On those occasions when I'm not reading or writing about plastics, I volunteer for a music venue. And one of my jobs there has me selling musicians' merchandise. Which in recent years, has more and more often involved vinyl records.
During the past decade or so, the appearance of vinyl records on a merch table has seen a response from the fans that went from: “Wait, they still make those?” to “Don't that have that last release on vinyl yet?”
I've even, on more than one occasion, sold records to people who admitted that they didn't own a record player. Yet. Most of those buyers are typically college students or others who may not have been around when CDs were first released and were supposed to kill vinyl.
If I ask, the buyers will talk about the warmer sound quality of vinyl compared to CDs or digital downloads, or the aesthetic ritual and pleasure they get out of getting a record out of the sleeve, placing it on the turntable and placing the needle on the record.
Musicians talk about the warmth too, and the feeling of making a connection to the audience that online streaming simply doesn't have. Of course, there's also the potential to make more sales from physical copies, which usually provides them with a better portion of the sales than does either a download or, of course, those people who simply pirate the music from some other source. (It's not at all unusual to hear a fan say he'll just download the music if there's no vinyl available, rather than simply buy the CD of the same album. And the deluxe vinyl package is typically more expensive than CDs or downloads.)
That's why I'm not surprised to see statistics out there that vinyl records are continuing a comeback. Plastics News has been following the resurgence of vinyl for several years.
The New York Times posted a story and a video this week on the rise of vinyl, noting that the record industry recorded the sale of 13 million vinyl records last year — the highest number in 25 years.
That interest is causing some complications for record makers, however. And by that I mean, the makers of the physical records, not the musicians or labels.
Since vinyl was expected to fade away, no one has bothered to make new pressing equipment, which means that the limited number of record makers are rehabbing and rebuilding machinery that is at least 30 years old. The article quotes the owners of Independent Record Pressing in Bordentown, N.J., as saying that the company had to spend $5,000 to manufacture a new screw for a press because the standard replacement part was obsolete and no longer available.
It's far from the only company scouring for production.
Chad Kassem, the owner of Quality Record Pressings, has been scouring equipment sales in search of parts and came up with paydirt earlier this year when he found 13 presses in Chicago last used in the 1990s to make bootleg records for the Indian market.
“These machines we just got may look dirty, old and useless, but they're not,” Kassem told the online music website Acoustic Sounds. He estimated the recently discovered presses were manufactured between 1968 and 1972. “We're going to get them all up and running and once we do, we'll more than double our manufacturing capacity.”
The records being produced today are made from far better quality stock than those on the market when CDs first came out. At 180 grams, they're heftier than those from the 1980s and 1990s and less prone to warp and skip.
But still, as much as I've seen of them, and as many records as I've sold, I'm not ready to jump back into vinyl. I traded my record player years ago (in exchange for a CD box set), and I have too many memories of damaged and scratched records and worn out needles.
I'm not alone, of course. Even record pressing companies admit they serve just a niche audience.
If the owners of New Jersey's Independent Records want proof of that, they can just check in with Dave Miller, their plant manager. In the NY Times video that went with the story (embedded below) Miller says that he first built those machines in his 20s, and since then has spent at least another 30 years keeping them running.
While the owners may say they believe people involved in making records should be passionate about music, Miller notes: “I haven't had a turntable or records for years now. It's nothing to me. It's just a record.”