Vinyl ramblings (Pt. II)

At the end of this month, a prominent UK major record label will more than double the published price to dealer (PPD) for hundreds of its vinyl titles. For example, the PPD for a single black vinyl pressing of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Coda’ will shoot up from £9.99 to a whopping £25. That £25 is the starting price at which the label’s distributor will then offer that title to record stores and other retailers. Because they tend to take more quantity, Amazon, HMV and the larger record stores will invariably be offered a “file discount” (a negotiated reduction) but smaller record shops, who can only take a risk on two or three copies, will be paying much closer to that starting price.

What does that mean for you and me? Well, whilst today we might be paying £20 for a copy of that Led Zep classic, this time next month, it’ll be on the shelves at £40 or more.

Why the sudden hike in price? Well, the majors will undoubtedly tell you that they’re just reacting to an astronomical rise in manufacture costs, that raw materials are harder to come by, that the number of pressing plants has not increased in line with demand, that post-Brexit shipping costs are up. All true, of course. Greed doesn’t come into it.

Will independent labels follow suit?

Within the music industry, it’s no secret that the major labels have a monopoly on the vinyl pressing plants. They can afford to buy more space on the production line because they’re ordering more quantity than independent labels. A pressing plant isn’t going to say, “Sorry, we’re full up” to the likes of Warners or Universal but should a boutique independent come along and ask for 500 copies of a single title, the door may close faster than the time it takes to pull out a cheque book. Hence, everyone else, the smaller fish let’s call them, are already frantically going from door to door, trying to find somewhere that has some, any capacity.

From experience, before VAT and shipping is figured in, 500 copies of a standard weight, black vinyl record with printed inner and outer sleeves, shrinkwrapped, will cost somewhere around £5 per unit to manufacture. The more you press, the cheaper that unit price becomes. 1000 units could work out at around £4 per unit or so. 5000 units, around £2.50, all depending on a multitude of factors – the type of print finish you want, coloured vinyl, numbered, etc, etc. So, the major labels, no strangers to pressing 5000 or even 10,000 copies of a popular title, are paying less than half the price, per unit, than an independent label who only wants 500 copies.

And yet, as anyone who spends any time on Bandcamp will tell you, the smaller labels and artists aren’t charging £40 for a single black vinyl. They aren’t even charging £30. The average vinyl retail price on Bandcamp for smaller label releases is between £15 and £25. Don’t forget, we’re only looking at a £5 per unit manufacture price – that doesn’t include recording costs, mastering or design. How are these smaller labels and artists making any money on releasing just 500 units?

The fact is, most of them aren’t making much, if anything. They, unlike the majors, are in it for the love of the music and the love of the format.

But what happens if smaller labels and artists can’t find anywhere to make their vinyl any more? Or what if they can no longer afford to make it? The outpouring of love for the format over these past few years might actually be killing it. Supply can’t meet demand. There just aren’t enough pressing plants to cope. Naturally, some pressing plants are looking into expansion but not only is it a case of too little, too late, how do they balance that with their environmental responsibility? Shouldn’t we all just do the right thing and go completely digital?

So, what happens next? Will the majors have a total monopoly on the pressing plants? Will they be the only ones who can afford to manufacture vinyl? Is that the vinyl we want? Will shops and distributors simply say, “We can’t afford your records.” And what about the main player in all of this : the customer? Who is prepared to pay £40 or £50 for a single, standard weight, black vinyl album? Will the price of vinyl result in an upswing in favour of CDs and cassettes? After all, CD and tape plants aren’t showing any sign of being overwhelmed.

Answers on a postcard.

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