The vinyl revival continues, and is still warmly welcomed by artists, labels and record stores alike. A panel at the FastForward conference in Amsterdam last week explored some of the trends around the format.
The panel included Giancarlo Sciama, former EMI/Universal exec turned catalogue marketing consultant; Karen Emanuel, founder and CEO at Key Production; Claire Pace, VP of people and culture at Discogs; and Vangel Vlaski, senior label manager at Proper Music Distribution. Megan Page, coordinator of Record Store Day UK, moderated.
“We’re still riding the high of vinyl sales being their highest since the early 90s,” noted Page, as she kicked off the debate. She asked Sciama what’s helped vinyl stand the test of time.
“If we went back 15-20 years, we’d be sitting here going ‘why are people still stocking vinyl?’” he admitted, before addressing the question of its appeal.
“So much of the great music in my world… was recorded and put down when vinyl was THE format,” he said, citing the Beatles as a prime example.
“You had this big format, this big 12-inch beautiful thing, and every 20 minutes you have to get up and flip it over. You’re interacting with this thing. And there was this huge cultural following that would happen around the world: people would go round to their friends’ houses and spend time listening again and again.”
Sciama said that it’s no surprise that vinyl sales have been growing even as streaming becomes ever-more popular as a music-listening method.
“We’ve all got all the music ever on this [streaming] but the pendulum having swung that way, that’s great and that’s convenient, but when I want to sit down and spend real time with music, I’m going to go to my [vinyl] shelf… Great, cue it up, put it on. It’s this different experience than just hitting shuffle.”
Pace talked about the demographics of the vinyl buyer, as tracked by Discogs. “It’s majority males, but it’s definitely changing: over the last couple of years we’ve seen more women buying vinyl, and we’re also seeing the age drop a little bit. Around 35-44 is the most-popular age bracket, but we’re seeing that drop a little bit in percentage, and now 25-34 is becoming a little bit more popular,” she said.
Pace said this is reflected in the crowds at record fairs she goes to around the world: more younger women are digging in those crates, alongside the traditional older male audience.
Discogs sees potential in record fairs evolving in a way that will bring in more younger vinyl buyers, and is organising some of its own events to prove it.
“We’re trying to make record fairs a little bit more fun and relaxed. You can drink and there’s music playing. I hope that’s bringing in a little bit of a younger audience and some more diversity as well,” she said.
Vlaski works on more ‘frontline’ (as opposed to catalogue) vinyl projects, with current artists. He cited stats by Kantar Research suggesting that “57% of the people now going in to shops buying vinyl are likely to be in the 14-25 age bracket”.
Emanuel agreed with this surge in youthful vinyl buyers. “If you go back 10 to 15 years, my friends’ kids didn’t know what vinyl was, but now they collect vinyl and have players. It’s definitely something that’s gone into the younger marketplace,” she said.
What’s the appeal of vinyl? Sciama pointed to streaming as a spur, again, but this time in the context of the addiction of collecting records.
“Digital has removed that and created this gap, this vacuum. And we’re coming back to the joy, the addiction of that ‘I just need that last 12-inch’,” he said.
“When we feel something, we want to own a bit of it, and I think vinyl is important for that,” added Emanuel, while Vlaski pointed to a social value in a vinyl collection.
“You invite friends over, you show them your collection. You brag a little bit!” he said. Sciama chimed in to point out that a lot of people who buy vinyl don’t actually have a record player to play it on: they just want to own the records.
If labels are thinking about putting out vinyl, what do they need to know? The panel offered some practical tips, with Emanuel drawing on her experience at Key Production.
“Make sure you don’t give us low-quality files to cut from, make sure you’re mastering to play on vinyl. Make sure you know how much you want to put on each side. Proof-read your artwork! You would not believe how many big artists have had their names spelt wrong, even when they have proofed it!” she said.
Emanuel also said it’s important to give the artwork proper attention and design expertise, rather than simply getting a mate in to bodge it.
(Later on, Vlaski returned to the subject of artwork, noting that practical elements like barcodes should not be forgotten – or left out intentionally. “You would be amazed how many mistakes are done because of an over-zealous designer who thinks there’s no room for a barcode on that piece of art,” he said. “I like a well-designed and well-thought-out product, but it needs to be functional as well: that works to the benefit of the career of the artist putting it out.”)
“Seek advice, speak to people who know,” advised Emanuel, before stressing the importance of making test pressings, then listening to them on several record players, to be sure that you’re happy.
