VINYL COMES FULL CIRCLE
“New vinyl is kind of trash to be honest- it's ripped from digital masters and just lazily pressed on to super thick wax to give the appearance of quality- where in fact you are getting compressed music that isn't even CD quality."
Peter Drosos, a 34-year-old who has been collecting vinyl since 2013, believes that people are buying more vinyl now because of the personal aspect that comes with playing a record.
“There’s something personal and authentic about playing a record and holding the jacket and reading the liner notes that brings the listener so much closer to the artist,” Drosos said. “And it looks so f***ing cool too, especially if you have a nice rig.”
To get the most out of an album, Drosos suggested buying the dominant format in which music was released. For example, if a person was looking to buy a record released in 1978, Drosos said to try looking for a clean used copy of the album on vinyl. For newer music, Drosos said to stick to higher-resolution audio streaming services such as Tidal and Qobuz.
“Buying newer vinyl is not going to produce the best quality from my experience,” Drosos said. “You can buy ‘Sour’ by Olivia Rodrigo for $24.99 on vinyl, but the tracks you are playing are just the same files as the ones you’d be streaming on Spotify or Apple Music.”
It’s March 19 and local Long Island artist, Rorie Kelly, just released her new album: “Shadow Work.” Prior to this project, Kelly would usually have CDs and digital copies of her music available for purchase.
“Shadow Work” was different.
After years of requests, Kelly decided that for the first time ever, she would make one of her albums available on vinyl. Through a crowdfunding campaign, she was able to raise enough money to order 100 vinyl records.
Initially, she was going to order from Gotta Groove Records, a vinyl manufacturer in Cleveland, Ohio. However, Kelly was told that they wouldn’t have any availability until mid 2022 to even start thinking about a project. She expected a 6-9 month wait time, but even after calling other vinyl operations across the country, they were booked for the next 12-18 months.
“It was really stressful because I had promised people vinyl and literally pre-sold it and now it looked like I would have to make them wait over a year to get their album!” Kelly said.
Kelly exemplifies the struggles that many artists face nowadays because of the increased demand in vinyl, combined with record production delays due to COVID-19.
According to MRC Data’s U.S. 2021 Mid Year Report, vinyl sales have increased by 108% since 2020. Last year, vinyl outsold CDs for the first time since the 1980s, as stated in the 2020 Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) Mid Year Report. The difference was nearly $100 million, as vinyl made up 62% of physical album sales in 2020. This year, vinyl accounts for more than 66.7% of physical music sales, displaying an increased resurgence in vinyl popularity.
Luckily enough, Kelly found a Canadian company called Standard Vinyl that was able to complete her order more than two months ahead of schedule. She pre-sold 40 copies and mailed all of them out by the end of July.
For an independent indie artist, Kelly found the process to be very labor intensive, considering how it required a lot of self-promotion and how she needed to be very attentive during the test pressing so the records could come out perfect with no pops or skips. However, if the money and interest is there, Kelly would definitely put out more vinyl in the future.
“It kind of demands all your attention for a good couple of months but yeah, I enjoyed working with them [Standard Vinyl]. I would absolutely work with them again and I would like to keep putting out vinyl if I possibly can,” Kelly said.
If someone wants to get their music pressed onto vinyl, there aren’t many options available inside the United States. Currently, there are 29 pressing plants in the U.S., and only two in New York: one of them being Brooklynphono.
Thomas Bernich, the owner of Brooklynphono, one of two vinyl pressing plants that exist in New York, said that due to the Apollo Masters fire, compounders have had their raw material prices increase. To make records, plants need two basic ingredients: chlorine and ethylene. Due to the fire, it's become more expensive for pressing plants to obtain these raw materials.
“The immediate direct impact [of the fire] is the rise of cutting costs and hesitancy to do small runs,” Bernich said.
Although this is the case for Brooklynphono, not all pressing plants were affected by the Apollo Masters Fire. Gotta Groove Records, a vinyl pressing plant in Cleveland, Ohio, stopped buying lacquers from Apollo Masters and wasn’t impacted as a result. Matt Earley, one of the owners, said that there shouldn’t be any long-term issues with the fire, as most pressing plants are getting their lacquers supplied by third-party mastering engineers.
“Surprisingly, I'm not aware of any plant anywhere in the world that really was affected dramatically by that...That's not to say that there isn't a need for an Apollo in the market, because I don't think that any industry is necessarily healthy having a single supplier for a key component. But at least, you know, it was very surprising, it did not impact the industry as much as everyone thought it would up front.” Earley said.
Vinyl Pressing Plants
Prior to the fire and COVID-19, the average turnaround for a record order at Gotta Groove Records was three to four months.
Now, it’s almost a year.
To explain this wait time, Earley gave three reasons as to why Gotta Groove Records, and other vinyl pressing plants, are taking longer to fulfill orders.
“I really think that the lead times are more tied to those supply constraints, human workforce constraints, transportation constraints, which fortunately, means that they’re likely to dissipate the next year,” Earley said.
With the coronavirus leaving many people unemployed, he described how it takes longer to make anything, not just records. Combining that with the increase in demand, there are fewer people available to actually press the records and Earley said that is what’s contributing to the extended lead times, not the actual pressing capacity.
However, Earley said that these issues will be temporary, and that quality wasn’t affected during this time.
“I know that we have a lot more quality control procedures in place than any other plant that I've seen. And that's really what sets us apart.”
At Gotta Groove Records, their staff consists of quality assurance specialists who listen to every 25th record to catch mistakes in the pressing process. He said that due to this expensive and extensive operation, demand hasn’t really impacted the plant’s ability to produce quality records.
Since late 2019, Earley said the argument could be made that pressing plants across the country had more capacity for pressing than the amount of demand. Although there aren’t that many plants, Earley is optimistic that it will take about a year for the lead times to go back to normal.
