In solidarity for an equal playing field with equal opportunity, woes and tribulations from a small label owner and record collector
As Record Store Day 2 approaches on the 17th July, this is a great way to support your local independent record shop retailer.
After over a year of no live music performances (Download festival pilot and seated gigs notwithstanding), hopefully we all agree that it is worth supporting artists who cannot currently play live due to well… y’know.
While supporting Record Store Day (RSD) certainly does help your independent record shops (there a handful in Cornwall, such as Museum Vinyl in St Austell, Room 33 in Bodmin, Jam Records in Falmouth, Music Nostalgia in Truro…all worth visiting!) as represses of previous releases flood the market, does this help to support grassroots level artists, or harm them?
In fact, this does more harm than good. For certain established artists, Record Store Day (RSD) means a little boost in sales and money for them and their labels. But what about the acts that are doing it all themselves and arrange their own pressings? We are currently in a crisis for pressing vinyl records. The demand has shot up in recent years, while the supply has taken several enormous knocks. The effect of this has been a real bottlenecking of multiple labels all competing against each other to try and get their orders in with a small number of pressing plants which are more often than not based in Europe, in countries such as Germany and Czechia. So far, this doesn’t surprise anyone looking to arrange runs of 300-500 records. We are used to having to wait in line while the major labels such as Sony/Dreamworks etc will offer all sorts of lovely incentives to pressing plants to prioritise their larger orders over the orders being placed by smaller labels.
Especially in conjunction with RSD, which bumps up the time-sensitive demands from major labels even further to ensure their product is made, packaged, marketed and distributed in time for the 17th July.
Karen Emanuel, CEO of Key Production, who help arrange small runs of pressings as low as 300 copies for artists and labels, explains that
“UK vinyl album sales are the highest since the Brit Pop boom of the 1990s. But, despite a number of boutique pressing plants opening up both in the UK, USA and Europe, there just isn’t enough capacity to go around. Turnarounds that averaged three weeks in 1990, went to between three and four months in 2017, readjusted to two months in 2019 and are now averaging about six months, although some factories are quoting nine months – just think, you could make a baby in the same amount of time that you press a record!”.
There is a great interview she gives here if you wish to explore this further.
In Feb 2020, the Californian Apollo plant lay in charred ruins following a fire. It provided around 75% of the global supply of blank aluminium discs coated in a secret mix of nitrocellulose lacquer.
Audio engineers all over the world use blank lacquers to cut the master recording that’s used to press any number of copies into vinyl records for a growing number of consumers interested in a music technology that continues to escape obsolescence. Apollo Masters was one of only two sources for blank lacquer masters. The only other company producing them is Japanese firm MDC, a smaller operation that’s already topped-out production of blank lacquers and has confirmed it won’t be taking new orders anytime soon
Direct Metal Mastering (DMM) is an alternative method for producing new vinyl records that foregoes the need for lacquers altogether. The alternate pressing technology declined in use through the 1980s, and today there are no DMM record manufacturers left in the US, but there are still manufacturers using DMM in Europe. Further bottlenecking on the few vinyl production plans based in Europe that cut records using the DMM technique! On top of which, audiophiles will readily tell you that there is a decline in sound quality and increased surface noise on DMM cuts as opposed to lacquer cuts, but that’s neither here nor there when even DMM cuts are impossible to book in.
Coupled with being put repeatedly at the back of the line by pressing plants that favour the major music industry players, smaller acts and labels are now also facing increased delays due to Brexit and Covid 19, while prices continue to climb steadily as demand increases.
So, now that we’ve explored some of the reasons why the vinyl production is in crisis, we can hopefully understand why the smaller, grassroots bands and labels are suffering – they simply cannot get their Records made without incurring increased costs and ever spiralling waiting times.
Why can’t independent artists and labels simply cut their own records? It’s not an impossibility, but to do this would take hefty investment…even doing this in a DIY fashion and trying to keep overheads small is going to cost you upwards of £10k. And then you’d still have to compete with other bigger plants for the raw materials necessary…imports of which you are now liable to pay additional customs charges for due to Brexit. Here’s a (dated) video of how a vinyl record gets made using lacquer, to give you an idea of the process behind it all…the process is not cheap, quick or easy. While processes have certainly moved on since then, it’s still an enormous undertaking.
It begs the question, as consumers – why should we consider buying vinyl at all? Isn’t the carbon footprint behind making records enough to put us off the format in any case? Well, streaming music has a carbon footprint too. It requires servers, cooling systems etc. It’s easy to dissociate the carbon footprint when you can’t actually physically see it, but if you stream any album more than 27 times…the greener option would actually be to have bought the record. What we can hope for, however, is a future in which records are pressed with a smaller carbon footprint than we are currently faced with. It can be done, but is yet to be viable on a commercial scale.
When this does become an option, it will be the major labels holding all the cards – they will have to demand greener processes, as the press plants will always favour their large sums of cash over the smaller runs required by independent labels and artists. In short, the money will do the talking, which leaves the whole scenario in the hands of major labels simply deciding that they want to get more sustainable products onto the market, and then applying the pre-requisite pressure onto the manufacturing plants. Sadly, I’m not holding my breath for this – it’s usually the grassroots artists that care more about this sort of stuff – but they don’t hold the purse strings that will be necessary to create change. Perhaps it is time for consumers to demand this change from the ground up, along with environmental activism concerned with the sustainability of press records. The tricky bit will be supporting records, artists, and independents by buying records, while simultaneously demanding change from an industry that they already support.
If you have some cash spare and you want to support musical artists, I would encourage you all to forego the Record Store Day splash-out of buying represses at an inflated price, and encourage you to find a grassroots/underground band’s website, and buy something directly from them – they won’t have been able to partake in the RSD marketing boom.
Or by all means pop into your local record store around Record Store Day and support the store (even if that does contribute to the problematic RSD boom as a side-effect), but maybe have a browse at the other records amongst the RSD repress releases, and take a chance on a band you’re not overly familiar with. It would mean the world to them that they haven’t been entirely forgotten during the last 15 months! Or, just visit your local record store more frequently, but give RSD a wide berth…