Features

How Independent Artists and Labels Are Getting Squeezed Out by the “Vinyl Revival”

Longreads Or Whatever

By Mike Campbell

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Illustration by Joe Frontirre

Universal Music Group is set to release a 20th anniversary vinyl edition of the motion picture soundtrack to the 1995 Alicia Silverstone comedy Clueless. This is a pretty strange move aesthetically given that in the mid-90s Beverly Hills world that Clueless inhabits, there isn’t even a memory of vinyl as a viable music format (“I can’t find my Cranberries CD. I gotta go to the quad before somebody snags it.”). The tracklisting of the soundtrack reads like a who’s who of the bloated $22 compact disc era, featuring Radiohead, The Counting Crows, The Beastie Boys and… Coolio. So, then why in music's digital age is a soundtrack of a film from the CD age getting a vinyl reissue? The answer is fairly simple: People will buy it.

In the past ten years, the sale of vinyl has increased to a staggering degree—a roughly 900 percent increase in LP sales between 2004 and now, with 9.2 million vinyl albums sold in 2014. While over the same decade, overall music sales across all formats have decreased annually, dropping from 667 million total albums sold in 2004 to 257 million in 2014. Clearly, vinyl is thriving in spite of the free streaming digital age.

But the law of supply and demand is not necessarily applicable in this case, as within the same time frame, the number of facilities producing vinyl has remained static, at roughly 20 active pressing plants nationwide. These facilities can in no way meet the current demand for vinyl. 

Ironically, Record Store Day, an annual event full of exclusive vinyl-only releases designed to promote interest in local record stores, has contributed to huge, annual bottlenecks in vinyl production, which last for several months, due to increased demands. And with entities such as Record Store Day completely upending vinyl production scheduling industry-wide—as well as ludicrously kitsch one-off pressings (“As if!”), Jack White passion-projects, and continuous re-pressings of Album Rock Era classics by the likes of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd—it’s not difficult to see that with such limited tactile resources, the works are getting a bit gummed up.

The result we are seeing in most recent years is that independent releases are being pushed aside, becoming less of a priority due to the fact that vinyl orders from indies are usually a fraction of the size of most major label artist orders. To give an example, the first pressing of Philadelphia indie-punk band Cayetana’s debut LP, Nervous Like Me, released in 2014 on independent label Tiny Engines was limited to 1525 copies. The band was only able to get 400 copies to sustain their merch sales on their six-week tour supporting the album’s release, as the rest of copies were unavailable to them due to pressing plant production delays. By contrast, Jack White pressed 74,000 copies of his 2014 album Lazaretto, selling 60,000 within its first seven weeks of being released, the most copies sold of a vinyl release within that amount of time since 1994. Both of these artists were relying on the same small pool of resources at the pressing plants (remember: only 20 plants nationwide!), the same resources that anyone wanting to produce vinyl in the United States relies on. A major difference, however, is that one of these artists’ net worth is $30 million, and the other is relying on selling ten or 20 LPs per show to put gas in their rental van to get to the next city.

Photo via Flickr

A frustrating irony of the situation is that independent record labels and artists were some of the only clients keeping these few pressing plants in business through the darkest and least popular era of the vinyl format’s lifespan. Small labels and fans of the bands on those labels were the only fringe, outsider punk rock weirdos buying the then antiquated, now antique-chic listening format.

“The turnaround times in the last two years have grown increasingly longer and longer,” says Mike Park, owner and operator of independent record label Asian Man Records, who has released records from bands like Alkaline Trio and The Lawrence Arms. Park has run his label successfully for the past 19 years, through the CD boom, vinyl resurgence, and digital era of music consumption. “I currently have a release at United [pressing plant] and it’s been over two months, and I still don’t even have a test pressing yet. I put in a re-order [a re-pressing of a previously pressed album, usually necessitating less turnaround time than a new release due to fewer steps in the production process to create the vinyl] for back catalog releases and I was told it would be at least 16 weeks. Sixteen weeks! Four months for a re-order!”

This turnaround time for a label the size of Asian Man has a direct, adverse trickle-down affect on the artists with releases on the label, as a small to mid-level independent or DIY band makes anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of its touring revenue on merchandise sales. “We’ve been out of stock of vinyl while our bands have been on tour, and they rely on selling product to make ends meet. It’s soul crushing to not be able to provide this for them,” Park says.

