The Return of Vinyl: The Good, The Bad, And The Underground
Vinyl is back! Well, so they say, but did it ever really go anywhere? Obviously in the commercial industry vinyl hadn't been around for a very long time, but in the underground it never truly disappeared...even it seemed that way for some time. While there was a noticeable decline in sales and interest prior to the 2008 US recession; which ultimately dealt the underground market its final blow for some time, Nielsen Media Research reports that in the commercial music industry there has actually been an average 38% rise in the sale of vinyl records as of mid-to-late last year, beginning ironically enough around 2008. With 2.5 millions units sold in 2009, ARS Technica reported that this was the most units sold since Nielsen's inception in 1991. Several years later, those numbers have more than doubled and only continue to grow. While the general consensus and media reporting are that indeed there is a surprising resurgence in the vinyl market, many like The New York Times continue to echo the notion that somehow, as the Times puts it, vinyl: "faded with the arrival of compact discs in the 1980s." Which would have more or less put the beginning of the end of vinyl around 1982.
What the media seems to be generally ignoring, is that in the underground; a market that a company like Nielsen could never track due to the common lack of barcoding releases, there was actually a huge upswing in the manufacturing and sales of vinyl records during the '90s with the growth of the worldwide Rave scene. Even in the '80s vinyl remained a strong medium with the growing popularity of Hip Hop and labels like Streetsounds, but there is no mention at all. And while the numbers from both these eras may not compare to what we saw between the '50s and '70s commercially, undeniably this shows that vinyl in no way was making its way out with the arrival of CDs. "What happened in 1990, when it was all supposed to be gone was that I opened Groove Records (Sonic Groove after 1995)," noted Frankie Bones, legendary pioneer and founder of the American Rave scene. "We had the decade of vinyl in the 1990's. Watts Music was our extended family and they were the biggest distribution company in America for dance music. So where a claim was made that vinyl was going away, we really took it back to the streets, to the clubs and the underground." Supporting the idea vinyl never really went away, Ruth Wilson, manager and long-time employee of the Plan 9 store in Charlottesville, Virginia (USA); part of a chain founded in 1981 and since a retailer of both used and new vinyl releases, mentions that: "Vinyl has always been our bread and butter. You can't say that vinyl is back, when it's never really gone away. It's all about generational perspective and who you talk to. The kids today may think vinyl is cool and new, when to us it's all we've ever known."
But as the turn of the century came, and we began to see the eventual slowing down in the production and sales of vinyl in the underground; perhaps due to the crackdown on Raves, 9/11 and the subsequent recession, not to mention emerging technologies eventually leading to the so called "Digital Revolution", a small niche market remained for several years as we headed towards the 2008 collapse, even seeing a few still existent labels start up. As Frankie Bones points out: "Two things happened in 2001: 9-11 happened. and Pioneer released the CDJ-1000; which became the first reliable unit for DJ's. It took 5 years, but between 2001-2006, thousands of record stores and record labels were dissolved. We [Sonic Groove] made it to October of 2004." By the time the 2008 US recession came, most Electronic music indie labels no matter how successful had gotten to the point of barely moving 300 units, and then the final nail in the coffin was set as distributors like Watts, and Syntax in New York closed down for good. "After the smoke cleared, the carnage was pretty devastating for lots of labels and distributors, but not bankers," commented Andrew of Satamile Records during a recent interview. "My reaction was to just hit pause on Satamile, and start working on Bot during this time. So as far as label work we never stopped, but we had to slow down and wait for the distribution and retail sector to recover along with the rest of the world, of which it seems to be coming back with the whole new vinyl craze as well."
The Digital Revolution, which fully set in during the time of the recession, obviously had its impact on the Electronic music scene; of that there can be no doubt, and perhaps there could be no clearer sign than back when almost every DJ around sold their collection after digitizing it, to settle for a laptop instead of the crates, and the file instead of the record. And who could blame them, with a bad economy came a lack of funds, and cheaper downloads and not having to pay for certain songs you may not want seemed more appealing. As more and more technologies not just like CDJs, but Serato and Traktor began to proliferate; especially with the evolution of the trend into Timecode Vinyl set ups, it seemed ever more apparent that vinyl would be no more. There seemed to be no place for it...or so they would have you believe.
