Manufacturers struggle to keep up with record demand for vinyl

The arrival of CD nearly wiped out record albums, as vinyl presses were sold, scrapped, and scrapped by major record companies.

Four decades later, with record albums sales reviving double-digit annual growth, manufacturers are rapidly rebuilding an industry to keep pace with the billion-dollar sales last year.

Dozens of cylinder pressing plants have been built to try to meet demand in North America – and that still isn’t enough.

Mark Michaels, CEO and chairman of United Record Pressing, the nation’s largest record producer, in Nashville, Tennessee, said the industry “has found new equipment, and is accelerating at a new pace.”

The demand for vinyl records has been surging in double digits for more than a decade, and mass retailers like Target have been boosting their selection of albums just as the pandemic has caused a sudden shock. With music tours canceled, and people stuck at home, music fans are starting to pick up record albums at a faster pace.

Record album sales grew 61% in 2021 — reaching $1 billion for the first time since the 1980s — far outpacing the growth rates of paid music subscriptions and streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

Record albums were almost forgotten with sales outpaced by cassette tapes before CDs discarded both. Then came digital downloads, online hacking, Apple iPods, and 99 cent downloads. Streaming services are everywhere now.

But nostalgia for baby-boomers who missed seeing record albums at local record stores helped fuel the resurgence of vinyl that began about 15 years ago.

It coincided with the launch of Record Store Day to celebrate independent record stores, said Larry Jaffe, author of Record Store Day: The Unlikely Return of the 21st Century.

These days, though, it’s more than just baby boomers.

Jaffee noted that a new generation is buying turntables and albums – and cassette tapes, too – and a new generation of artists such as Adele, Ariana Grande and Harry Styles have moved on to vinyl.

In Pittsburgh, taxi driver Jamila Grady is too young, at 34, to remember the heyday of record stores.

But she found the records irresistible. She created murals from some of the album covers from nearly 50 albums she’s purchased since 2019, starting with Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” She admits it’s an indulgence because she already listens to music through Soundcloud, Apple Music, and Pandora.

“For the record players, there’s something so beautiful about setting the record, putting it on the thruster, and dropping the needle,” she said.

Manufacturers had to start almost from scratch.

The main brands have long closed their factories, but new companies have appeared on the Internet. Record makers that have launched over the past 10 to 15 years include Toronto-based Precision Record Pressing, Memphis Record Pressing, Cleveland’s Gotta Groove Records and Kansas’ Quality Record Pressing.

Jack White of White Stripes opened his own vinyl press factory, Third Man Pressing, in 2017 in Detroit and has appealed to major record companies to reopen manufacturing facilities.

There are now about 40 plants in the United States – most of which are smaller operations – but challenges remain.

A nationwide backlog of six to eight months due to increased demand, and supply chain disruptions in raw materials, including vinyl polymers, has caused problems, Michaels said.

It is not easy to launch a new compression plant because there are only a few companies—none of them in the United States—that make recording press machines. These machines are also delayed.

Bob Ludwig, the multiple Grammy winner who set up Gateway Mastering Studios in Portland, Maine, said people can discuss sound quality, but it’s about emotional response, not technical specs.

A friend who listened to Ludwig’s remastered version of Queen’s “Night at the Opera” described it as “amazing” and “electric”.

“I love trying vinyl. It’s all about it.” Mark Mazzetti, an independent A&R executive who has worked for Sting, Janet Jackson and others at A&M Records, said to me, there’s a sexy sound when I play discs that I don’t feel from digital recordings.

No one knows the record growth ceiling because of limited supply, said Chris Brown, vice president of finance at Bull Moose Records, a record New England supermarket chain.

He said that new releases often fail to meet demand, and reorders take longer, leaving little capacity for lesser-known eclectic albums.

“Part of the fun of collecting records is being surprised,” he said. “But the mid-level material is not printed, or there is a long wait.”

Record producers gather this week in Nashville for their annual trade event called The Making of Vinyl.

People at work are excited about growth, said Brian Equus, president of Making Vinyl, and it’s a lot like “printing money” for manufactures as sales soar to new heights each year.

“No one knows how long the run will last, so there is a feeling we should be making hay while the sun is shining,” Equus said.

In Nashville, she launched United Record Pressing in 1949 and never stopped producing records. It is currently in the midst of a $15 million expansion that will triple its capacity in the middle of next year.

Michaels can’t help but wonder how long the double-digit growth can last, but he said he’s optimistic about the future.

He said it was a pleasure and good for business to see high school students and young adults showing an interest in records.

“I believe in music and I believe in the importance of music in people’s lives. I don’t think that’s changing,” he said.

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Sharp reported from Portland, Maine.

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Follow David Sharp on Twitter at https://twitter.com/@David_Sharp_AP

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