Following Brexit and then a pandemic, independent labels and artists were already being crippled by the costs and delays to their vinyl releases, now they have been compounded by major artists block booking pressing plants. Last week Variety reported Sony insiders discussing the vinyl run of Adele‘s new album 30, which includes a 500,000 strong initial pressing in the run-up to release.
Demand for vinyl LPs is now far outstripping supply with the UK’s small capacity vinyl pressing plants with just six in this country and one hundred worldwide, unable to turn out records fast enough. Most of the vinyl sold in the UK is shipped from Germany. Vinyl records have also seen their average price spiral.
Ed Sheeran‘s smug boasts to Australian radio last week, discussing his own ‘=’ album, back up the news of block booking of scarce pressing plants by major label name acts. “There’s like three vinyl factories in the world… so you have to do it like really upfront — and Adele had basically booked out all the vinyl factories, so we had to get a slot and get our album in there. It was like me, Coldplay, Adele, Taylor, ABBA, Elton (John), all of us were trying to get our vinyls printed at the same time.”
Chris Marksberry, head of Sound Performance, the leading UK music manufacturing business, told the i, about the pressure on supply: “You see the majors use their buying power to push people out of the way to secure capacity. They have a massive back catalogue and a current release schedule so they have more muscle. Universal (the world’s biggest music label) has block-booked capacity across the US. They are looking two or three years ahead.”
It’s another sickening blow for independent labels who are already under financial pressure having to incur more upfront costs, delays and having to push their releases well into 2022 and 2023. It heaped pressure on independent artists having to finish their records this year just to stand any chance of getting a vinyl run of their release out next year. It also speaks to the inequality in the industry, from the Broken Record streaming inequalities to the absurd ticket prices that major label acts can charge, whilst small venues struggle to survive. Everywhere you look the grassroots music scene is under threat and pressure. Independent artists and labels facing crushing costs.
Richard Burke head honcho of Irish label Blow Torch Records explain the hit their label is taking “It’s having a financial impact. To get the vinyl pressed you have to pay upfront which means you have to do a pre-order to try and get money back. Some people are patient but others won’t wait 7-8 months for delivery.”
In the ’90s and early ’00s the independents kept vinyl sustainable as a format, major labels have in the past few years realised the profitability of the vinyl boom, producing multiple versions of their artist’s releases.
“Basically the indies who kept the last few pressing plants alive during the dark days of the ’90s/’00s are now the ones getting squeezed by the greed of the majors,” Rodney Cromwell, at Happy Robots Records a London imprint that recently released a record by Alice Hubble explains.
As well as block booking by majors, there are more factors at play that have made releasing a record on vinyl increasingly difficult, delayed and costly for independent artists and labels. We have spoken to a range of passionate people who run labels to find out more about the factors and challenges they face.
Delays and upfront Costs
Lloyd at Sheffield based Bingo Records who are the home to the likes of Melin Melyn and The Bug Club strikes a foreboding tone: “No doubt, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard about these long vinyl delays which are affecting every record label there is, pretty much. And depending on how often you read the news, you’ll have probably heard about what, from where I’m standing, looks like the impending collapse of the vinyl industry almost completely, and the fact that a combination of rising costs, increasing lead-times, and untenable demand on passing plants is fast excluding small independent labels like ours from the vinyl market. That is why labels are increasingly sacking off vinyl completely (more on that later) – which is not what we are doing at the moment.
“The cost of producing a vinyl record has been going up by about 10% every couple of months recently, and lead times have increased by up to 400% in the past 6 months or so (from 3 months to up to a year in the worst cases). This is based on invoices I’ve received – other people’s experiences may differ, by the way.”
Jack at longstanding Oxford-based indie Alcopop Records observes “I think the key problem is cash flow. Having to pay for records 9 months before you can sell them is a real problem, as is the very real agenda of how to keep that campaign rolling when there are a lot of people to pay. If you drop a couple more singles, they don’t come for free. It all costs; pluggers, press people, MCPS, artwork, videos etc. etc. – and while we used to be able to drop a well-timed pre-order to cover some of those initial outlays, you can’t really do that 36 weeks out.
