The supply chain is for everyone, including Adele. Or maybe it’s Adele coming for the supply chain, especially the vinyl supply chain.
The British singer released her latest album, 30, on Friday too much worldwide fanfare, and she is expected to make big worldwide sales (at a time when physical music sales are rare). There’s been speculation that Adele’s big splash could also have ramifications for the music business, and not necessarily all the good ones. Sony Music has reportedly ordered some 500,000 copies of vinyl records ahead of the album’s release, potentially putting pressure on its already tight supply chain. With Adele pressing all those records, there’s been speculation that she’s crowding out some space for others. At the very least, the issue draws attention to a real crisis in the music industry.
“All of these bigger artists are selling more records on vinyl, and they’re all clogging up the factories, whereas a few years ago vinyl was probably second tier for these artists or even third tier,” said Mike Quinn, head of sales at ATO Records, a independent record label based in New York City. But he’s not too concerned. “We haven’t had a single factory turn us down and say, ‘Oh, we have too many Adele records.'”
Vinyl has undergone a renaissance over the past decade, with demand increasing even more during the pandemic. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), vinyl sales grew 28.7 percent in value between 2019 and 2020 to $626 million. Last year was also the first year since the 1980s, vinyl surpassed total CD sales. Manufacturers struggle to keep up.
“Vinyl is rising, or reviving, from the dark ages since probably 2007, 2008. It just did that under the radar,” said Brandon Seavers, co-founder and CEO of Memphis Records, a vinyl manufacturer. “The pandemic hit and everything exploded.”
Adele is not responsible for the vinyl supply chain issues. She, like all artists, wants to sell a lot of records, and even without her, the industry has faced delays and setbacks and has struggled to keep up with skyrocketing demand for quite some time. As Shamir, a musician from Philadelphia, put it in an interview with NPR, “Adele isn’t the culprit,” but it’s “not helping either.”
Adele expressed her annoyance at the album’s run time, in an interview with BBC Radio, noting that: 30‘s release date had to be set six months in advance in order to make CDs and vinyl. “There are so many CD factories and vinyl factories that they have already closed before Covid because no one is printing them anymore,” she said. And those who print them have a hard time keeping up.
Vinyl records are no longer just for your father
Vinyl would be destroyed for good by CDs after the 1970s and 1980s. As it turns out, the format had some staying power, or rather, some reviving power emerging into the 21st century.
Vinyl sales started to pick up midway through, and they got a significant boost when major stores, such as Walmart and Target, jumped on board and started ordering records. According to Billboard, the chain store industry now accounts for about 13 percent of vinyl sales, up from 4 percent in 2018. The pandemic pushed the vinyl revival into high gear.
“People were trapped in their homes, so they started looking for things to do. They cooked and baked sourdough and planted gardens and bought a Peloton. And apparently they also listened to vinyl records,” said Seavers. “The other factual fact that has happened is that vinyl really caught the attention of big box retail. Amazon was already a big believer in the format, and Walmart and Target had their toes dipped in the water a bit. By 2020 they dived headfirst into it.”
As with wood or computer chips, supply cannot keep up with demand. Earlier this year, an unnamed executive told Billboard that vinyl pressing plants worldwide have the capacity to make approximately 160 million albums this year. He estimated the demand for vinyl to be somewhere between 320 million and 400 million units.
Vinyl press machines are old and clunky, and difficult to repair in normal times, let alone with the current delays that affect so many industries. Quinn said a factory he’s been dealing with recently broke down two of its six machines. Parts that normally took five to six days to replace took two months. The industry is also struggling with staff shortages.
Obtaining raw materials takes manufacturers much more time than usual, including the vinyl pellets that are melted down to be pressed into plates. Most are produced and shipped abroad, and are therefore subject to significant delays. Color pellets, where artists and retailers often choose to produce limited-edition or exclusive versions, are proving to be a particular challenge.
“With the number of exclusive variants we’re printing on one record, I wonder if I’m making Beanie Babies sometimes,” Sean Rutkowski, vice president at Independent Record Pressing, told Variety.
