The vinyl resurgence should be great for new music, right? After all, who buys records in 2015? Nerds. Curious, acquisitive types. People with a thing for the timeless artifact. Those who are willing to seek out sounds beyond those that the streaming services are ready to deliver right to their earbuds. And the very fact that some music lovers are spending their money on physical editions of music after more than a decade of gorging on ones and zeros has to be good news for people who sell music, doesn’t it?
As so often in life, the answer is complex, but not encouraging. Everybody loves vinyl, but it doesn’t really make financial sense.
It’s an agonizing problem, because vinyl is booming. In 2014, sales of new LPs jumped 52 percent from the year before, and sales in the first quarter of 2015 spiked 53 percent from the same period last year. Sales of new vinyl still only make up about 7 percent of album sales overall, but it’s the only format where album sales are still growing, as streaming continues to shred the market for physical music.
There is a cadre of record buyers for whom new music titles constitute sweet finds—or at least older new music does. Just four or five years ago, used albums by composers from the 20th-century avant-garde might have gone straight into the dollar bin, according to Cory Feierman, manager of Academy Records Annex in Brooklyn. * Now they can fetch big bucks. Robert Ashley albums, for example, sell well, and quickly, Feierman says. New vinyl reissues of mid-century electro-acoustic figures such as Pierre Schaeffer dot bins, and then disappear.
And new music labels are releasing new vinyl, too. Founded in 1982, Innova Records has been around long enough to have issued its first releases on LP and then watched as vinyl gave way to the compact disc. “There was a long gap in time before our next vinyl project was produced,” says Chris Campbell, operations director at Innova. “Over 20 years, in fact.” New Amsterdam Records started out in 2008 as a label offering CDs and digital downloads, but it started doing LPs for certain titles in 2013. “We started printing vinyl because we had fans requesting it regularly, and our musicians wanted to see their albums on vinyl,” says label manager Michael Hammond. (Both Campbell and Hammond are composers, and both have issued their own music on vinyl.)
But of Innova’s more than 500 releases to date, only nine are currently available on LP. New Amsterdam has released 73 recordings in less than a decade of operation, but it has only released 10 of those on LP so far.
Uncool as CDs may be to a swath of music consumers these days, they retain certain advantages over vinyl. Analog purists can talk about ineffable “warmth” all they like, but CDs reproduce perfect digital sound every time across a far wider frequency range. (Despite all the clucking about the inevitable decay of the compact disc, the majority of CDs produced in the ‘80s, near the dawn of the format, still play just fine.) They also can offer up to 80 minutes of uninterrupted playing time—about double what the two sides of an LP will hold with reasonable audio fidelity—and obviate the need to break up a longer piece of music across more than one side, or more than one record.
And as quiet as it’s kept, CDs still sell, as do digital downloads. And when they do sell, they’re profitable.
Vinyl, on the other hand, is a finicky, expensive boondoggle from a practical standpoint. The grooves that give vinyl its sound, and its soul, must be physically produced and replicated, and “it’s a bit fussy in terms of how it’s made, how it’s cut,” Campbell says. From mastering the recording to creating a stamper to pressing copies, “there are myriad places along the way where it can go wrong,” he adds, and all those steps add up in time and cost, even if they all go right. The boom in vinyl has meant that the few working pressing plants—literal relics in a digital age—are forever backed up, leading to long lead times and unpredictable delays.
All of which contributes to a ratio of cost to benefit that vinyl loses to CDs or downloads “hands down,” according to Hammond. Producing a CD costs maybe $1.50 per unit. Producing an LP in a typical small-label 500-copy run can cost $6 or more per LP. Vinyl weighs more, and is thus more expensive to ship, and it gets damaged in shipment more easily than CDs. “And if it doesn’t sell, then you have giant boxes of records sitting around your warehouse!” Hammond says.
Every small label feels these pains right now. Innova operates as a nonprofit, but jazz label Pi Recordings does not. Pi co-founders Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang have only pressed two titles on vinyl to date, strictly because of concerns over cost versus profit. “Our wholesale profit margin is over $6 on CD sales, and maybe $2 at best for vinyl,” Wang says. “After you pay the artists their royalties, there is literally no profit left.” Since most artists still create albums with CD length in mind, issuing an LP version that sounds decent means making a double album, which makes the pressing far more likely to lose money than make any.
