Blowing Up The Vinyl Boom

Here’s a fascinating article from FACT on where the real problems lie in modern record manufacturing … to paraphrase James Carville, it’s the electroplating, stupid:

Electroplating, a process which involves coating the master lacquer in a metal layer to produce stampers, is time-intensive and requires highly trained personnel. Those who have learned electroplating are still a long way from being able to prepare the lacquer – the lengthy process requires a great deal of experience and expertise. Only then can it be guaranteed that the music sounds how it is supposed to sound. And all this has to happen quickly – when the music is cut to the lacquer, it can’t be stored indefinitely. A time period of over two weeks is considered to be problematic.

{Silke Maurer of Handle with Care, one of the largest production agencies for records:} “In the last four years, vinyl production has almost doubled here. That sounds super, but you have to take a closer look at how the numbers come together. In the same timeframe, the first run of a title has reduced nearly by half. That means more work for the press. The machines have to be reconfigured more often, which takes a lot of time. But the real problem is not in the pressing – the bottleneck is in the electroplating.”

Thus, having to constantly create new lacquers for short runs (as records – especially in the dance realm – don’t sell close to the numbers they did twenty years ago) in a process that is time consuming and takes expertise creates real headaches. Pain also comes from the constant recalibrating and readjusting of the pressing machinery to handle each new short run project. These machines are all over thirty years old, remember, with new models only now appearing in limited form.

And then, here come are those mustache-twirling major labels:

There was a gold rush at Sony and the other majors, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that the labels are trying to sell their archive a third time, this time to middle-aged buyers who can remember buying vinyl, naturally switched over to the CD, sold or threw away their old vinyl and aren’t completely happy with streaming today. A look at the vinyl section of a large Berlin store proves the shelves are full of reissues of old titles, mostly from major labels. Record players can be purchased right at the checkout. There’s nothing wrong with that – music should be sold in the formats that meet customer demand. But there are indicators that the majors are actively trying to secure substantial vinyl production capacity at the remaining pressing plants. How? By paying in advance. There might even be presses completely reserved for certain companies. That techno EP can wait – Led Zeppelin can’t. In the course of researching this article, we received emails that confirm such requests by the majors.

If this is the case – and the pressing plants are denying it – it would mean that the majors are attempting to buy their way into an industry that they played a significant role in destroying. And they are attempting once again to starve the indie labels, the very labels that never gave up on vinyl. On Record Store Day, when the shops are full of specially-made vinyl records and customers wait in line for these limited editions, the pressing plants have already had many hard weeks of work leading up to it. Who knows how many machines were quickly patched-up in lieu of a proper repair? Nobody has time to take a breath. The next releases are already on standby, and the machines continue to run at a furious pace.

Related: Columbia House To Relaunch With Vinyl

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