On the surface, the good news keeps coming for vinyl. Every year, new numbers are released showing the format’s strength and resilience continues. In fact, 2021 saw vinyl sales hit their highest level in three decades. But behind the scenes, manufacturing is plagued with delays, increased shipping costs and backlogs. The technology continues to age, while demand is nearing levels not seen since the ’80s, with major labels re-pressing classics to sell to a new, younger market — at the time of writing Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ sits number one in the Billboard vinyl chart.
A larger number of titles doing shorter runs has also been a factor, meaning plants are struggling to press as many records a day with increased changeovers cutting into their running time. Add to that a fire that caused Apollo Masters — a major lacquer manufacturing plant — to close down in 2020 and labels are seeing wait times of more than six months for pressing vinyl.
Mobineko — a Tawainese pressing plant — is attempting to solve the problem, with a new pressing machine that can turn short runs around in as little as four weeks.
We spoke to Josh Doherty, aka artist and label owner Posthuman and an Account Manager at Mobineko, about how vinyl production ended up in its current state, how the new machines work, and the impact the pressing plant might have on the industry.
“You might have heard companies say ‘We’re pressing as many records as we did in 1994’. But back in 1994 there may have been 100 to 200 releases a week, all doing 50,000 copies. We’re kind of the other way around now — you’ve got 50,000 releases doing 200”
To start off it’s probably explaining how a record is pressed for anyone who might not know.
Josh Doherty: “When you’re getting a record made, the first thing that happens is you go and get a lacquer cut. They literally carve your music in real-time into an acetate, sometimes called a dubplate. It’s a big, soft single-sided disc. That is playable like a single record. Currently, pretty much the only place in the world that makes those lacquers is MDC [Master Lacquer] in Japan. There were two other places, one was called Apollo in America, but they burned down a couple of years ago. So there isn’t a shortage, but there’s a restriction in the supply of lacquers.
“There’s an alternative which is called DMM [Direct Metal Mastering], but it’s not really used for dance music because its bass response is questionable. There are some people who like it but overall, the consensus is that DMM is generally better for ambient albums and whatnot.
“So the next step after your lacquer is cut is galvanics. The lacquer is sprayed with silver acetate and then using electrolysis it’s nickel-plated. When that is taken off, it’s a reverse of your record. The reverse is then used to make another, and that’s used to make a stamper. So you have your negatives, which are essentially backups, and you can make several positives out of a negative and from every positive you can make a few stampers.
"This is one of the major delay points of records being pressed: galvanics. It’s usually only the really big pressing plants that have galvanics, or it’s outsourced to another company. There's a place in Sheffield [UK] called Stamper Discs, which a lot of the plants around Europe and the UK use — nice people and a great company but at the moment they have a four-month backlog just to process stampers.
“There is some really good news in the UK: at the moment you’ve got Stamper Discs, and you’ve got Vinyl Factory who have galvanics too, but Vinyl Presents on the South coast have set up their own galvanics operation, and a new place called Press On has started too. Every one of those that come online is going to loosen the bottleneck.”
Why is there such a big delay now? What’s changed for the vinyl market in recent years?
“You might have heard companies say ‘We’re pressing as many records as we did in 1994’. But back in 1994 there may have been 100 to 200 releases a week, all doing 50,000 copies. We’re kind of the other way around now — you’ve got 50,000 releases doing 200. Just plucking numbers out of the air but you see what I mean. So there’s so much more pressure on the metalwork. Previously, you’d only need to cut a couple of lacquers and you could print a few thousand. When there are 100, 200, 300 copies, there’s a constant delay for metalwork. That also makes it a cost barrier because the lacquers cost the same amount if you’re doing 100 records or 1,000. That’s why the more you press, the cheaper they get cause you’re absorbing that upfront cost.
“When you set up any kind of pressing plant, it’s the re-tooling that’s time-consuming. You have to cool the machine down, put on the new plates, run a few records through to heat everything up. It can take 40 minutes to an hour between jobs. Most presses will do a 100-odd records an hour. If you’re having to turn it off every two hours because people are only pressing 200 copies, and you’re losing an hour between each time, you could spend a quarter of the working day where you’re not pressing anything. It’s another major reason why plants are running for minimums of 500. There are also staffing issues as a lot of people who maintain the machines are older people, so new staff need to be trained up.
“So, those are the two major bottlenecks and why pressing vinyl is taking such a long time at the moment.”
How many of these big runs are re-presses of classics for majors?
