Thomas Cox: We Need To Talk About Vinyl

Vinyl sales are apparently on the up, but is the bubble in danger of bursting? Thomas Cox warns that dance music’s obsession with vinyl release gimmicks is a short-sighted approach.

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Vinyl is back. At least, so we’re led to believe every time SoundScan or the BPI send out a press release. (The New York Times most recently reported on vinyl’s ‘small renaissance’ in April, having previously covered similar stories a couple of times a year since 2008.) Whether it’s a short-term bubble or a lasting trend, as a long-time vinyl buyer I find many of the current sales strategies worrying. The truth is that the methods which stores and record labels are using to promote vinyl as a medium are short-sighted. At best these methods are unsustainable, but at worst they’re potentially damaging to the long-term health of the format itself.

“as a long-time vinyl buyer I find many of the current sales strategies worrying”

When I began DJing back in the dark ages of 1997, there really was no option other than vinyl. It would be years before the most basic CDJs were frequently seen at underground clubs and raves, and the idea of DJing with a computer probably would have made most people laugh out loud. In fact, I entered into DJing so easily at least partially because I was already buying most of the underground music I loved on vinyl for a few years by that time. It was nothing new to go to shops that had stacks of new releases delivered multiple times per week, nor was it odd for me to go to the plentiful used shops to find older music I loved.

So, having continued to buy music in much the same way for more than half my life, surely I should be pleased to see articles which detail how vinyl sales are steadily rising? It should make me happy to see so many new vinyl labels popping up, flying in the face of all the supposedly irreversible ‘progress’ made by digital music sales? The reality isn’t quite that simple. Even putting aside the fact that a large proportion of vinyl sales come from things like audiophile reissues of classic albums, Record Store Day novelties and collectors’ editions, dance music has its own issues to deal with.

The biggest of all is the limited edition craze. Obviously, unlike digital downloads, all vinyl pressings are limited. Duh. But it seems like many artists and labels exist almost exclusively based around the idea of exclusivity, to the point where they’re clearly not pressing as many units as they could, just to keep up the ‘limited’ hype. Combined with the fact that a great many people are now buying records online instead of in local shops, this leads to a rush of people buying supposedly ‘rare’ records from the jump-off, regardless of whether that record is even any good. It’s hard not to be taken in by the ‘limited edition, one per customer’ hype – this might be your only chance of owning it, since it probably won’t be sitting on the shelves to check out later.

“unlike digital downloads, all vinyl pressings are limited. Duh.”

The reseller issue relates directly to that limited edition trend. For any hyped release, a number of people will buy up as many copies as they can to flip on Discogs at an exorbitant price. It’s really not hard to do when the total number of copies of a record is 500 or even 300, as so many are these days – even with one-per-customer rules, it’s not hard for one reseller to buy up 10% of all copies of a release.

I’m not against the idea of a few special limited records, but there’s so much hype for damn near any limited edition release that it’s clear more and more labels are starting to rely on the strategy to drive sales.

On another note, never in my memory have re-presses, reissues and bootlegs been such a huge and divisive issue, and never have they made up such a large percentage of records available from distributors. I understand it’s especially frustrating to long-time vinyl heads who’ve done the work searching out these records only to see them made more widely available for a reasonable price. But as I’m a firm believer in music being made available, that isn’t even what really gets to me about this. The most annoying part is that it’s quite often being done for records that were readily available on the second-hand market. It’s a pretty ridiculous situation when people will buy old records at new prices in large amounts, but need to have new music be ‘limited’ in order to make a purchase. We’re inundated with old music being re-released to make money, while new music is sold to as few people as possible to make the hype machine spin.

“It's not about the exclusive rush to get the rarest record. It’s about having the best music in the best-sounding format.”

Deluxe box sets and hand-stamped white labels are two sides of the same coin. Some of these box sets are insanely expensive, including everything from an air freshener to a t-shirt to a poster to a book and more. This smacks of gimmickry, using something outside of the music to sell what is essentially product with a higher profit margin. I have no problem with merchandise, but if I want that stuff I’ll purchase it separately.

