The Price You Pay
At what cost does the vinyl revolution come?
For the first time in its 30-year history, Encore Records looks spotless: clean floors, bright lights, no casual smudges or debris coating the racks and registers. At its new East Sixth location, its been reborn, reupholstered, and reclaimed. Two years removed from its closing (revisit "Five O'Clock Land," Jan. 13, 2012), and just over a year from its reopening, one of the prime casualties of the deteriorating music industry now sits proudly in a slightly smaller location along one of the most popular entertainment corridors in Austin.
"We wouldn't have been able to reopen without vinyl," says owner Chuck Lokey. "More than half of what we're moving is on wax. I'm not saying we're busting down the doors, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I'm hoping it's not a freight train."
Encore's resurgence hasn't been an isolated incident. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), more than 4.6 million records were sold in 2012, an 18% increase from the year before. Vinyl sales increased from $15 million in 2005 to a resounding $162 million in 2012. Amazon has reported that they've seen a 745% increase in vinyl purchases since 2008.
Make no mistake: Record sales remain a minuscule piece of music industry sales. In 2012, petroleum product accounted for a mere 3% of total music sales and only 0.4% in terms of overall units sold. Those 4.6 million records that moved two years ago look pretty small compared to 1977's tally of 344 million.
Nevertheless, a comeback's a comeback, no matter how you hedge it. The statistical relevance of vinyl sales can't be ignored.
"The resurgence started slow, and it just kept getting bigger," says Encore Records vinyl buyer Tom Pullen. "I don't see it stopping anytime soon. If this was just a fad, it would've died out by now."
White Album vs. Rubber Soul
If the vinyl industry has been revitalized, it's time to start asking some questions.
Retail record prices have become incredibly fluid. While a digital download of an album will always cost you around $10, vinyl price tags can scale from as little as $12 to as much as $40. A reissue of Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding costs about $27, Daft Punk's Random Access Memories runs $35, and Joanna Newsom's last album, Have One on Me, priced out at $40. For the average consumer, it's hard to understand why vinyl, unlike any other formats, gets so expensive so quickly.
"Obviously, the consumer knows that if a record costs $20 to make, I'm going to sell it for $30," says Waterloo Records owner John Kunz. Much like Encore, the local flagship of record stores has seen a significant increase in vinyl sales over the last four years. Kunz has also noticed a larger, more irritating trend that's proliferated in the music industry.
"I think a lot of people are putting out the record they want to put out, rather than the one that's sensible for their fans," he says. "A lot of artists have taken the approach that their CD is the regular album and that the vinyl is the deluxe version. So they go with the 180- or 200-gram vinyl, then they put all the bonus tracks on the record 'til the running time is 75 minutes. Now it's a double LP, and of course they have to have a gatefold.
"All of a sudden you've taken what's a $12 or $13 CD, and have turned it into a $35 record."
It's become a popular attitude amongst both consumers and producers that vinyl is a better way to consume music. A record's ritualistic nature helps justify a hefty price tag. Things like pressing at a heavier weight, or wrapping the plastic in a gatefold sleeve inevitably ratchets up production cost, but in 2014, those accessories are looking more like mandates than options. Sometimes those mandates get a bit cumbersome.
"It works both ways," continues Kunz. "There's two types of fans: you have the attorney and the 19-year-old kid. The attorney isn't going to blink at a $30 price tag for a record, but if you're the 19-year-old staring at a deluxe vinyl price when you can pick up the CD for $10 or rip it online for free, it might be a little discouraging. We're rebuilding the way I personally prefer to listen to music, but to do that it needs to be accessible to everyone."
Waterloo Records creates an environment where no format receives greater attention than others. They're against hierarchy. Kunz doesn't want vinyl to be unfair.
"The way I see it, if you're at the point of putting out a deluxe CD and a regular CD, make a deluxe LP and a regular LP," he offers. "If you're just putting out a regular CD, then just put out a regular record. Bands always talk about how they want to fit all their music onto the wax, even if it makes it a double. I say that the Beatles made 13 records, but they only put out one double. If you've got 'The White Album' inside of you, go for it, but I'd love to hear your Rubber Soul."
'56 Chevys in Havana, Cuba
Monofonus Press has put out records by everyone from local lifers Love Inks to Italian psych wardens Trans Upper Egypt. They're based in Austin, and hold a staff of about three people. If you scroll through the imprint's Web store, you'll see their vinyl stands at an economical $15 per unit.
"Our priorities are different," says Monofonus Press founder Morgan Coy. "We've made choices to try and keep things affordable. We don't want the barrier for people not trying our music to be a cost thing. They can have other reasons, but that shouldn't be the reason."
Monofonus Press keeps its vinyl prices low in part because of a very small overhead compared to larger, more profit-oriented labels. They also maintain a more general philosophy about what selling records should represent.
