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16 September 2021

“It’s unmanageable”: How the vinyl industry reached breaking point

Increased demand, plus the rising prices of raw materials, have led to huge delays at record pressing plants. When will the vinyl bubble burst?

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

When Colin Morrison founded his independent record label Castles in Space in 2015, it took three to four months, end to end, to get a vinyl record manufactured. He would place an order with a pressing plant, the test pressings would come back within a month, and once they were approved he would wait another ten to 12 weeks for the production run to be completed and delivered. His artists would release their records according to the schedule they had planned, and Morrison, having paid for the cost of production upfront, would quickly see the return on his investment. 

“Since then, it’s got progressively worse as demand has increased,” said Morrison, who now expects to wait up to nearly a year for his vinyl records to be manufactured. Over the past 18 months in particular – since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic – “it’s just got unmanageable”. Even an artist as powerful as Taylor Swift had to wait months for her vinyl to be produced: her album Evermore was available digitally on 11 December 2020; the vinyl release followed on 28 May 2021.

Vinyl sales are the highest they’ve been since the early 1990s. In 2020, there was a 30 per cent boost in income from sales of vinyl records compared with the previous year, a lift many attribute to purchases from fans who would otherwise have spent their money on tickets to events that had been cancelled owing to the pandemic. In March 2021, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) reported that vinyl sales were due to overtake CD sales for the first time since 1987. 

Vinyl sales in the UK are at their highest point since the early 1990s
Units of vinyl records sold in the UK annually

But the world’s record needs are served by fewer than 100 pressing plants worldwide, and New Statesman data shows that these plants are meeting just half the estimated global demand for vinyl. “You asked, ‘Is it going to get to breaking point?’” Morrison says. “I’m wondering if we’re there already.”

Ton Vermeulen, who in 1998 took over as owner of Record Industry, a vinyl-pressing plant in the Netherlands, has witnessed the rapid acceleration of demand. Even though Record Industry was shut for only four or five days during the pandemic, the plant has been affected by price increases of PVC, a crucial component in vinyl records, following a global shortage caused by extreme weather in Texas – where a large proportion of the world’s PVC is made. He also saw the price of cardboard, used for record sleeves, rise by 10-15 per cent, reportedly due to the “Amazon effect”. “So we had to raise our prices too,” he said.

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Such price increases have a dramatic effect on independent labels, which are already fighting major labels for a fair share of pressing plant capacity. Every time a new record is pressed, a plate must be changed. Therefore, it makes economic sense for plants to prioritise major label orders, which tend to be large quantities of the same record, compared with an indie order, which may require several plate changes before a run is complete. The result is a widening gap between lead times on orders from major labels – including Record Store Day pressings which have long disrupted the supply chain – and those from independents.

Morrison fears the growing cost of vinyl will impact the type of music he can afford to release on his Castles in Space label. The week before we spoke, he received a quote from “one of the best pressing plants in Germany” for a unit cost of £15 for a double LP. Taking in mark-ups from distributors and retailers, Morrison anticipates a final retail price of £35. “And I do genuinely worry: are people going to spend £35 on a debut album from somebody they don’t know?”

The standard double black-vinyl edition of Billie Eilish’s recent number one album, released on the Polydor label, is retailing at £36.99. Major labels have the market power to push up prices on records they know will sell – huge pop releases such as Eilish’s, or classic reissues by acts such as Fleetwood Mac or Madonna – but Morrison can’t be so confident. “As prices rise, people will be less likely to pay for more indie, risky music, the stranger stuff – and that’s the area I work in,” he said.

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The increased demand for vinyl, and fans’ fetishistic desire to own physical products in an era where intangible streaming culture has become the norm, makes it extremely disappointing for artists who are unable to get vinyl produced. Electro-soul artist Maria Uzor had already pushed the date of her self-released EP back a week because of vinyl delays. When we spoke in early August, she was weighing up whether to push the release back even further, or come to terms with the fact that the vinyl release would have to follow the digital one. It was “disappointing” and “frustrating”, she said, that pressing delays had forced her to refigure her release schedule when she had finished the songs months ago. Morrison too feels helpless in the case of album campaigns, the careful scheduling of which can be crucial to a record’s success. “I’m at the mercy of when the stuff gets delivered,” he said. “Any kind of release plan that I want to put around an artist is completely out of the window.”

Stina Tweeddale, who has previously released music as Honeyblood, is gearing up to release an EP under the name Stina Marie Claire. She has set the record’s release date as 24 September, but given the lead times on vinyl production she won’t have vinyl ready for fans on that date. “This is going to be the first release that I’ve ever done where I haven’t got vinyl straight away,” she said, anticipating the release to be much less of an “event” than usual. “For me, it’s going to be an anticlimax. Usually we would go down to Rough Trade and do a signing – but that can’t happen if you’ve got nothing to sign.” Since we spoke, the EP’s release date has been pushed back to 1 October. 

As an independent musician, Tweeddale relies on her fans buying physical merchandise to support her career, particularly after 18 months of limited touring opportunities. “How do you explain to your fanbase that they have to wait two or three months to listen to your music, when they can go onto a streaming site and play it instantly?” she said. She too is worried that fans might not be able to afford vinyl as prices increase. 

Vermeulen suggested that to return to “normal” lead times at the current demand, at least 300 extra presses would be required globally. But the manufacture of vinyl is a complicated operation that requires specialist workers; the process of setting up enough new presses will not be a quick one. Progress is being made in the UK, albeit slowly: a new facility, Press on Vinyl, is due to open in Teesside, reportedly creating 30 new jobs by the end of the year. 

As vinyl production grows increasingly delayed and more expensive, might another format come to replace it as the most popular choice for fans who cherish physical records? When Lorde announced the August release of her latest album, Solar Power, she shared the details of its various available formats via a fan newsletter, including two vinyl options. But, she said, there would be “No CDs this time. I didn’t wanna make something that would end up in a landfill in two years.” Her stance suggested both that CDs are no longer as covetable as vinyl records, and that she sees producing plastic-heavy CDs as unethical for their impact on the environment. But New Statesman data shows that the manufacture of a vinyl record has twice the environmental impact of a CD, both in terms of plastics used and greenhouse gases emitted. Lorde’s decision to refuse CDs on environmental grounds but embrace vinyl may indicate that vinyl is simply too much in demand, and too profitable, to avoid – no matter the cost to the natural world. 

A vinyl record has twice the environmental impact of a CD
Estimated plastic used and greenhouse gas footprint of vinyl as compared to other analogue music storage formats, grams per unit

Morrison pointed out that although vinyl manufacturing has, compared with other formats, a negative environmental impact, most buyers will at least cherish their items for a long time. “It’s not going to end up in the ocean like a plastic bottle,” he said, echoing Lorde’s sentiments. Besides, the alternative of streaming (which is rarely profitable for musicians) is not an environmentally sound choice either. The climate impact of streaming isn’t directly comparable with vinyl or CDs, but data suggests that the energy required to power the servers that house streaming platforms is significantly damaging to the environment. 

When Morrison releases an album on CD, his customers often say “Ah this is great, are you doing a vinyl edition?” Vinyl – adored for the “expanded real estate” of its 12-inch sleeve, and the ritualistic listening behaviour it encourages – is currently an easy sell among music fans. And for as long as they want it, labels will make it, no matter how long the wait. Infuriated as Tweeddale is about the impact of delays on her income, she thinks her fans will wait: “With vinyl, you listen to one side, then you have to get up and flip it over. If you want to skip a song, then be it on you: I’d never bother. It’s a patient person who finds joy in vinyl.”