Hand-stamped white labels have basically the same aim, but go the opposite route to achieve it. Instead of the gimmick being all the added-on crap that doesn’t matter, their gimmick is that of it being “just about the music”. Most times this is tied in directly to the artificially limited pressings discussed earlier, with some of the most notable labels over the past few years having been almost completely ignored until taking this route. Artwork and any other information is really sacrificed here, yet the prices on these records don’t seem to be any less than records with regular sleeves and artwork. This alone should set off alarm bells in the minds of record buyers. With box sets you’re often forced to spend more than you want for way too much. With hand-stamped, plain-sleeved releases you’re usually paying regular prices for way too little.

In the end, as a long-time record buyer who hopes to continue doing so, these strategies all seem very short-sighted. We need more artists who love vinyl but also want to make their music available and sell it based on the merit of the music embedded in the grooves. Basic Channel are a great example. Despite their records being constantly in press for 20 years and just about every DJ hammering them in clubs, they’re still considered ‘cool’ and new record buyers can easily order the vinyl and enjoy it the way it was always meant to be.

Unfortunately there are way too few labels interested in taking this kind of long-term approach to selling their music. There are are a handful of notable exceptions. Theo Parrish will repress regularly, though not keeping his whole catalogue available. (This still doesn’t stop the resale mongers from trying to jack up the prices on his records – which have already been priced higher than normal with the idea of discouraging just that practice.) Omar-S also keeps his releases in print – and, even more distinctively, for sale at less than standard shop prices if you buy directly from him.

“it seems most labels are caught chasing the short money to the detriment of the perceived timeless quality of the music”

However, it seems most labels are caught chasing the short money to the detriment of the perceived timeless quality of the music being released. With records not being available, how many potential buyers are losing out on being able to have some of the best music, or are forced to prop up used record resellers at inflated prices if they choose to own the releases in their intended format?

That’s the essence of record collecting for me. It’s not about the exclusive rush to get the rarest record, nor all the other marketing that gets piled on top. It’s about having the best music in the best-sounding format. (“Best-sounding” may even be up for debate, but it likely doesn’t involve coloured vinyl or picture discs, both of which degrade quicker than regular black vinyl, or 180 gram pressings which really add only to the cost and to the weight of your record bag and not the sound quality.) Hopefully as the newer record buyers become more savvy, they’ll see past the gimmicks and we’ll have a vinyl culture that continues to grow and be meaningful. If the gimmicks win out, I guess there are always digital downloads.

 

Thomas Cox has been causing trouble on teh interwebs since 1996 and representing Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania since birth. You can argue with him on Twitter.

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  • Words: Thomas Cox
  • Date: 14th July 2014
  • costs Wrote:

    excellent article.

    regarding record numbers, one thing i’ve learned is most records are pressed in editions of 300-500 because that seems to be the (often above) average number of copies that a release can sell unfortunately.

    personally, i can’t afford to spend money to press 1000 copies of a record and hope to break even in a year or longer while filling up my basement…it’s a lot of money to drop.

    I do put my money where my mouth is with the content, which I like about the vinyl process, though. It forces you to release your best…or it should, unless you have means to sling whatever and use marketing talk that you mention.

    How much of the marketing talk is the artists themselves vs. the shops/distros, do you think?

    if i could feasibly do an edition of less than 200, i probably would, and I definitely wouldn’t say anything like “no represses!” either. as you know, the cost per record would be really high of course due to setup fees, so it wouldn’t make sense anyway. Lathe cuts sound like dogshit, otherwise there’d probably be more of those.

    i’d rather put out 2-3 releases a year and break even on each in hopefully 6 months, than put out 1 and sit on a ton of copies hoping to break even and not able to release the second and third record for that much longer because I’m out of money. I’m unfortunately stubborn and like tangible art and tangible grooves, I guess that’s my whole problem right there.

    with small editions, you’re told the cost per record is way too high and shops/distros won’t buy very many at your totally reasonable per copy charge. shipping rates really suck a lot more now than they did just a year or two ago…that definitely factors in a bit.

    they’ll turn around and double whatever you charged them, making the price to the listener way higher than you’d like while you made less than a dollar for the copy.