Couple that with the energy surcharge… Yup, we’re all paying an extra 10p per record produced now because of the problems with supply… and the fact that some record pressers are adding a clause where they can add extra cost 6 months down the line (who knows where the world will be then), and it just feels like the outlays for vinyl are rising all the time.”
Gruff Owen, head of Libertino home to some of our favourite Welsh artists including Adwaith, Bandicoot and Kidsmoke explained the impact it’s having on his label “After the delays in finishing albums and releasing them due to COVID the added vinyl shortage is hard for our artists. Where it would be around four months usually we are now looking at 10 months plus on some releases. It’s forcing us to push back releases to next summer or as we have done with three albums this year release the albums digitally with a physical release next year backed by tours then. Not only is it making harder to promote campaigns like this over a longer period of time it’s harder financially as it will now take much longer before we can break even on releases.”
Roxanne De Bastion explained how her albums vinyl release had been delayed and the issues she faces as an artist because of it: “We ordered vinyl for my new album, ‘You & Me, We Are The Same’ back in March. Delays already started with the test pressings, which finally arrived in June”.
“Release date for the album was September 3rd, but it soon became clear that the vinyl wasn’t going to arrive in time. We were eventually given a new delivery date for November 5th and adapted the campaign accordingly. Unfortunately, we were then told there would be a further delay (without any explanation or much notice…). I’m now expecting them for November 26th”.
“I appreciate everyone’s in the same boat, but it is frustrating and does have an impact on an album campaign. I’ve had to move in-store gigs twice and of course, all of this also has an impact on the possibility of charting. Luckily music fans have been very kind and patient.”
“I’ve got my fingers crossed that there won’t be any further delays in this instance. I should probably add that I’ve finally been able to tour again, which I’m super grateful for, but missing out on vinyl sales at those shows is quite the financial hit, especially after 18 months of lost income from cancelled gigs etc…”
Sarah Lay at Reckless Yes an independent label that offer a subscription told us: “Having made it through 2020 with only a couple of changes to our schedule (due to bands not being able to complete records in lockdown) this year has been constantly shifting sands that have really threatened our existence and certainly put all our plans for growth on the back burner.
Records which went into production at the end of 2020 for release in spring 2021 were unexpectedly delayed – with two key releases we only found out in the weeks before they were due for delivery (and release). This meant it was too late to radically change plans as PR campaigns were already well underway and paid for. For a small label like us the outlay of vinyl, PR, plugging and digital marketing is no small investment and not something we can afford to ‘write off’ and start over because of these unexpected delays. Without live music supporting release, we had to make the best we could of releasing without records ready for buyers and shops.
We then hit the suddenly lengthened lead-in times. Having previously worked comfortably to 12-16 week lead-ins and always prided ourselves on having the vinyl on release day, we were told in May there were no slots left for this year and any record ordered wouldn’t be delivered until 2022. That’s not a situation we could work with (or, honestly, survive). It completely undermines our membership model for a start and put at risk the investments we’d made in campaigns. So, we (Pete, really) did some really fast work to (reluctantly) change our agent and secure us slots. This meant rather than paying on delivery, we now had to find all the money upfront for the remaining releases for the year. We’ll be trying to recover that investment for a good while.
Looking ahead we’re facing 2022 where the majority of our releases will be at the end of the year due to the continuing long lead-times for vinyl. That’s unlikely to improve while Majors and big artists are block booking plants really. This gives us a potentially fallow first half of the year and then handling 5-8 full releases campaigns with releases falling within a couple of months. There are only 2 of us here, it’s not our full-time job so deciding to go forward with that sort of schedule has been really hard, and remains pretty risky.”
Vinyl is also a resource in an era more concerned with being conscious of climate change, sustainable ways of producing vinyl will become more popular and perhaps more costly too. Sarah explains Reckless Yes’s approach to being sustainable.
“As part of our commitment to produce music in the most sustainable way we also only order eco vinyl (where leftover virgin pellets from other runs are mixed together resulting in a ‘lucky dip’ colour and effect) but there is a shortage of colour – only black vinyl is possible now. Not the biggest of the issues but reducing the ways we can be creative or competitive in a really busy market where aesthetic can be.”