“Most of the big runs are re-presses of the classic stuff. Even names that you think are big in dance music are generally not pressing huge runs. If Boards of Canada did another album they’d probably press 50-100,000 copies. Someone like Aphex Twin would maybe do more when they’re that type of artist that has a vinyl following, but in general vinyl sales are not massive per artist outside of Taylor Swift, Adele, etc.
“But you also have this whole new thing of Bandcamp, and artists going direct to customers. There are huge swathes of musicians that are now doing 300 copies of a record that in the past wouldn’t have got a major deal or pressed anything. It’s a much wider thing, it’s no longer restricted to big artists or big labels. It’s probably more comparable to old punks doing 7-inches, but spread across every genre, all over the world.”
What’s Mobineko doing differently and how does it aim to solve these issues?
“Mobineko is run by a guy named Richard Dron. After many years of working with vinyl presses and all the various software that’s used the control them, he decided to design and build his own. Over the last three years, he built one from scratch, and it takes a few of the normal ways of doing things and changes their approach. He’s always thought bands doing 50 runs for their Bandcamp, and short-run from independent labels was gonna be the future — the Etsy market rather than the Amazon market. So he’s always prioritised Mobineko to go in that direction, [and] designed these presses with that in mind.
“To explain the technical side, the presses are auto-calibrating and they have sensors in the moulds so that when you press start on the press, the first record is ready to go. There’s no warming up of the press. You can change over the stampers and switch to a new job in five minutes. All of that warming up and re-tooling time has disappeared, so it’s better to do 10 jobs of 50 than one job of 500. They are not adapted from old presses, they are completely built from scratch. It’s taken the approach of realising where the demand is gonna be, and re-designing the press to match the market.”
What’s been the response so far? Has there largely been enthusiasm from who you were expecting — bands, indie labels etc?
“Yeah, when we announced it, we got so bombarded we had to upgrade our Mailchimp accounts (laughs). Everyone was just wanting to know how to get really short runs done. There are so many people that will press 300 because that’s what the pressing plant will give them, but their market is only 100 records. So there’s huge wastage for them. The amount of labels that have boxes of unsold records is insane — every indie label will tell you. These aren’t dubplates where you’re cutting them to order. They’re properly pressed records. So if you cut 50 and it blows up, you still have the stampers to use on a normal press to do 500 more.
“The stampers are yours once it’s done, you just have to pay for them to be shipped to you.”
There’s a counterargument about waste too — there’s a lot of artists and labels who won’t do a run of 300 now because they might think they’re not gonna sell them, but they might do a run of 50, but the market isn’t there either way.
“I don't want to claim we're an environmentally friendly operation, vinyl intrinsically isn’t, but we do try to reduce unnecessary waste. Mobineko gives all our trimmings and offcuts to a local company that use them to make window and door frames, and by supplying short runs, it means labels aren't taking 250 unsold copies of their 300 to the tip. As for being in Taiwan, a lot of miles on the finished product, but our PVC supplies aren't making that journey, so overall it's comparable to EU plants.”
How quickly can they be turned around?
“The target is four weeks. Realistically, it’ll probably be six weeks, but the target is four — really short runs, really fast, and run the rest of the plant the same way it’s been run. It means the price point will be higher per record, but if you’re only pressing 50 records, you’re probably not pressing them to sell at wholesale to a distributor, who then marks them up to sell them to a shop that then marks them up again. You’re most likely selling them direct. So if your records are costing you £10 each rather than £5 each, but you’re selling them on your Bandcamp for £20 each, it still makes economic sense.
“Our fast service isn’t gonna be attractive to people doing huge numbers because the price point is gonna be too high, so there’s no worry of any of them muscling in. It’s gonna be bands wanting to do tour merch, an artist who did a digital release but just wants 25 copies for their friends, a PR that wants to promote a record quickly on vinyl, that might be being pressed somewhere else six months down the line, or a label that’s only gonna sell 50. There’s a really big market for that.”
Vinyl DJ promos kind of disappeared for various reasons — this could open that back up again.
“Yeah definitely. I’ve been doing that with my label [Balkan Vinyl], getting 25 extra test pressings cut and sending them out just with a sticker on them. The feedback on giving a bunch of records to the right people, who’ll then Instagram it or post them playing it out... it just means more.”
Can you still get a test pressing?
“I don’t think they’ll be offered with the express service, because the numbers you’re doing are kind of the same as a test pressing. You can still test press though, from the non-express service.”
What is the price for the express service?
“There are current price projections that are subject to change on the website because worldwide shipping has increased in price over the past six months.”
Prices are £466.25 for 25, £567.50 for 50 and £675 for 100 at the time of writing. Visit the Mobineko website for more info.