A perfect storm is raging in the record industry and the early casualties will be the independent labels that kept the vinyl pressing industry going when the majors were shunning it. Sales are still on the rise and the impact of the Covid pandemic, Brexit, a global shortage of raw materials and the might of the majors risks sinking DIY labels. We talk to some of those affected by the current vinyl crisis.
As my teenage years descended into weekly scourings of record shops, there were always labels that grabbed my eye: Fierce Panda, Damaged Goods, Heavenly, Sub Pop – then onto Ugly Man, Twisted Nerve, Sympathy For The Record Industry. They were labels that were almost like a stamp of quality, knowing that each release had been carefully selected by the label.
They were and continue to be springboards for some artists, with that first release that catches the eye of the bigger fish: The Manics, Placebo, Ash, Supergrass, Interpol, The White Stripes, Green Day and many more. They all had their first releases on small independent labels. And those havens still continue today. Bands like black midi and Squid both released their first singles on Speedy Wunderground, who have just released Stephen Fretwell’s latest album, before signing with labels that, while still independent, certainly have more clout.
When not launching the next big things, those smaller labels are busy creating a home for so many bands, carefully selecting releases that build on an idea of their label. From Damaged Goods to Spinout Nuggets, Raving Pop Blast! to Dirty Water, Fuzz Club to Howlin’ Banana to FOLC… the list goes on. Each has their own identity, their own stamp of quality, like friends suggesting new music, week in, week out.
The Big Fish Eat The Little Ones
These were the kinds of labels that propped up the dying vinyl industry through the late ’80s and into the ’90s, when the majors were shifting all their energy to the CD market, repackaging and re-releasing their back catalogue to people who had already bought the original LPs. Now that it’s come back around, the smaller labels are the ones losing out, as more labels vie for the decreased pressing capacity, to print their latest release on limited splattered wax. The major labels have once again jumped back on the vinyl bandwagon to lap up the limited capacity, initially left drained after they pulled out and left pressing plants to shut down.
Ian Damage of Damaged Goods says, “There seem to be just too many records being pressed for the capacity that exists, when you have every major label trawling their back catalogue and repressing some truly shit albums again and again that you can happily find in charity shops, or very cheap on Discogs/eBay. This takes away capacity that all the indie labels have been happily using since the majors gave up on the ‘dead format LP’ back in the late ’80s. We’ve always pressed our records on vinyl, never thought it was dead.”
Arthur Andrew Jay of Raving Pop Blast! adds, “These people are not fans of music like small DIY labels are. They are just selling product. I wish people weren’t so easily led by marketing scams. Ask yourself, how did the ‘vinyl revival’ come about? It wasn’t a natural thing. It was planned and designed to resell Fleetwood Mac and Queen LPs.”
Lee Grimshaw of Spinout Nuggets sees a crack of light in the situation, despite maintaining that the reissuing of old records is what is driving the reduced capacity for pressing: “I might be speaking too soon, but it feels like things are starting to pick up again. Personally, I see part of the problem being all the ‘remastered/reboxed/
It’s exactly that marketing that is one of the main factors in demand: transparent vinyl, coloured, glow in the dark, splatter, indie shop exclusive with bonus EPs. It taps into the collector’s consciousness and is something that not only the majors are guilty of. But those special editions are putting even more strain on pressing plants, as pressing machines need to be cleaned thoroughly between presses, increasing wait times even further.
Of course, the music is what is important, but there was a quote from the documentary The Last Shop Standing that always stuck with me. You can love a song, but you can’t love an MP3. You can love a record. It’s totally true and it’s what makes vinyl my own preferred format. It’s something to hold; it’s tangible in a world driven more every day by abstract bits and bytes. There’s a physical connection to the music.
In such a situation, though, priority will obviously be given to the customers that are pressing more. Pressing plants are a business after all. Arthur Andrew Jay continues, “Being a smaller ‘DIY’ label means obviously having less financial wallop, so for example, whereas a Raving Pop Blast! biggest seller on vinyl will maybe hit 300 to 500 copies if we’re very lucky, a bigger label who are able to press 3000 to 5000 in one go is obviously going to get given priority. Even if they’re pressing smaller numbers, the very fact they may order 300 copies of 25 different LPs in one go, that’s still more than we can do.”
With less money, smaller DIY labels need the cash from one release to feed into the next, something that is becoming an ever-more precarious situation, as Ian Damaged says: “We are being quoted delivery dates of February and March ’22 for stuff we are cutting this week. It’s hopeless; all the excitement of something spontaneous has gone. It’s rubbish. If you have a good seller, it’s six months for the restock…brilliant!” And that’s the restock with the pressing plate ready to go. Some labels are being quoted nine months for the turnaround of a new record, a situation that is completely unsustainable for them.
And this is a situation affecting labels across the globe, by no means isolated to the UK. Tom Picton of French label Howlin’ Banana confirms, “The average time for a vinyl pressing has almost doubled in the last six months. This obviously impacts our planning, as we have to plan ahead and launch pressings earlier than usual.” As with any market, when demand outstrips supply, there is always the same result. Prices increase.
Gerardo Urchaga from Spain’s FOLC Records states, “There’s a saturation of new records. In Spain now, there are three pressing plants that offer quicker pressing times, but the cost is higher. GZ in the Czech Republic offer more competitive prices. Their wait times are longer, but now their prices are increasing as well. Some records we’ve sent for pressing are delayed with the uncertainty.”
Double Trouble and More
In the last eighteen months, there has, of course, been one word on the lips of every industry around the world: pandemic. The impact has been felt right across the supply chain. It led some labels, such as London’s Dirty Water Records, to shift away from pressing vinyl for the time being. And now there is the added problem for UK labels thrown up by Brexit. The impact is dual when pressing records in the EU and then selling to customers there: taxes on both imports and exports increasing costs at both ends. As a mainly mail order label, Raving Pop Blast! are feeling the squeeze.
