Many, many years ago, I began collecting music. By the time I was in college, I had several crates of records that meant helping me move was a good way to hurt your back. I finally broke down and switched to CDs when the Replacement’s All Shook Down was released only as a CD. Of course, now CDs have given way to files and streaming while my old LPs gather dust in the basement. But vinyl records are making a comeback — they now account for 9% of sales for music sold in a physical form. Last year that amounted to 13 million records — the highest total in 25 years — which has led to some interesting production issues (Vinyl LP Frenzy Brings Record-Pressing Machines Back to Life, New York Times, Sep 14).
Independent Record Pressing is an attempt to solve one of the riddles of today’s music industry: how to capitalize on the popularity of vinyl records when the machines that make them are decades old, and often require delicate and expensive maintenance. The six presses at this new 20,000-square-foot plant, for example, date to the 1970s. …
But the few dozen plants around the world that press the records have strained to keep up with the exploding demand, resulting in long delays and other production problems, executives and industry observers say. It is now common for plants to take up to six months to turn around a vinyl order — an eternity in an age when listeners are used to getting music online instantly.
Here’s a video that goes with the article.
Beyond appealing to my sense of nostalgia, there are several interesting things here. First, there is the question of customer service. Digital distribution means that it easier than ever to get an album in the hands of the public. Once an artist has completed a project it can be sent around the world with a few clicks. But LPs take time. In the video, the comment is made that some orders have been waiting since November. In the article, it is noted that one pressing company has stopped taking orders for new customers. For artists, this has just got to be a nightmare. In perfect world, a record launch should happen simultaneously across formats and be coordinated with a tour and such. Having the LPs be even a few weeks late could mean missing a very profitable opportunity. (Amazon sells Taylor Swift’s current release on vinyl for almost $8 more than the CD version.)
This obviously creates an opportunity for manufacturers, but it comes with catch. Capacity is limited because no one is currently producing the necessary equipment. The only way into the business is buying machines that are decades old and costly to refurbish. (The article reports that Independent Record Pressing spent $5,000 to replace an “obsolete screw” for one of its presses.)
But why isn’t anyone stepping in to produce new presses? It would seem possible to engineer a new press that is easier to set up and run than antique equipment. New machines would almost certainly be way more productive than old ones. However, it the upside here is limited. Independent Record Pressing has six machines and — if everything goes well — a capacity of 1.5 million records per year. That’s over 11% of the market. Even if the market for LPs were to grow to, say, 20 million units per year, it wouldn’t take that many presses to meet demand. That doesn’t create a very promising market for new capital equipment.