Six years ago, Sterling Sound mastering engineer Ryan Smith was tasked with what he calls a career highlight: cutting the master lacquer for Adele’s blockbuster release 25. Smith cut five sets of the master for 25, which at the time was a historic number of lacquer sets for production of one album at once — and an early indication of the explosive growth vinyl would see over the coming years.
Now, as vinyl sales could cross $1 billion this year, cutting five lacquer sets for an album is no longer a shock. It is, however, eye-popping that when it came time for Smith to cut the lacquer for Adele’s upcoming album 30 — which he was tasked with doing several months ago — he cut more than 20 sets of lacquers (each with four sides to account for the double LP).
“What I do doesn’t take terribly long once I’ve got [the music]. I can cut multiple sets of lacquers in one day,” Smith said Tuesday on SiriusXM’s Volume show Billboard Live. (Cutting the master lacquer is the first step in vinyl manufacturing, as those masters are then sent to an electroplating facility and turned into stampers used to mass-produce records.) “But to press [a record] is a physical process. Those presses can only move so fast, it’s not like copying computer files.”
The delays plaguing pressing plants are nothing new — and surely not caused by Adele or Adele alone, as some reports have insinuated this week. And while an order of an estimated half a million records is nothing to scoff at, manufacturing delays have been an issue since vinyl demand spiked in July 2020. Coupled with supply-chain and labor issues, in addition to shortages of raw materials like PVC and paper products, delays were destined to happen — and now, at the end of 2021, are expected. Recent estimated turnaround times according to multiple pressing plant and label sources are averaging six to eight months. As Billboard previously reported in June, pressing plants around the globe have the capacity to manufacture about 160 million albums a year and current demand more than doubles that. At most, Adele’s 500,000 units would amount to 0.3% of the total vinyl records manufactured this year.
“For a lot of these records we’re seeing [labels] having to split production up over multiple plants. Your Adeles, Harry Styles, Taylor Swifts are pressing hundreds of thousands of records and they can’t get one plant, even the big plants, to make them fast enough.”
Which is exactly why Smith cut those more than 20 lacquer sets for 30. Having multiple masters means lacquers can be sent to multiple plants to manufacture, a necessity for an initial run of over 500,000 vinyl copies of 30, as Smith estimated on Tuesday. But that wasn’t the only goal in cutting multiple lacquers; Adele’s label requested multiple sets to have as backups in case of any damage done during plating the vinyl, not wanting to risk any production delays to ensure enough available product on the album’s Nov. 19 release date. Plus, considering the months-long delays introduced by the pandemic over a year ago, which will continue well into 2022, cutting extra lacquers means some could then be plated for future pressings after this initial run.
The current delays at record pressing plants are exactly why Adele and her team wanted to be prepared for any potential setback — and as Adele told BBC Radio 1 in October, why they’ve been targeting the Nov. 19 release date for six months. It’s also why, come Nov. 19, those 500,000 vinyl copies Smith estimated will be available to purchase and ready to ship or buy in-store.
In having vinyl available on release day, Adele joins artists like Billie Eilish, Halsey and more whose teams planned months ahead in order to time all formats (digital, streaming and physical) to the same release date, maximizing their respective album’s debut-week impact. Artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Swift, meanwhile, have released vinyl months after the arrival of their albums digitally and to streamers, resulting in strong first-week sales and an eventual rebound to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 once their physical products shipped. (Though it’s worth noting Swift’s Red (Taylor’s Version) will have vinyl available with the album’s release on Nov. 12.)
“When I started cutting [vinyl] a little over 10 years ago, it was definitely still niche,” Smith said on Billboard Live. “Now everybody wants to put out that physical something that their fans can hold onto.”