Adele may be immune to many of the mortal concerns that trouble musical non-deities, but there’s one thing she has in common with the most modest indie rocker: She had to finish her forthcoming album, “30,” early if she wanted vinyl available on the same day the release hit streaming services. And these days, almost everybody does.
While the company declined official comment, Sony Music sources tell Variety that more than 500,000 vinyl copies of “30” have been manufactured in the months leading up to the album’s Nov. 19 release, with the company pushing catalog titles off its overseas pressing plants to ensure there won’t be any shortage of Adele LPs going into the holidays. To do that — for an album that will probably immediately break initial vinyl sales records — the artist had to turn in ”30” more than six months ago. Any later and Adele would have been subject to the manufacturing shortages and overbooked pressing plants that have essentially turned almost every new LP release into a limited edition.
Vinyl sales have been on the rise since 2006 and last year overtook CD sales for the first time since 1986 — but what’s happened in recent months is a boom on top of a boom. Chains like Walmart and Target, which have all but quit the CD business, now order their own exclusive color-variant pressings on top of the exclusives that indie stores or artist websites tout. That demand has formed a perfect storm with the same pandemic conditions that have left many industries’ raw materials marooned on ships.
“A lot of people were looking for ways to keep themselves entertained at home during the pandemic” and bought turntables, as well as the product to put on them, says David Macias, head of the indie Thirty Tigers label. “As a configuration, it’s gone from the cool factor to a huge chunk of the business” — especially for a midsize label like his. “In 2019, Thirty Tigers did about 295,000 units of vinyl, and this year we’re on pace to do 800,000. It’s crazy how much it’s blown up in two years.” Indeed, while physical product accounted for just 10% of recorded-music revenue in the first half of 2021, according to the RIAA, vinyl was more than two-thirds of that total, bringing in $467 million — with year-to-year growth of 85.7% that can only partly be attributed to pandemic aberrations.
Most artists are given deadlines even earlier than Adele’s — typically eight to nine months ahead — to make sure their vinyl will come out at the same time as digital drops. That might seem like anathema to hip-hop artists, who don’t always care about a vinyl release and like the immediacy of working up to the last minute (or after it, like Kanye West). Pop stars used to be fine with issuing the vinyl as a belated souvenir; Olivia Rodrigo’s “Sour” came out on LP three months after digital, and fans had to wait nearly six for Taylor Swift’s vinyl “Evermore.” But the increasing importance of the format can be seen in the fact that Swift prepared “Red (Taylor’s Version)” early enough that the 4-LP(!) set will arrive right alongside the streaming premiere Nov. 19. Notes Macias, “If you miss your album street date by three or four months, it can reduce your vinyl sales to 30-40% of what they otherwise would have been.”
Ed Sheeran was able to fast-track vinyl production of his “=” album somehow, turning it in in July and getting copies to stores by his late October release date. That’s a rush through the plants that would seem unfathomable to artists now who face much longer delays, but it still felt shockingly short to him. “There’s like three vinyl factories in the world,” Sheeran told Australian radio hosts Kyle and Jackie O. (fFact check: there are dozens just in the U.S. — Sheeran may be confusing them with lacquer plants, which are another matter.) “So you have to do it like really upfront — and Adele had basically booked out all the vinyl factories, so we had to get a slot and get our album in there. It was like me, Coldplay, Adele, Taylor, ABBA, Elton (John), all of us were trying to get our vinyls printed at the same time.”
Says Carrie Colliton, a co-founder of Record Store Day, “It used to be that only stuff like limited-edition RSD titles was allocated” — that is, shipped in dribs and drabs that don’t nearly fulfill retail orders — “but now there are allocations on every title almost every week — every new release and every catalog restock.” It’s easier on mid- to upper-level labels that are able to lock down pressing plants well in advance for certain quantities, then have to make tough calls on what from their roster merits those manufacturing slots. “It’s been like Tetris, trying to prioritize what we’re using each month of capacity for,” says ATO Records head of sales Mike Quinn.
Meanwhile, smaller imprints or indie bands are being told that if they deliver their master recordings to a plant now, then sure, they can get their record pressed … in August 2022.
