Weaned on CDs, They’re Reaching for Vinyl - By Allan Kozinn
There were always record collectors who disdained the compact disc, arguing that an LP’s grooves yielded warmth and depth that the CD’s digital code could not match.
But the market largely ignored them. Record labels shuttered their LP pressing plants, except for a few that pressed mostly dance music, since vinyl remained the medium of choice for D. J.s.
As it turned out, that early resistance was not futile, thanks largely to an audience of record collectors, many born after CDs were introduced in the 1980s.
These days, every major label and many smaller ones are releasing vinyl, and most major new releases have a vinyl version, leading to a spate of new pressing plants.
When the French electronica duo Daft Punk released “Random Access Memories” in mid-May, 6 percent of its first-week sales — 19,000 out of 339,000 — were on vinyl, according to Nielsen SoundScan, which measures music sales.
Other groups with a predominantly college-age audience have had similar success: the same week, the National sold 7,000 vinyl copies of its latest album, “Trouble Will Find Me,” and 10,000 Vampire Weekend fans opted for the LP version of “Modern Vampires of the City.” When the Front Bottoms, a New Jersey indie band, posted a photo of their players carrying stacks of LP mailing boxes on their Facebook page recently, their label, Bar/None, racked up what Glenn Morrow, who owns the label, described as “phone orders for $2,000 worth of LPs in 10 minutes.”
A growing number of classic albums — including the complete Beatles and early Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan catalogs — have had vinyl reissues in recent years as well.
Michael Fremer, who monitors the LP world on his Web site, Analogplanet.com, said: “None of these companies are pressing records to feel good. They’re doing it because they think they can sell.”
About a dozen pressing plants have sprouted up in the United States, along with the few that survived from the first vinyl era, and they say business is so brisk that they are working to capacity. Thomas Bernich, who started Brooklyn Phono in 2000, says his company makes about 440,000 LPs a year, but a giant like Rainbo Records, in Canoga Park, Calif., turns out 6 million to 7.2 million, said Steve Sheldon, its general manager.
One plant, Quality Record Pressings, in Salina, Kan., opened in 2011 after its owner, Chad Kassem, grew impatient with delays at a larger plant where his own line of blues reissues was being pressed. His company, which runs four presses — acquired used, but modified to run more efficiently — now makes LPs for all the majors, and lists Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Nirvana reissues among its recent projects. He is currently pressing 900,000 vinyl discs a year.
“We’ve always had more work than we could do,” Mr. Kassem said. “When we had one press, we had enough orders for two. When we had two, we had enough orders for four. We never spent a dollar on advertising, but we’ve been busy from the day we opened.”
There is a limit to how much the vinyl business can expand right now. When it seemed inevitable that CDs would supplant LPs, the companies that made vinyl presses shifted to making other kinds of machinery. The last new press was built in 1982, so relatively recent start-ups like Quality and Brooklyn Phono searched out used presses (the going rate is about $25,000) and reconditioned them. Most plants have deals with local machine shops to make replacement parts.
Some pressing plants have looked into commissioning or building new presses but have found the cost prohibitive — as much as $500,000, said Eric Astor of Furnace MFG in Fairfax, Va. “Since my partner also owns a CD/DVD plant,” Mr. Astor said in an e-mail, “we’ve been testing using the methods used in disc manufacturing to make a new breed of vinyl record, but that R&D is slow going and not looking promising.”
How are LPs selling? That is a matter of dispute. David Bakula, Nielsen SoundScan’s senior vice president of client development and insights, said that his company tracked 4.6 million domestic LP sales last year, an 18 percent increase over 2011, but still only 1.4 percent of the total market, made up mostly of digital downloads (which are increasing) and CDs (for which sales are declining). This year, Mr. Bakula said, vinyl sales are on track to reach about 5.5 million.
But manufacturers, specialist retailers and critics argue that SoundScan’s figures represent only a fraction of actual sales, perhaps as little, Mr. Kassem and Mr. Astor said, as 10 to 15 percent. They say that about 25 million vinyl discs were pressed in the United States last year, and many more in Europe and Asia, including some destined for the American market.
Mr. Bakula countered that manufacturers are speaking of the number of discs made; SoundScan tracks how many were sold. But the manufacturers argue that LPs, unlike CDs, are a one-way sale: labels do not accept returns of unsold copies. Therefore labels and retailers are careful to order only what they think they can sell. Moreover, LP jackets do not consistently carry bar codes — Mr. Kassem, for one, leaves them off his discs because, he said, “they’re ugly” — and therefore cannot be scanned at the cash register. And many shops that sell LPs are independents that do not report to SoundScan, although Mr. Bakula said his company weights its figures to account for that.
There are other measures of the health of the field, including figures from ancillary businesses. Heinz Lichtenegger, whose Vienna-based Audio Tuning company produces the highly regarded Pro-Ject turntable, said in an e-mail that his company sells 8,000 turntables a month. And Mr. Fremer has sold 16,000 copies of a DVD, “21st Century Vinyl,” that shows users how to set up several turntable models.
Vinyl retailers are thriving as well. Mr. Kassem of Quality Record Pressings also runs Acoustic Sounds, which sells LPs as well as turntables and accessories, including cleaning machines and protective sleeves. Music Direct, a Chicago company that owns Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, a storied audiophile label, has a similarly broad stock, including a selection of turntables that ranges from the $249 Music Hall USB-1 to the $25,000 Avid Acutus. Josh Bizar, the company’s director of sales and marketing, said that Music Direct sold 500,000 LPs and “thousands of turntables” last year.
And the buyers, Mr. Bizar said, are by no means boomer nostalgists.
“When you look at the sales for a group like Daft Punk,” he said, “you’re seeing young kids collecting records like we did when we were young.”
“We never expected the vinyl resurgence to become as crazy as it is,” he said. “But it’s come full circle. We get kids calling us up and telling us why they listen to vinyl, and when we ask them why they don’t listen to CDs, they say, ‘CDs? My dad listens to CDs — why would I do that?’ ”