Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Vinyl is booming


My first visit to a record pressing plant.

Vinyl records, they seem to evoke a certain magic in many of us music lovers, and I cant really work out quite WHY this is.

Ive been collecting records since the 1960s. AT first they were simply a tool, if you wanted to work as a Disc Jockey, you simply had to have a decent collection.  My first DJing was in clubs in early 1968, and I can well remember borrowing records from friends at school - William Rosenberg, and Steve Foster were my main sources. God Bless them, they had such impeccable taste. 

(Eventually I built up my own great collection which was either soul, or out and out rock music - always on singles.  We had to have a special room for my collection which went to "several tens of thousands" items, mostly singles. I rarely got chance to play any and got tired of getting offers for individual items, so last year I sadly sold the lot.  But my interest in the things seems to have grown even stronger if anything!)

I was never interested in the actual vinyl itself though - after all, it was just a disc of plastic stuff, i didn't even understand how it was made and remember my excitement at seeing the first pressing plant I encountered in London in late 1969.  But records were not really that attractive - the EMI and Decca group ones had very uninspiring labels. EMI's labels were mostly black, and they often had scant information on them - in fact they printed more nonsense about the "recording rights being protected" than they did about the song or the artiste.  In the UK in those days there were only very occasionally a unique picture cover, unlike our friends in the USA where they tried hard to market the records in shops by enfolding them in a nice colourful jacket (sleeve) often with a picture of the artiste.  Made it worth paying the Dollar and 50 cents.

Prices of Singles

The price of singles in the UK for most of the 1960s was 6/8d, or three for a pound!  I think it was about 1970 that the price began edging up - 7/3d, and 7/6 I remember. or if you were prepared to wait until the record had dropped out of the chart, you would find the hits of the day were often available from market stalls for about 2/6d. They got their supplied from Juke Box operators, who seemed to believe that once out of the Top 40 chart, no one would want to pl;ay a record any more. How wrong they were on that count!
Venus SHOCKING BLUE, picture sleeve

By the 1980s the UK record companies had caught on to the picture sleeve idea and about half of releases were issued in one, though often it was only the initial batch of about a thousand or two.  Suddenly someone hit on the crazy idea of several different picture sleeves for records. Same record, just a different sleeve. the avid fans of certain artistes would order a copy of each one, which gave a good sales push and resulted in the record entering the chart in a high position. Then it escalated into having slightly different pressings of a song, and thing up to 6 different versions of a song might be issued. The fans had to shell out more and more. Different format too became much in vogue, coloured, vinyl, an extended mix on a 12 inch disc, and even the artiste's image pressed into the vinyl.  Different shaped discs; it worked for vinyl (but a nuisance to store them) but not for cassettes. They 
still made up about 15% of single releases as late as the late 1980s.

Advent of the Compact Disc

When CDs came in (1983) record companies were able to sell their entire back catalog again,  with alleged better sound, no scratches, longer playing times and in a smaller, more practical format. The public fell for it and consigned their precious record collections to the skip. Literally millions ended up being off loaded at boot fairs. The cost of a CD was about 14p , compared to a 45 which was nearer 50p. The record companies couldn't believe their luck! 

The CD soon replaced the cassette releases, and for a while the pundits claimed that the 7inch vinyl single would die out too. Around 2000 it looked like it might, as the record business struggled to come to terms with the concept of downloads.  They soon realised that they had to "sink or swim" though and embraced the download MP3 idea, which brought down the cost of music to the consumer. After all, there was no tangible product to press or manufacture, much less distribute.  thats what caused the wholesale demise of record shops. Well, almost.

In 2009 the demand for decent vinyl pressings bagel to rise and was soon over a million pieces a year. Not matching the peak enjoyed by the Beatles and others - in the early 1960s you needed to sell a couple of Million to have a number one hit, more recently its been around 30,000 downloads in a week. The biggest CD and DVD producer are Optimal Media in Germany. They recently installed new presses but still cannot cope with the demand from their customers.  They work three shifts a day and all weekend, but still cannot keep up with the demand.

Problems with Pressings    

"The real problem is not in the pressing – the bottleneck is in the electroplating," explains Silke Maurer of Handle with Care Records. Electroplating is the process of coating the master lacquer in a metal layer to produce stampers. It is time-intensive and requires highly trained personnel.

As well as the lawyers only being produced by two companies, the actual stylus that cuts the record is made by only one company, Apollo in the USA. 

A trip to a pressing plant really opened your eyes.  Many machines look like they are from a museum.  They spit out a records that are either automatically placed in a sleeve or put on a spindle so they can be sleeved by hand.  Its the lacquers that are the big problem now, only two companies in  the world are still making them. 

Shedules are very difficult to predict, and this too is forcing up the value of vinyl discs to unheard of levels. The older material too on original labels is regarded as much superior to new releases. They command silly prices when they are sold, which I will talk about next time. 

No comments:

Post a Comment