Wax is back – and the vinyl record revival is good news for indie artists

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Vinyl record sales are on pace for another 30% growth from last year, and this vinyl revival can be a sales driver for independent artists.

vinyl record on a turntableThe 33 1/3 RPM album became the dominant release medium in the late 1960s and ’70s, as American record buyers moved from 45 RPM singles to albums. Fans anxiously awaited not only the latest music from their favorite artists, but the album package itself, which became a palette that artists used to express themselves in a seemingly endless procession of funny, shocking, thought provoking or elegant pieces of artwork.

Cassette albums and singles took off in the 1980s, which replaced the older, clunky 8-track cartridges in cars and allowed fans to make their own custom tape compilations. When the CD was introduced to consumers in 1982, the digital age of music was upon us and record labels saw the CD as the ultimate profit-maker as fans started to replace their aging and scratchy vinyl with the nearly indestructible compact disc. Record stores rightly were concerned that carrying vinyl, cassettes, and CDs on each title would require new fixtures and much more real estate. So labels and retailers rapidly phased out vinyl albums in favor of CDs. Soon after, by the mid-90s, cassettes were phased out too, leaving the more profitable CD as the primary record release medium for the music business from the late 1980s until the advent of the iTunes store in 2003.

Ramones on vinyl recordThe Cars on vinyl recordElvis Costello on vinyl record

DJs help save the grooves
While record labels did their best to phase out vinyl completely, the hundreds of millions of records found in homes and used record stores all across America continued to be played and enjoyed by fans. DJs used vinyl as the basis for their art form. In fact, the thriving underground club culture, which consistently supported a small but loyal market for 12” vinyl releases, is what kept the few surviving vinyl pressing plants alive through the 1990s and into the new millennium.

So-called house music, which grew out of DIY dance parties held in warehouses in Chicago, Detroit, and New York, relied on vinyl as the optimum format for creating live sets. The term “cratedigger” refers to DJs with massive vinyl collections built up by scouring thrift shops and used record stores searching through hundreds of crates, bins, and boxes to find obscure albums that contained music suitable for their performances.

In addition to introducing listeners to classic tracks by James Brown, George Clinton, and Chic, DJs created new mixes to share with clubs and other DJs around the world and vinyl was the preferred medium for many established DJs. While the vast majority of US pressing plants were shuttered as the major labels abandoned the format, these DJs kept a small number of plants running.

The vinyl revival
In 2006, a strong uptick in vinyl sales was noted, largely spurred by millennials, to whom the LP was actually a “new format.” The combination of the 12” sleeve and its artwork, with the realization of the warmer, richer sounds emanating from the turntable when compared to an MP3, created a loyal following of vinyl lovers that has been steadily growing.

According to Slate.com senior technology writer Will Oremus, “Many prefer [vinyl], whether for the sound quality, the nostalgic appeal, or simply the beauty of a vinyl record as a design object. Within the music industry, vinyl’s renaissance is also tied to notions of ‘the album’ as a cohesive artistic statement, usually by an actual band.”

The tangible album spinning on a turntable has a coolness factor that blows away MP3s, while liner notes, colored vinyl, and the delicate sound of the needle hitting the run-in groove are once again becoming anticipated experiences for vinyl fans young and old. In Portland, OR, roughly two dozen independent record stores are thriving today. According to the Oregonian’s David Greenwald, “You’d be hard pressed to find a city with a higher LP density.” Not surprising for a city that prides itself on its fierce independence from mainstream sameness.

vinyl record sales since 1993
Statista’s LP/vinyl album sales chart from 1993 to first half of 2014

By 2013, vinyl had grown to more than 6.1 million records sold, topping a steady six-year run of ever increasing sales. This was up 33% from the previous year’s record-breaking total of 4.5 million. (Sales from January through June 2014 are already at 4 million). Billboard reported that 66% of vinyl records were purchased at independent record stores and that rock was the dominant genre purchased, making up three out of every four LP record sold.

Also reflected in the numbers are growing sales to baby boomer record collectors purchasing reissues of classic albums on pristine, high-quality vinyl in limited pressings. For instance, in September of this year, EMI Records released a 14-LP box set titled The Beatles in Mono which included the Beatles first 14 UK album releases pressed in limited edition, premium 180-gram vinyl, with the original artwork beautifully reproduced.

Beatles on vinyl record
A 108-page hardcover coffee table book accompanies the set. During its first week of availability, 2,300 fans rushed to purchase while individual LP sales of a few of the individual albums from the set (Revolver, Sgt. Peppers, etc.) also topped 2,000 copies each. This pushed those albums onto the current Billboard 200 chart fifty years after they had first appeared! Price tag for the full set? A cool $350 per box set shelled out by fans who probably already have some of the music on LP and CD, which demonstrates the solid market for vinyl reissues for classic albums.

Another contributor to the rising prominence of vinyl is Record Store Day, an annual worldwide event held on the third Saturday of April by independent record store owners and employees to celebrate records, vinyl, and the music (and musicians) that may not get to the top of the Billboard charts. It’s a chance for fans of current bands and collectors to descend on the nearest participating record store and support the music they love. As vinyl continues to grow in popularity, this network of more than 1,400 independent record stores is in place, so the pipeline to get vinyl releases to fans has been firmly re-established which makes releasing on vinyl more than an exercise in nostalgia for today’s indie artists.