Many vinyl manufacturing plants, like Gotta Groove Records and Brooklynphono, primarily serve smaller clients such as independent labels or smaller indie artists.
One of these clients includes MC Records, a local Long Island record label, which has been releasing American Roots music since 1991. Their owner, Mark Carpentieri, has been hesitant to do vinyl runs and only started doing them about five or six years ago.
“You have to have the right release with the right artists, or else it's not gonna work,” Carpentieri said. “It's a niche product and you have to know that the artist that you have is going to work.”
Since MC Records serves an older audience, Carpentieri said that a lot of people that are buying vinyl now are much younger. Carpentieri added that it’s more likely that he’ll do a vinyl release for an artist that is popular, proactive, and can attract a younger audience who would be interested in buying vinyl.
However, regardless of COVID-19, Carpentieri’s process for putting an artist on vinyl has remained the same.
It has to make sense financially, otherwise, it’s not happening.
CD, Streaming or Vinyl?
The resurgence of vinyl can be attributed to many different reasons. According to Sam Howard-Spink, an NYU music business professor and former music journalist, people want to display their massive support for a particular artist in a way that streaming cannot.
“Vinyl, I think, basically fulfills the same kinds of desires that people have to display or reveal their music fandom, their music tastes,” Howard-Spink said. “The fact that they care enough about music to spend the money on vinyl.”
Especially for indie bands and smaller local artists, Howard-Spink believes that vinyl is a direct way of making money where streaming doesn’t make much revenue.
“Something like vinyl is a way to build out fans, find out who your real true fans are, and also get a few dollars for the sale of a recording, which a stream is really barely going to be able to do,” Howard-Spink said.
Although vinyl is gaining in popularity, Howard-Spink said CDs have the highest audio fidelity for recorded music, as they were designed to match the human ear’s ability to perceive sound. Audio fidelity is the accuracy in which a sound is reproduced. For other formats, cassettes and vinyl are a step back from that audio fidelity and streaming is very behind in that category.
So why are people buying more vinyl records than CDs?
“I think young people are rediscovering this thing called warmth, and they may like it a lot and value it,” Howard-Spink said. “But they’re still not getting as crystal clear a sound as CDs provide.”
Warmth in music is often referred to the immersive and richness of the sound when it comes to the overall listening experience. Howard-Spink stated that digital music is cold and analog music is warm, and because of that, many people are drawn to the warmth found in a vinyl record compared to compressed digital recordings that are often found on CDs or streaming.
Ray Anderson, a music professor at Stony Brook University, agrees that warmth plays a factor in the appeal of a vinyl record. Additionally, Anderson believes that the experience of putting a record on a turntable and needing to flip it over at a certain point adds to the appreciation of vinyl.
“There is something that brings your consciousness back to the experience of listening with a vinyl record, because you have to do something if you want to hear something else,” Anderson said. “I think that’s actually quite valuable, it raises the level of appreciation of the music.”
As someone who used to buy vinyl and release his own jazz records, Anderson says that the sound quality of vinyl is better than a CD, unlike Howard-Spink.
“Compared to anything that’s out there with streaming, the sound quality is enormously better on a vinyl record,” Anderson said.
The caliber of vinyl has changed over the years as technology evolved and Peter Drosos said the standard for newer vinyl has declined. As a result, many people like Drosos and other vinyl collectors are flocking towards the second-hand market for deals on records.
"I generally try to buy used records," Drosos said. "I like the idea that they had a previous home and they were part of someone else's story and they'll pass from me on to someone else hopefully."
Since more people are looking for used records, the second-hand market has become more expensive over the years for many different reasons. John McWatters, a 26-year-old who has been collecting vinyl since he was 13, described how as an artist ages, their work becomes more expensive. For instance, McWatters talked about how five or 10 years ago, a person could walk into a local store and buy a copy of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” for about $10 or $15. Now, since he’s older, that same album on vinyl is selling for $30-$40.
Death also plays a huge role in the increased price of an artist’s work on vinyl. McWatters gave a personal example of how he saw a copy of “Damn The Torpedoes” retailing for $15 at a local record store. After Tom Petty died, the same album was now selling for $35, as he was the lead singer of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
“So part of it, I think it’s the availability of older artists,” McWatters said. “Are they alive? Are they active? What are they doing?”
However, there can be an exception to that rule. With the death of Glenn Frey, McWatters explained that since the majority of The Eagles are still alive, it didn’t impact vinyl record costs. McWatters said that it ultimately depends on the type and age of the artist: whether it’s a band, a singular artist, and whether they’re a newer or older artist.
When it comes to turntables, Kabir Bhatia, a vinyl collector in his 40s, said that the quality has improved over time. As someone who started collecting when he was in middle school, Bhatia said turntables especially improved in performance once CDs were released.
Nevertheless, not all turntables are great.
Bhatia described how a user may receive similar performance on a used turntable compared to an expensive one. Also, he stressed how people should not buy the all-in-one turntable suitcase that is offered at many department stores for $60. The turntable suitcase is a portable record player that usually includes an amplifier, and one or two speakers, all in one package.
“I have yet to see one of those that sounded good and they can usually not even hold the speed properly,” Bhatia said. “It’s bad for your records.”
If a person isn’t careful when buying a turntable, they can’t fully enjoy their records and they can possibly ruin their vinyl.
“You’re not getting the full vinyl experience, and it’s going to sound terrible, and you’re destroying that record for the future,” Bhatia said.
Even if a person has a good turntable, Bhatia explained that a poor quality speaker can ruin their listening experience as well. Ultimately, to get the best quality out of a record, the listener needs to be willing to spend the money.
If they can find the right equipment, Bhatia said it’s worth it.