Says Colliton, “The idea that Target needs X thousand copies of a gold-colored ‘Rumours’ right now so they have an unending supply, when some band that couldn’t go on tour and hasn’t made money for a year is trying to get a thousand copies of their record pressed on any color — that doesn’t seem fair. But you can’t fault [the chains] for doing it. I can see why a Target or Walmart, if they’re able to go into a label and say, ‘I’m gonna take 20,000 copies’ – of ‘Rumours’ or whatever record – “and you’re not going to have to solicit it or store it, we’ll just take it all,’ that’s a good business thing for everybody involved.”
(Fleetwood Mac catalog seems to come up a lot, for some reason. “I heard rumors” — no pun intended — “that there’s one plant in the South that presses pretty much only ‘Tusk,” said one source.)
ATO’s Quinn says that these days, it’s almost impossible to accurately forecast demand. With a new My Morning Jacket album that they released two months ago, “We started planning our vinyl needs back in March, figuring out how many we were going to press, how many different colors, what plant we should use — things that a couple of years ago we could have waited till July to figure out. So we’ve more than doubled the lead time we need. And then, midway through the process, a very large big-box store came in with a massive order that almost doubled what we needed.” Meanwhile, he notes, “You could open a plant tomorrow and you’d probably have a call from Universal next week trying to block out the next few months of capacity. They’re trying to go around and block out as much as possible.”
Shortages are compounded by the demand for color variants exclusive to big box stores, indie record shops, chains like Urban Outfitters and artists’ web stores. Sean Rutkowski, a VP at New Jersey’s Independent Record Pressing plant, says colored-vinyl pellets are in such limited supply that he’s had to make calls on 43 releases that were due out before Christmas to tell labels they’d have to change their colors or wait till next year.
“The more color variations there are, the more chance there is for delays. We’ve had records with seven-plus color variations announced out of the gate. And in the environment we’re in now, it makes it really hard to hit those deadlines across the board for all those records at the same time, unless the labels are really working super far ahead,” Rutlowski says. “About 50% of the records we press now are color,” not standard black, he notes. “With the amount of exclusive variants we press on one record, I wonder if I’m making Beanie Babies sometimes.”
Reasons for the supply issues can be almost comically mundane. Says Colliton, “There are things you don’t ever think about happening. Like, there is a shortage of pellets because Dallas was cold, and because lumber is expensive, more people are putting vinyl flooring in their houses. And it’s the same materials, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to sell vinyl pellets to the flooring companies. Those are all things nobody thinks about when they can’t get their record made or can’t pick up the record they preordered because the stores got allocated. Some of the reasons this is happening are just kind of mind-blowing.”
(In case you’re wondering specifically which colors are toughest: “There’ve been times where clear has been tough to get,” Rutlowski says, “but now it’s for me, gold, silver, brown and orange have been the challenging colors to deal with.”)
Rutlowski runs into a lot of incredulity when he tells people just now wanting to reserve plant space what they’re in for. “For us pretty much, if you’re going to be pressing a record, we’re looking at like the summer of 2022 now in terms of new records coming out and being pressed. There’s a very reluctant acceptance of that, because (artists or labels) go, ‘Oh, well, I can’t wait that long.’ And then I find out that whatever plant they end up going to next, they’re also told they have to wait that long.”
He adds, though, that “the reality is that these frustrations are frustrations because people are embracing the format. So I’d much rather be in a situation of having to change 43 records because we couldn’t get the right color compound than have to scramble to keep the presses running. We’ve done about 1400 different orders over the course of the year, and we’re a mid-sized (plant) here in the U.S.”
Artists, labels and stores that have to deal with demand outstripping supply concede that that’s a good problem to have. Colliton thinks even non-record stores claiming bigger shares of the market is a positive. “What big boxes do is see what’s cool and sell it to people,” she says. “It really sucks that what’s cool is what we specialize in at record stores, and that’s (the share of limited supply) that they’re taking. But I guess if you look at it as the more people that know about vinyl, the more regular vinyl becomes, and the more vinyl will stick around, then I guess it’s a good thing that you can buy vinyl at Cracker Barrel.” And maybe a good thing that Adele and Swift are going to be the first LPs a lot of people ever buy.