While the vinyl record claimed back its throne as the most sought after physical medium in the market in recent years, its future may seem uncertain. When observing the recent announcements about price increase of vinyl records due to the shortage of plastics or the lengthened pressing times resulting from plant closures, some independent labels are starting to turn to other physical media. Is it time for the CD and the audio cassette to make their come back?
The increase in the price of vinyl records
We recently wrote about theprice increase of vinyle records following an agreement between Universal, Warner and Sony . The reason given by the three major labels was the shortage of raw materials, in particular of the polymer, the cost of which has been rising steadily since 2015. We can also add to this a continuously increasing demand due to the popularity of the support and a drop in production following the temporary shut down of factories resulting from the Covid 19 pandemic, and the repercussion at the end of the line with an increased price is unavoidable. . The National Federation of Independent Labels has expressed its concern by sharing the rising costs and prices which particularly affect independent labels and record stores. The lower the number of records pressed, the thinner the margin. The impact on costs is therefore inevitable. The National Federation of Independent Labels has announced an increase of approximately + 30% for 300 copies and + 20% for 1000 copies. Independent labels will therefore have to anticipate sales with a huge budget just for the advance, which is a risky financial bet, especially in a market subject to increasingly long deadlines.
Since the benining of the new surge in popularity of vinyl records, manufacturing times have been part of the equation given that few factories offered this service. While a few new factories have opened in recent years, demand remains well above production capacity, especially in the current context where most of factories have had to temporarily shut down. This is the case for Gotta Groove Records which had to suspend its production for six weeks in 2020. Some record factories are announcing a manufacturing time of 6 to 8 months, which means that an album sent for pressing today would not be available until spring 2022. As a consequence, the ever-increasing volume of orders also leads to quality control issues, which results in errors with the cover, the insert or the record itself.
It is therefore the entire vinyl production that is impacted in an industry where independent labels already operate on a razor thin margin. The National Federation of Independent Labels however raises an interesting point which could possibly provide a solution by declaring that “this crisis prompts us once again to reflect on our industry and its impact on the environment”. Maybe the time has come to rethink the medium and consider recycled records or new, more economical and ecological manufacturing methods?
Could the CD also experience a revival?
While supermarkets such as Walmart and Best Buy in the United States have abandoned the CD, the compact dist may not be dead quite yet and may even become an interesting alternative for independent labels.
With the increase in production times, many independent artists and labels are starting to turn their backs on vinyl records due to the manufacturing slowdowns of the past year. This tendency was brought to light by Pitchfork after having contacted several independent labels officiating in various musical genres on this subject. Faced with these costs and these delays, some chose to revert to other formats, in particular cassettes and CDs which have the advantage of costing less and of much shorter waiting time, between four to six weeks. Interviewed by Pitchfork, the founder of the Amsterdam-based label Moving Furniture Records, said he recently canceled some planned vinyl releases due to concerns about delays, opting instead for the CD release.
The ever increasing demand for vinyl records and the return of the major labels as well as large-scale distribution to this medium have created a difficult climate for independant record stores, labels and artists. This is the modern David versus Goliath that could force small structures to return to a more affordable medium rather than raising their prices to keep their heads above water. Going back to the CD, at least partially, is therefore not an entirely unthinkable path. If vinyl has undergone a spectacular revival in recent years, it was basically considered dead by the mainstream in the late 90s and early 2000s. Buying vinyl records was reserved for DJs and collectors, as well as a few independent distributors at shows. The manufacturer Technics, creator of the legendary SL-1200 turntable, even stopped its production of turntables in 2010 to resume it six years later with the arrival of the Technics SL-1200G.
In a market where Hi-Res audio files are becoming increasingly popular, the vinyl revival is proof that the nostalgic factor is an essential element in the popularity of the physical medium. If vinyl is so popular today, it is above all for its particular sound, the experience it offers and its tactile aspect which allows us to take the time to rediscover an album. So it’s not for the accuracy of the medium, especially in an industry where the majority of recording studios have gone digital.
Indeed, the vast majority of artists today record entirely digitally. The benefits of using digital technologies in the studio are plentiful, most importantly the cost of recording. For an album produced entirely using analog technologies, you have to take into account the cost of the tapes, the real-time mixing and the fact that there are fewer and fewer studios offering this type of recording. Vinyl records made from an entirely analogue production have therefore become rare. Even if these albums do exist, they are far from constituting the majority of vinyl records released in the last ten years. Of course, some sound engineers combine digital and analog technologies. It should also be noted that the majority of studios offer two distinct types of mastering for pressing on CD or vinyl. Seeing the vinyl record as the final link in a chain made up entirely of analogue links is therefore often a mistaken, which places the CD / SACD back in the conversation.
After recording session fully conducted using a software such as Logic, Cubase, Pro Tools, etc. a digital master is given to the artists. This master is often sent as a digital file or given on a CD. The delivery of a master specially designed for vinyl is decided by prior agreement between the engineer in charge of mastering and the artist. For those who seek high-fidelity above all, this type of master will be reproduced more precisely on CD compared to vinyl which will tend to color the sound to offer the famously warm sound of LPs.
Among audiophiles, the physical media debate continues, and CD, SACD and Blu-ray audio advocates do not intend to abandon optical discs anytime soon. From entry-level player such as the Tangent CDII to the top-of-the-range models like the McIntosh MCD600 through mid-range players such as the Marantz CD-6007 or theAtoll CD80 Signature , the CD player is still very present in the world of audio and it seems premature to want to bury it. Whether it is the democratization of Hi-Res formats supported by portable audio players, USB DACs orportable audio DACs, files in CD quality available via hi-fi subscriptions of streaming platforms, or even physical media such as CD, SACD, audio Blu-ray or vinyl disc, it is now possible to enjoy music in the way that best suits our tastes and listening habits. Will the rise in the price of vinyl records and the difficulties caused by the Covid 19 pandemic tip the scales towards one of these formats or will streaming reign supreme as a result?