“The pressing plants are in a very privileged position now and can absolutely call the shots.” notes Jack “We’re not allowed to press any vinyl now without ‘printed parts’ (i.e. a sleeve or discobag) because it’s not worth their time. Doesn’t sound much of a problem for your ‘standard’ shop releases – but I feel for those cool DIY labels who cut costs and painstakingly create their own sleeves or single series sleeves (Popty Ping spring to mind). It’s forward-thinking people like that who are so key to promoting brand new music they love, and with all these extra costs, it may price new pioneers out of the market.”
Leaving the EU has resulted in swinging postage costs, logistical issues and red tape for independent labels and artists. Rodney Cromwell at Happy Robots, an indietronica label explains some of the background issues since the 2016 referendum and how that has impacted upfront costs for labels too. “It all started to go Pete Tong in 2016 after the Brexit vote, the collapsed pound alone meant the price of pressing 300 7” singles went up by about £200 in the space of a year…. 2020/21 things have really come to a head though. Where normally it would take 6-8 weeks to receive a pressing after signing off the test pressing it’s now 6-8 months if you are lucky. The record I signed off in April 21 I’ve been told I can expect the end of Jan 22!
And of course, because all the pressing plants are in the EU now we are getting hit with additional import charges to get the records into the country. I got hit with a £180 bill to import two boxes of LPs from Germany … Of course, I’d been selling them as pre-orders already so I wasn’t able to pass that onto the customers (had I wanted to do so)”
Jack at Alcopop agrees that postage and import costs are hitting labels hard. Citing the cost of “couriers from inside of the EU to the UK. It’s just more money on top isn’t it? Thanks, Brexit.”
“The problems are not only with vinyl production though – it’s currently the most visible part of the situation facing indies. It’s also about the packaging shortage and rising costs, and the absolute mess of shipping, particularly internationally” Sarah at Reckless points out “Competition for coverage is heightened through delayed releases on top of the regular packed schedule and small artists tend to lose out in that situation.”
Lloyd agrees “Whatever your political stance on it, it is undeniable that Brexit has been a disaster for organisations like Bingo. The vast majority of pressing plants are in Europe, and the hold-ups at borders and logistical issues/shortages that have been widely covered in the news have been a nightmare. Things take ages to arrive, and trade issues impact what resources are available. You’ve seen the news. It’s not all fake, honest.”
“We already made the decision to go with a more expensive, UK based plant in order to avoid further issues and delays caused by Brexit.” Reveals De Baston. “Unfortunately the demand is so high that orders from independent artists often get bumped for larger orders placed by major labels.”
The 18-month lockdown was a real body blow to independent music and labels, with venues shut down and record shops shut and we are still seeing the after-effects. Sarah has found that “Lockdowns have affected the physical business of record shops so distribution is approached ever-more cautiously, and live music – previously a key way of promoting and selling music – is also still limited.”
The pandemic has affected production on some more practical levels, too according to Bingo Records “This has meant that pressing plants have had to operate at half capacity as people have to work socially distanced away from each other. While this has been going on the amount of vinyl that is being ordered has only increased, thus the waiting list only gets longer. More is being demanded while less is being supplied: the backlog piles up.”
Cost of raw materials
Burke of Blowtorch Records blames a knock-on of lockdown and a surge in demand being to blame for a lack of raw materials needed to produce vinyl records. “Raw materials being diverted to make PPE masks during the pandemic, majors cashing in on vinyl revival by reissuing back catalogue, Brexit supply issues and lack of PVC from the US. The main problem is just a lack of capacity. Most of the machines were decommissioned in the CD era. So the plants prioritise big orders from the majors as they don’t have to change the plates very often. They probably order 500k copies, independents like us order 250 or 500.”
