Saturday, July 12, 2008

Labels Ramp Up Vinyl Campaigns To Meet Demand

It may have seemed like a fad at first, but the resurgence of vinyl is now turning into a nice niche business for the major labels. With EMI's announcement that it would reissue eight classic albums in the format, all four majors are now onboard the vinyl bandwagon.

EMI will release two Coldplay albums, four Radiohead titles and Steve Miller's "Greatest Hits" on August 19. Universal Music Enterprises will release 20 albums on vinyl this month and an additional 20 at the end of August, while Warner Music Group will issue 24 to 30 albums from its catalog and 10 to 12 new releases from September through the end of the year, according to executives at those companies.

In the independent camp, RED labels will have several hundred vinyl titles by the end of the year, half of which are new releases, RED vice president of indie sales/marketing Doug Wiley said. One of RED's labels, Metal Blade, is reissuing its classic Slayer catalog in deluxe versions, all on colored vinyl with hand-designed blood splatterings on it, Wiley said.

Indie retail started the party, but now some of the chains are carrying vinyl too. In addition to Fred Meyer and Borders, Best Buy has said publicly that it will experiment with carrying LPs.

EMI Music Catalog vice president of A&R and creative Jane Ventom said that the company has always been into vinyl, "but we are getting more into it." She said the move is in response to consumer demand from the iPod generation, baby boomers and audiophiles.

"Music is becoming a social action again," Ventom said. "The kids are now listening to music with their mates instead of on headphones." She added that vinyl allows them to "hear music in its true form."

"People are going back to reliving the way they used to listen to music and they realize that they missed the (album cover) artwork and what a pleasurable listening experience it is," Ventom said.


One of the most important elements to issuing vinyl is sound quality, especially in the MP3 age. That's why Warner Bros. will relaunch its Web site, which touts and sells vinyl and may start offering high-resolution MP3s, according to Warner Bros./Reprise Records executive VP Tom Biery, who heads the label's radio promotion team and oversees its vinyl initiative.

Warner Bros. reissued the first two Metallica albums -- "Kill 'Em All" and "Ride the Lighting" -- on vinyl, and both have passed the 4,000-unit sales mark, according to Nielsen SoundScan. On July 15, the company released "Master of Puppets" on vinyl in two versions.

In September, the label plans to issue a 50th anniversary archive series of vinyl releases, including James Taylor's "Mud Slide Slim," a Rickie Lee Jones album, a Marty Paich album and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Blood Sugar Sex Magik." Most of the albums that are issued on vinyl also come with an enclosed CD, Biery said.

The increased interest in vinyl is putting a strain on the handful of pressing plants still left from the format's heyday. "Our vinyl is always late because it gets bumped," Redeye co-owner Tor Hansen said.

"I still have eight machines, and I am currently running at about 75 percent capacity," said plant manager Dave Jump of Nashville's United Records.

The limited pressing network often makes it hard to get vinyl out on the same release date as the CD, but when the stars align, sales can be significant. Warner Bros. offered vinyl and CD on the same day when issuing the Raconteurs' "Consolers of the Lonely" in March; the album sold 42,000 units in its first week, and 3 percent of sales came from the vinyl version.

Looking forward, executives said they want to be aggressive and practical with their vinyl campaigns.

"Everything shouldn't be released on vinyl," WEA (Warner-Elektra-Atlantic) vice president of catalog sales Steve Corbin said. "We want to be selective and smart about what we put out. (But) it's interesting that the consumer sees the value and is willing to pay for vinyl."


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Where vinyl records are born

Nice article on CNET about URP today.

Making vinyl records the old-fashioned way

by Daniel Terdiman

At United Record Pressing in Nashville, Tenn., LPs are still made the old-fashioned way: with lots and lots of vinyl. This is a bin full of little vinyl pellets that will be melted into records.
(Credit: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

NASHVILLE, Tenn.--When people think of the Beatles coming to America, they usually conjure up images of The Ed Sullivan Show and screaming teenage girls chasing the Fab Four on the streets of New York.

But here in Music City, there's something else to commemorate the earliest stages of the British Invasion: the fact that the first American Beatles 7-inch record was produced by United Record Pressing--then, as now, one of the largest makers of vinyl in the world.

On Monday, as I swung through Nashville on Road Trip 2008, I was lucky enough to get to visit the production facilities of United Record Pressing here and get a firsthand look at how LPs are made. Before you scoff at the notion of making records, consider that over the last few years, the format has made a big comeback, with sales skyrocketing and turntables moving off store shelves like they haven't in years.