"We're not purists," states Coy. "We release all of our music digitally, but there's a mental difference between putting on a record and listening to something on Spotify or on your phone. I don't think vinyl is a luxury. It's the way you approach time. We price our stuff so it's not a luxury item. We're more interested in community and culture. If you think about it on a cultural level, it's nice to take the time to listen to a record.
"We do runs of 300. Three hundred people. You can get 100 people to a show in Austin on a Wednesday night."
Unfortunately, the music industry isn't known for catering to its product being released on a smaller scale. A 500-record printing at southern California's Rainbo Records costs about $2.80 per record, while a 100-record run costs almost $9. Neighbor Capsule Labs charges $3.40 each for 1,000 records, and $9.19 each for 100.
On top of that, it's also becoming harder and harder for labels to schedule time at a record plant. There are only 16 pressing plants left operating in America. With demand increasing, these manufacturers are issuing out long, protracted waiting periods to get vinyl printed.
"Things take so much longer now," grouses Cory Plump, who helps run the day-to-day operations at Monofonus while also helping front electrifying post-punk trio Spray Paint. "Bigger labels are reprinting and slowing everything down. Like reprinting the fucking Beatles! Stuff you can find in used-bins in every fucking store."
"Back in the day, it was a four- to six-week wait on an order," says Stanley Getz, owner of Dallas-based A&R Records, the only record pressing plant left in Texas. "Now we've got people waiting like two to three months because everything is so backlogged. There used to be about five large-scale record plants in the U.S. Each of those had 30 to 50 machines running. These days a normal plant has somewhere between three and five."
Infrastructure revitalization, anyone?
"It's the same situation with all the '56 Chevys running around Havana, Cuba," says John Kunz. "You can keep these old record plants running, but at a certain point you're gonna need a new machine."
"I wear two hats," says Richard Lynn of local micro label Super Secret Records. "I'm a music fan and someone in the music industry. I love Spotify and iTunes and SoundCloud. If you introduce me to a band, the first thing I'm going to do is listen to them on Spotify. Then I might buy the album on iTunes on my phone. Then maybe, if I really like it, I'll buy the record. At that point the price of the vinyl doesn't matter as much."
Lynn estimates that he's put out around 20 vinyl-only releases over the last five years. "I started in 2001," he recounts. "In those days, I was mostly putting out CDs and a few seven-inch singles. As time went on, more and more bands wanted to print their albums on vinyl, and I've always loved vinyl. As CD prices started to slip, it made sense to go vinyl-only. In this day and age it's pretty hard to sell a local band's CD."
Not that this scenario makes vinyl a financially solvent solution. "I have a good job," admits Lynn. "The label isn't a source of income for me at all. I very rarely break even on any of my releases. I have to get in a place where I really love the band, and I really love the record, and be willing to put it out even if I don't sell a single copy."
"The margins aren't great at all," concurs Nick Sylvester, who co-owns Brooklyn's Godmode Music, a label with an eclectic roster (Mr. Dream, Sleepies, Motion Studies), and a cult following that consumes their vinyl, cassettes, and occasional zine. "We make about $2 for every YVETTE record we sell [retailing for $20], and we only made 233! Vinyl is our primary source of income, but it's also our biggest expense."
Vinyl's returned – that much is clear – but to a substantially different industry. And indeed, very few people are buying records to hear that music for the first time. It's an investment, a testament of fandom. Given that, never underestimate how hard it can be to run a quality record store.
"Import-only vinyl or micro editions get pricey," says Dan Plunkett, co-owner of South First music emporium End of an Ear. "We keep them as low as possible by going direct with labels as much as we can, but overseas shipping can be a major factor too, adding $5 to $12 per record depending on how it is shipped."
Breakaway Records on North Loop keeps a smaller, more curated, and sometimes more pricey inventory. "We go after specific stuff," explains co-owner Josh LaRue. "We probably order more 45s than any other store in town. Sometimes I wonder, though, if we'd make more money if we had a more general selection. But I don't see vinyl prices going down anytime soon. Records are pretty good at holding their value."
"U.S. vinyl prices are still about half of European and Japanese prices," reveals Plunkett. "For example, you can buy a copy of Tame Impala's Innerspeaker on vinyl in the U.S. for $16.99 to $18.99. In Australia, it will run you close to $30. In the UK and Germany, it's $30 to $35, and maybe $24 to $30 in Japan depending on where you shop."
The people who buy records and the people who make them share vinyl's fetishistic appeal. Maybe it's socially constructed, but spending money on a record feels more substantial than buying a CD.
"There's a lot more that goes into a vinyl record than a CD," says Stanley Getz. "A CD is a production-line thing. There are so many things you need to take care of with vinyl. Every project is different from each other. You can run three different jobs, and all three of those jobs have to be set up differently. There's all these different characteristics and quirks. You have to babysit it more. I think the price tag is fair."
Is it? Hard to say from a consumer standpoint. Yet when I'm standing in the clean, reopened floors of Encore Records, I've never felt better about boutique prices.