“The shortages, coupled with the high demand, has led to the inevitable rise in costs of materials needed to make vinyl.” Agrees Lloyd at Bingo: “There have also been a number of well-documented issues with plastic manufacturing worldwide (such as the weather in Texas damaging a huge chunk of the world’s PVC production) which has contributed to limited supply and therefore the rising costs of key raw materials needed to make records. There have also been shortages in cardboard for sleeves, allegedly due to the fact that, during the pandemic, so much cardboard has been used by the likes of Amazon for its huge uptick in packages, it sends out. I’m told this has led to cardboard costing 10-15% more. The shortage of pressing plants and the slow recruitment of skilled workers who can operate them links to this as well if you consider these elements a ‘raw component’ of creating records. (Economists might tell me off for making that leap, I dunno, sorry, 17-year-old Lloyd ‘learned’ politics by reading articles about Gang of Four (the band) and pretending to understand Marxism!) All this means things cost more, and delivery is delayed if raw materials are used up and we are waiting for replenishments.”
The ‘vinyl revival’
The vinyl boom shows no sign of slowing, with UK sales soaring by 30 per cent last year. But the revival in demand for vinyl is a victim of its own success, with major labels not only booking for major new releases but high demand for reissues too. Last year Fleetwood Mac‘s Rumours was the biggest selling vinyl record in the UK.
This coupled with multiple formats and colours has played into the blocked pressing plants. “The persistent increase in the popularity of vinyl has meant that now, pretty much everything is pressed on vinyl, often in multiple colours and packages.” Notes Lloyd “Naturally, this means there is more demand on pressing plants while the capacity of pressing plants available to labels has not really increased in recent years at all. Larger orders from majors – who in the past may have ignored vinyl completely – often take priority as they are paying more, pushing independent releases further down the list. And massive artists obviously press loads of records that in the past may not have been pressed (and could also be ‘panic ordering’ even larger amounts so they don’t run out and have to wait ages to re-press), which is just another facet of the increased and unsustainable demand. Also, from an economic point of view, it makes more sense for plants to press large runs of records, as it means changing the plate/stampers less often, which is a slow and expensive process which needs to be done for every time a new record is about to be pressed. So it is faster and more cost-effective for plants to press large runs; large runs are typically not what small indie labels can afford to do. Finally, the rise in the fetishisation of coloured vinyl – which slows things down as changing colours on a press requires cleaning – slows things down thus reducing capacity compared to what would be viable if only black was being pressed.”
Record Store Day (and other similar events with special releases)
Record Store Day too plays into the problems with a high mark-up on one-off prices and limited editions, and with so many Record Store Day and special releases, it’s adding to the supply issue. “Obviously Record Store Day has been a lifeline for shops, but it’s killing small labels in many cases.” Lloyd warns “Re-presses of old records in deluxe packages clog up the plants, and the fact that labels push them through at the plants with priority to meet the deadlines for the dates means once again things like what we make slide down the list. This compounds the shortages and unsustainable demand issues.”
Sarah sounds a note of dire warning for grassroots and independent music, by a confluence of factors that threaten the very existence of many labels and the ability of many artists to continue. “The pressure on the grassroots and small/medium independent levels is intense and there is a real risk to them collapsing which would be bad for our culture but bad for the industry too. I see very little support from industry bodies on the situation, and while indies could co-operate and come together there’s a huge logistical block to overcome before that really gains any traction.”
With vinyl in such high demand, many smaller labels are turning to CD or digital-only releases, or even turning into cassette labels. But the costs and demands of existing as a label coupled with the demand for vinyl albums, make it unviable for many labels and artists.
“I shouldn’t be all doom and gloom. With great demand comes great desire to get involved, and I have total faith that in a year’s time we’ll be in a much better position. Also – it forces us to think again about vinyl.”Jack strikes a more positive tone urging independent labels to diversify once again. “Yes it’s the format du jour of course, but more and more people seem to be digging CDs these days, and it can’t be too long before Minidiscs make a comeback, right? Right? Maybe wrong on that, but indie label folk are a resilient bunch, and there’s no doubt they’ll come through fighting with innovative and brilliant ideas. You just watch ‘em!!!
It’s happened before. It’ll happen again. But knocks in the music industry are commonplace, and the love of wonderful hits will ALWAYS triumph! “