2021 has been a stressful year for Jody Whelan, who runs the small Nashville-based label Oh Boy Records, which his father, the late John Prine, started 40 years ago. In February, Whelan asked a pressing plant for a repress of 1000 vinyl records for one of their newer artists. Normally, a repress takes just a couple of months but the plant told him it would be a year, an unfeasibly long delay. “We started to get a little worried,” said Whelan. “We're having a hard time keeping things in stock. We're making tough choices between what we send to record stores and what we keep on our own online store. We're going to smaller plants and having to spend more per unit.” Whelan said that now, Oh Boy Records is using at least nine different pressing plants to make sure the product gets delivered on time.
Vinyl delays are currently plaguing the entire industry. During the pandemic, vinyl exploded, growing 28.7 percent in 2020 according to the Record Industry Association of America. While vinyl has been on an upward trajectory since the mid-aughts, 2020 marked the first time vinyl beat out CDs in total revenues since the 1980s. Though there were issues with the supply chain even before the pandemic, the reality is that the entire industry cannot keep up with skyrocketing demand, especially with COVID-related constraints. Due to the pandemic, music fans have spent money on turntables instead of concert tickets, some factories couldn't maintain their production capacity due to social distancing measures and labor shortages, and artists and labels who held off on releasing albums during the pandemic are all releasing LPs this year.
In Billboard, an anonymous music executive speculated that “pressing plants around the globe have the capacity to manufacture 160 million albums a year” but to meet what the market wants, they’d have to make somewhere between 320 to 400 million. “I don't think we're at the worst of it yet,” said Whelan. “I think alarm bells are going off but this holiday season is going to be bad and next year will probably be even worse. It’ll keep compounding.”
These setbacks are potentially devastating for smaller labels and artists who depend on sales to get by. Like Whelan, Sooper Records co-founder Glennon Curran has been thrown for a loop by these disruptions. “We've had to change manufacturing partners, we've also had to do more front end planning about repress issues, and about how much stock we want to have on hand,” said Curran. “We even had a new signing we were really excited about for 2021 but because of vinyl delays, that artist has to sit on their record until 2022 and wait till it gets released.”
Curran notes that repress times, which are typically quicker than having to press a new album, are so delayed, pressing plants are telling him to order the repress with the original pressing. For Sooper, which typically specializes in debut albums from underground artists like Jodi and Alicia Walter, it’s a financially risky move. With the already thin profit margins in independent music, if an original pressing doesn’t sell out, Sooper would be on the hook for hundreds if not thousands of additional LPs he might not need. In other words, he’s estimating how many copies of a record they might sell in the future and hoping for the best. “We no longer have the luxury of being able to wait and see how the chips fall with a new album and then make a game-time decision on whether or not to order a repress,” said Curran.
Though relatively small operations, both Sooper and Oh Boy Records have years of professional relationships with pressing plants. “Don't get me wrong, we're okay: We've been around for 40 years,” said Whelan. “If I were to start a record label this year and didn't have relationships with these plants that I can lean on, it would be so hard.” Daniel Cooper, a publicist who works with several independent artists and labels and helps coordinate release strategies, concurs. “The queue is so huge,” he said. “I don't think I've had more than maybe 10 percent of artists I've worked with this year have vinyl in hand when we've released. With tours coming back, there's been conversations about holding off on campaigns until they get the product.”
There are a wealth of reasons that explain why the vinyl supply chain has been so disrupted. While the main cause is the spike in consumer demand, there’s also the influx of big box chains like Target, Walmart, and others getting into the market, which according to Billboard now account for over 13 percent of sales up from 4 percent in 2018. “Big boxes buying into vinyl has changed the picture,” said Brandon Seavers, CEO of vinyl manufacturer Memphis Records to Billboard. “In 2020, the average order on a title was 3,700. Now the average order is 7,000 to 8,000.” Earlier this week, Amazon announced a new “Record of the Month” program which many fear will add to the pileup. “It's brutal: All that is is them making orders for big label catalogs even larger,” said Whelan. “Say a plant was going to press 20,000 of a Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin but now they'll press maybe 25 or 30,000. That's just more time and capacity that's not going to indies and smaller labels.”
Some artists are making the best of a bleak situation. Boston-based musicians Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, the Galaxie 500 and Magic Hour alums who are releasing a new album in August as Damon and Naomi, found out that a vinyl release wouldn’t be possible until 2022. “We thought, ‘if we can't make vinyl, but we can print something else,” said Yang. To coincide with their digital album A Sky Record, they made a 48-page companion booklet filled with guest essays and original photographs. “It’s basically a deluxe LP without the LP,” said Yang, noting that the vinyl will be coming sometime in 2022. “The story behind this album was very important to us and these delays allowed us to tell it more than just a press release.”
There’s little evidence the industry-wide delays will sort themselves out soon. “It doesn't seem like we're going to catch up in quite a while,” said Cooper. “That’s due to a lot of different things, obviously, the pandemic but with climate change and everything being as horrible as it is, there's gonna be more disruption in supply chains.” In fact, many of the people VICE spoke to for this story mentioned that CDs, which are relatively cheaper to make, might make a comeback due to the depressing realities of making vinyl. “Thankfully we still sell CDs,” said Whelan. “We've always not cared about how people want to listen to our music and for John Prine's fans, that's still a viable format.”