As vinyl sales started turning around in the past decade, Doug Chappell, vp of sales & technical service at press manufacturer Viryl Technologies, says everybody was “worried that the house of cards [was] going to implode on itself at some point.” As such, no one wanted to invest in new equipment.
Now that modest growth has turned into a boom, with sales up over 60% between 2020 and 2021 and up another 22% at the 2022 midyear raking in $570 million, according to the RIAA, and vinyl plants are running at full capacity across the country. And as appetite for vinyl far outstrips the infrastructure’s capacity to supply, that lack of investment is now coming back to bite the industry.
Alec Hanley Bemis, managing partner at the Brassland record label, the indie label he co-founded with The National’s Dessner brothers, says that plants are so busy that they have quoted him lead times of nine to 18 months to press a record. Switching from the label’s normal pressing partners to other pressing plants could speed up the timetable to between four and six months, but at twice the cost and more logistical hassle.
The scarcity is creating business opportunities, and nearly a dozen new and expanded pressing plants are coming to the rescue for labels like Brassland. Among them, in Minnesota, the ADS Group-owned Copycats Media is opening one of two new plants in Minneapolis with five record presses in a 65,000-square-foot building, along with the smaller, indie-focused Outta Wax plant nearby. Subscription club Vinyl Me, Please is opening its own 14,000-square-foot plant in Denver, where an environmentally-friendly plant called The House Plant is currently underway as well. Memphis Record Pressing, where CEO Brandon Seavers says they’ve “quite literally been out of space for about four years,” is investing $28.8 million to expand its output to 125,000 records a day. And in Nashville, Nashville Record Pressing recently opened with a $13.3 million investment from parent company Czech Republic-based GZ Media, Europe’s largest vinyl record manufacturer; while United Record Pressing is currently expanding with an additional 48 presses that will bring the manufacturer’s count to just under 100.
New plants are also on the way or recently opened in Detroit (2424 Vinyl LLC); Oxnard, California (Fidelity Record Pressing); Charlotte, North Carolina (Green Vinyl Records); and Middleton, Wisconsin (Waxxy Poodle). In order to grow national capacity and widen existing bottlenecks, however, these pressing plants have to open first.
For decades, every vinyl record press in use was vintage. By the early 2000s, repair parts weren’t available, and every known press was either in use or had been bought up to stockpile pressing plants’ boneyard of parts against breakdowns. Between 2014 and 2016, four companies across the globe — Viryl Technologies in Canada, GZ Media in the Czech Republic, Pheenix Alpha in Sweden and Newbilt Machinery in Germany — all debuted prototypes of new modernized presses, some of which had to be reverse-engineered from existing presses.
These new presses have enabled new pressing plants to open, but as new plant owners have learned by now, there are other parts of the vinyl production process that are still in short supply and are harder to replicate. Lacquer discs, for example, are currently only manufactured by one company in the entire world, and lathes — which cut the music’s initial grooves into the lacquers — are still vintage technology that are in limited supply without working reproductions on the market. “It’s not as simple as, ‘Hey yeah, let’s make this machine,’ and away we go; there’s an art to it,” says Chappell at Viryl. “It’s time and money, and as busy as the industry is, everybody’s still very price-conscious.”
Global supply chain issues are only compounding the matter. For both Copycats and Vinyl Me, Please, unloading delays at port and supply chain disruptions have delayed both companies’ presses — despite ordering them almost a year ahead of time. Press manufacturers are meanwhile waiting for things like $12 switches to finish 99% complete machines, says Chappell, and are scrambling to find alternate suppliers for standard parts.
These supply issues promise to continue to plague plants long after launch. Paper shortages reportedly caused by paper plants switching to cardboard during the pandemic, according to Seavers at Memphis, are affecting center labels, sleeves, jackets and other packaging. Nickel shortages due to the war in Ukraine — which has knocked Russia, one of the top high-grade nickel suppliers, out of the market — are affecting record stamper electroplating. And global oil and petrochemical prices are driving up the cost of PVC pellets that are melted and pressed into the vinyl discs.
Labor costs have also increased. “[Vinyl is] not the kind of thing where you just throw somebody at it and tell them to push a few buttons,” says Vinyl Me, Please plant manager Gary Salstrom, citing an example where Vinyl Me, Please received a systematically botched batch of records from a partner pressing plant due to operator error. “You’ve got temperatures that are critical depending on the cut of the groove drop geometry and the type of vinyl being used, and this was a perfect example of throwing somebody into the game that really wasn’t ready.”
This longer training period makes onboarding new staff a longer process than in many other manufacturing industries. Executives also stressed that they want to create an environment that is more lucrative than similar positions at other manufacturing or packaging companies, and Copycats, Vinyl Me, Please, and Memphis all said that they’ve raised wages in response to inflation and the current labor market. “I wouldn’t say anything related to vinyl manufacturing is easy,” Seavers says. “Making a good record is actually a little bit magical. You have to go find the few good magicians.”
All of this is adding up to rapidly changing costs for plants, labels and consumers. Combined with long and unpredictable lead times, it is nearly impossible for smaller labels to coordinate releases. “Every vinyl record has probably three or four vendor sources going into it,” says Bemis at Brassland. “Anything that goes wrong, it creates this cascading kind of issue.”
Bemis is, however, optimistic that things will get better in the next year: “In 2023,” he says, “there might be enough plants that have capacity to simplify this.”