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Vinyl record sales boom, domestic record pressing plants can't keep up, so artists endure pressure

Employee controls the matrix as it is used to carve on a copper master record as part of the creation process for vinyl records.
Petr Josek Snr/REUTERS
Employee controls the matrix as it is used to carve on a copper master record as part of the creation process for vinyl records.

Small bands and independent musicians often can't wait the year-long time frame to get a record pressed. They may be pushed out of the biggest and fastest growing physical music medium.

At $1 billion in vinyl record sales, 2021 was the biggest year for vinyl since 1986, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. At just 11% of all revenues, physical sales are still exploding — with vinyl revenue growing 61% year over year.

Vinyl record sales have grown rapidly for more than a decade. That’s one of few bright spots for musicians and an industry that’s been battered by shrinking physical sales the past two decades, and more recently the pandemic.

But vinyl record production has again struggled to keep up, and small artists are bearing the brunt of the production pain.

 Vinly record sales hit $1 billion for the first time since 1986
RIAA 2021 report
Vinly record sales hit $1 billion for the first time since 1986

The story of demand outstripping the capacity of record pressing plants is not new. Once considered a fad, the resurgence of vinyl became a serious source of revenue a decade ago. The bottlenecks of production were highlighted in the middle of the last decade.

A number of people entered the market — refurbishing of old pressing plants — to the relief and fanfare of a vinyl hungry marketplace. But as sales surged, so did the business case for legacy labels to reproduce their catalogs — re-releasing everything from Nirvana’s 1991 smash hit “Nevermind” to Art Blakey’s 1959 hard-bop masterpiece, “Moanin’.”

And as the majors lean on independently owned record pressing companies, relief was never realized in the record production pipeline.

"The major labels are gobbling up all of the production space. And it's causing the independents to really, really suffer," said Chris Cline, an audio engineer who does mixing and mastering for vinyl production.

In 2020, Rainbo Records Pressing plant — one of the biggest in the country — closed. Last year, production requests surged, and now the backlog may be the worst it's ever been.

On a warm spring night in San Antonio, local country rocker Garrett Capps played to a growing crowd at Paper Tiger, a music venue.

In between songs, the cowboy hat-clad rocker is promoting a new collaboration called “Still Kicking” with legendary conjunto septuagenarian Santiago Jimenez Jr.

“Santiago is the real deal,” Capps said of the Squeezebox master, who had just wrapped a set before Capps took the stage. He promoted the album release party that they would have down the street at The Lonesome Rose where he books acts. A staple of that and every other release party he’s had since 2016 is the vinyl record.

“Vinyl has always been, to me, a pain in the ass, but worth it because it's cool. Like, the artwork and just the whole thing,” he said.

A pain because it’s expensive, it’s bulky — taking up room in the already instrument-and-player-crammed band van on any tour. Also, vinyl can be damaged by the heat.

But it also sells.

“Yeah, people like buying vinyl at shows,” he said.

But as Capps prepared to order a new record for his own band, the time needed to produce it swelled by three times, going from four to 12 months.

“It's like, I love vinyl. But wow, is it really worth basing your entire albums promotional plan around? That's been the big question,” he said.

Delaying an album release for a record printing is a tough choice for an independent band, and it's increasingly the case.

That was the message from pressing plant owner and rock star Jack White in a video plea to major labels last month.

“This is Third Man Pressing, the Third Man Records pressing plant that I opened in 2017 with my own money,” White said.

Vinyl presses at his Detroit plant work in the background as the former White Stripes frontman implied the major labels were to blame for backlogs that are pushing independent artists out.

Guys like him opened pressing plants to work with new and interesting artists, who can’t afford to wait a year to get an album pressed. The trend could potentially exclude these musicians from the biggest and fastest growing physical music medium.

“And I now ask the major labels Warner Brothers, Universal and Sony to finally build your own pressing plants again, as the MC5 said, ‘You're either part of the problem or part of the solution,’” he said.

Hand Drawn Pressing co-founder Dustin Blocker said his Addison, Texas, company is slammed. Since the pandemic began, they saw a surge in pressing requests from both majors and smaller labels and bands. The lead time since August has grown to a year for delivery. His team went 24-hours-a-day, five days a week.

“We're very straightforward and honest with our customers. And we tell them, 'we're sold out.' And so unfortunately, you have to turn away a lot of business,” he said.

TPR reached out to Sony and Universal Music on what they planned if the backlog continued but received no response.

 Employees of Hand Drawn Pressing in Addison, Texas. Dustin Blocker, Hand Drawn co-founder, sits at the apex of this image.
Courtesy Hand Drawn Pressing
Employees of Hand Drawn Pressing in Addison, Texas. Dustin Blocker, Hand Drawn co-founder, sits at the apex of this image.

Blocker doesn’t see the majors trying to start plants as the solution — this is old analog tech that takes a lot of infrastructure and a lot of time.

“So it's steam boilers, chiller systems, massive pipes, I mean, if you see these largest plants in the world, it's a 3,000-square-foot room of water moving through it to make these plants work,” he said.

It's a two-year process just to build it and then you have to train your workforce, which he described as painstaking. He worried that a rush to open facilities would result in lower quality records — with the hiss, pops, and missing sound that came to represent the medium at times.

The industry is pressing as many records as it can and hoping they sound good in an industry digging its own grave.

“Because people will spend $25-30 to buy a record that skips and pops and is warbling and is off center. And that's not what anybody needs or wants,” he said.

Blocker wanted to see more collaboration with major labels. He said those companies should be signing big capacity agreements with pressing plants. Those revenue guarantees would make it easier for all of the facilities to expand.

Hand Drawn has grown its volume by 250% in two years, producing more than 1 million records a year. But even they aren’t immune to logistical bottlenecks.

They’ve been waiting nearly a year for a manufacturer in Canada to send them another vinyl press so they may again double production.
Copyright 2022 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Paul Flahive is the accountability reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.