[A version of this post first appeared in MusicTech.Solutions]
If you’ve tried to get a vinyl record pressed in the last few years, one thing is very obvious: There is no capacity in the current manufacturing base to accommodate all the orders–unless your name is Adele or Taylor Swift, of course. If that’s your name, as if by magic you get your vinyl orders filled and shipped on time.
Jack White spotted the vinyl trend early on–in 2009–and is filling the gap through his Third Man pressing operations. But Jack is calling on the major labels to please compete with him–rather unusual–because it’s the right thing to do in order to meet the demand for the benefit of the consumer. And the elephant in the room of this discussion is that we don’t really have any idea what the vinyl sales would be because demand is not being met by supply.
Not even close.
When a major label abandons a configuration, it’s not really abandoned. It gets outsourced to an independent and as long as there is manufacturing capacity in the system, that independent still takes orders and fulfills those orders by using that manufacturing capacity. The titles still appear in the sales book, orders get taken and returns accommodated.
Major labels also hand off vinyl manufacturing to their “special markets” divisions. For example, if you have ever tried to get vinyl manufactured in a limited run for venue sales on a major label artist (or former major label artist) you will get put through the bureaucratic torture gauntlet for the privilege of paying top dollar on a product that the label will have nothing to do with selling.
But even so, at some point that manufacturing capacity begins to shrink because the majors are getting out of the configuration and they will eventually get out of the manufacturing business altogether. And that creates a great sucking sound as capacity tanks.
I raised this problem in comments to the Copyright Royalty Board about the frozen mechanicals debacle where the smart people have tried to extend the 2006 songwriter rates on vinyl and CDs without regard to rampant inflation and simply the value of songs to sell millions of units. Why? Because vinyl and CDs don’t matter according to the lobbyists. This is, of course, bunk.
The fact is–and Jack White’s plea illuminates the issue–we don’t know what the sales would be if the capacity increased to meet demand. But we do know that sales would be higher. Probably much higher.
You do see entrepreneurs entering the space using new technology. Gold Rush Vinyl in Austin is a prime example of that phenomenon. The majors need to reconsider how to meet demand and keep the consumer happy. They also need to clean up the sales and distribution channel so that it’s easy for record stores to actually get stock, which, frankly is a joke.
Why anyone wants to substitute away from high margin physical goods to low margin streaming goods with a “rich get richer” financial model is a head scratcher. Although maybe I answered my own question.
But–as Trichordist readers will recall, the major publishers and major labels as well as the Nashville Songwriters Association are trying to convince the Copyright Royalty Board that vinyl and CDs are not important and that songwriters should have their mechanical royalty rates frozen again. You do have to ask if Jack White is even aware that the major publishers and major labels are trying to get the Copyright Royalty Board to extend the 2006 freeze on mechanicals for the resurgent vinyl configuration for another five years.
Vinyl and CDs still account for about 15% of revenue on an industry wide basis–I’ll believe that it’s not significant when Lucian Grange says he doesn’t need 15% of billing. Yeah, that will happen.
The only reason that mechanicals for those configurations aren’t higher is because they have been artificially suppressed by the participants at the Copyright Royalty Board telling the judges that the revenue is low so please freeze the rates again. Kind of circular, yes? The current 2006 rate of 9.1¢ would be adjusted to 13¢ in current dollars just taking into account inflation and ignoring the value of the songs to create a nearly vertical chart like this:
Maybe someone should tell Jack.