One of the worries lingering in the background of the vinyl revival has been a perceived bottleneck in the number of pressing plants that are still active, and the potential for long waits between ordering and receiving the run. However, the panel said things are looking better on this front in 2019.
“Turnaround times vary literally from week to week. A lot of the pressing plants have had a lot of new equipment, the turnaround times have got better recently. You’re still looking at three to four weeks for a test pressing, and four weeks for a finished product. But it can vary… You need to be on your toes and take advice from people that know,” said Emanuel.
The conversation turned to vinyl for established catalogue artists, and the kind of deluxe releases that command a premium price.
“Fundamentally, you can charge a lot more for vinyl than you can for CD, and a lot more than you can get out of a stream,” said Sciama, as he outlined the thinking that goes in to a reissue campaign for a big artist.
“If I don’t have vinyl in there, I’m losing 25-30 per-cent [of the potential sales]. And if I’m doing deluxe box-sets, that’s going to cover all of my costs straight out. So when I build the P&L [profit and loss forecast] I only look at physical,” he said.
“So much of this music is loved by people who had it on vinyl the first time… Why wouldn’t you service a market where that demand is there?”
After a conversation about the best weight of vinyl to go for –the gist: engineers may argue over whether 150-gram or 180-gram is the sweet spot, but the heavier weight comes with a higher perceived value from buyers – the conversation turned to another physical format, with Page wondering why CDs – which still outsell vinyl by five to one – aren’t still talked about as a format with potential.
Pace noted that cassettes are on the rise too, and pointed to Japan as a country where CD isn’t just still the leading format, but it’s an actively-desired one.
On the ‘CD is dead’ debate: “It’s the media that are actually pushing this. It drives me insane… We press way more CDs than vinyl. Way more! And they’re holding up really well,” said Emanuel.
Vlaski agreed: “It’s a really good point: basically digital versus physical sells clicks or papers, it makes for a good headline. There’s conflict involved: the one is ‘cannibalising’ the other. Whereas people that work in the industry don’t really see that’s what’s happening,” he said.
“We find consumers are very multi-channel: you have to make everything available for people so they can choose what they want. Digital as a discovery platform or for convenience; vinyl for the extra-special experience; but CD maybe for driving in your car. And, very importantly, it is a very easy entry-level price. It is easier for somebody with limited resource to part with 10 or 15 euros… There is room for everybody.”
“I download. I stream. I buy CDs. I buy records… I’ve given up on MiniDisc, I must confess!” joked Sciama. “There’s something there for everyone. Beyond that, having said I’d be crazy not to have vinyl in my P&L, in my plan, I’d also be crazy not to have CD.”
He assessed the major labels’ strategies, suggesting that Sony Music is most focused on digital and streaming, while Warner and Universal – he noted that both are his clients – are doing more to maximise their physical revenues through well-crafted reissues.
“I see Warner and Universal as in the same place: they’re not going to leave that money on the table,” he said.
The panel returned to the question of threats to vinyl, and those worries about the capacity, particularly with some pressing plants having to build their own spare parts, because they’re no longer available to buy commercially.
Emanuel was optimistic. “At one point there was a worry that there weren’t going to be any cutting engineers and the lathes to do the cutting… but because of the vinyl resurgence, a lot more people have become interested in making vinyl… You can get the machine operators a bit more, and people are beginning to make parts.”
“I used to think that the technology was a problem: seeing very old machines, and people who’d been working on these machines for 30-40 years. And they’re the ones who know how to fix the machines!” said Pace. But she too noted that this has improved.
Will vinyl continue to grow as a format? “I don’t think it’s going to keep going up. I think we’ve probably peaked, and you can tell that by there’s more capacity available in the marketplace,” said Emanuel.
“I think, sadly, that some of the smaller boutique pressing plants won’t last, because there are enough of the bigger, high-quality tried-and-tested ones that will stick around.”
The panel finished with a question about the environmental sustainability of vinyl, and whether there are moves afoot to reduce the impact of the format on the planet.
“It’s all about the secondary market. You’re making vinyl to keep, not to throw away in a landfill. It’s something you want to keep and treasure, and when you don’t, you pass it on. It’s not something you throw away, so it’s slightly different to other products that you’re likely to just ditch,” said Emanuel.
Pace agreed, and pointed to other efforts. “There are a couple of pressing plants looking into environmental production. There’s one in the south of the Netherlands looking at producing vinyl that’s more sustainable and better for the environment. I think more of those things will pop up.”
“We have to do the best we can to maintain as low a footprint as possible,” agreed Vlaski.