Vinyl Records Make a Comeback
The music industry has seen a series of innovations that have improved audio quality—vinyl records sales were eventually surpassed by compact discs in the 1980s, which were then eclipsed by digital music in the early 2000s. Both of the newer technologies boast superior sound quality to vinyl records. Vinyl should be dead . . . yet it’s not. Some say this is simply a result of nostalgia—people love to harken back to older times. However, some audiophiles say that vinyl records produce a “warm” sound that can’t be reproduced in any other format. In addition, a vinyl record is a tangible product (you can feel it, touch it, and see it when you own the physical record) and is more attractive, from an aesthetic perspective, than a CD. It is also a format that encourages listening to an entire album at once, rather than just listening to individual tracks, which can change the listening experience.
Whatever the reasons, vinyl is making an impressive comeback. Sales growth has been in the double digits for the last several years (over 50% in 2015 and again in 2016) and is expected to exceed $5 billion in 2017. Sony, which hasn’t produced a vinyl record since 1989, recently announced that it is back in the vinyl business.
One of the biggest challenges to making vinyl records is that most of the presses are 40+ years old. In the record-making process, vinyl bits are heated to 170 degrees, and then a specialized machine exerts 150 tons of pressure to press the vinyl into the shape of the record. About a dozen new vinyl record manufacturers have sprung up in the last decade in the United States. Independent Record Pressing, a company based in New Jersey, began producing vinyl records in 2015 using old, existing presses. Their goal upon starting up was to produce over a million records a year. Even at that level of production, though, demand far outstrips the company’s capacity to produce because of the limited number of presses available. They could run their machines nonstop, 24 hours a day, and not catch up with demand.
The big question is what the future holds for this industry. Will this just be a passing fad? Will the vinyl record industry remain a small niche market? Or is this the renaissance, the rebirth of a product that can withstand the test of time and alternative technologies? If it’s a rebirth, then we should see demand continue to grow at its recent rapid pace . . . and if demand remains strong, then investing in new presses may well be worthwhile. If this is just a short-lived nostalgic return to an outdated media, however, then the large capital investment required to purchase new presses will never be recouped. Even with the recent growth, vinyl records still accounted for only 7% of overall music industry sales in 2015. That may be enough to get old presses running again, but so far it hasn’t been enough to promote a lot of investment in new machines. The cost of a new press? Almost half a million dollars.
At least one manufacturer is optimistic about the future of vinyl. GZ Media, based in Czechoslovakia, is currently the world’s largest producer of vinyl records. President and owner Zdenek Pelc kept his record factory going during the lean years when vinyl sales bottomed out. He admits that the decision was not wholly logical; he continued in part because of an emotional attachment to the media. After demand for vinyl records practically disappeared, Pelc kept just a few of the presses running to meet the demand that remained. His intention was to be the last remaining manufacturer of vinyl records. Pelc’s emotional attachment to vinyl records seems to have served him well, and it’s a great example of why basing decisions on pure logic doesn’t always lead to the best results. Consumers make purchasing decisions in part based on the emotional appeal of the product, so it shouldn’t be surprising that consumers also feel an emotional attachment to vinyl records, as Pelc did.
When demand for vinyl records was low, Pelc stored the company’s presses that were no longer in use so that they could be cannibalized for parts as needed. When sales began to grow again in 2005, he started pulling old machines out of storage and even invested in a few new ones. This has made GZ Media not only the largest vinyl record producer in the world, but also one of the only ones with new factory equipment. GZ Media produces over 20 million vinyl records a year, and Pelc is excited to continue that trend and to remain a major manufacturer in what is currently still considered a niche market.
- Why do you think vinyl records are appealing to customers?
- Do you think the sales growth will continue to be strong for vinyl sales? Why or why not?
- What research would you want to conduct prior to making a decision to invest in new presses?
Sources: Lee Barron, “Back on record – the reasons behind vinyl’s unlikely comeback,” The Conversation, April 17, 2015, https://theconversation.com/back-on-record-the-reasons-behind-vinyls-unlikely-comeback-39964. Hannah Ellis-Peterson, “Record sales: vinyl hits 25-year high,” The Guardian, January 3, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/jan/03/record-sales-vinyl-hits-25-year-high-and-outstrips-streaming. Allan Kozinn, “Weaned on CDs, They’re Reaching for Vinyl,” The New York Times, June 9, 2013. Rick Lyman, “Czech company, pressing hits for years on vinyl, finds it has become one,” The New York Times, August 6, 2015. Alec Macfarlane and Chie Kobayashi, “Vinyl comeback: Sony to produce records again after 28-year break,” CNN Money, June 30, 2017, http://money.cnn.com/2017/06/30/news/sony-music-brings-back-vinyl-records/index.html. Kate Rogers, “Why millennials are buying more vinyl records,” CNBC.com, November 6, 2015. https://www.cnbc.com/2015/11/06/why-millennials-are-buying-more-vinyl-records.html. Robert Tait, “In the groove: Czech firm tops list of world’s vinyl record producers,” The Guardian, August 18, 2016.