Why the Vinyl Boom Is Actually a Drought

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Brooklyn Vinyl Works' project manager, Nick Jett, shows off the master of a vinyl pressing. Photo: Nathan Perkel for Vulture

That the resurgence of vinyl records has coincided with the rise of music-streaming services is more than just a nostalgic curiosity. It’s one of those times when an idea is plucked from the ether by unconnected minds. Spotify playlists, mp3 collections, even the physicality of Zane Lowe's shouts projected at listeners as new hits fade in on Beats 1 — they’re all brought to us by pixelated ghost couriers we don't understand. It’s a strange time not only to consume media, but to be alive. Perhaps listeners unconsciously decided that they really needed to touch something, and that something was polyvinyl chloride. "Anyone who says they saw this coming is a liar," says Drew Hill, managing director of Proper, the U.K.'s largest independent distributor of physical music. We couldn’t have predicted the vinyl boom, but as an antidote to the exclusively digital future music was headed toward, records do the trick.

The result of this uncanny growth — vinyl sales were up 54.7 percent globally last year, compared to 2013, which saw 9.2 million records sold in the U.S. — is a manufacturing sector whose seams have been steadily swelling for nearly a decade. Some top vinyl-pressing plants operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in an attempt to keep up. Because of the format's sharp decline in the 1990s, many plants were shuttered, leaving the few players that survived to cash in. Others have cropped up to service the boom, but still, the grand total of U.S. vinyl-pressing plants of varying sizes hovers around 15. "There is not the capacity anywhere in the world to cope with the demand at the moment," Hill says.

While Jack White may enjoy the benefits of an intimate relationship with the country’s largest vinyl plant, Nashville’s United Record Pressing, which results in the (literally) record-breaking turnaround time of a single day, most artists and labels have to wait at least 14 to 18 weeks for their vinyl, oftentimes without knowing the status of their orders. And that wait is often increased by pressings that require a new lacquer, or prototype of the record, due to sound issues in the test pressing. Common are the tales of indie bands running out of vinyl mid-tour and not being able to replenish their stock. Bigger bands aren’t immune to it either; it’s not exactly rare for vinyl preorders of new albums to be sent out after release week because of tardy pressings.

So why haven't new factories sprung up to satiate current demand? Because to reach that downhill coast, one must first climb a very steep hill. The presses themselves have not been built new since the '80s; those that are currently in service have been reconstructed from old scraps of presses found, acquired, and then Frankensteined back into being by machinists, who must re-create any missing or broken parts by hand. And once you have a potentially functioning press, you’re still not very close to actually making a playable record. "Vinyl is a messy, time-consuming, labor-intensive, and expensive process," Hill says.

A vinyl press in the midst of open heart surgery. Photo: Nathan Perkel for Vulture

Despite all this, Brooklyn is preparing to welcome its third pressing plant — in addition to Brooklynphono and Hit Bound Manufacturing — in the coming weeks. It’s not as if Will Socolov, the grizzled vinyl vet behind Brooklyn Vinyl Works (BVW), didn’t know what he was getting himself into, though. He’s been involved with music for most of his life, first co-founding Sleeping Bag Records with Arthur Russell before moving into hip-hop, working early with Craig Mack and KRS-One, and signing Jay Z to Freeze Records ahead of the release of Reasonable Doubt. After Socolov tired of that game and its egos, he founded EKS, a record-pressing plant in Long Island City, which he sold in 2012, after — in true New York City fashion — intractable lease problems made its operation untenable. EKS’s equipment was sold to a soon-to-be competitor in the South, Memphis Record Pressing, and Socolov retired from the complicated business of vinyl … for a mere three years. Now Socolov, who speaks in an increasingly rare Brooklyn patois in which record becomes rek-id and huge becomes yuge, finds himself cobbling together the same makeshift spread of equipment, all of which does not come cheap. A rough breakdown of topline items:

$800,000: real estate in the east Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville; $15–30,000: one record press (Socolov acquired four); $6,000: shipping on a record press, from Russia to New York (dealing with its duplicitous seller was, according to Socolov, “the biggest crock of shit”); $10,000: repairs on record press; $10,000: massive hydraulic pump; $25,000: shrink-wrap machine (new); $65,000: boiler, for heating the water that will power the presses themselves; Unending: electricity, plumbing.

BVW's Will Socolov and Nick Jett. Photo: Nathan Perkel for Vulture

"The shrink-wrap machine, the compressor, the tanks, all the plumbing, the electrical, buying a transformer, forklift, shelving — believe me, this shit adds up,” Socolov says, sitting in his money pit, a brick building from the atomic age with a cardboard-and-Sharpie name placard on the front door so you know it’s official. (Brooklyn Vinyl Works launched a failed Kickstarter in June, asking for less than one tenth — $100,000 — of these expenses; the campaign raised roughly half.)

With his admittedly late-to-the-game Wonka Music Factory soon to be operational, the matter of whether anyone will care in five years should weigh on Socolov’s mind. That question, of whether the rapidly growing vinyl bubble will burst, is an awkward one to ask a man with $1 million sunk into a new business, the status of which is still “under construction.” Maybe the kids coming up now, who may lack the impulse for physically possessing the music that shapes them, just won’t care. But Socolov remains reasonably confident. He expects a peak to be reached; with such a small number of presses nationwide, he still foresees demand remaining consistent. And he’s not alone in this forecast: "There's a plateau on the horizon, but I really don't see things going down,” says Jay Millar, who spent nine years at United Record Pressing before recently moving to small reissue label Sundazed. “I think there's probably a small percentage of [fans] who might be in it just for a moment, but by the time they're getting out of it, someone else is getting into it."

"Someone has already contacted me about securing 100,000 records," Socolov says. "If things go the way I hope, we're gonna be doing 40,000 records a week." That's a nonconservative estimate, he admits after a little prodding, but 1.5 million records in a year is entirely feasible. At roughly 50 cents a pop wholesale for Socolov and Company (including packaging, wrapping, labels, and the many other incidentals), and with only three out of four presses factored in, he might be on the verge of a lucrative second coming. "I think anybody on Earth would buy into that," he says. As long as the kids still care.

For now, the kids certainly still care, and where the kids are, the major labels are. In this sense, the vinyl boom — or, more accurately, the vinyl drought — begins to mimic the record industry as a whole. There is increasing consternation from independent players over their vinyl orders, which are said to often get waylaid by the three major labels, with their growing interest in vinyl and Record Store Day, not to mention their dependable bankrolls. "Industry-wide, I can't imagine there's anyone that's not feeling the bottleneck," says Millar, who also makes a good point regarding the majors: "They probably do have the majority [of time hogging the presses], but they have the majority of the content — and the sought-after content. The bigger the order, the longer time on press." (In case you’re wondering how far ahead small labels should place their Record Store Day orders, Millar says Sundazed is already doing so; the annual event is not until April.)

This big-guy-versus-underdog dynamic may actually end up benefiting Socolov, with his penchant for basement bands and his relationships with small-even-for-indie labels like Sacred Bones and Captured Tracks. He’s banking on it, in fact, similarly to the way he’s depending on vinyl as a permanent medium in an industry that tends to change them every decade and a half, not a trend looping back around. It’s fitting, then, that every physical music format — whether CD, vinyl record, cassette, MiniDisc, or 8-track — is circular. This is for practical reasons; a needle wouldn't be led across a spinning square track very effectively. But it's also an appropriate metaphor for the Lazarus-like rediscovery that keeps artists, long-dead, as alive as we are via the immortality of music itself. As one veteran fan reaches side B’s final beat, a new listener drops the needle down on side A. Socolov is ready to cue up the first song one more time.