    You can sell copies yourself for the better price, although that can piss off your shops/distros. it’s a tricky situation.

    i totally agree regarding hype and putting too much attention on limited runs…no crap it’s limited, not many can afford to put out lavish releases in large quantities that sell fast enough to help the artist keep going.

    The money’s in the gigs for most of us.

    Maybe none of what I’m saying to you is news, but it’s definitely how it is for a lot of us.

    Again, great article Thomas!

  • Rudolph Rubarb Wrote:

    Vinyl DJs are the comic book nerds of dance music. Everything is limited edition because there are too many labels chasing after too few buyers.

    I’m looking forward to the collapse because there isn’t a reason for most of this music to exist. it’s not music, it’s just an endless churn of 12″ business cards.

  • Joe Wrote:

    “I’m looking forward to the collapse because there isn’t a reason for most of this music to exist.”

    Because Beatport is full with “quality” music init? Exactly this “quality” mass was the reason of the rising of the vinyl IMO.

  • Flaquito Wrote:

    Hello,
    I am a vinyl DJ in Detroit, where the only two producers who the author mentioned reside, or hail from.

    One thing about records that has been on my mind has to do with water. In Detroit, we are experiencing water shut offs for many of our residents. more than 100,000 on a list out of only 700,000 people. The Great Lakes is 25% of the world’s fresh water resource, and many of Detroit residents are not receiving this basic human resource and right.

    This brings me to records. Vinyl is made of Polyvinyl Chloride, which takes crude oil to make. Like water, crude oil is a finite resource in the world. Although many other products and services are made with crude oil, this process of making vinyl, while experiencing such a fast-changing music landscape, seems ancient. I would like to see technology evolve in the record industry to develop recycled or other materials that do not depend on finite resources to produce this thing we call “vinyl”. Is it possible? Would it sound as good?

    Otherwise, great post. Some interesting points. I am also in the middle of opening a DJ Supply store, so I will take these points into consideration when ordering from distributors or artists themselves.

  • j8 Wrote:

    good point by flaquito. it might not be very cool, but every new record takes energy and uses resources, even if it’s recycled vinyl. buying second hand is the environmentally friendly choice. but then you get onto the fact that no one but the reseller benefits from a second hand sale (apart from discogs/ebay/paypal fees…

  • GAR©ON Wrote:

    All good points (except Rudolf)…

    While there is an obvious cynicism from the author regarding the “limited editions” which admittedly is somewhat valid, I like to think that when any artist or label commits to pressings to vinyl, they must believe it is a work worthy of the investment and not just a 12″ business card (which it is of course, bit only incidentally).

    I’d like to think that I am savvy enough to see through the fluff of special editions/collector sets etc. but must admit I bought a fancy release from a certain artist as it included a t-shirt and hand done lino print. In fairness, the artist was someone I’ve admired for 20+ years so didn’t mind digging a little deeper for the unusual release but it is not something I normally do.

    Flaquito’s point is also excellent.

  • Bob Wrote:

    The gimmicks thing is spot on but still theres somthing alluring about a numbered release it just makes it special.

    As much as it is a gimmick and there are a lot of labels that rely on it and output shit there are alot of “hand numbered” “handstamped” etc releases that are spot on

    What does annoy me though is scrimping on a release when you get one without an outer sleeve or vise versa without an inner sleeve yet your paying full wack and then theres other releases that are a few £ cheper with inner and outer sleeve and outer sleeve artwork and full printed labels

  • Tom Wrote:

    Great article. I listen to hours of new music a week from various sources. Downloads, radio and alot of mixes. Ive been buying vinyl on and off for about 5 years. If i hear something that warrants it ill buy a physical copy. theres a bench mark that separates what i will own on mp3 to what ill endeavour to get a copy on vinyl. i like the idea of having something that is pressed in a limited run not for resale vaule or how much it may be worth, but if its in my
    Collection its a piece of music i value.

