In recent months, the demand to print vinyl records has increased so much that Filippo De Fassi, owner of Phonopress, the best-known Italian vinyl printing company, was forced to post a notice on his company’s website that says: “Twelve about weeks: these are the waiting times that we can offer at the moment, based on the latest works delivered ». If demand continues to grow, it will take more than twelve weeks.
For some months now, Phonopress, which is located in Settala, in the province of Milan, has been working on two shifts and De Fassi has been doing a little bit of everything: every day something breaks, ”he says) and responds to pressing requests from record companies.
The demand for vinyl records, however, had been growing for some time, thanks to an active and renewed market niche, and further increased during the lockdown, when millions of people were locked up at home to avoid being infected. The biggest demand has been met by large retailers like Amazon, who have included many more titles in their catalogs over the past year and a half. For example according to i disseminated data gives Billboard, the leading music industry chart in the US, vinyl album revenues in the US could reach $ 1 billion by the end of the year, nearly $ 400 million more than in 2020, marked by the effects of the epidemic. .
The growth has not gone unnoticed by the big record companies, always looking for new strategies to exploit the popularity of their artists. Nothing new has been invented: just as small labels and indie bands have been doing for years, the so-called majors have tried to extend the popularity of vinyl as a collector’s item.
Vinyls are indeed objects of a certain beauty: they are large, they can be hung on the walls or lined up on bookcases, they are a usually appreciated gift. And we talk of their return for some time, but while vinyl is talking about it he’s been back a long time ago and the question that many insiders are asking is, rather: how long will it last?
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In recent months, special editions or multi-colored vinyls have been released by pop stars such as Harry Styles, former lead singer of the band One Direction, and Billie Eilish. In Italy the Måneskin, winners of the Eurovision Song Contest, have published the LP Theater of Wrath – Vol. I in transparent orange vinyl.
The choice of record companies paid off and sales were good in Italy too: according to data from FIMI, the Italian Music Industry Federation, Måneskin’s vinyl was the best-selling in the first six months of the year. Fine line by Harry Styles and his 2017 self-titled debut album finished in second and fourth place, while The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd classic released in 1973 and always the best-selling or one of the best-selling, has lost a few positions, falling to fifth place.
A customer in a music store in Paris, France (Kiran Ridley / Getty Images)
The new attention of popular artists towards the vinyl object, however, has not been followed by a development of the vinyl industry, in fact still artisanal. Printing thousands of discs takes time, experience, and hard-to-find suitable machines. The few on the market have all been booked and the printing companies have to make do with finds recovered from the 1980s. Supply, in short, fails to follow the growth in demand, and prices rise.
De Fassi speaks while behind him you can hear the puffs and squeaks of his five presses which in 2018 printed one million records, the current record. They are all dated and not always reliable: constant attention and maintenance are needed to maintain production rates. This is why printers have become more selective, waiting times have lengthened, and many small labels have decided to give up on printing vinyls. “As a matter of organization we have raised the minimum production to 300 pieces, because in this way we are able to dispose of the queues and also to make a sort of customer selection”, says De Fassi. “Printing one hundred copies of a vinyl involves costs and commitment, and for us it no longer makes much sense to think about these quantities”.
According to De Fassi, this evident imbalance in the industrial sector is one of the many causes that will contribute to the growth of an unsustainable bubble for a long time.
The industrial machinery market is still limited and if there is no rapid response, there will also be no time to respond to the demands of the big record companies, with the risk that interest in vinyl will drop, perhaps in favor of other “old” ones. formats, such as CD. “It’s been rumored for five years that vinyl will soon die, but we’re still here. When it reaches the breaking point, that is when the bubble bursts, demand will have to be recalibrated, with a possible drop in interest in vinyl ”.
– Read also: Will CDs ever come back into fashion?
Among other things, the increase in the prices of raw materials must also be considered, which has affected almost all sectors of the economy, including the music industry.
The experience of Phonopress has allowed the company to maintain relationships with reliable suppliers and privileged channels to procure large quantities of granules from which to obtain vinyl records, even in different colors. For everyone else, the costs are starting to get prohibitive, as is responding to the demands of record companies.
(Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
The effects of this situation are already evident in countries where the bubble has grown ahead of Italy, such as the United States: several self-producing artists have stopped printing vinyls due to the lengthening of production times caused by ‘ interest of the major record companies, and have focused on alternative formats such as cassette tapes.
In order not to risk being excluded from the selective vinyl industry, labels must anticipate production times by sending orders many months in advance of the release of the disc.
After all, the ability to adapt has always been something of a salvation for this former niche market. “The reality is that in the 1990s and 2000s many of the vinyl record presses were kept alive by the independent circuit, which never abandoned this format”, says Franz Barcella, founder of the independent label Wild Honey Records, who in In recent years he has printed 66 titles by garage, punk and folk rock artists such as Bee Bee Sea, Radio Birdman’s Deniz Tek and Langhorne Slim, among others. “Fortunately, many print shops have not forgotten the help they received from subcultures. They still have an ethics: they could only print Sony and Universal discs, instead they continue to welcome requests for independent labels, albeit with many more difficulties than in previous years ».
Barcella argues that this bubble can also have positive effects on the quality of the records. He says that already now bands and labels are forced to “extend the life of a record”: you can no longer do things at the last minute, with the risk of mistakes, and everything must be planned with care and precision. Also, you have to strive to find new ways to promote new releases.
Wild Honey Records kept in stock a series of seven-inch vinyls that no one bought: it was enough to create a box in the shape of a cereal box, with other most requested titles and with a series of gadgets such as branded socks and pins, to sell them in the two hour ride.
«Pre-orders, that is, the possibility of ordering a record before its release, was invented by the independent labels. The same happened for limited editions, colored vinyls, posters and reprints with exclusive gadgets, ”says Barcella. «All these commercial ideas have been assimilated by the majors, who try to monetize the fanaticism of fans as much as possible. The limitation has become a consumer good, with the difference that the independent labels still believe in art, in music, while the majors only in the product ».
(Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Predictably, all of this has led to a significant increase in the prices of vinyl records. To pay, literally, are the record stores that like independent labels have managed to survive thanks to a niche now at risk.
Ferruccio Melchiori, owner with his wife of Dischivolanti, a shop that has been located on the Navigli in Milan since 2009, from behind his counter he scans the prices of some of the vinyls on sale and remembers precisely how much they cost him. Many of the releases exceed 40 euros: the profit margin is low and the risk of leaving them on the shelves for years is very high. “Prices have doubled since 2009,” he says. “I am buying fewer and fewer new items because some prices are out of business. Then it is obvious that if the new Radiohead or Pearl Jam comes out you have to have it, at any price, because you sell them anyway ».
In the shop he has twenty thousand CDs and five thousand vinyls. Although it may seem strange and anachronistic, Melchiori still buys many CDs of classical, jazz, industrial. “It’s like breeding endangered animals,” he explains with a curious metaphor. “After three years, the person who has been looking for that CD for a lifetime arrives and the species survives. The problem is not so much the cost, but the fact that we fight with gratuitousness. If mp3s were paid for and I gave away CDs there would be a lot of people with portable CD players, like in the nineties ».
Melchiori also adapted and found new strategies to carve out its space in the market. It takes commitment and a little inventiveness. One of its major suppliers, for example, is Amazon: by exploiting the price fluctuations and the offers decided by the algorithm, it is possible to buy new discs at very advantageous prices. There are titles on sale for 8 euros which the next day return to 28 euros. The important thing is to buy them at the right time.
(Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Similarly, however, the internet has created opportunities for speculation. The latest Foo Fighters vinyl, “Hail Satin”, a cover album by the Bee Gees, certainly not an indispensable stage in their career, was printed in twelve thousand copies, a quantity that seemed sufficient and instead in a short time made it a sought-after title. In the shop it was sold for 32 euros, while on Discogs, the best known platform for obtaining information about a disc and selling it anywhere in the world, it stands at over $ 130: a valuation that will also affect other releases, as has already happened in the past, contributing to the rise in prices.
“In the long run, this market will only be sustainable if the majors decide to leave prices low,” says Melchiori. “They’re making almost all of their advertising and streaming revenues: I don’t see why they should insist on raising vinyl prices. My priority, and I think it should also be that of the market, is to continue to take care of the audience, of music-loving boys and girls to whom I recommend a good record ».
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