 18-24 year old buyers of music physical medium never play them.  They are buying them purely to own.

I suppose the implication here is that the industry underestimated the size and strength of a particular demographic: consumers who didn't necessarily grow up on analog gear, but still want to support artists they love.  Music-lovers who want the conversation-starter of a visible music collection, once they discover that this used to be a thing.

What's The Hold-Up?

For the younger and uninitiated, it's important to understand that the process of pressing a record is much different than cranking out CDs.

While CDs are duplicated (quite a mechanical context), an LP is created from scratch every time.  There is no “blank record” into which the audio is imprinted.  It's a very error-prone process that starts with PVC pellets and paper labels, and ends with the black or colored disc that we all know and love.

pvc pellets

It's labor intensive.  Since there is no one magic formula or process that guarantees a 100% perfect copy every time (something that is inherently natural to CDs), press operators must constantly check records out of any given batch.

It's much more like an art than a science, and this doesn't even address the fact that all of the music has to be specifically mastered for vinyl… otherwise, it will sound poor (best case) or not play at all (worst case).

So, to summarize: we have an unexpectedly high demand for records, too few machines to make them, and we want them to be especially fancy.  Surprising and, admittedly pleasing, to witness in a society which has quickly become centered around instant gratification.

But that doesn't mean people are particularly patient.  And it's become a fairly common scenario to wait several weeks for a few hundred copies to be created.

Vinyl's Future?

While it's true that record production is both labor and time-intensive, the real time is wasted sitting in the queue.

It seems that vinyl sales still have room to grow.  And all indications are that the number of functioning presses will never catch up to the demand.

Despite all of these growing pains, the literal record industry is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.

My concern is that this will drive up the price of vinyl to something unreachable, which will then push out the potential new adopters… counteracting this entire culture shift and forcing vinyl back to the dungeons of obsolescence.

My prediction, though, is that technology will catch up to this problem.  I can't say for certain, but it seems logical to me that consumer-grade products will catch up to the market before it wanes, allowing for record duplication at home.

This is already being experimented with, using technology like 3D printing.  I think it's a safe bet to say that the precision and resolution of this equipment will soon reach an adequate level to reproduce records for our picky ears.

The question is, where will the market go from there?  Will folks lose the sense of exclusivity once “anyone” can print a record at home and play it the same day?  Will the urge to collect lose its shine once it's nothing special anymore?

Where will collectors get their fix, then?

Hard to say… music lovers are surprising us all the time.