The Challenge of Catering for a new Generation of Vinyl Lovers

After more than 30 years in the business, Key Production founder Karen Emanuel says the last 12 months have been the hardest in her professional life, as the vinyl market goes through a tricky period of both major hurdles and booming demand.

I started in the business of manufacturing vinyl whilst I was at Rough Trade Distribution back in the late ‘80s. Back then there were several vinyl factories in the UK – some with huge capacity. I remember EMI (at its peak it employed 22,000 people), CBS, Orlake, Damont, Lyntone, Adrenalin, Independent plus a couple of smaller ones.

Rough Trade Distribution had a number one single in 1988 with Yazz And The Plastic Population and The Only Way is up (Big Life Records). It was released on CD single, CD maxi-single, cassette single, 7”, 12”, 12” remix and 12” club mix, and sold over 400,000 physical copies. I remember boxes of product piled up on the street outside the warehouse – as fast as it was being delivered, it was shipping out.

Back then, turnaround times as standard were three weeks for finished vinyl product, although when we had a chart record, record companies would over order on parts (sleeves and labels) so that they were in stock, and then churn out the records in 48 hours (sometimes 24 hours). It was about getting product in stock for the charts by any means necessary, regardless of quality. Getting them done this quickly meant that often they were subject to being thin and warped.

I set up Key Production in 1990 when CDs cost around three times what they do today, and vinyl and CDs sold in hundreds of thousands. However, from about this time, major record labels were more enamoured with the CD which was tipped as the successor to vinyl. Whilst Britpop and dance music kept the vinyl presses rolling, the major manufacturers (linked to the major labels) began to pull out of vinyl manufacturing. First, CBS closed down in 1991, followed by EMI in 2000. I remember that so clearly – it was chaos. I had to drive to the factory and walk through thousands of boxes trying to lay claim to what was ours in order to transfer those titles to another factory.

Around this time, people were telling me “vinyl is dead”, but the Indies had other ideas. Whilst vinyl production took a dive, the indies kept releasing it and we never stopped making it. However, one by one, the UK factories fell by the wayside until there were only two survivors – Diamond Black and Vinyl Factory. We, like many others, had no choice but to manufacture the majority of our product in Europe.

Vinyl manufacturing hit an all time low in the UK around 2007 but then it began its ascent. Why? Were we missing the depth of sound an analogue piece of vinyl gives? The beautiful art? The detail of where it was recorded and who produced it? Maybe the story that the artist was telling? The joy of putting it on the turntable and turning it over halfway? It’s hard to say. It’s interesting that the first Record Store Day was held in 2008, raising the public’s awareness of both independent record stores and the limited editions that were released to be sold. Something else that I find interesting is that, from being a commodity back in the ‘90s, vinyl has become a luxury item with the focus very much on quality – as it should be!

Skip forward to today and we can see how the singles market has changed. According to stats from week 20 courtesy of the Official Charts Company, out of 23,232,597 singles, 22,838,183 were streams and only 5,758 were physical. So, the physical market hardly exists for singles anymore. UK vinyl album sales are, however, the highest since the Brit Pop boom of the 1990s. But, despite a number of boutique pressing plants opening up both in the UK, USA and Europe, there just isn’t enough capacity to go around. Turnarounds that averaged three weeks in 1990, went to between three and four months in 2017, readjusted to two months in 2019 and are now averaging about six months, although some factories are quoting nine months – just think, you could make a baby in the same amount of time that you press a record!

This last year has been the most challenging in the 32 years that I have been involved in vinyl manufacturing. The effect of Covid 19 initially meant that, due to uncertainty, the majority of record labels, distributors and label service companies stopped releasing product, so orders fell off a cliff.

When the industry came-to and realised that artists were unable to tour and play festivals, releasing product (both physically and digitally) was initially the only income stream for artists and the music industry. Artists receive more income from physical than digital. Fans were sitting at home wanting to support artists, many with money that they would usually spend on gigs and festivals. People like to collect, touch and feel product and be brought closer to the artist.

There have been great initiatives such as Love Record Stores. Record Store Day was postponed but reinstated on two days instead of one and we had National Album day. A whole new generation of vinyl collectors has been born. We are finding that not only are more artists releasing on vinyl but the order quantities have vastly increased.

Covid 19 has affected people who work in the factories, causing factory closures and shortage of staff at short notice. Brexit has caused endless delivery problems. Be prepared they said! Prepared for what? We asked. We were as prepared as we could be with the information that was available but sadly a lot of the hauliers were not. They were refusing to pick-up stock from Europe to deliver to the UK and none of them could get the paperwork right. If this wasn’t enough, the fact that we were now out of the VAT union means that shipping goods within Europe makes the goods liable for VAT when they weren’t before, which can put around 20% onto the cost added onto the extra customs and paperwork charges incurred.

To add to the difficulties caused by the pandemic and Brexit, we are now in the middle of a worldwide PVC shortage which is impacting on construction, car manufacturing, food packaging and most importantly vinyl (CD, DVD and cassette) manufacturing. Not only is there a shortage (we are finding that we simply can’t get some of the standard colours for coloured vinyl) but suppliers are putting up their prices without warning.

What about the future of vinyl I hear you ask? I have no crystal ball, but I can’t see the demand reducing anytime soon. The majors (having tried to kill it off not all that long ago) have certainly put their weight behind the format. Some factories are putting in new machines, but there are also supply chain issues with those machines. Some are reluctant to invest the millions needed in an uncertain world. There are new boutique plants due to open soon (it takes time to get everything working as it should) but they will barely make a dent in the supply. We will all be working together with our clients to plan forward as much as possible and make good use of the capacity that is available.

Who’d want to be in the business of vinyl manufacturing? We do! Nothing can beat the sounds and smells that you get when walking into a vinyl factory, watching those 12” discs come off the press. The smell of the ink at the printers as you watch the designs and finishes come to life. When you receive that album you’ve been waiting for, or flick through the racks in the record shop, gasp at the beauty of the design and manoeuvre it out of the sleeve and lovingly on to the turntable.

Long Live Vinyl!