Long Waits at Record Pressing Plants Hinder Austin's Independent Record Labels
Production crisis disrupts the flow of local releases
One need only look at the thinly stocked shelves of Austin's Nine Mile Records – especially its almost-gone back catalog of bestsellers – to see how severely a global supply chain catastrophe can crimp independent labels that rely on vinyl manufacturing for much of their revenue.
There won't be vinyl copies of Nine Mile's bestselling title, Patrick Sweany's Every Hour Is a Dollar Gone, available until May. And once the last handful of copies of Sir Woman's Bitch and Glorietta's self-titled album are sold off (possibly by the time you're reading this) it'll likely be 2023 before more vinyl copies are up for sale.
For most of the past decade as vinyl LPs surged in popularity – 17 million total units worth $467 million were sold in the first half of this year – record labels have struggled to meet demand because of a scarcity of pressing plants around the world.
Add in the impact of a worldwide slowdown in shipping and production of commodities like vinyl pellets thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic – plus manufacturing bandwidth being clogged by orders from big box stores and fall releases by mega-stars like Adele and Taylor Swift – and that leads to Nine Mile co-owner Rick Pierik resorting to a pair of unproven low-volume boutique pressing plants rumored to turn jobs around in six or seven months. The alternative: wait more than a year or try plants in the Czech Republic that can press by next fall but have unpredictable shipping times and far higher transport cost.
"Everyone is in the same boat, scrambling to see how they can increase production," said Pierik, whose label has had to shuffle or delay releases of long-finished albums. "I get a lot of hopeful anecdotes, but haven't heard anything concrete."
Austin label owners interviewed for this story point to spring of this year as the time period when pressing vinyl for new releases or repressing catalog titles in 2021 or even 2022 became an impossibility.
Keeled Scales co-owner Tony Presley had hoped to spend much of this year releasing albums completed in 2019 or 2020, with vinyl sales representing a major portion of the revenue stream for most releases. Some of those long-awaited albums by Buck Meek, Sun June, Katy Kirby, Karima Walker, and Renée Reed made the cut with a planned vinyl release. But the label's 2022 slate from RF Shannon, Jo Schornikow, Good Looks, Will Johnson, and Tenci will likely have split releases where digital formats precede physical vinyl availability by six months or more.
"I'm telling them the truth, that we can't guarantee we'll be able to release the physical record on vinyl for 2022, but we'll work toward that together and, if we have to wait until 2023, then we will," he said. "People are becoming more comfortable with split releases and being willing to split the digital release date from the physical release date. In some instances that gives you a second opportunity to promote the album in different circles."
Presley said the vinyl slowdown is also tying up tens of thousands of dollars in recording and production costs for artists on top of the $15,000-30,000 his label will commit to the pressing costs of a batch of releases, with 50% deposits now on hold for most of a year.
"It's a massive strain on a small label to not be able to sell vinyl right now. The profit margins are much better and people want to buy, but it's asking a lot of fans to ask them to preorder a record six to eight months out. That's not a good look for everyone," he said.
The supply chain disruptions across the globe have had less of an impact at Austin pressing plant Gold Rush Vinyl, with owner Caren Kelleher pointing to a 30% price increase on vinyl pellets and an occasional scarcity of cardboard boxes to ship orders as the biggest ongoing pain points. More problematic has been getting replacement parts for the plant's two pressing machines that have been running almost around the clock for most of the past two years to try to keep up with growing demand.
"For a lot of 2020, we were working 24 hours a day and that meant the machines were working a lot harder than they ever had," she reveals. "At that same time, machine shops in Canada and Europe and North America hadn't been able to operate at full capacity because of COVID restrictions and availability of raw materials. We started seeing that in February, but it really worsened in March of this year."
Kelleher said run sizes are starting to increase and sometimes double or triple since labels don't want to run out of a title and face a year-plus wait, which means more of the facility's 8,400 square feet are being used to hold printed goods and other pieces needed to complete orders.
Industry data Kelleher referenced points to the retail price of vinyl releases starting to climb to "meet the market," especially on special edition releases with multiple colors that have high-dollar appeal for loyal fans.
"People are getting more savvy about pricing limited-edition vinyl differently than they would a standard edition. That's also slowing turnaround times down a little bit, too, just because of how many variations we have to do of any production run."
The news isn't any better for larger labels. Asked of the current state of vinyl pressing availability, Gerard Cosloy, an Austinite and co-owner of Matador Records, said in a recent email, "It's far more difficult at the moment – and there's far more labels/individuals trying to get records pressed, along with a plethora of titles from superstar-level talent on major labels, some of whom would not have considered vinyl a big part of the picture a decade ago."
Cosloy, who also operates the label 12XU, said that disruption has impacted the business plans for both career artists and labels with international fans and touring demands.
"In the case of Matador, we've been working to put titles in the manufacturing queue much earlier than in years past, as you would guess. This also means touring to support said titles is pushed back in many instances, but keep in mind that's only become an issue very recently because until this autumn, everyone was off the road because of you-know-what (the odd one-off here and there excepted)," he wrote.
"There's been some rush releases we've done digitally with vinyl to follow and depending on the gap between the dates, that can work in some instances. But by large, vinyl is a big enough part of our business – and one that we've cultivated to great success over the years – pivoting to something that either ignores or de-emphasizes the format is not in the cards, at least not yet."
Mike Dickinson, owner of Chicken Ranch Records, has steadily used Gold Rush in recent years but has looked to novel formats including individual lathe-cut vinyl and USB drives shaped like cassette tapes or 8-tracks to satisfy fans' demand for a physical release for the four to six projects he hopes to release next year.
"We're trying to do whatever we can to keep the customers engaged," he said. "Next year I've got a few things in the planning stages where I hope we can get the vinyl out, and if not we'll do something else like press CDs or do the USBs or maybe a lathe cut of a single, because just having something to sell at all times is a good thing. Innovation keeps us going, but it would be nice to be able to get some records done in a timely manner again."