Is the Vinyl Bubble ready to burst?

The price of vinyl records and the scant supply remains a hot button issue in the music world. Prices of records, even fairly recent reissues, are causing eyes to pop out of heads. Even a run through stuff I bought at retail prices last year is making me consider offloading some stuff at inflated secondary values.

But the core issue at the heart of all ills in the vinyl world is the supply constraints. Existing plants are backlogged for months on end. Bands wishing to release albums often wait months after a digital and CD release date to offer a vinyl version. Some independent labels have floated the idea of not pressing vinyl or only doing it as an ultra-limited format. Vinyl is a red hot market but its supply issues could cause a bubble burst that might lead to a collapse of the format. People can’t be interested in what they can’t get.

All of this is at the heart of a new communication from Jack White, released yesterday. White has been involved in every facet of the music business – fan, artist and producer, as well as label owner, retail store owner and vinyl manufacturer. His statement discussed the issues at hand in the record industry through what he sees via his Third Man Records group.

This article from Pitchfork provides White’s statement, which is also in the above YouTube clip in abbreviated form. In it White is asking the 3 major record labels to invest in their own vinyl record production facilities in order to head off the massive supply issues currently plaguing the industry.

White’s appeal takes the high road and does not throw major labels under the same bus that many music fans like to throw said labels under. Last year Adele’s latest release was widely blamed for clogging record plant capacity as half a million records were pressed. This NME article has some industry experts explain, in their terms, why Adele and the majors aren’t the core issue behind record delays. I don’t know where I am in this argument but the people in that article possess a lot more knowledge of the landscape than I do so I’ll defer to their judgment.

One paragraph in White’s statement really hits home with me.

There are people who will say—isn’t this good for Third Man? More demand than you can handle? To which I say, even though Third Man benefits in the short term, in the long term it ultimately hurts everyone involved in the vinyl ecosystem given the bottlenecks and delays. Something needs to be done.

This is a point I’ve made in a few posts since I’ve been running this site. If these vinyl bottlenecks aren’t dealt with, it is going to have several ripple effects that cause the format to suffer. Bands and labels, especially independents, will abandon or at least curtail their use of vinyl due to lack of power to have their products made. The prices of highly sought-after records will climb on the secondary market if reissues can’t be pressed to meet demand. Vinyl will become a purely high-end market and effectively price out the average consumer in a time when the average consumer’s money isn’t going as far as it used to for a number of reasons.

Vinyl demand has climbed in the past decade or so and has skyrocketed since the 2020 pandemic. The industry is left without ways to quickly answer the demand, which in the end will lead to shrinking demand. Some collectors will give up out of disgust at high prices, others will scale back to only grabbing their personal essentials. Maybe the next year will see something tilt the pendulum back towards consumers but it isn’t a rosy outlook right now.

More pressing plants is the easy answer to the problem. Hell, I spent a bit of time last year looking into the prospect. While it isn’t hard to get presses, they are very expensive and the cost of starting a pressing plant is very, very high. It is honestly out of my reach as an individual with no business ties or experience in the industry.

Of course, Jack White isn’t asking everyday blokes like me to find millions in capital and open vinyl plants. He’s asking the major labels to shoulder the burden of producing their own records. The majors closed up vinyl shop in the 1990’s when the format fell off a cliff and are now using the handful of operators around that mostly opened shop to service independent labels.

It is a logical solution to the problem, though of course there is another side of the argument. If I were a major label, I’d be reluctant to fund any massive kind of vinyl pressing operation. They get by as it is via buying out the capacity of existing providers and they may not want to tie up the money and infrastructure in a format that has no guarantee of lasting. It’s a cold and clinical business outlook, but that’s exactly how these huge businesses look at things.

White’s message does reference investors standing by, willing to get in on the action while the market is hot. Perhaps enough new plants can open up to stave off a massive burst in the vinyl bubble. And, with the most rose-colored of lenses, perhaps the appeal to the majors to press their own damn records will be heard and heeded. I won’t bet money on it, but I’ve been known to be wrong a time or two.

There are looming problems on the vinyl horizon, and this appeal from Jack White should be taken as stark recognition of that fact. Plenty of people are willing to collect physical formats and vinyl has become the format of choice, but it is getting out of hand. And the supply not meeting demand poses a huge issue that could sink the format before it got its 2020 legs under it.

8 thoughts on “Is the Vinyl Bubble ready to burst?

  1. They do need more pressing plants. I have been waiting a year now for an album I ordered last March. It is insane…but I’ll keep waiting as I have to have the album on vinyl as I have every other of their albums on vinyl.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Price Points – The Crooked Wanderer

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