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How vinyl has survived during the coronavirus pandemic

The Covid-19 crisis has thrown up many problems for the manufacturing and distribution of vinyl. Bruce Tantum speaks to a selection of record shops, labels, cutting houses and distributors and learns that — by adapting — many of those working with vinyl are thriving against the odds

Most vinyl consumers probably never think about the path that their favourite new record has travelled. They scan the wall of their local shop or peruse the virtual shelves of their favourite online retailer, pick what they want and lay their money down: done deal. But in reality, the vinyl ecosystem is an interwoven biome of technicians and transporters, packers and paper-pushers, and creators and sellers — like most ecosystems, it doesn’t take a huge disruption to throw things off balance.

Disruptions don’t come much bigger than a pandemic and the attendant lockdowns, and you’d expect the fallout from such an event would be massive. It has been — but not always in ways that you might expect.

Here’s the itinerary that a record might follow: A label sends a music file to be mastered, creating a new file specifically tailored to pressing vinyl. That file is then used to cut a lacquer cut or direct metal master, from which the vinyl record will be pressed; for dance music, lacquer is generally preferred for its slightly fatter sound. The pressing plant then presses the disk, which is packed up and sent to a distributor, which then ships that record to its destination: physical shops, digital retailers, back to the label and so on. This is a simplified description, but even in abridged form, it’s obvious there’s room for things to go wrong — a roadblock anywhere might be a roadblock everywhere.

Just over a year ago, London’s NAINA and recent DJ Mag cover star SHERELLE were on the cusp of debuting their new label, Hooversound. The first release, Hyroglifics and Sinistarr’s ‘BS6’, was due out on 13th March, just as the horrific consequences of COVID-19 were becoming clear. “Rumours of lockdown were circulating,” NAINA recalls. “A lot of us had already started staying home to protect loved ones, and amongst this all, you’ve got SHERELLE and I ready to drop our first release. It was confusing and scary because you just don’t know what to expect. We had a moment of ‘What do we do? Do we go ahead as planned?’, and the answer was yes. We had all the releases lined up for the year and there was no point stalling.”

That forge-ahead spirit wasn’t shared by all in those early days. Jimmy Asquith, the DJ and producer who runs the Lobster Theremin label and its ancillary distribution arm, recalls the general vibe. “On the recording side, it seemed like there was a lot of negative sentiment that was driving some of the decision-making,” he says. “Artists were delaying their releases and projects, and putting everything on hold.”

Artists weren’t the only ones who were in a state of suspended animation; the grim times engendered apocalyptic thinking throughout the vinyl infrastructure. “Everything ground to a halt,” Alex Knight of the Bristol- based Fat Cat label says. “The factories that we use were shut; the distribution warehouses and offices were shut. There was no one, and there was nothing. Our income stream for physical releases in that quarter dropped by 85%. It was a heavy, heavy loss.”

“When we all started to go into lockdown towards the end of last March, I genuinely thought it could be the end of vinyl,” says Lawrie Dunster, the founder of Curve Pusher, a respected cutting and mastering facility based in Hastings, England. (Keith Tenniswood, of Radioactive Man/Two Lone Swordsmen fame, is one of Curve Pusher’s engineers.) “No orders or emails for about two weeks. All staff were either laid-off or furloughed initially, and I was the sole staff member in the studios for pretty much 14 weeks, and that in itself was enough to send anyone mad.”

PRESSING PLANTS

The pressing plants themselves were feeling the pinch as well. Geoff Wright, who makes and plays music under the Presha moniker, runs the drum & bass–oriented Samurai label and the online shop Void Vinyl. “When the pandemic started, it wasn’t so bad for a while,” Wright says, “but then one of the plants I work with had a COVID scare, which caused the entire plant to shut down.”

Over in the US, Dirk van den Heuvel, head of the venerable Groove Distribution in Chicago — ‘America’s largest and best dance music distributor and importer’ — was facing pressing-plant woes of his own. “One of our plants is in Canada, and Canada was paying everybody to stay home, so the plants couldn’t get the guys that make the record,” he says.