Hardcore enthusiasts still collected it, as classics were now cheap and easy to obtain, and some underground labels like in the Electro Bass scene even turned to cutting services like My Vinyl in France, to release digital material on a "Cut On Demand" service, that while more expensive, served the purpose of making sure many of the great digital releases that would have been lost to cyberspace and the underworld of piracy, were forever stamped unto the almighty wax! Around this time, a few courageous labels also began to pop up. Though as may be expected, being one of the few labels to begin the experiment of trying out vinyl again was no easy task, and many were simply not up for it as they had barely recovered from the collapse, not to mention that the general consensus with distributors; at least for our music and deep underground sub-genres like ours, was that enough numbers could not be moved. "At the time the labels I most respected seemed to be pressing less releases and I felt there was a need for another label to push the Electro sound," says Phil Bolland aka Sync 24 of the infamous Scand parties, and the iconic Cultivated Electronics label. He claims that quite a bit of money was lost on the early releases, showing the hardship of the era, and how difficult it was trying to convince people to go back to vinyl. In time though, while the majority of the world seemed to continue to adapt to the immediately gratifying download, something truly would begin to change. A nostalgic feeling would begin to call back on those who remembered different times, the feeling of "owning" something that wasn't just on a hard drive somewhere, but in your hands. This perhaps, might be the root of what has been happening for the last several years, and it is very exciting news as it only continues to spread like a wildfire!
Statistically, it is reported that as of the first half of 2014, 6.5 million vinyl records had been sold according to Billboard, followed by reports that as of the second half of 2014, sales were up 52% according to the Recording Industry Association Of America. And The trend is only continuing. Over the past couple of years, as streaming has risen in popularity, CD and Digital downloads sales have declined by an average of 10%. It is even more interesting however, how hand-in-hand the rise of vinyl and streaming seems to be; even if the numbers for vinyl are still much lower than that of CD's and Digital overall, it seems as if music lovers are now exclusively listening to music online as we did back in the day with radio, and then going out to buy it in physical formats to truly take part in the full musical experience; something vinyl uniquely offers many people. While it is also true that some are perhaps pirating the music or even just buying vinyl or CDs purely to "own", many people have often complained over the years that downloads just don't feel real, there is no real sense of ownership over something artistic; especially something as charming and nostalgic as vinyl.
Another interesting tidbit in this ongoing vinyl craze, is that the majority of buyers of vinyl records are reported to be 35 and younger according to MusicWatch, and even now big corporations such as Urban Outfitters (who cater mostly to people between 18-25) and Whole Foods are beginning to carry vinyl releases at many stores, as if our beloved vinyl is again becoming an intrinsic part of cosmopolitan culture. Record Store Day, which began in 2008 as an effort by independent record store owners to help spread the word worldwide about Brick and Mortar record shops, has also been a huge success, and has attracted the younger generations by the droves. As the official website explains: "This is a day for the people who make up the world of the record store—the staff, the customers, and the artists—to come together and celebrate the unique culture of a record store and the special role these independently owned stores play in their communities." With special CD and vinyl releases planned specifically for the day, exclusive artist appearances and performances, cookouts, Vinyl DJ sets, and many other interesting community events, not only have the folks who grew up with vinyl gotten a chance to connect with like-minded enthusiasts, but it has also given the younger kids a chance to see what they had been missing growing up in the era of cyberspace.
However, one thing that doesn't take long to notice when walking into a record shop, or even ordering online, (this is an important thing to note especially for the Indies) is that vinyl is actually getting quite expensive these days! Back in the '90s people often complained about how expensive CD's were, which typically sold for around $18 US, now finding that an EP will run you easily about around $15-20 US, and about $25-30 US for an LP album. During the '90s, EPs and LPs; which came from the underground scene, typically sold for around $6 US, and averaged about $10 US for imports. Those prices went up little by little after the turn of the century, where EP's eventually would be found for about $9 US, and $13 US for imports. And in the underground those prices are still hovering more or less about the same, depending on whether the release is limited, or colored for example. As many labels, frustrated with low sales and a lack of distribution, have taken online to mediums such as Bandcamp to sell independently, we have even begun seeing units sold at sometimes even more expensive prices; but with much more thoughtful and creative packaging options than we are used to seeing, often done on the side by the label to save money on manufacturing (cardboard jackets cost, not mentioning how outrageous it would be to pay to do special packaging), but to also offer a more unique buying experience that entices the buyer to want to buy vinyl instead of a CD or download, and justify the reality of paying more for that record. Something that seems to be a necessity these days; primarily for indies if they want to make it.
