ChainMail | Vinyl Vexation

How COVID frustrated record album production

ChainMail | Vinyl Vexation

Unless you’re a fan of Swedish garage rock music (and go ahead, give it a listen), you might not have heard how supply chain complications impacted the release of the new LP by The Hellacopters.

The Stockholm band’s label, Nuclear Blast Records, had to cancel some orders of the vinyl version of “Eyes of Oblivion” that were scheduled to go to record shops and fans around the world in April. Why? The global record manufacturing industry is struggling to produce enough special-edition colored vinyl LPs.

It’s just one repercussion of COVID-era supply-and-demand problems that have exposed vulnerabilities in the global supply chain. From semiconductors to cat food to colored vinyl copies of “Eyes of Oblivion,” shortages and delays are daily facts of life for businesses and consumers.

“There is a global PVC shortage and in the past months even paper/wood is becoming a problem,” Nuclear Blast Records explained in a statement. “We tried our best to get as many vinyl LPs as possible for the new Hellacopters album but we already knew that it wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the demand.”

A few weeks ago, American musician Jack White, who runs his own label, Third Man Records, made a plea to the three major labels — Universal, Sony, and Warner — to open new record pressing plants to alleviate manufacturing backlogs. But there are many factors at play. While big acts like Adele, Taylor Swift, and Fleetwood Mac have been able to get their products to market, niche artists and labels face delays.

Michael Kurtz, a co-founder of Record Store Day, an annual music industry promotion, told me that COVID first impacted LP production due to illnesses among workers at pressing plants. Slowed shipments of paper from overseas contributed to delays. And Variety reported in November that PVC was in short supply in part because homeowners had stepped up orders of vinyl flooring.

Kurtz said the big problem now is high demand, specifically for colored vinyl LPs. Physical records fell out of fashion years ago, displaced by CDs and then digital music. Thanks in part to the creation of Record Store Day in 2008, LPs began a comeback. Revenue from vinyl in the U.S. increased 61% to $1 billion in 2021. The last time vinyl records exceeded $1 billion was 1986, according to Variety.

The vinyl renaissance, Quartz wrote, is due to a number of factors: “Nostalgia among older music listeners, a desire to directly support artists after live music venues shut down during the pandemic, and newfound popularity among younger generations.”

These days many fans want something special: colored vinyl. In response, many bands, record labels, and retailers want to offer different versions of the same releases in various colors. That trend is slowing production.

“Every time you do a pressing you have to stop the plant, clean it, then restart it again,” Kurtz said in an interview. “You’ve taken something that would have taken a day to do and now it takes a day and a half, maybe two days to do, because of the colored vinyl. Multiply that by tens of thousands of records being done this way now and it’s backing records up for months.”

Kurtz said he suggested in an industry conference call that labels consider a short-term moratorium on colored vinyl to let plants catch up, but nobody was interested.

“It’s such a sales tool for all the companies to say, ‘You get a red one, you get a green one, you get a blue one.’ That is the main culprit.”

Read the complete Issue 8 of ChainMail here.

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