Even among the plants that were open, there were staffing issues. “It’s a very old process that hasn’t changed all that much since the ’60s,” says Raj Khush, of the major French manufacturer MBO. “There are a lot of experienced people, but a lot of those people, some of whom are older, might be reluctant to come into a working environment where they might be exposed. The impact has been on labour more than anything else.”

Micro-pressers, meanwhile, were facing different hardships. Chris Royle, who DJs and produces as Dexta, is one of the proprietors of 1-800-DUBPLATE, a London outfit cutting individual discs and small-scale runs. The work involves a rather complicated-looking machine, the Vinyl Recorder T560 Lathe. The initial lockdown forced them to close 1-800-DUBPLATE’s premises, “but we moved everything to my house so we could still operate,” Royle says, which was not exactly easy: “You’ve got to set it all up again, and re-tune and recalibrate it, which takes ages.”

For some, simply getting records to where they needed to go was becoming an issue. Paul Bibby works for GZ Vinyl, a major manufacturer based just outside Prague, and one of the busiest in the European Union. (Fun fact: Bibby also once served as manager for Adamski, back in the rave-popster’s ‘Killer’ era.) Initially, GZ was having a relatively easy go of it, having initiated strict COVID monitoring for its employees, but other complications began to arise, particularly when shipping to the States.

“There was simply a lack of flights,” he says, “and there was a backlog in getting space on those flights that existed — which of course means the costs went through the roof.” Groove’s van den Heuvel had similar issues. “A lot of our business is imports, and the pandemic had a huge impact on us getting any product in,” he claims. “Most of our stuff actually flies in on passenger flights — and there were no passenger flights.” His costs skyrocketed. “I’m paying slightly more than double per kilo than I was pre-pandemic.”

Shipping costs aside, the initial effects of COVID-19, at least in terms of the vinyl chain, were mercifully short-lived for many. “Back in March of last year, we panicked and furloughed six staff,” recalls Spencer Broughton, a co-founder of London’s Prime Direct Distribution. “But by the second week of April we were thinking, why did we do that? Because business had certainly come back.”

He’s not kidding — 2020, despite the pandemic, was vinyl’s best year in decades; in the US, vinyl sales were up 46% compared to 2019, and topped CDs’ revenues for the first time in 34 years. “We’ve actually had to hire more staff,” Broughton says. “Of course, I’d prefer life to be back the way it was, even though we were earning a little less money.” (It should be noted that everyone DJ Mag spoke with who’s had a decent year offered some variation on that caveat.)

The reason for that bounty is pretty simple, according to Samurai’s Wright: “All these people have this spare money that they used to spend on drinking and partying... well, maybe they still are spending it on drinking, but drinking at home is cheaper!” And those people, apparently, are allocating at least some of those savings while perusing the online shops. “Business has been amazing,” says Hendrik Stein of HHV, the large Berlin online record-and-streetwear retailer. “It’s been a really strong year for us, just like it has for anybody with online sales. We realised in the beginning of the pandemic that a lot of people going into the lockdown were going to have extra money to spend, and they might spend it on records — it was a pretty straightforward thought. But it’s been beyond expectations.”

PHYSICAL SHOPS

IRL physical shops have been less lucky. Bongo Joe is a record store and event space in Geneva, one of the hardest-hit of European cities. The spot, like most other nonessential retailers in the town, has gone through three lockdowns — and even in those periods when they have been able to open their doors, restrictions have been tight. “We are just a physical store,” Cyril Labonne, a member of the collective that operates Bongo Joe, says.

“We don’t even have a Discogs account, so it’s been difficult. When we have been open, it’s one person per square meter, including staff, and we’ve had to open later and close earlier. We had decided to reduce the opening times anyway, because there were so few customers,” he continues. “The restrictions cut deeper than just lack of sales. We are a very serious store, but we are also a café, and put on live shows. It’s a hub, but that’s all stopped. Yes, people can buy records when we are open, but they don’t get the same experience at the moment. They can’t get the whole package.”