For major labels, paying for and offering these kind of packaging options have never been much of an issue, and until recently not even a thought in their mind. As the market seems to steer towards uniquely designed covers and special packagings, the higher prices of vinyl in the commercial industry and in the underground obviously reflect the higher manufacturing costs. And while it may not seem worth the effort for Indies to go through such trouble in independently constructing their own packaging and continue releasing competitively, sometimes going that extra mile is what they want, the personal connection to the buyer, and the passion that goes into handcrafting each release. Alek Stark, from the iconic Spanish label Fundamental Records, and the man behind the iconic "808 Box" series, states that: "When I founded Fundamental Records, I want to put the packaging at the same level of the music. I don't want to use a simple jacket made in cheap cardboard, so we decide to create our own jackets in plexiglass and recycled 3mm cardboard with bolts. People love it, but is not easy because our prices are high; but not expensive, and people who buy our releases know about this subtle difference. When you receive our records and you have in your hands… you can feel what I'm talking about. We put all our love in each release!".
The truth is that in order for a sustainable vinyl market to continue in the underground, clearly more labels need to think about not only raising prices, but also offer more creative packaging options to help stay competitive and for the market to continue growing. Fans need to also be much more aware of this as a necessary evil and help support, if we are to continue seeing vinyl output by our favorite labels and artists, that while at higher prices, are offering us a more unique listening and buying experience than we have been used to over the past several years, and on a medium that time and time again continues to make a resurgence....vinyl!
But let's talk about one "unnecessary" evil that has always plagued the underground vinyl market, and that is the incredibly high pressing cost of manufacturing a record, that only continues to rise. Pressing plants, while they may be able to argue their own operating costs, have never offered a different price range for Indie labels; they pay what the majors pay. For commercial labels with big budgets, this may not be an issue, especially when their distribution systems can move well over a 1000 units, but for most Indies these days, even moving 200 can be tough. Doing some simple math, it doesn't take long to realize that anything under 500 units sold through conventional distribution methods is simply not going to help a label break even, and this without being compensated for any of the work whatsoever; label or artists involved. Many in the underground, especially our beloved scene, have been accustomed to working on vinyl projects for free for well over 10 years, under the agreement the label needed to recuperate the pressing costs to continue, and the artist got to have their work on wax. But lately as labels consider getting back into vinyl, or trying it for the first time, the numbers simply do not add up. "Today 150 copies is near of total selling numbers of some labels" mentions Alek Stark, which make each pressing even if sold out, a complete failure financially; unless done independently of course, which can be almost impossible for most these days in regards to moving all of the units themselves. But pressing plants and distributors aren't blinking an eye; and in some cases, not even the fans who don't realize the importance of supporting.
However, as many Indie labels are run in part out of pocket or in partnership to share risk, passionate artists and label owners alike (often one in the same) continue to push forward as what seems like a trickling down of this resurgence in vinyl makes its way into our music. Andy Barton of the infamous Bass Agenda radio show and label says: "The resurgence in vinyl overall is fine - what needs to change is the level of support people give to the music, almost regardless of format. There are probably more people making and releasing this music than buying it and until that changes, vinyl is a feel good luxury for all concerned. You have to enter into it with eyes wide open and accept that no matter how much support you get from DJs and media, it comes down to the majority competing for the attention and money of the minority". But while it is true that many complain of a lack of support in sales, and pirating is still a big issue in a relatively dominant digital market; perhaps even a reason for what might "seem" like a lack of support, it seems more and more that vinyl is indeed making its way back to the deep underground. It doesn't take much to notice the great series of releases by "The Exaltics" and their infamous Solar One Music, or even Fundamental Records and their 808 box series, that show what seems like a definite demand for vinyl releases. As Alek Stark himself comments: "People love it, and we have a big support from our regulars".
