Guys, have you heard? LPs are coming back. Collecting records is so trendy. Digital sucks. The future is vinyl.
Yes, you've heard, because people have been hyping vinyl nostalgia for years. A recent report from Nielson SoundScan fanned the flame, revealing that LP sales climbed 32 percent last year, increasing for the sixth year in a row. On the flip side, digital album sales dropped for the first time since iTunes launched.
Look at that spike; how can you deny analog music's supremacy? But if you actually crunch the numbers, vinyl records are just 2 percent of total album sales. Or, less than 1 percent of the Harlem Shake's YouTube views.
So is it all buzz, or is wax really making a comeback?
Of course, the resurgence of vinyl is inextricably linked to the demise of CDs. When compact discs first made their splash, many vinyl factories shuttered their doors, convinced this was The Future. There are now 16 total plants in the US, some holding strong since the pre-CD era, and some that have sprung up in the last decade to ride the new vinyl wave. Quality Record Pressing in Kansas opened in 2011, Gotta Groove in Cleveland in 2009, and Brooklyn Phono in 2002. Some of these are using recycled vinyl and reconditioned presses—the last of which was built in 1982.
Pressing plants are feeling the strain of increasing demand for vinyl albums, and they're ramping up production, working overtime to fill orders. In an interview last year, Chad Kassem, owner of Quality Record Pressings, told the New York Times, "We’ve always had more work than we could do. When we had one press, we had enough orders for two. When we had two, we had enough orders for four. We never spent a dollar on advertising, but we’ve been busy from the day we opened.”
Labels are finding it hard to schedule time at the factories, which are frequently backlogged. Part of the reason is that major labels are reissuing old albums on vinyl, slowing down the process for newer artists—in 2010 Apple decided to reissue the remastered versions of nearly every Beatles album. But interestingly, young people making the bulk of vinyl purchases aren't just searching out the classics in used record stores; they're buying pop music new. Check out the top 10 LPs sold in 2013—I love the irony of Daft Punk topping the list.
- Daft Punk—Random Access Memories
- Vampire Weekend—Modern Vampires of the City
- Arcade Fire—Reflektor
- Mumford & Sons—Babel
- Mumford & Sons—Sigh No More
- Queens of the Stone Age—…Like Clockwork
- Bon Iver—For Emma Forever Ago
- The National—Trouble Will Find Me
- Justin Timberlake—The 20/20 Experience
Compare that to three years ago, when Abbey Road, Dark Side of the Moon, and Thriller were among the top 10, and you can sense the direction the tides are turning. Now labels and independent artists are increasingly opting to release their new singles and albums on vinyl, even though it's expensive as hell to do—it can run you anywhere from $2 to $10 per album. Obviously, manufacturing the large wax discs has always been expensive than copying 1s and 0s, but the shortage of record presses raises prices further.
Pressing plants are like a time warp to the past; the record-making process has barely changed in a half a century. This rad RCA Victor promo video from 1956 explains that process and has been making the rounds on the internet this week.
Compared to burning Mp3s onto a hard drive, it's cumbersome, pricey, and takes a lot of human oversight. And since companies stopped making record-production machinery, if something breaks you have to get creative. In an NPR interview a few years back, one of the many features on vinyl's comeback, Will Socolov, owner of EKS Manufacturing told the station, "I know pressing plants that have gone out of business that people have bought not to get the presses. They bought it to get the parts."
But that organic, warm, analog aesthetic is a huge part of vinyl's appeal. The more popular streaming music gets—and it rose 32 percent last year, according to SoundScan—the analog countertrend is likely to parallel that. If the trend really takes off—you know, if LP sales climb to a whole 10 percent of total album sales—the business of manufacturing records will feel the strain.