The second Record Store Day (RSD) van 2021 arrives on Saturday, following an event on 12 Junie. A multitude of special-edition records will be divided up between some 200 independent shops in the UK, and the event will drive much-needed revenue after more than a year of no live music and frequently shuttered shops. There is, egter, an accelerating crisis behind the scenes. The BPI in the UK reported 4.8m LP sales in 2020, the format’s 13th consecutive year of growth, but the “vinyl revival” of recent years is now under threat.
Vinyl pressing plants are struggling to meet demand, and well-funded labels are trying to jump the queue. There is a global PVC shortage, and Brexit brings its own problems. Jeff Bell of Partisan Records – home to Idles, Laura Marling and Fontaines DC – describes the scale of the problem: “The demand for vinyl globally is between two and three times what supply can keep up with.”
Karen Emanuel, chief executive of manufacturing company Key Production Group, which deals with pressing plants on behalf of labels, says that lead times for vinyl manufacturing keep shooting up. When she started in the sector, meer as 30 jare terug, it would typically take three weeks to produce and ship vinyl albums, and as little as 48 hours for singles. Four years ago, that process took three months and no one thought it could get worse. “Most of the plants now are working on six months,” she sighs.
According to Drew Hill, head of Proper Music Distribution, which offers sales, marketing and distribution for labels and artists, lead times can be double that for special releases, such as the limited-edition records that punters queue up for on RSD. As RSD records have to be pitched to its organisers for approval first, he reports that labels are being told to book in their RSD releases for next year now. “Things are going to have to change about the way that we promote, market and sell records," hy sê.
Many RSD releases use eye-catching coloured vinyl but “it’s a lot slower than black vinyl [to make] because you have to clean the machines each time you change colours,” explains Emanuel. And as with toilet rolls and pasta in the early stages of the pandemic, there is now “panic buying” of vinyl by labels. “Everyone is doubling or tripling their orders so they won’t be out of stock,” says Bell. “That is congesting the pipeline.”
There are other components to the crisis. First is the small number of active factories, a legacy problem from the 1990s, when many labels pulled out of vinyl production. As pressing plants closed or streamlined, experienced staff left the industry, and a recruitment lag means there are not enough qualified people to go around. “These are skilled operators that need to be brought back,” says Bell. '[Vinyl production] is a craft and a science, a specialised skill set.”
As the major labels joined the vinyl gold rush over the past decade, they initially focused on reissuing classic albums, but now they are also putting new releases on vinyl to help boost chart positions. Blockbuster records from acts such as the Killers, Haim and the 1975, which were initially delayed in the early stages of the pandemic, contributed to a logjam. Some plants remain hesitant to make the huge investment required to add new presses and warehousing, worrying that this current boom may prove temporary. “It’s something a lot of companies aren’t willing to do until they know this supply and demand dynamic is going to go on for a lot more years,” says Bell.
Social distancing means plants have had to reduce the number of staff on production lines. And the irony is that fans, wanting to support struggling acts through the pandemic, have been buying more records, thereby exacerbating production complications that are also worsened by the shortage of PVC, the raw material for vinyl records. “The construction industry, the car industry, everywhere is having a problem with a PVC shortage,” explains Emanuel.
Artists such as rising jazz star Emma-Jean Thackray and at least one A-list pop star, according to a source at their label, have all recently postponed album releases because of production issues. Stories abound of labels offering big orders but demanding to jump the queue. One anonymous label source, when asked about this, replies, “I’d like to say it’s not the case … ” leaving the rest of the sentence hanging. They add, egter, that some factories refuse to kowtow.
Brexit has caused complications with bringing back orders to the UK after they’ve been pressed in mainland Europe, with Emanuel recounting horror stories of “things that just disappeared in transit”. She adds that post-Brexit VAT is the real hidden threat for many UK labels. If they are VAT-registered at home but, say, pressing in Germany and using distributors in France, they get “hit by VAT that they wouldn’t have been hit with before”, when the UK was in a VAT union with the rest of the EU.
Everyone admits over-demand is a nice problem to have, as it shows people, especially younger consumers, want to buy physical product. But even new factories willing to take the gamble might take a year or more to become fully operational. Plants switching to injection moulding may speed up production slightly, but until then vinyl sales – so critical to chart performance and artist income – are going to be badly compromised.
“We are going to see an increase in split-format releases where an album comes out digitally, but physically won’t be available for months,” Bell says. This tactic has seen artists such as Taylor Swift and Bring Me the Horizon return to the top of the charts when their vinyl editions become available, but Bell says that less famous musicians will be the ones left out of the vinyl revival. “It’s going to inhibit early sales that used to give young artists a leg up," hy sê.