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    Are We in the Midst of a Vinyl Bubble?

    Written by

    Michael Byrne


    I'm surprised this essay didn't get more traction in the couple of months since it's been out, as it's pretty much on point about something very dear to a great many people highly talented in spreading stuff around the internet. The essay, courtesy of the Numero Group’s Rob Sevier and Ken Shipley, targets something I think many of us have been feeling, particularly every year around Record Store Day, about the vinyl record boom and manufactured demand. The situation is getting stupid, a spectacle of diminishing returns propping up consumption at the expense of ... music. 

    From The Wire:

    The limited edition, once a reasonable countermeasure to over-serving demand, has become the groan-inducing lingua franca of the vinylsphere. Call it, in more pessimistic terms, the ‘manufactured rarity’. Alongside the vinyl medium’s desirability in terms of sound reproduction, the new vinyl market loads in a range of ostensible value additives: coloured vinyl, splatter vinyl, clear vinyl, picture discs, liquid-filled discs, unplayable speeds, unwieldy sizes, outlandish packaging... The art of packaging can be an impressive creative pursuit in able hands, but cliches are already rampant and whatever initial excitement limited runs might have generated has given way to rote adherence to convention. Such gimmickry has always existed, of course, though it has historically been deployed for supplemental releases aimed at superfans of a given artist or album. As the desire for physical media shrank rapidly, it became a matter of time before the casual vinyl buyer got mistaken for that same superfan. 

    Most buyers of contemporary releases on vinyl are already aware of, and perhaps perturbed by, the current circumstances, but for those still blissfully unaware, it’s worth explicating: it’s now perfectly commonplace that a new LP sells on eBay, for some crooked multiplier of its sticker price, before copies of that same product have been sold out by the retailers. As cognitively dissonant as that fact may be, it’s a fixture of the new vinyl marketplace, especially in light of that most tedious inbred cousin of the ticket tout, the vinyl speculator. Speculators claim no attachment to the music they purchase; rather, they simply hunt more rabidly than you’re willing to, preying afterwards on secondary-market superfans’ desperation. Whether or not such speculators might some day bankroll their children’s educations on blood-splattered Norwegian Metal 7"s remains to be seen. But if the massive bubble in the value of vinyl bursts, the stakes outstrip some speculator’s envisioned summer home in Michigan wine country – also at risk is overall consumer confidence in an already fragile economy for both artists and labels.

    How do we keep the bubble from popping? Easy: real value.

    Creating a sustainable vinyl marketplace is going to require more than picture discs, record store days, speculators and coffee-table LPs. Labels and artists should be making viable, well crafted and thoughtfully packaged releases that earn their bin longevity, are by no means limited, and don’t cost arms, legs or bodily fluids. Buyers in the 90s baseball card boom convinced themselves they were sitting on cardboard gold. New goal: convince young buyers of vinyl that the value of their purchases comes out of speakers, not out of auction sites. After all, it’s just a piece of vinyl.

    There's a good point here, but I think there's an important thing to note in that pressing vinyl in the year 2013 is not casual, or at least not as casual as it was back when vinyl was standard. Of course, the Numero Group dudes know that better than anyone, but it's a slight problem for their baseball card analogy. When those special edition baseball cards came out costing a whole dollar, the rise was fairly independent of production costs; producing baseball cards was still commonplace. With records, we have shuttered production plants, rising petroleum costs (gas is all pretty special edition now too, if you haven't noticed), fewer PVC suppliers, and so on.  

    I'm not trying to excuse "special edition" vinyl culture by way of rising production costs, but when you're talking about making records a casual experience, it's just worth mentioning that producing records still isn't much of a casual experience. It's, well, special.

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.