Old Format, New Records: Making Vinyl 2018 Preview
The inaugural Making Vinyl Conference, held last November in Detroit, felt like a gathering of the tribes dedicated to bringing 7- and 12-inch records back in style. Organized by Larry Jaffee, a music journalist and former publicist, with Brian Ekus, president of the Colonial Purchasing Cooperative, the conference, held in the ballroom of the Westin Book Cadillac hotel, featured a keynote Q&A with Jack White -- whose Third Man Pressing plant was pushing out records a little more than a mile away. It drew nearly 300 attendees from 16 countries and included manufacturers such as Rainbo, United Pressing and Second Line Vinyl that continue to support the business during the industry’s streaming takeover.
The spirit of congeniality and shared mission was so strong that White even stuck around to pose for selfies during the cocktail party that followed. There’s reason for celebration. In the first half of 2018, vinyl album sales were up by 19.2 percent -- a new high in a 12-year growth pattern -- according to Nielsen Music. The 2018 version of Record Store Day, held annually in April, also logged impressive gains with 733,000 vinyl albums sold.
The Making Vinyl Conference will return to Detroit Oct. 1-2, and Jaffee plans to raise the bar with discussions about manufacturing issues, women working in the vinyl industry, the emergence of vinyl clubs such as Vinyl Me, Please and the formation of quality guidelines for the revitalized music sector. The gathering’s Packaging Awards will also be back. Hosted by Grammy Award-winning creative director Craig Braun, most notably recognized for his design of The Rolling Stones’ 1971 album, Sticky Fingers, the ceremony will honor achievements in 14 categories, including innovations in sustainability and for best vinyl package. Lastly, E Street Band guitarist “Little Steven” Van Zandt will serve as the conference’s keynote speaker.
Jaffee gives a preview of Making Vinyl’s second go-round, and says that two topics of discussion will be “how limited editions can be profitable and [the lack of] download-card usage.”
How did you come up with the idea for a vinyl conference?
Jaffee: In 2012, I had this feeling that the comeback wasn't a fad. Record Store Day has consistently shown growth [in sales], multiplied by the number of releases out there. I remember saying to Brian Ekus that we might want to start thinking about doing something with vinyl, and he was intrigued. [Ekus’] Colonial Purchasing Cooperative is for media manufacturers -- they pool their resources to get better deals on raw materials -- and it seemed like the kind of thing that might help the vinyl manufacturers, too.
So you recognized the need for an organization to help the format gather together and grow?
Yeah. We saw there was an opportunity to embrace vinyl as the shining star of physical media. There’s a sense that the market is even bigger than has been discussed. That is partly due to independent retailers who participate in Record Store Day but don’t report to Nielsen [Music]. But at the same time, we wanted to partner with organizations such as the RIAA to communicate that vinyl [is still important] and the world doesn't end with streaming. If physical media means anything to your music strategy, you should be part of Making Vinyl.
What was your sense of the audience that would exist for such a conference?
Anecdotally we knew of new pressing plants that were being launched, but there was a bigger group of companies than we anticipated. This time, we have six or seven new companies in addition to the ones in attendance last year.
Why was Detroit the right city?
Initially we thought of Nashville because of Jack White being headquartered there, but the hotels were actually booked solid. But we also knew Jack had opened a [Third Man] pressing plant in Detroit last February. So that made a lot of sense. We called [the record label’s co-founder] Ben Blackwell, and he was very receptive and discussed it with Jack. He’s such a busy guy, so we didn't know until three weeks before that he was definitely coming to do the keynote.
How did you land on the idea for the Packaging Awards?
Packaging is really important. It’s what differentiates music in the digital age right now. That is not to say CDs don’t matter at all; I’m sure CDs still have [a fan base], even if it’s hard to buy one anymore. But when I was editing Medialine [from 1998 to 2005], we had a DVD entertainment conference with a competition for packaging. It was mostly a CD- and DVD-focused award. We did have a vinyl category, but it was minuscule in terms of submissions we used to get in those days, because no one was making [vinyl]. Eleven years later, it just made sense to revive it.