There is one bright spot to selling LPs, according to Rosner. Stores can return CDs that don’t sell for credit with their distributor, and those unsold copies eventually find their way back to labels, but “stores cannot return vinyl,” Rosner says. If LPs can be sold to distributors or stores, no big boxes of records will find their way home again to haunt the label’s warehouse.
But first labels have to sell their LPs, and niche music on a niche format tends to move slowly. Academy Records in Manhattan still stocks mostly CDs with only a handful of new titles on LP. Asked about top-selling new music titles on new vinyl, manager Frank Vogl cites a recent recording of Morton Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus released by Austrian vinyl-only label God Records. It sold four copies in a month.
Mode Records still has LP copies of the first recordings it released in 1984. The label embraced CDs when they came along, and it continues to release titles on digital formats to this day, but it has yet to take up vinyl again. Founder Brian Brandt says he loves vinyl, personally, and doesn’t rule out releasing LPs again in the future, but it’s hard to get around the fact that “it doesn’t actually make financial sense.”
Brandt adds that the rise of streaming and the erosion of paid downloads and physical media sales represent a far bigger dilemma than to press or not to press. “Something has to give soon, because at the rate things are going, many independent labels will not survive this economic downturn in music sales,” he says. “And, unlike other depressions in the music business that I’ve experienced over 30-plus years of doing this, I don’t see any light at the end of this economic tunnel. Vinyl is unlikely to be the answer to that problem.”
Still, there are ways in which it appears vinyl does make sense for new music, if you squint. After all, the LP has returned at this late date in part because it’s a somewhat unwieldy physical product—larger and heavier than a CD, more fragile and particular, more of an objet d’art than a mere unit sold. In a world of data steams, “vinyl is a way to frame up the value of music,” says Campbell.
An LP still has a collectible, almost fetishistic value that a CD just doesn’t for many at this point. It carries a particularly strong appeal at the merch table, according to Hammond. A number of variables go into the decision to press vinyl, he says, and one of them is “whether or not the artist will be playing a lot of shows—vinyl sells at concerts.”
Contemporary composition can sell pretty well in certain circumstances. Earlier this year, Further Records released an LP of two recordings (studio and live) of James Tenney’s piece Having Never Written a Note for Percussion and sold out of its 500-copy run within months. The label specializes in electronic music, and sales were fueled no doubt by label followers and by fans of the performer, a techno producer/DJ known as Rrose, a.k.a. Seth Horvitz, who earned an MFA in electronic music from Mills College. In addition to distributing copies to record stores through the usual channels, the label took orders, and pre-orders, through Bandcamp, the current standard for one-to-one music sales. On a more bootstrapping front, crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and the rest could also offer the potential for composers to solicit presales for, and fund production of, vinyl releases.
While selling records is important, it can’t be the only consideration for composers, performers, or even the labels themselves—especially since new music has never been a huge seller in any format. “My experience is that, from a business perspective, running a record label in 2015 in general doesn’t make sense, no matter what format you’re selling,” Hammond jokes.
CDs and downloads may make more money, but “vinyl as a format has an undeniable and lasting appeal,” he continues. “The historicity, the charm, the ritual of removing a record from the sleeve, flipping it over, looking at the artwork.”
And in the end, composers don’t do what they do for short-term gain. They’re making art, ideally, music meant to outlast listening formats, and even lifespans. At Innova, composers themselves pay for vinyl pressings, and the reasons they do so vary. “Some of it is marketplace-driven,” Campbell says. “Some artists know that their audience would love to sit and listen to a needle go through grooves. Some of it is purely for the joy of creating a kind of art object. How beautiful! Motivations and driving factors can be more than just the bottom line.”
* At the writer’s request, this sentence has been updated. See discussion here.
Lee Gardner has been writing about music and film for more than 25 years. He is the former editor of Baltimore City Paper, and is currently a senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education.