For a brief moment earlier this year, I realized I am now a part of a generation stuck in ways wholly irrelevant to people just a few years younger than me. I was watching an interview with Earl Sweatshirt telling NPR’s Frannie Kelley and Ali Shaheed Muhammed that in order for him to conceive of a new album, he first imagines its cover on iTunes. The possibility of a physical release of his music wasn’t even mentioned. For Sweatshirt and I imagine, the majority of the buying public, especially of his generation, music now only exists in digital form. Case in point, Columbia Records did not release Sweatshirt’s two albums to date on vinyl.
Nonetheless, there is bracing news for those denizens of the scrap heap that still buy vinyl records. While the total share of LPs only represents nine percent of physical music sales, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, 13 million LPs were sold in 2014, the biggest sales number in 25 years. Improbably, vinyl records are now one of the very few areas of growth for the ever-struggling music industry. Even more baffling is that 54 percent of the buyers are aged 35 years and younger.
I would claim that a sizeable proportion of those 54 percent are also rap fans and buy new rap albums on vinyl. And those people will surely have observed the same thing I have: major labels either don’t release new rap albums on vinyl at all anymore (as in Sweatshirt’s case), or do so only several months after the official digital release, at a significant mark-up (as with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, finally seeing the light of day on wax in October, currently priced around $30 on pre-order).
At the same time, smaller labels like Mello Music Group or Stones Throw still release nearly everything on vinyl, at much more affordable prices (often at half the price of a new major label release, believe it or not), and usually do so at the very same time the album drops on iTunes. How can this state of affair be explained?
For one thing, major labels are now mostly in the re-issue business. A simple experiment will illustrate this. Pull up undergroundhiphop.com in your browser and put “Def Jam” in the search field. Hit enter, and behold the never-ending list of re-issues for DMX, LL Cool J, Young Jeezy and Ludacris albums no one ever asked for. Only at the very bottom of the first results page does one find Big Sean’s Dark Sky Paradise on double-vinyl, which was released nearly three months after the mp3-version at an initial $35.98, more than twice the price of the CD. Gunplay’s Living Legend and, criminally, Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06 have only been released on CD and mp3. A vinyl version has not been announced. I am not holding my breath.
When I put on my capitalist cap, this makes sense of course. It doesn’t cost the majors anything to dust off their old masters and hop on the vinyl bandwagon. The cost of manufacturing vinyl doesn’t even move the needle compared to the investment in a completely new and original album. And with vinyl re-issues now being peddled at Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters, the good ol’ LP has now been lifted into the category of hip lifestyle product where customers don’t mind paying premium prices for no tangible reason other than to increase their social capital as tastemakers.
Unfortunately, the glut in major label reissues is pushing pressing plants to the limit of their capacities. It has gotten to the point where smaller labels have to time their releases to avoid Record Store Day because majors inundate pressing plants with re-issue orders during that time, and smaller orders can not be fulfilled. As Mello Music Group’s Michael Tolle put it to me in an email, “We love the rise in vinyl popularity, but it does seem like the majors are inflating the market for re-issues of classic releases that only slow production and create an industry wide bubble.”
And with the new reality of mainstream rap-albums dropping over night without prior announcement (or majors screwing up the release as happened with Earl Sweatshirt and Kendrick Lamar), careful advance planning of manufacturing in an over-heated vinyl market is simply impossible. Ever chased forward by the V-8 engine of modern-day turbo-capitalism that demands quicker turnarounds and short-term thinking, major labels seem both unwilling and incapable to plan a vinyl rollout at the same time as the digital release. As Tolle reminded me, vinyl is “the most expensive to a manufacturer, the slowest to make, the most costly to ship, and the smallest group of people buying – plus the profit per unit is very small.” In our hashtag-driven environment, it makes sense that the big record companies focus on the immediate and only consider vinyl after the fact if it even makes financial sense to bother with it.
“If you see people making vinyl they must be doing it primarily for the love of it,” Tolle told me in his email. “It is genuinely exciting to get the test presses, to listen to the crackle, and then to design a creative piece of wax that’s going to be out in the world forever.” Therein lies the difference. Majors, it seems, don’t have the time and patience for these considerations anymore. Musically, the times when a Great Wall of China separated the underground and mainstream are over. But when it comes to vinyl, the great divide is firmly in place.