In good times, Phonica is one of the busier vinyl emporiums in London: bustling with DJs, casual dance music lovers, and those simply seeking a musical respite from the humming streets of its Soho neighbourhood. But according to the shop’s Simon Rigg, those streets haven’t been humming as of late. “There is no one around,” he admits. “Even in the autumn, when things were slowly returning to normal, Soho was quiet — all the offices of companies were still closed, and everyone’s working from home.” He doesn’t seem optimistic about the immediate future either. “Phonica always did well with London visitors, visiting DJs, people who came from all over the world, and it was a must-see place to visit.”  And that clientele, he believes, is still some time away from returning.

Still, thanks to online marketplaces, vinyl sales have soared — and that’s led to a whole different set of problems. “We’ve been absolutely packed with work,” MPO’s Raj Khush says. “We’ve been as busy over the last six months as we have been for years. Which is obviously good, but we had no real notification for it, so we didn’t have time to plan for it. I’m aware of this being the case at the other main manufacturers — we’ve all been inundated with work, and we’re all pretty much working at maximum capacity, with extended lead times,” by which he means the time it takes for your record to actually be pressed.

The pressing-plant bottlenecks aren’t a massive issue for the big players, who have the power to jump to the front of the manufacturing queue. But if you’re an independent label, the time lag can be devastating. One solution is to go through a broker — someone who can facilitate the process, often by consolidating a number of smaller orders into a larger package. But when you go it alone? “If you’re a small label who comes to me, and you don’t have access to a broker, you’re looking at seven or eight months lead time,” GZ’s Bibby admits. “It’s the worst it’s ever been.”

For those smaller labels or individual artists, one method of avoiding any headaches might be to let someone else worry about it. Recently, Bandcamp launched a vinyl-pressing service, which essentially allows a label to sign up pre-orders via a campaign. Once a minimum order is pledged (a run of 250 is the lower limit) Bandcamp takes care of the rest, including pressing, artwork of your own design, packaging and shipping. “We know our fans love vinyl, but we also know that producing and fulfilling vinyl is expensive, risky and challenging for many artists,” says Josh Kim, Bandcamp’s COO, adding that the current times have probably helped lead many to opt for the service. “What’s been driving the interest has primarily been the fact that in the pandemic, with touring revenue gone, artists need support more than ever.”

Records aren’t the only product to see an increase in online sales, of course — pretty much anything that fits into a box has also seen a surge, which has created its own odd snags. “We use a lot of cardboard for packaging, especially for bespoke products like box-sets,” GZ’s Bibby explains, “and there’s a shortage across all markets in cardboard. The reason for that is that Amazon and the other DTCs [direct- to-consumer entities] of the world are using it all up.” 

Which, in reality, pales in comparison with another massive hassle, unrelated to the pandemic, in the form of what Prime Direct’s Broughton calls ‘the B word’: Brexit. “I can now get records cheaper and faster from Taiwan than I can from the EU,” Curve Pusher’s Lawrie Dunster says, “but that’s no good for the carbon footprint. I don’t know if that will get better. Every time we solve one issue, another one comes up in its place.”

Since the commercial introduction of CDs in the early ’80s and the rise of digital (not to mention pirating) from the late ’90s onwards, the vinyl business has become accustomed to dealing with turmoil. In 2011, a fire ripped through a London warehouse packed with records waiting to be distributed, and in early 2020, a blaze at California’s Apollo Masters plant, one of only two places capable of manufacturing the lacquer discs, devastated supply chains. Obviously the pandemic has been a terrible, world-changing event, but it’s also another in an ongoing series of problems that the vinyl industry has faced, another hurdle that needs to be overcome. It’s made it this far for a pretty elementary reason: a lot of people really love vinyl. “As an artist, releasing your music on vinyl will always be special,” says NAINA, “and owning and listening to your favourite music on vinyl will never get old.”

“The one thing I’ve found quite pleasing is that all this has made people realise how important music is to their lives,” Prime Direct’s Broughton adds. “I have a phrase: ‘Solace in sound’. People can’t go to the club; they can’t go to festivals; they can’t enjoy live bands. Music is important to people, and they’ll always want to have a way to consume music — and especially now, vinyl seems to be that way. Buying it, having it, looking at the sleeve, playing it — there’s nothing like it.”

Read about the vmanufacturers trying to make vinyl more environmentally friendly here

Bruce Tantum is DJ Mag's North American editor @BruceTantum