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Vinyl sales see a huge resurgence, but leave indie labels behind

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

File this under the category of what's old is new again. We're talking about vinyl records. They were all but obsolete 15 years ago, but now huge demand has led to the biggest sales in 40 years, and labels are rushing to reprint their back catalogs. They're rereleasing everything from Nirvana's 1991 smash hit "Nevermind"...

(SOUNDBITE OF NIRVANA SONG, "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")

MARTIN: ...To Art Blakey's 1959 masterpiece, "Moanin'."

(SOUNDBITE OF ART BLAKEY AND THE JAZZ MESSENGERS' "MOANIN'")

MARTIN: But now there is a problem. The plants that press records, many stagnant and shuttered after decades of decline, can't keep up. As Texas Public Radio's Paul Flahive reports, independent and less well-known musicians are losing out.

PAUL FLAHIVE, BYLINE: The pandemic supercharged the vinyl marketplace as homebound consumers looked for new ways to engage with music. Now younger buyers are driving vinyl, according to researchers at Luminant. And artists like Adele, Billie Eilish and this artist pushed pop music to the fastest growing genre on vinyl...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street.

FLAHIVE: Taylor Swift sold 800,000 more vinyl records in 2021 than she did the year before. So after years of audiophiles abandoning brick-and-mortar music purchases for digital and streaming, which represented about 200 million song purchases last year, all the album sales growth was in physical media. Now the promise of big money and younger audiences has legacy retailers rethinking physical media. While some retailers had cut back or curtailed sales of CDs and vinyl, others are now stocking up. Here's Crissi Bariatti at Barnes and Noble Music.

CRISSI BARIATTI: Yes, of course there has been a reduction of CD. We're finding the customer going more towards vinyl, so, you know we're going to be shifting our assortment accordingly.

FLAHIVE: As demand spools up for vinyl, independently owned record-pressing companies are stretched. The production schedule has gone from four months to now more than a year. That's forced some bands to delay album releases.

On a warm spring night in San Antonio, local country rocker Garrett Capps plays to a growing crowd.

GARRETT CAPPS: We're going to do album release for it at The Lonesome Rose on May 20.

(APPLAUSE)

FLAHIVE: The market is essentially pushing out small artists like him from being able to press records.

CAPPS: I love vinyl, but wow, is it really worth basing your entire album's promotional plan around?

FLAHIVE: Unlike an Adele or a Taylor Swift, indies like Capps can't jump any lines, especially when they're pressing 500 records instead of 5,000, and record-pressing plant owners like rocker Jack White are asking for help. He released this video to encourage major labels to do their part.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

JACK WHITE: And I now ask the major labels - Warner Brothers, Universal and Sony - to finally build your own pressing plants again. As the MC5 once said, you're either part of the problem or part of the solution.

FLAHIVE: The industry is trying to ramp up. Dustin Blocker of Addison, Texas-based Hand Drawn Records says his company is now printing records 24 hours a day, five days a week. And even so, from order to completion now takes a year.

DUSTIN BLOCKER: We're very straightforward and honest with our customers, and we tell them that we're sold out. And so, unfortunately, we do have to turn away a lot of business.

FLAHIVE: Major labels like Sony, Warner Music Group and Universal said they couldn't comment publicly or didn't respond to questions. It might be at least a year before the vinyl industry sees a capacity gain, and that assumes the presses that are working around the clock now don't break. Getting a new one or even finding parts can be a several months' long process. For NPR News, I'm Paul Flahive in San Antonio.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHITE STRIPES SONG, "SEVEN NATION ARMY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.
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