    Plus i have about 4 or 5 close friends who also buy vinyl regularly. There is cross over records that we all own. But its also refreshing to go round and let them play you something thats limited meaning you havent heard it and my now be out of print. Stops everyones collection looking the same. Keeps peoples sets interesting. Alot of the rush of being a dj is having a record that not everyone owns. I realise most of the time everything is avaliable in unlimited supply of mp3s so if you really want to own or play it theres a format still avaliable.

    I still agree with pricing of non art work pressing ect. But i also fully aware of the cost of pressing a limited run and the minimal returns.

  • Jon Wrote:

    Interesting. Although I don’t agree that limited releases are all a bad thing. Nor do I think it’s in any way bad for someone who spends a lot of time researching, digging and scanning the shops to get rewarded with quality, rare music. Why should’nt a person reep the rewards ? That’s part of being a DJ isn’t it ? You caught on quick to an up coming artist, up and coming artist puts out super exclusive release because he/she isn’t main stream enought to be able to gaurante large sales. DJ with ear to the ground who caught on quickly get the music and the ones who weren’t don’t. Otherwise we’d all be playing the same tracks…wouldn’t we ?
    Just today I bought a release by Affie Youseph limited to 300. But I did so in confidence. He has a great and extensive back catalouge that I like. Some friends on facebook gave me a heads up about the record so I get a copy. I’m sure this is the way it’s supposed to work. The people who really like the artist get the music.
    Having said that I do understand how this can be spun into a gimmik. But realisticaly the chancers should be easy enough to spot and avoided.
    There was actually a thread about this issue on Discogs;http://www.discogs.com/groups/topic/337464

  • Victor Wrote:

    I agree with most it, but 180 gram vinyls are not a marketing gimmick. The added thickness and weight makes the record more stable, less prone to warping and will last longer because it’s thicker and harder so the groove wear is decreased. I have loads of cheap light pressings and most of them are wobbly and flimsy and a lot of them are slightly warped straight out of the store.

    Also you failed to touch on one subject: one sided pressings. Why the hell are one sided records cost as much as a double sided EP? It’s one track on one side meaning the engineer only had to master a track and cut like half of a lacquer. There is only one dubplate being made instead of 2 and still, these things are priced the same as a fully pressed 4-track EP. Sorry, but I’d rather just buy the mp3 since it costs 10 times less.

    Great article, but still, we should embrace this market rather than criticise it. It’s actually a good thing that kids are learning to beatmatch using turntables again instead of doing Ableton sets.. And let’s be honest, hype or no hype, people who are into vinyl will always be, no matter what the market dictates.

  • Justin Wrote:

    Although the author makes a couple valid points, the message of the article is nonsense written by someone seemingly too sour to the reality that it’s not the 90’s anymore, who can’t evolve fast enough to keep up with the modern trends. I can’t wait to tear into this on the FB tomorrow. Seriously, it’s called evolution Thomas.

    PS- I am neither a spring chicken, nor a vinyl purist, and have been DJing underground vinyl Techno records for 15 years (for a little context)

    PPS- Rudolph Rubarb, stop smoking Crack.

  • Julian r. Wrote:

    by the way, i don’t think this vinyl “revival” has something to do with dance music, it’s has everything to do just with classic rock and indie music. by the way, major labels are enjoying that, now vinyl in usa costs about 2 to 3 times the price that was a few years ago and sounding worst than ever (digital mastering for analogue records), and, yes, 180g vinyl are a gimmick when associated with “audiophile experience”.
    djs are just using vinyl in special events or when they’re playing at their own city, a dj that travels with vinyl is rare nowadays, for many reasons…

  • master yoda Wrote:

    the reason for warped records from the store are that the pressing plants dont give them enough time to cool off… so they can make more money.

  • aaron. Wrote:

    The long-term future of vinyl was already dead and unviable to the mainstream markets – this latest phase and ‘Renaissance’ really is just that: the return of a medium from the historic archive. Vinyl has barely subsisted as a format for specialists/enthusiasts and DJ tools: if specious limited-editions and dodgy gimmicks get the ‘mainstream’ audience buying records and setting-up turntables again, then it’s better than (literally) nothing. The ‘future’ of vinyl was never looking bright for the 90% of listening consumers who simply listen to music and want a convenient format (not to mention a desirable object).

