Vinyl Shortage Disproportionately Hurting Independent Artists

The independent music revolution in both country and in the greater music ecosystem in many was born off the back of vinyl record purchases. Where many mainstream fans only cared enough to stream the latest single, independent fans made that extra financial commitment and connection with their favorite artists by purchasing vinyl copies, or sometimes multiple vinyl copies, or copies they may not even play on a regular basis simply to help support the artist, or bundle packages with a vinyl record and a T-shirt. A vinyl record was an investment in the music of their favorite artists—a physical plaque of their appreciation and loyalty.

But with the continued disruptions in the free flow of this important musical commodity, independent artists are getting squeezed disproportionately, and in many ways than one.

Just like everything else, COVID-19 caused a squeeze in the already-strained vinyl record manufacturing pipeline due to lack of raw materials, manpower, along with the common shipping/distribution issues. But it was a double whammy for vinyl manufacturers since the pandemic also caused a big spike in demand. Music consumers unable to see their favorite artists live and wanting to support them through the pandemic purchased more vinyl record copies than ever, while others got in on the vinyl craze by making initial purchases of turntables and started buying vinyl records as well.

In 2020, demand for vinyl records surged according to the Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA. Vinyl grew 28.7% by value year-over-year to $626 million. Though it still only accounted for 5.2% of total revenues by value in the music industry, for independent artists and labels, the percentage was much higher. And this wasn’t just the case in the United States, but worldwide.

Though vinyl is very much the lifeblood of many smaller artists and labels, big labels can and do receive priority from manufacturers due to their volume buying power. If you’re simply an independent artists or a small or medium label looking to do a vinyl run of 250-500, you have to wait at the very tail end of the line, and may even have others cut in front of you during the manufacturing process. If you’re a major label with an order of 5,000-50,000, you get pushed to the front of the line. Right now the wait time for a short or medium run of vinyl is roughly six months or more, and growing.

We’re having a hard time keeping things in stock,” Jody Whelan of John Prine’s Oh Boy Records recently told Vice. Oh Boy is the home of independent country artists such as Kelsey Waldon, Emily Scott Robinson, and current Saving Country Music Album of the Year winner Arlo McKinley. “We’re making tough choices between what we send to record stores and what we keep on our own online store. We’re going to smaller plants and having to spend more per unit.”

Danny Ryan of Kudos Records recently told Investment Monitor in the UK, “I have no doubt that a 5,000 pressing of ‘Rumours’ by Fleetwood Mac will find itself on a press much quicker than the ten times 500 pressings I have in the pipeline. I think this is why major label pressings are getting prioritized. They press in greater volume.”

Being unable to get vinyl records manufactured in a timely manner is also causing downstream dilemmas for independent artists, directly affecting previous gains in the greater music industry. One way independent country and roots fans were able to gauge just how much impact their enthusiasm was having, and how they were gaining market share in the musical marketplace and upsetting the apple cart is when artists not signed to Nashville’s major labels started appearing at or near the top of the weekly Billboard Country Albums chart.

Without the help of radio, but bolstered by rabid fan bases, all of a sudden artists we had never dreamed of previously attaining a #1 spot on any major chart were now able to achieve this feat on a semi regular basis on the release week of new albums. With stacks of pre-orders for vinyl and CD copies, bundle packages, let alone downloads and streams, artists were able to shoot to the top of the charts and compete or best their mainstream counterparts.

When Blackberry’s Smoke’s album Holding All The Roses debuted at #1 in country on February 10th, 2015, it was the first time we’d ever seen this feat in the modern era. Then Aaron Watson showed up the very next week and did the same thing with his aptly-titled album The Underdog. In April of 2016, Sturgill Simpson hit #1 with his album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, and in 2017, Jason Isbell did so with his record The Nashville Sound. A glass ceiling had been shattered, and vinyl was very much a part of that surge.

Whiskey Myers hit #1 in country with their 2019 self-titled release. Tyler Childers topped the chart also in 2019 with Country Squire. Jason Isbell hit #1 again in country with Reunions, but just barely. Making the album available the week before in physical format for struggling independent record stores meant 7,100 copies of the album were accrued a week early, putting his chances of hitting #1 in peril. But consumers came through the next week, and Isbell still achieved his 2nd #1 country album.

But that may have been one of the last independent titles to hit #1 for a number of reasons. First, as time has gone on, Billboard has continued to weight streaming as more of a factor in album charts, while consumers continue to favor streaming more than purchasing physical product. That has resulted in virtually perennial #1’s for some artists like Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs who’ve basically been affixed at the top of the Country Albums chart now for the better part of two years.

But one of the biggest issues is the backlog in vinyl production, which means moving forward vinyl copies of a record may not delivered until weeks or months after an album’s debut, making it more difficult to put the kind of numbers together you need to in order to debut at the top of the charts.

For example, with Sturgill Simpson’s recent bluegrass albums, he failed to attain the top spot, partly or significantly due to vinyl production being so behind-the-curve. Cuttin’ Grass Vol. #1 released in October of 2020 only reached #2 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, and Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 2 released in December only hit #5. Vinyl distribution lagged months behind the digital and CD release of these titles. It may be difficult for Simpson’s upcoming album The Ballad of Dood and Juanita out on August 20th to hit #1 as well since it’s already been revealed vinyl won’t hit shelves until December.

Granted, some of this has to do with the impatience of Sturgill Simpson and other artists. If they are willing to wait for the vinyl production to come through to coincide with the digital and CD release, this would not be a dilemma. But delaying the release of an album six months or more may mean other projects an artist may have in the pipeline get pushed back half a year as well. It may mean they miss coinciding a release with a tour. Since vinyl and other physical products are very much the lifeblood of many independent artists—not streaming revenue or even ticket sales necessarily—not having easy access to vinyl manufacturing is a significant hindrance to an overall strategy.

You may ask yourself, does charting really matter that much in the modern era? Well in the case of certain titles, it very well might. Though most of the public may ignore the charts entirely, some use them as a barometer of what is being well-received. Success begets success in the music business, and the industry pays close attention. Often who hits #1 also translates into other accolades. This was perhaps the case for Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, which was nominated and won for Best Country Album at the Grammy Awards, and was nominated for the all-genre Album of the Year as well. Jason Isbell shocked everyone when The Nashville Sound was nominated for a CMA Award in 2017. Both of these achievements were ceiling shattering moments for independent music.

But of course, it’s not just the big dogs in independent music like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell who may get squeezed. In the end they will be fine. But the independent artist who depends on vinyl sales at the merch table to get gas money to the next gig that’s already a year behind due to the pandemic and may have fewer people attending due to the Delta variant, access to vinyl manufacturing of their music may be the difference between making it as a musician, and not.

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