“I have people in places such as Germany who pay the £18 for the LP, then are expected to pay an additional almost £18 for the postage, but then have to pay another additional £9 import tax! I mean, these are normal people who like buying LPs, not fucking millionaires. How in the hell are people supposed to fork out that kind of cash for an LP? I could quite happily kick Farage, Cameron and Johnson and the whole pack of lying bastards in the bollocks.”
Using a direct EU distributor also doesn’t solve the problem for them. “They have to pay higher import taxes. This means they have to get back this money somehow, so either the records in the shops end up being £45 each, or I have to reduce my prices so they carry on ordering from me. So once again, it’s the little guy who gets flattened in the rush for the ‘vinyl revival’. I just saw a 4AD record in a UK shop for £45! You see, even the labels you think are ‘cool’ are actually only in it for the money.”
I ask him whether he would, like others, shift away from releasing on vinyl and move to downloads only. “When I brought Raving Pop Blast! back (it originally started in the ’80s) it was going to be just for The Total Rejection (with whom I play), but the first LP we did sold so well, I decided to use the small profit to put more things out that I liked by other bands. It’s my little way of being a sort of socialist label, trying to do things to help others.
[With] The Rebels compilations, I donate all profits to various charities. I didn’t set this up as a money-making idea. I also wanted everything The Total Rejection did to be on vinyl. This is only because I love it so much, and it never feels the same being a CD-only release. And as for download only, nah… I’ll pass thanks. I don’t personally see the point of being a label and just issuing downloads, as the bands could do that themselves very easily.”
Add the global shortage of PVC and pulp into the mix, caused by anything from freezing weather causing blackouts in Texas, crippled refinery operations caused by Storm Uri, overloaded logistics, and the fire that devastated Apollo Masters (one of only two places in the world that produces the lacquer discs for master plates) and the sky is falling on the industry as a whole.
Too Much Of A Good Thing?
Yet, with all the demand, once a year (or two or three times in recent years to mitigate the effect of the Covid pandemic) the pressing industry, for many, grinds almost to a halt as hundreds of releases jump the queue for Record Store Day – another hurdle for many. There’s no doubting the positive effect that the organisation had at the outset in aiding the revival of independent record stores, but its success has resulted in a double-edged sword, and those pushed out by such releases don’t mince their words.
Ian Damaged again: “Record Store Day is part of the problem. It just encourages more shit to be pressed… ‘oooh Fleetwood Mac on clear vinyl… only 27,000 marvellous!’ It was a good idea when it started and I know it saved a lot of shops, which is great, but I think it’s served its purpose and should be taken out and shot!”
Arthur Andrew Jay makes his point that, for him, Record Store Day has simply become another marketing ploy designed to tap into the collector mentality of vinyl enthusiasts – a far cry from its initial goal. “The pressing plants are full of RSD limited edition rip-off reissues and picture discs such as Kurt Cobain’s cassette recordings, limited edition, 5000 copies on bloodstained vinyl, which the fans simply must have although the eBay vultures will buy them all up first and sell them at three times the price. Must have! Must have! You’re not a real fan if you don’t buy, buy, buy!
“They make you feel like a failure if you don’t bag one of these special, rare records, plus all the wonderful re-issues: ELO’s Greatest Hits, Abba’s Greatest Hits, Queen’s… blah blah blah… Some trendy young new indie ‘this year’s model’ band with trousers too short for their legs release a ‘limited’ edition, only 2000 of some new ‘song’ that’ll either be on their LP later (assuming they get to an LP) or wasn’t worth recording in the first place. So we have all this utter money-grabbing shite to contend with, which is blocking us from getting our records pressed.
“RSD makes out it’s on the side of the ‘independents’, but it’s not. It’s just that The Man has the money to convince people. I mean, what’s so ‘indie’ about Fleetwood Mac reissues? A lot of people who buy records are collectors and have the collector mentality, [which] I used to myself, but I managed to break the habit when I realised it was all marketing by the big boys.” Lee Grimshaw continues: “As much as I see the benefits of RSD for the actual shops, wouldn’t it better to get customers in more regularly? Every record is special! As we do short runs, it’s like RSD every day for us. Events like the Independent Label Market are more useful for our kinda level.”
However, that’s not to say that the event is not desirable for smaller labels, given the level of promotion that they can receive. This year, FOLC Records will release an EP of unreleased Aerobitch songs, their first Record Store Day release, although Gerardo Urchaga sees the same downside as others: “The pressing plants are swamped with releases for these dates and the majors’ desire to get their RSD reference grinds production to a halt.”
The future seems bleak going forward. For many, it’s simply a case of improving the capacity of pressing plants, but this is no easy task given the level of investment needed. And it would also not solve more of the underlying issues. As Ian Damaged states, “There doesn’t seem to be much going on with new pressing plants, so I think it will just get worse. Plus the costs are going up pretty much every time we place a new order – shortage of vinyl, pulpboard for sleeves etc. and laughingly we have the government telling us inflation is 2.5%… have you been to a pub recently?”
For Arthur Andrew Jay, however, it’s about waiting for the bubble to burst: “Start a campaign to get real music fans to stop supporting gimmicks like Record Store Day. As soon as the mania dies off, the big boys will fuck off back to their posh offices, do a few lines and try to figure out a new way of flogging you something you’ve already bought multiple times.”
Record Store Day were contacted for comment, but did not respond.
Words by Nathan Whittle. Find his Louder Than War archive here.