    Though I do agree that where the gimmicks and fads do real harm is when underground labels try to push underground music to underground fans. It just doesn’t seem as necessary. I am tired of Boomkat emailing me about marbled wax and super-limited editions of music from producers who couldn’t realistically shift more than 2,000 copies of an EP, anyway. It just seems forced and, indeed, cynical.

  • drowning Wrote:

    ‘We need to talk about out of touch, covetous, egocentric, hate spewing, chip on their shoulder producers” who are obsessed with ‘hype’ when they really just need to focus on music and not spend so much time writing articles about how ‘old school they are’ and limited pressings/etc. blahh blahh blahh. just make music, put it out and have fun. that’s the whole point. what a waste of time article.

  • 30ohm Wrote:

    Vinyl sucks.

    Heavy, expensive to produce, difficult to distribute, questionable sound quality in less-than-perfect conditions (dust, heat, shitty needles), expensive to purchase, ….did I mention heavy?

    I used to have a massive vinyl collection, I honestly dont miss it other than a few rarities that I’ve kept around. Long live digital.

  • KoM Wrote:

    WHO FUCKING CARES?

    WHO THE FUCK GIVES A FUCKING DAMN?

  • IEW Wrote:

    “With records not being available, how many potential buyers are losing out on being able to have some of the best music [...]?”

    ^This!
    As a pure consumer of music, limited editions and vinyl-only releases can suck my balls. It’s really frustrating not being able to buy older music just because the artist thought he/she is too cool for a digital release. I’m not going to go out and buy a record ripping device thing or what ever just to listen to your little EP, especially if I only like 1 tune (which is very likely). Also, fuck shipping costs, I’m already spending a lot (too much) on music every month.

    I absolutely do not understand why an underground artist would sell *exclusively* on vinyl or have limited digital releases (yeah, that happens too). You’re just shooting yourself in the foot.

    The whole vinyl-hype is weird to me anyway. Sure, having a physical object is kinda nice, but you gotta deal with it being able to break and wear down. So “it makes me feel good” is about the only real advantage vinyl has. The only reason a vinyl record would sound *better* than a digital release is because of the mastering. Don’t compress the shit out of your music to make it loud, and your digital releases will sound equally as good as vinyl, minus the distortion of the needle (so actually better).

  • hoooray Wrote:

    yeh vinyl blabla / hey digital albalb.
    limited uuuuuu / special boooo !

    aah fugg it…
    reply = 0

  • jason Wrote:

    Why some people think vinyl sounds better than MP3
    Mark Frauenfelder at 11:55 am Fri, Nov 9, 2012

    Leo Kent says: “Humans Invent has done an in-depth feature on Vinyl, examining why it sounds so much better than CDs or MP3s.”

    「The integral difference between vinyl and CD or MP3 is that a vinyl record is an analogue recording — that is, the physical recording is made to vary in correspondence to the variations in air pressure of the original sound. Put simply, the groove that is cut into the vinyl by the cutting lathe mirrors the original sound wave.

    Digital sound, meanwhile, is produced by changing the physical properties of the original sound into a sequence of numbers, which can then be stored and read back for reproduction. In practical terms, you’re getting a representation of the sound – the CD taking a snapshot of the analogue signal at a specific rate (44,100 times per second, to be exact).

    But what of the fabled ‘warmth’ attributed to vinyl? Christoph Grote-Beverborg has processed thousands of records across the electronic spectrum (and far beyond) for labels such as Tresor, Honest Jons and Ostgut Ton:

    “In terms of uncompressed digital audio vs vinyl, I can only repeat what has been said before: with digital audio the resolution is more limited than with analogue audio. The same goes for frequency range. But the real thing is what you hear. With vinyl you get a certain kind of saturation and added harmonics that you don’t have with digital. The sound has a body;’ it’s just more physical.”」

    I don’t care too about sound quality much, myself. David once told me, “I like the sound of AM radio,” and I agreed with him.

    http://boingboing.net/2012/11/09/why-some-people-think-vinyl-so.html