As with all trends however, there are upsides and downsides, and with vinyl that involves not only prices, but also steam presses; many decades upon decades old and in need of heavy servicing if not complete rebuilding, which is something not costworthy for any plant to do. While many of the world's plants still own a good number of the existing ones, many had been sold off to newer plants like "R.I.P.-V" in Montreal while downsizing after the recession, but as many of those eventually shut down, plants like Independent Record Pressing in New Jersey, began buying them back, while others around began to do the same. The problem since has been that as the sharp rise in vinyl sales continue, plants like United Record Pressing in Tennessee; the oldest plant in the USA, have come to struggle with the demand, leaving turn-around for most labels, especially Indies, to about 6 months. A major reason why major Indie labels like Epitaph and Fat Possum have decided to take matters into their own hands, and venture into opening their own plants; eventually though, finding themselves in the same position as they take on new clients.
As more and more labels begin to dip their toes in the water though, there is yet another problem that is a big obstacle for most, and that is distribution. "You need a distributor who is proactive and believes in you - and in this climate you just represent a risk," notes Barton. Highlighting how the distribution sector for underground music has not really quite recovered to the point where it was prior to the 2008 collapse, with only a handful still operating worldwide like Clone or Crosstalk out of Chicago. "Dance music vinyl continues to be a low-margin, highly volatile commodity with a short shelf life," comments Phil Hertz, founder of Crosstalk International. "Press runs get shorter, and production times get longer, which means production costs essentially get higher. We’ve survived largely by being small and agile, and able to constantly refocus and shift our priorities." Because of how tough it can be for labels to sign on to distributors, usually only by referral, unsatisfied labels owners have begun to look for independent ways of selling their physical music online, with services like Bandcamp, which even offer different tools like discounts, and digital downloads. Unfortunately though, it has not proven to be as worthwhile of a system to move enough vinyl to help recover costs. "Sales are still pretty low and I am lucky to break even on a release." states Bolland of Cultivated Electronics. Noting on how difficult it is for most labels to continue funding vinyl releases, or even consider getting into it if they have not yet done so. Thankfully, project funding sites like Kickstarter have begun to give people some other avenues to fund vinyl projects and decrease the risk of losing money or not being able to move enough copies. So far however, what seems like the most promising and realistic option for many labels is a new service called "Qrates".
This incredible new system, similar to Bandcamp, is actually designed solely for the purpose of helping labels press and sell vinyl. After uploading the music, and designing the record on a 3D display that then lets buyers look at the finished product, the system begins to collect pre-sales towards the release until it reaches the minimum goal of 100 units. The label and artists can even purchase copies themselves at wholesale prices to sell at shows or on their websites. Once the minimum is reached, Qrates, who works with the best pressing plants around the world, will find the best fit according to the project, and have the record pressed for you. Another option offered is "Press First and Sell", which works similarly, except labels pay ahead for the pressing, and then have the ability to have record stores worldwide buy from them at wholesale prices, with shipments to fans and stores alike handled by Qrates. Their website claims that they have: "Tied up partnerships with record stores worldwide to enable them to order your vinyl at a wholesale price set by you. This 'Store Delivery' system can collect orders from major record stores in Japan, the EU as well as their 200+ partner stores". The system also gives you bonus promotion tools such as downloads, and discounts, to help boost sales and generate a bit of hype as the release is being prepared. A worthwhile look for labels interested in pressing, but unsure about the quantities that will be sold.
Indeed these are exciting times, as many of us for several years have been rather disatisfied with the quality of the music industry, saturated to the bone with digital music, often lacking ingenuity and labels who clearly seemed to not understand the tremendous and professional endeavour that running one can really be. Vinyl has and always will be, a sort of memento that represents more than just music, it represents a cultural approach to how we embrace the art. Audiophiles have long argued the difference in quality of sound, and while ignored for quite some time, it seems people; especially the younger crowd, are finally listening...literally! For the rest of us who have tried to hang on with every bit of our being, this is nothing new, but a way of life; even if a struggle. While the road ahead may not be easy, it will be worth every minute, as we rebuild and not just get back to, but evolve on how things once were. There is a certain aesthetic that goes along with "owning" your art, of being a part of the experience as much as possible, and not just having a virtual copy somewhere on a harddrive. For labels and their artists, there is a tremendous satisfaction that also comes from going through the complex process of manufacturing, releasing and distributing vinyl, something that labels of the Digital Revolution simply could not understand. "Vinyl is good, it feels right, its where a lot of the electronic music we love belongs," notes Barton, "But it comes at a cost". Whether it is worth it or not, is up to you. For the rest of us, its just a way of life. Call it nostalgia, we call it love and dedication to preserve the music.
Written by: Santino Fernandez - TechnoBass