Photo via Flickr

There has been recent backlash against Record Store Day from independent labels and stores, some calling for a boycott of the annual event altogether. The effect of Record Store Day on pressing plant turnaround times has been devastating in its disruption. UK indie labels Howling Owl and Sonic Cathedral released a statement denouncing what they feel Record Store Day has become: “just another event in the annual music industry circus… co-opted by major labels and used as another marketing stepping stone. U2 have already shat out their album into our iTunes, why should they constipate the world’s pressing plants with it too?” Some would argue that it has just become another opportunity for major labels to advantageously wedge their product into independent stores that otherwise wouldn’t carry releases from said major label, thus literally taking shelf space away from an independent artist, as well as clogging up the production time at the pressing plants.

It does not seem like things are going to get better for indie labels in this regard any time soon. The demand continues to grow, and with all things related to the dying music industry and the people working within it, survival is a matter of adapting. “People just need to build in longer turnaround times,” says Joe Steinhardt who runs New Brunswick, NJ independent label Don Giovanni Records which has had success with bands like Waxahatchee and Screaming Females. “It caused some hiccups when the turn-time first went from six or eight weeks, to 24 weeks. Because bands would be used to getting me a master eight weeks before a tour, and I was used to ordering a repress when we were down to an eight-week supply. But people just need to adjust their expectations.”

The problem with adjusting expectations based on the changing tide of production turnaround time is that it does not change the financial infrastructure of what it is to be a working independent artist. Relying on consistent touring and merchandise sales to earn a living, an artist’s momentum can be seriously damaged by these elongated periods of essentially dead air, both artistically and financially. The longer the stretches become between touring cycles, and as there is more time between the completion of a recording and when that recording is released and able to be toured on and sold at shows, the more space on the calendar where the artist is unable to work and make money.

Photo via Flickr

Tim Kasher, singer and songwriter of Cursive and The Good Life embarked on a six-week tour last year to promote his sophomore solo album, Adult Film. The only problem was, that due to several unforeseen delays at the pressing plant, the record didn’t exist yet. “I’m convinced we would have had better sales had we gotten [copies to sell prior to the tour],” Kasher says. “Increased interest in vinyl is a great thing, but these plants are teaching us the hard way to get our records in the production line way in advance of the release date. I’ve been asked to turn in my upcoming record five and half months prior to release date, and I’m still concerned it won’t reach deadline. We can only assume Beyoncé’s latest album didn’t have these issues.”

The plants themselves may come off looking like the ones to blame in this situation. After all, why not just put in more man-hours, or increase the number of operating presses to meet the demand, right? But that is definitely not the case. “We are running our machines 24 hours a day, six days a week at max capacity, as are the other few plants in the United States,” says Jerome Bruner of Rainbo Records, a vinyl pressing company that’s been in business since 1939. “We are in the same boat as the indies, the majors, and the local garage band. We are doing our best to accommodate everyone. It’s a learning curve.” Despite the shuffle to adapt and adjust, Bruner sees the increased interest in vinyl as a great thing. “We live in a get-it-right-now, one-click, one-swipe world. [In spite of that], there is a whole generation that has fallen in love with playing a record and it doesn’t look like the demand for the format is going away anytime soon,” he added.

Photo via Flickr

So if the plants aren’t to blame for the squeezing out of the independents, who is to blame? Urban Outfitters and Hot Topic, the main vendors of vinyl in mainstream middle-America mall culture? Universal Music Group and other major labels for dipping deep into their vast back catalogs for Record Store Day, trying to monetize releases that they previously considered to be “non-financially viable,” taking advantage of the record collector and marketing their decades-old releases as a kitschy or “limited” release? Should we blame the consumers themselves? Well, the answer to all of these questions is yes. It is actually the trendiness of vinyl that is making it eat its own tail.

On the other side of it though, the fact that music fans are interested in purchasing vinyl more than they have been in over 20 years is nothing but a good thing. The fact that fans will support artists by paying for the music they release in any format is absolutely a victory in the climate of the selfish internet culture in 2015. Independent artists experience difficulty reconciling this victory, though, when they cannot necessarily rely on the availability of vinyl as a revenue stream resource to make a living, and to make ends meet on the road. But all trends, especially in popular music, are cyclical; maybe the industry should cross its collective fingers for a CD revival in 2025.

Mike Campbell is an avid collector of vinyl, and also really, really likes Clueless. He plays bass with Laura Stevenson, and is on Twitter - @mikedcampbell.