I knew it was over when Britain's largest supermarket chain, Tesco, announced that they would begin selling vinyl in their stores. Not raincoats or reclining chairs or shiny boots or garden hoses, but actual record albums. What has been a shining light for many independent record stores and labels, and a nice revenue stream for musicians selling them at their concerts, has caught the attention of big box retail. Here's what Tesco music buyer Michael Mulligan told The Guardian last December:
“Vinyl is definitely coming back with demand, growing stronger year by year, and we think there will be a big demand in the UK this Christmas as music fans look for trendy gifting options.”
Hold on ... did he really say that? Trendy gifting options?
Before Tesco got into the music business, last summer, they tested the viability with a new Iron Maiden record. They followed that up with adding 12 models of phonograph players and, right before Christmas, added 20 classic titles that included Springsteen, the Stones, Prince, Nirvana, and Coldplay, among others. In other words, trendy gifting options.
Here in the United States you'll find a plentiful assortment of vinyl at your local shopping malls in "lifestyle stores" such as Hot Topic and Urban Outfitters, in large strip centers where bookseller Barnes and Noble and electronics behemoth Best Buy reside, and in-between the cosmetics and pet food departments at Target.
The reason for this renewed interest in plastic music delivery is probably obvious, especially given the selection of titles that Tesco decided to stock. Baby boomers love trendy gifting options, and they have demonstrated a willingness, if not some primal desire or need, to continue to buy the same stuff over and over and over again.
With streaming rapidly growing to become the number one way we consume music, and despite the fact that vinyl sales still account for a tiny fraction of overall revenue, the percentage of sales keeps growing year after year. In other words, somebody has to make money from albums, so why not us? Or rather, them.
Back in the late '80s, when I was working as sales manager in Los Angeles for the distribution arm of Capitol-EMI Music, I got marching orders to put The Beatles' compact discs into the large Ralph's supermarket chain. Since they wouldn't fit neatly alongside cans of beans, and the artwork contrasted with the cellophane-wrapped chicken parts, we had to provide a free-standing floor rack, custom packaging with price stickers and security tags, very expensive signage and posters, and television advertising. It cost us a fortune.
I learned a lesson: When people come to a supermarket to buy food and diapers, they'll stand in the checkout line where they are easily lured to drop another buck or two on chewing gum and candy. But when it came to a $15 Beatles CD, yeah yeah yeah turned into no no no. We took back almost 90 percent of what we shipped.
Last week, I noticed a Facebook post from a musician who was traveling to Folk Alliance, and they apologized for not being able to bring their new vinyl release because the pressing plant couldn't fill their order. Made me wonder ... do we have an international vinyl deficiency? Turns out, we do.
About a year ago, there was an article written by indie record label owner Thaddeus Herrmann, published on his German website Das Filter, which spoke to the problem confronting a rise in vinyl production. (If you're interested, it was translated by Britain's Fact Magazine and can be found here.) I'll skip the details about electroplating, lacquers, and plant facility degradation, and skip right to consumption.
The hype surrounding the reissues, which appear to be responsible for a large part of the current situation, doesn’t have a long tail. What the collateral damage will be on the labels and artists who don’t view vinyl as a status symbol or as a machine to print money, but as the best format for their music, is hard to determine. One of the steps in the production process will fail eventually. If this happens because an entire industry is busy manufacturing the flea market records of the future, it wouldn’t be an adequate end for the vinyl record.
If all that is not enough to ponder, consider last week's Salon interview with music critic Jim Fusilli that comes with this bombastic headline/quote: Stop buying old Bob Dylan albums. “Every time somebody buys a reissue, they’re just taking money away from new musicians.”
While the interview doesn't specifically focus on vinyl, it addresses this notion of creating packages of old music that siphons money that could and should go to support new artists. As someone who recently tried to navigate the recent Dylan box set with multiple sessions of the same old stuff, I came away better understanding why the producer's job is to choose the best of the litter for us to enjoy. And I have a new realization of why old tapes are kept "in the can."
Here's one thing of note that Fusilli says about reissues, which ties into this new push for vinyl sales:
The industry keeps people in the prison that they put them in 30 years ago. You go down a dead end with some people, who say to you, Where’s the new Bob Dylan? Where’s the new Beatles? Well, there is no new Bob Dylan. There is no new Beatles. There is no new Thelonious Monk. There’s no new Duke Ellington. These people and their achievements are beyond the reach of anyone, so maybe it is interesting to empty the vaults and study how they got to be who they are. But for most artists, they had something to say in their own times, and that’s really where it belongs.
I'm going to let Thaddeus Herrmann have the last word, and extrapolate a bit on the theory that the major corporations are tilting the playing field.
A look at the vinyl section of a large Berlin store proves the shelves are full of reissues of old titles, mostly from major labels. Record players can be purchased right at the checkout. There’s nothing wrong with that – music should be sold in the formats that meet customer demand. But there are indicators that the majors are actively trying to secure substantial vinyl production capacity at the remaining pressing plants.
If this is the case – and the pressing plants are denying it – it would mean that the majors are attempting to buy their way into an industry that they played a significant role in destroying. And they are attempting once again to starve the indie labels, the very labels that never gave up on vinyl.
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