Adele is not really the problem here
Adele’s 30 has generated some headlines and speculation as to whether she makes vinyl delays worse. Five hundred thousand records is a lot of records, but in the grand scheme of things when 160 million records are created it’s not really the end, everything is everything. All of this isn’t to say that Adele isn’t a big deal. Her 25 in 2015 it sold over 3 million copies in the US in a week; her recent Oprah special averaged 9.92 million viewers, beating all programs except the NFL in prime time. Her 30 is something people want to hear, including on vinyl.
But again, the vinyl delays aren’t really her fault. The problem is more that the production is already packed, and artists new and old, big and small, are all queuing up.
The vinyl industry has long been driven by the classics – the Beatles and Eagles and Fleetwood Macs of the world. Now newer artists are also getting into the vinyl game, such as Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Billie Eilish and, yes, Adele.
“You really have to do it ahead of time — and Adele had basically all the vinyl factories booked up, so we had to get a seat and get our album there. It was like me, Coldplay, Adele, Taylor, Abba, Elton (John), we were all trying to have our vinyl records printed at the same time,” Sheeran, who released a new album in October, told an Australian radio show. , according to Variety.
There are rumors that some of the bigger names may be able to queue or make attractive offers on vinyl presses to get space for themselves, potentially crowding out smaller names. Yet much of the problem really seems to be just that of capacity. Independent performers try to compete for the same machines as the big boys, and everyone just waits. Presumably Adele also had to wait to get her records printed
“In the industry, we’ve all made these classics in increasing numbers over the years, so those numbers were already in the system,” Seavers said. “New artists are coming along, and they want an incredible amount of new vinyl to meet the demand for their release date.”
According to Billboard’s tracking, the list of the top 15 best-selling vinyl LPs to date in 2021 includes albums by Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo and Harry Styles – as well as Michael Jackson’s thrillerFleetwood Macs rumors, and Queen’s greatest hits.
The situation is bad for everyone, but for independent artists who have already been disadvantaged in so many ways in the music industry, it hurts more. “It’s a bit more of an insult to injury to these Indians, because it’s the hard-earned money in their pockets, and it’s their tours that suffer,” Seavers said.
Quinn said ATO, as a medium-sized label, is better positioned than some smaller labels because they have long-standing relationships with pressing plants and agreements for a certain number of records per month. It’s still not as much as they need.
The vinyl boom isn’t the worst problem for the music industry – or Adele – to have
What nobody wants is that an artist has to go on tour before his records can go out. Sometimes it happens, especially in the current climate, and when it happens, it’s not great. In general, however, the surge in demand for industrial vinyl records is not a major problem.
“It sucks if you don’t have any LPs to sell on tour or if you’ve sold out your first pressing and it can’t be made for six, seven, eight months,” Quinn said. But in the end, he said, this is a “very good problem.”
The internet and streaming have put pressure on music artists and made it more difficult to make money. They’ve changed a lot in what an artist has to do to really survive, which means touring harder and harder, producing more merchandise, and looking for things they can have physical control over. Streaming revenue grew 13.4 percent to $10.1 billion by 2022, according to the RIAA, but it takes a lot of streams to earn what you would from selling a single LP. For artists big and small, a vinyl record, if you can sell it, is real money. And if Adele gets someone to buy their first vinyl record and they start buying others, that’s good.
The point is, it takes time for supply chain problems to resolve themselves. The vinyl industry is working to increase capacity as far as it can. Seavers’ Memphis Records will print approximately 7 million records this year and aims to quadruple production by 2023; it’s a change that won’t happen overnight.
Across the industry, it’s not clear how long the vinyl boom will last. Manufacturers and retailers and labels don’t want warehouses of LPs left standing when the market cools. It is a difficult balancing act to know whether the current increase in demand will continue or whether it will increase even more. When My Morning Jacket, a band under ATO, was due to release a new album this spring, Walmart and Target came in with doubling the number of vinyl records they initially planned to make, Quinn said. Still, he’s not sure how long this will last. “That wasn’t there a year ago,” he said. “I don’t know how long Walmart and Target will be in the vinyl game.”
In the meantime, everyone’s a little bit along for the ride – including Adele and her reported 500,000 LPs, (maybe) now on the shelves.