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Can vinyl manufacturing keep up with demand?

Last week we discussed the history of vinyl records and how they evolved, became popular, grew out of fashion, and then came back again and why. This week, let’s explore how the music industry is responding to the renewed interest in vinyl records.

Hitting a bottleneck

In 2022, vinyl records surpassed CDs as the most popular physical music format and the following year accounted for 72% of physical format revenue.* Although physical sales pale in comparison to digital and streaming sales, 2023 marked the 16th consecutive year that vinyl record sales grew. 

One problem with the sudden increase in demand is that there simply aren’t enough manufacturing plants, machines, workers or materials readily available to keep up the supply. When vinyl records sales dwindled in the 80s, many manufacturing plants closed down. Even though new manufacturers began to open as demand increased over the last decade and current manufacturers ramped up their capacity, supply shortages during the pandemic contributed to longer lead times. In 2021, lead times averaged 27 weeks for new vinyl albums compared to 6 weeks of lead time in 2019. This makes planning an album release for artists even more difficult if they want to offer a vinyl option.

A bottleneck in the production process means that small independent record stores and artists are more likely to feel the brunt of it. Small shop owners may have their orders filled last, or only partially, causing them to lose out on sales when an album is released, while artists may have to make a difficult decision to either wait for the vinyl to be ready or release the album on CD and digital with the hope that demand will still exist for the vinyl version later on.

An industry in growth mode

Increasing production capacity takes time – and people. Vinyl pressing machines are hardly cheap and require skilled workers to run them. A new vinyl manufacturer that began operating during the pandemic told a reporter for GRAMMY.com in 2022 that they were “pressing records 12 hours a day, seven days a week” but “the bottleneck now is personnel. Machines don’t get tired, but people do” and training new operators takes time.

That same year, Jack White, the guitarist and lead singer of the White Stripes and the founder of Third Man Records, shared an open letter to the industry urging major record labels to invest in their own vinyl pressing plants. “To be clear, the issue is not big labels versus small labels…The issue is, simply, we have ALL created an environment where the unprecedented demand for vinyl records cannot keep up with the rudimentary supply of them…I truly believe that with a good faith investment in the infrastructure that got us here, we can continue on this upward trajectory,” said White.

A year later, Metallica purchased a majority stake in a Virginia vinyl pressing plant.


*Fun Fact: “Taylor Swift was responsible for 7% of all vinyl albums sold in the U.S. in 2023” selling 3.484 million vinyl records that year.

Author

  • Julianne Culey

    Julianne is the Assistant Director of the Reynolds Center with expertise in marketing and communications and holds a master's in Sociology from Arizona State University.

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