2013-09-03

Co.Labs

The Unlikely Return Of Vinyl Records, And How Indie Musicians Are Making Money On Them

Independent bands are turning to outsourced vinyl record production to recapture the long-lost album experience--and the monetary value--that everyone thought the iTunes store had killed.



Whole Foods has taken lifestyle marketing to an entirely new level with the announcement that they’ll be selling “GMO Free” vinyl in their Southern California stores this summer. That’s right: vinyl records. Right next to your organic cheeses and cruelty-free kombucha.

Why? Two words: User experience.

First, it’s notable that Whole Foods isn’t inventing the vinyl boom--they’re following it. This July, Soundscan stats revealed 2.9 million LP’s sold in the last six months, a 33.5% rise over the first half of 2013. Vinyl sales could hit 5.9 million by the end of the year if this pace keeps up, about a 28% increase over 2012.

You could be a downer and point out this increase is microscopic relative to the rest of the music industry; vinyl sales still only make up around a measly 2% of overall album sales. But let’s consider the fact that CD sales continue to decline year by year, falling another 14.2% in 2012. And while we’re talking about perspective, let’s also compare the rise in vinyl sales (33.5%) to the rise of digital album sales this year, which only went up about 6%.

The spike in vinyl is certainly good news for megastars like Daft Punk, who sold a whopping 19,000 copies of their new album on vinyl in the first release week--at 40 bucks a pop. But what about indie acts, or the majority of musicians out there without a label propelling them?

San Francisco rockers Ty Segall is one example. They continue to press vinyl for all their releases, including their new record “Sleeper,” now out on indie label Drag City. “Sleeper” has already been talked up in a big way from no less than the New York Times and Rolling Stone. “We sell significantly less CDs than records at shows,” says Emily Epstein, who drums in the band. “Sometimes we'll only sell one or two [CDs] a night. Records are still always king in terms of what people want at our merch table.”

The difference between one antiquated format and another, she says, is the user experience: “We all love getting a record, putting it on, spending time with it, looking at the gatefolds, reading all the liner notes--so it's been fun to create a complete experience.” “Sleeper” retails for $18.99 online and can be purchased for anywhere from $10 to $20 at the band’s shows.

Where Do Vinyl Records Come From?

There are quite a few online resources that make it possible for any artist to order vinyl production, one of which is Furnace Record Pressing. Through Furnace, a band can manufacture 500 LPs at $4.18 each (a total of $2,090) which includes a dust sleeve and colored jacket. Bands can also add a digital download package--a very common option--for an extra $50 plus 25 cents per record. Another site, Rainbo Records, sells a similar package for $1,379 but with plain white jackets and no information on digital download cards, equaling about $3 per record for the most basic option.

Jonathan Linaberry, who plays music as The Bones of J.R. Jones, is an unsigned artist living in Brooklyn. He says he’s proud to say the only way someone can physically own anything he has produced is by purchasing a record. “The real reason why I chose vinyl is because I'm nostalgic for real listening experiences,” he says. “Musicians spend hours, days, weeks sometimes years making albums and part of me feels like it is disrespectful to be able to skip through the album. Records are my way of trying to make people slow down a bit.”

Jonathan made 500 12-inch pressings for his last EP, which cost him close to $2,800. He sells them for around $15 a pop at shows. At around $5.60 to manufacture each album, that ends up being a roughly $4,700 profit if all the albums sell. About pressing vinyl, Jonathan jokes, “If you have the money, do it. If you don't, that's why God made credit cards.”

Some labels like YK Records have gone so far as to bifurcate their distribution to only vinyl and digital. Ross Wariner, also known as Uncle Skeleton, has been signed to YK since 2008. His father, who released 18 albums on major labels including RCA and Capitol and charted more than 50 tunes on the Billboard country charts, is a big influence on him. “I've been collecting records since I was a kid, so it was a no-brainer for me,” he says. “When I was in middle school, I was home schooled and didn't have many friends. On the weekends my parents would take me to records stores and let me pick out stacks of old dollar records. It was better than having friends.”

Ross is attached to the longevity of physical albums in particular. “When I was younger, I had the poster and mobile from Electric Light Orchestra's ‘Out of the Blue’ on my wall, and still cherish that album greatly. I've had a dozen hard drives crash since those days, but that copy of OOTB is still sitting on my shelf waiting for me. It's not a copy of 1's and 0's, its the same record I used to sit and study chord changes and string arrangements from, and that is irreplaceable.”

Bottom line: Vinyl listeners aren’t just old-timers craving the analog experience. They are trend-hunting teenagers, gluten-free shoppers, San Francisco garage rockers, and everyone in between. What draws them together is a respect for the gravity implicit in physical objects that is missing from digital ones. During a time when so many music-related endeavors seem to be declining in profit, it’s refreshing to hear that a potentially lost art is actually increasing in popularity--and that it gives musicians something to sell which actually makes a margin. Whether you’re buying your albums at Whole Foods, Urban Outfitters, Touch Vinyl, or Ear Wax, who cares? Just keep buying them.

Jackie Shuman (@jackieprobably) is an independent music supervisor and Head of Sync at Crush Management. She specializes in film, television and commercial placements for artists.

[Image: Flickr user Ed Uthman]






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3 Comments

  • tgsf

    One of the best experiences of a new record was always poring over the - sometimes amazing! - cover art, and reading all the production notes. I absolutely don't miss the warpage however....

  • DwDunphy

    Records are an inherent part of how music fans absorb music, and there's the distinction. You can like music and your downloads can satisfy that, but for some of us, the ritual of it all is as important as what we're listening you. You couldn't get it from CDs and you can't get it from files.