Vinyl's Growth Dependent on 50-Year-Old Manufacturing Process?

Consumers love vinyl, and can't get enough of it -- sometimes literally. With presses running at capacity-and hampered to some degree by a production process that hasn't technologically changed in decades -- it's possible that the top of the market may be limited by supply, not demand.

Cost and production methods create limitations as well. The format is an expensive, time-consuming process. As a petroleum-based product, vinyl's costs are dependent on oil prices. The cost of crude oil has risen from approximately $42 a barrel in January 2009 to $112 a barrel this month, according to InvestmentMine. Vinyl costs as much as 10 times to manufacture as CDs, at least $3.50 for the former to as little as 35 cents for the latter.

It also can take two weeks to ready a record for shipment, while a CD can be manufactured and assembled in a day or two. And that's just for black vinyl. The process is more costly, time-consuming and difficult for colored vinyl and elaborate packaging.

And vinyl manufacturing remains as much an art form as a science. When records are pressed, "you need a set of eyes on each one being made making sure everything is right -- that there is no scrapping, scuffing, warping or 'non-fills'" (when pressing skips installing sound into a groove), says Jay Millar, director of marketing for United Record Pressing in Nashville. Checking for these defects requires human inspection. "Every project is unique, even in the grooves," Millar adds. "What works one day in manufacturing a record might not work the next. A change in humidity could put the process off."

Vinyl manufacturing uses "pretty much the same technology" as 50 years ago, Millar says. "Whenever anyone has made an attempt to streamline the process -- like using injection molding -- they failed and created an inferior sound-quality product. The maximum output is one record every 30 seconds. Until someone can figure out a way to make vinyl that will live up to the expectations of the audiophile community, the only way to make vinyl quicker is to get more presses online." As it is, United is running 26 presses 24 hours a day, six days a week, Millar says.

Of course, one way to deal with production capacity issues is to plan ahead. This year, United Pressing began the process for Back to Black Record Store Day -- RSD's Black Friday event in November -- earlier in the summer so that by August, it was as busy as it was last September and October for the 2012 edition, Millar reports. So what used to be a two-month flood of activity is now a more manageable four-month process.