Back In Black The Rebirth of Vinyl
Published Jan 23, 2010The early 1980s were an amazing time for music lovers. Underground genres like metal, punk, synth pop, reggae and hip-hop were burbling up into the mainstream. You could hear new music via nascent music TV channels or a newly FM-licensed college radio station near you. You could buy just about anything in your local record store and if they didn't stock it, you could special order. Demand for new music was huge and artists were constantly putting out studio and live albums, seven- and twelve-inch singles, remixes and EPs, much of it limited edition and all of it vinyl.
So why on earth would the record industry choose that moment to get rid of records? Introducing the CD in fall 1982, the major industry forced a format change that ultimately took about a decade to complete. This dovetailed with major labels' plans to merge into larger entertainment/media corporations, whose ultimate goal was to integrate and control all aspects of entertainment production ― from creation to manufacture of product and playback device, to retail sale, public performance, and every other form of distribution. The CD also created a huge second life for albums that music fans had already bought. It was genius, really.
Except for one thing: in promoting little plastic discs over twelve-inch vinyl records, the music business either wilfully or ignorantly overlooked the special relationship music fans have with vinyl. The love of a good record goes way beyond the songs: it goes to the package, the cover art, the inner sleeve, the acts of dropping the needle and flipping the album to side B. "A vinyl record is just a great piece to have in your hands," says Vinyl Record Guru's David Read (see Meet & Greet). "To listen to the music and to pore over the cover and get yourself lost in that whole mystical world ― you just can't get that with an MP3. They serve a purpose, but there's no magic."
In the last ten years we've heard plenty of moaning from the majors about how (thieving, file-sharing) kids today don't value music. Yet Nielsen SoundScan recently reported that vinyl sales in the U.S. shot up 90 percent in 2008 and another 33 percent in 2009. What's fascinating is that the current generation of rabid music fans grew up in the age of the CD domination; vinyl was an anachronism. So what's the appeal?
"If I want to support a band that's put out a good record, I'll buy the record rather than the CD," says Megalodon drummer and 16-year-old vinyl fan Dexter Outhit. "The artwork is more visual, the sound is warmer. Getting a new record and going home and reading the insert while you listen to it for the first time, that's so cool." Outhit also cites the creativity of vinyl packaging and the strength of the album concept for inspiring his devotion. "This generation is way too caught up in singles. But with vinyl, you appreciate every last bit."
Thanks to the increased demand from music fans, we are seeing more vinyl in record stores, from mom-and-pops to larger chains. Even HMV, which has been steadily replacing CD music sales in favour of DVDs, maintains a vinyl section. However, vinyl albums may not have the shelf life that CDs do. That's because people tend to think of vinyl as collector's items; indeed, many artists who are releasing on vinyl do so in limited editions. "It seems like it's the core fans who will buy the vinyl when it first comes out," says Lloyd Nishimura, president of indie distributor Outside Music. "Once the first run is out, they don't tend to re-press. But the digital and CD sales go on for a while ― those are the people who maybe came a little late to the party."
Vinyl does have its downsides, says Nishimura, citing manufacturing flaws and breakage as problems more common in producing and shipping vinyl than CDs.
For artists, deciding whether to release vinyl depends on a number of factors. First, does it make sense in the overall release plan of the album? If you are a somewhat known artist supporting the album release with a significant tour, then you have a chance at selling records on the road. Are your fans the vinyl-buying kind? Do they have 20 bucks to throw down on an LP? And can you afford it? Vinyl costs more than twice what CDs do, and 500 pieces tends to be the minimum run. Five hundred unsold pieces of vinyl take up a huge amount of space in the van, not to mention someone's basement.
If you do decide that vinyl is for you, it's important to put that in your production and release plans as early as possible. For the best possible product, you should have your mastering engineer create a special vinyl master. Count on the turnaround from delivery of the master and artwork to the vinyl shipping out to be at least two months ― and that's assuming everything goes smoothly in the approvals and production process.
Finding a vinyl press to do the job might take a bit of research. There's currently only one plant in Canada, Rip-V (www.rip-v.com/) in St-Lambert just outside of Montreal. In operation for about a year, Rip-V is helmed by Philippe Dubuc. He learned the trade from the veteran manager of the New Jersey plant where Rip-V's equipment was purchased. "When I first started, people would say 'Oh, well vinyl's going to die because of digital,'" says Dubuc. "But what we are seeing is that the digital component is really helping vinyl to come back. Music is really physical, and it's nice to have tunes on your iPod but there's zero physical involvement." With a focus on producing high-quality product rather than volume, Rip-V can currently handle most orders in black or single-coloured vinyl.
There are also brokers who can help place your production, including Vinyl Record Guru, whose founder David Read is featured in this month's Meet & Greet. Whichever way you choose to go, know that by making, selling and buying vinyl, you not only preserve an important part of popular music culture, but you give the music business a wee kick in the stones for trying to take vinyl away in the first place.
Frequently Asked Questions
We put our CD out a few months ago on an indie label. Now we want to do vinyl and the label doesn't. Should we do it ourselves?
That depends on your deal with the label. If they have exclusive rights to the masters, they may feel that you are breaking the contract by putting the vinyl out yourselves. But if you can afford to DIY, why not come to a mutual agreement with the label? For a percentage of revenue, the label may be willing to help promote the record if they think it will also increase CD sales. Just make sure that if you pay for it, you get paid back first.
Our CD artwork included an original photo. If we paid the photographer for the right to use the photo in the album artwork, do we have to pay again if we put it out on vinyl?
This is why pieces of paper ― no matter how small or informal ― come in handy when you do business with someone. They record what a handshake doesn't. If you have a written contract with the photographer, it should state whether the use is restricted to one medium. Otherwise, try a negotiated solution. If the photo was from a stock library, it's probably cleared for all uses of your artwork, but please check the paperwork first!
Our label paid us mechanical royalties when they pressed the first 5000 CDs. Now we're doing a run of vinyl. Do they have to pay again?
Yes! The mechanical royalty is payable on each and every copy made of your songs, whether it's out on CD, vinyl, cassette, MP3, music box, wax roll, whatever.