San Diego-based band Sledding with Tigers is preparing their second vinyl release for early next year. Founding member Dan Faughnder says he was surprised at what a demand there was for the band’s music on vinyl. The group makes all of its music available to fans online at no cost via BandCamp but still find that when they do a cassette or vinyl release, the audience buys it as a way to support the band.

Sledding With Tigers on vinyl recordAccording to Dan, “Our first ever 12-inch was titled A Necessary Bummer, and came out last year. We usually release our music on cassette and will do limited runs of 50-100 cassette EPs a few times each year. Those short runs usually sell out in about a week. Boston-based Antique Records has been putting out our vinyl releases, and once we announced that our first vinyl was in the pipeline, we received enough pre-orders to basically break even on the pressing cost before we even got our test pressings from the plant.”

The label pressed 500 of the 45 RPM single featuring both black and colored vinyl. Dan continued, “We learned a lot, especially that the lead time required with vinyl is much longer than we anticipated. A few of our fans that placed pre-orders wondered if they were going to get them! From day one, we have encouraged everyone to share our music freely with everyone, so it’s gratifying to still have them purchase it when we do a release,” he concluded. The new EP due out in January is titled, Not the Beatles Yet, typical of the band’s tongue-in-cheek approach to the normal gravity associated with making it big in the music industry.

Is vinyl right for you?
If you are considering doing a vinyl release, be advised that you’ll need to mindful of the format’s requirements and limitations, such as no more than 22 minutes of music per side for 33 1/3 RPM 12” albums and six minutes per side for 7” vinyl records. If you choose to release at 45 RPM as Sledding with Tigers does, then the run times are reduced (four and a half minutes).

The vinyl revival offers indie artists a great opportunity to reach out to their fans and ask them if they would support a limited edition vinyl release. Consider the costs involved, and create a realistic budget for a vinyl release. To find out if your audience would support such a project and if the feedback is positive you might even consider doing a crowd funded initiative via Pledge Music, Indiegogo, or another platform to enlist their support to bring the project to completion. Remember, vinyl has a cachet all its own, and if you time your release properly to make it an event, your audience is likely to respond positively if you create a memorable project that takes advantage for the new passion for wax.

Disc Makers offers vinyl record manufacturing for independent artists, as well as post-production mastering services for your vinyl release.

Image of turntable via ShutterStock.com.

Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to Disc Makers Echoes blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He’s also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.

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8 thoughts on “Wax is back – and the vinyl record revival is good news for indie artists

  1. I’d like to put forth the concept that LP’s longer than 22 minutes a side were and can still be made. The main reason for the timing is the speed and/or length of the reel to reel tape masters being used at that time in history. I have both a Pioneer 10 inch “NAB style” hub reel to reel, and is also quadraphonic for playback of my many tapes, but I also picked up an older mastering deck that does 15-IPS on smaller 7 inch “standard hub” reels. in either case, the limit was based on the ability to cut and splice tapes together, and the individual cutting the “mothers” for the LP’s themselves. A standard 1800 foot 7-inch reel to reel tape recorded at 3 3/4-IPS worked out to 45 minutes a side, or 22 minutes if it was used as the master tape at 7-IPS. This is the main reason LP’s were 22 minutes a side. They also recorded multi-track tapes at 15-IPS and 30-IPS in most studios, then mixed them down to 1/4-inch tape for the final mixes.

  2. Putting new music on vinyl is great for nostalgia. The analog recording process is what gave vinyl it’s warm sound. Today’s recording is still done digitally, recording analog and then pressing to vinyl would be the way to really capture the sound that vinyl provided. Until then it can be considered a novelty.

    1. Actually your right about analog recordings George but only to a degree. Pro engineer/producers today are using analog front ends and some even 2″ tape still to record their masters so it isn’t all didi by any means. Vinyl still sonically improves the release format tone over 44.1 /16 bit but maybe Pono will change that. We’ll wait and see. Certainly the noise floor is better currently with CDs. I’m considering a vinyl release of my next album with a cd.

    2. Actually, George,
      CD’s are more than capable or reproducing everything from an analog recording if properly mastered.
      The problem came in when the record companies were faced with the prospect of re-mastering for the new format. Instead of doing a new master from scratch to fit the medium, most companies chose to simply “chop off” for lack of a better term, the very high and very low end of the recordings as sort of a faux master bus compressor. It was, of course, infinitely cheaper to do and thus the “lack of warmth” comparison was born.
      There are plenty of CD re-masters that are true re master jobs that sound incredible. I am personally fond of Peter Henderson’s work on the Supertramp re releases. If you check them out, I think you’ll agree, in addition to plenty of “warmth” there are things on those recording you may never have noticed before. Best of both worlds, in a way.

      1. Oh, and by the way,
        many companies are now choosing to do the same thing with new digital recordings intended for CD’s and download and simply transfering the existing masters to vinyl with slight modifications to “jam it in” to the new format.
        Guess how they sound?

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