What do you think is driving the vinyl resurgence?
Vinyl sounds warmer. [As an editor for] a CD magazine, I was brainwashed [to believe] that CDs were better. The portability obviously was a factor, but they are a very sterile-sounding thing. The great thing about the vinyl comeback is it cuts across various demographics. I remember getting a tape recorder around 1971 and buying a Chuck Berry cassette. Around that time, I bought a record player and Introducing...The Beatles from some department store for 99 cents and [The Rolling Stones’] Hot Rocks, and off I went. I’m 60 years old; I sold most of my record collection in 2010, and within two years, I realized what a big mistake I made. So I’ve spent the last five years re-creating my collection, which includes about 3,500 records.
Why do you think a generation that is being raised on streaming is now gravitating to vinyl?
There is a rumor that there is still a percentage of millennials, or even younger, that will buy a record just to put it up on the wall and never even play it. They might open it up to get the download card. It’s a shame they don’t take advantage of it, but to each their own. I think young people, given the opportunity to hear the difference, will make that transition. It’s interesting that Urban Outfitters has widened the potential audience for vinyl when they started carrying the low-end [Crosley] record players that can cost less than $100.
The vinyl box set has made a comeback, too. What has led to its enduring appeal?
It’s history repeating itself. We lived through this in the CD era. All of a sudden [record labels] are coming out with these packages with bonus tracks, which is great from a fan’s perspective. These companies are sitting on great mountains of music that I don’t think translates to the streaming world as strongly. You can go on Spotify and you see some of these things, but it doesn’t connect in the same way as a box set. It really needs to be supplemented by a great booklet and deluxe cases to house them and make it a great, tactile experience.
Has the rise of vinyl helped preserve album artwork in the digital age?
I interviewed [American cartoonist] Robert Crumb about this topic and he said size has nothing to do with it -- it’s just a loss of visual intelligence. The computer and Photoshop have made it easier [to create album covers], but at the same time the designers are not paying attention to typography the same way as it was before. Crumb used the example of matchbook covers to point out that it’s not always about the size of the canvas. On the other hand, it’s easier to have a striking image on an LP cover, especially one that’s a gatefold.
Is there a move to standardize business and operating practices?
There is. We’ve partnered with the RIAA to come up with manufacturing guidelines. The last time they issued a document on how to make records was in 1978, and technology has changed since then. We saw an opportunity to bring Vinyl 2.0 into the digital age to reflect that. So we’re going to put together a body of industry professionals who will help us come up with best practices and update what’s in existence already. The announcement will be made at the conference, and we may also reveal the companies that have already signed on to the effort. We want to show that Making Vinyl believes we as an industry must put out the best quality possible.
Why did you choose Steven Van Zandt as this year’s keynote speaker?
I have always been a big fan of [his radio show] Underground Garage and been impressed with his breadth of knowledge about the record industry. It’s hard to talk about the underbelly of the record business, and I learn something from him every week. So I thought he might be interested in this whole rebirth of vinyl. I went through Twitter and mentioned that Jack White did the conference last year, and we had almost 300 people there. He was supposed to get back to me before he went to tour in Europe about a month ago. I didn’t hear from him, so I was on pins and needles before he confirmed. So now I can breathe again.
'It Makes the Music More Real'
Steven Van Zandt will don his bandana Oct. 1 to deliver the keynote at the second Making Vinyl Conference in Detroit. As he preps his speech, the E Street Band guitarist and solo artist weighs in on his favorite format.
“My first record was [1964’s] Meet The Beatles! That album sold like it was a single; they were that popular at the moment. It just exploded the whole concept of albums.
“The growth [of vinyl] is a wonderful trend. It’s a permanent part of our business now. The tactile, physical contact with the music is extremely important. It makes it more real, and less of something that’s just somewhere in cyberspace. It makes you appreciate it more, and is nothing but healthy.
“But it’s not only the return of vinyl, it’s the return of [album] credits. That disappeared with downloading and streaming. Now you get a nice, big picture and a chance to see what the band looks like and the army of people it took to make the records, so people don’t think that these things just fall out of trees.”