Vinyl record sales soar, outpacing supply

Dozens of record-breaking factories have been built to meet North American demand — and it’s still not enough.

PORTLAND, Maine – The arrival of the CD wiped out nearly all vinyl albums as major record labels sold, scrapped and dismantled vinyl press machines.

Four decades later, with revived record sales producing double-digit annual growth, producers are quickly rebuilding an industry to keep up with sales, which hit $1 billion last year.

Dozens of record-breaking factories have been built to meet North American demand — and it’s still not enough.

The industry “has shifted gears and is accelerating at a new pace,” said Mark Michaels, CEO and chairman of United Record Pressing, the nation’s largest record producer, in Nashville, Tennessee.

Demand for vinyl records has been growing at double-digit rates for more than a decade, and mass retailers like Target have beefed up their selection of albums when the pandemic provided a surprise shock. As music tours were canceled and people were stuck at home, music lovers began snapping up record albums even faster.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, record album sales grew a whopping 61% in 2021 — hitting $1 billion for the first time since the 1980s — outpacing growth rates for paid music subscriptions and streaming services like Spotify and Pandora by far.

Vinyl albums almost fell into oblivion as cassette sales were overtaken before CDs brushed both aside. Then came digital downloads and online piracy, Apple iPods and 99-cent downloads. Streaming services are now ubiquitous.

But nostalgic baby boomers, who failed to browse through record albums at their local record stores, helped fuel a vinyl resurgence that began about 15 years ago.

It coincided with the launch of Record Store Day to celebrate indie record stores, said Larry Jaffee, author of Record Store Day: The Most Improbable Comeback of the 21st Century.

These days, however, it’s more than just boomers.

A younger generation is buying turntables and albums — and cassettes too — and a new generation of artists like Adele, Ariana Grande and Harry Styles have switched to vinyl, Jaffee noted.

At 34, Pittsburgh cab driver Jamila Grady is too young to remember the heyday of record shops.

But she finds records irresistible. She has created wall art from some of the album covers for nearly 50 albums she has purchased since 2019, starting with Beyoncé’s Lemonade. She admits it’s a treat as she already listens to music via Soundcloud, Apple Music and Pandora.

“For turntables, there’s something so beautiful about picking up the record, putting it on the counter and dropping the needle,” she said.

Manufacturers had to start almost from scratch.

The big labels have long since closed their factories, but new ones are coming online. Record manufacturers to enter the market in the last 10 to 15 years include Toronto’s Precision Record Pressing, Memphis Record Pressing, Cleveland’s Gotta Groove Records and Kansas’ Quality Record Pressing.

Jack White of White Stripes opened his own vinyl pressing plant, Third Man Pressing, in Detroit in 2017 and asked major record labels to reopen the manufacturing facilities.

There are now about 40 plants in the US, most of which are smaller operations, but challenges remain.

Statewide, backlogs are six to eight months due to growing demand, and supply chain disruptions of raw materials, including vinyl polymers, have caused problems, Michaels said.

Opening a new pressing plant is not easy as there are only a handful of companies – none of them in the US – that make plate pressing machines. These machines are also backordered.

People can argue about the sound quality, but it comes down to an emotional response, not technical specs, said Bob Ludwig, a multiple Grammy winner who founded Gateway Mastering Studios in Portland, Maine.

A friend who heard Ludwig’s remastered version of Queen’s “Night at the Opera” called it “breathtaking” and “electrifying”.

“I love the vinyl experience. All of it. For me, there’s an electrifying sound when I play records that I don’t feel from digital,” said Mark Mazzetti, an independent A&R executive who has worked for Sting, Janet Jackson and others at A&M Records.

No one knows the upper limit for record growth due to limited supply, said Chris Brown, vice president of finance at Bull Moose Records, a New England record store chain.

New releases often don’t meet demand, and backorders take even longer, leaving little capacity for lesser-known eclectic albums, he said.

“Part of the fun of collecting records is being surprised,” he said. “But mid-level stuff doesn’t get printed or there’s long waits.”

Record producers gather in Nashville this week for their annual trade event called Making Vinyl.

People in the industry are excited about the growth and it’s almost like ‘printing money’ for manufacturers as sales hit new heights every year,” said Bryan Ekus, President of Making Vinyl.

No one knows how long the run will last, so there’s a feeling that “we should be making hay while the sun is out,” Ekus said.

United Record Pressing was founded in Nashville in 1949 and never stopped producing records. It’s currently in the midst of a $15 million expansion that will triple its capacity by the middle of next year.

Michaels can’t help but wonder how long double-digit growth can be sustained, but he said he’s optimistic about the future.

It’s both heartwarming and good for business to see high schoolers and young adults taking an interest in records, he said.

“I believe in music and I believe in the importance of music in people’s lives. I don’t think that will change,” he said.

Sharp reported from Portland, Maine. Vinyl record sales soar, outpacing supply

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