Why? The reason is pure irony.

According to Jay Millar, the marketing and sales manager for United Record Pressing, it has everything to do with the emergence of Apple's oh-so-ubiquitous MP3 player.

"It really started picking up when iPods started coming onto the scene," Millar said. "Everything got so sterile with digital that people were not spending time" with the physical manifestation of their music.

A record-pressing machine at United Record Pressing. The company is one of only three in the United States that still produces LPs in any meaningful amounts.
(Credit: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

In other words, as iPods began to dominate the music world, people were leaving their CDs on the shelves, and iTunes downloads, as well as those via file-sharing services, took over.

But for audiophiles used to actually handling some sort of disc, this change has led to a reversal of fortune for the LP, a format long thought to have gone the way of the floppy disk.

For a company like United Record Pressing, that's been great news, as its sales have been going up steadily as more and more artists turn to records as a way to get their music into the hands of people who care about it.

So how is a record made?

First, a separate company with facilities nearby takes the original recording--which can come in the form of an audio tape, but (audiophiles, cover your eyes here) more often comes on CDs since many artists are using software like ProTools to cut their tracks--and uses it to cut the familiar circular grooves into an object called a lacquer.

The lacquer is then delivered to United Record Pressing, which begins the process of actually making the LPs.

First, the lacquer is sprayed with a layer of silver, which, after it sets, is then peeled off. The resulting sheet is known as the master, and it is the opposite of a record, because it has ridges rather than grooves.

The master is then used to make what is known as the mother, a metal version of the record that can, itself, actually be played.

At United Record Pressing, black is not the only color of vinyl that is used. There's also red, orange, blue, gray, and even a mixture made from the cuttings of the other colors.
(Credit: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The mother is then pressed into what is known as the stamper, and this, too, has ridges. The stamper actually is the basis of every record that comes out of this factory.

At this point, it's all about raw vinyl, millions of little chunks of the material that resemble Pop Rocks.

And it's not just black either. The company also makes records that are red, orange, blue, and gray. Sometimes, it takes all the discarded vinyl from several pressings and mixes them together into a kind of hodgepodge color.

First, the vinyl is melted down into what is called the biscuit. This is the center of the record, the round part with no grooves and the little hole. To this is added the label, which is pressed onto the biscuit, a step that doesn't require any adhesive. Rather, the biscuit is so hot from the vinyl being melted down that the label sticks right on.

The labels, which are printed here by the thousands, are actually baked in a special oven so that they retain no moisture, something that could cause bubbling on the actual record.

To ensure that labels don't bubble up after being pressed onto a record, the labels are baked in an oven to remove any moisture.
(Credit: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Then, the biscuit is placed in the middle of a machine and then it is joined together with a fresh supply of vinyl, and together they are smashed between a plate and the stamper. A blade then shears off the excess vinyl, and voila! A brand new record slides out of the machine and onto a rack.

When all is said and done, it's actually a remarkably simply process. But there's still much more that must happen before an LP leaves the facility.

First, at least one of each new album run must be tested. So on one side of a room that long ago was used as a room for record release and signing parties--Hank Williams Jr. had a party thrown for him here when he was 16, Millar said--a woman is sitting and bobbing her head as she listens to songs on headphones, making sure the new record has no problems. If it does, United Record Pressing will have to tell the record company what the issue is.

There's also the small matter of putting the records in their sleeves--something I saw two people tucked away in a corner of one room doing. They had their process down pat: grab an LP, inspect it quickly for obvious defects, pick up a sleeve, slide in the record, repeat.

Millar showed me a room in the basement of the building that contained thousands and thousands of folders--really, they seemed like extra-thick album covers with no art--that contain the masters of every record the company has produced over the years. This is a treasure trove bar none, since United Record Pressing works with pretty much every major label you can imagine.

Inside each folder is the master, and a full set of all the associated materials: the master, a label, an album jacket, and anything else that might be included, such as liner notes. And these days, as with an Elvis Costello album Millar showed me, the folders may also hold an insert with information for a digital download of the album.

In fact, it is these digital downloads that may be heralding the re-emergence of the LP and the death of the CD. That's because many artists are now offering record buyers a one-time free download of all the tracks on the album as a bonus.

This is still a small enough phenomenon, of course, to barely register on Apple's radar. iTunes is safe, in other words.

Still, for audiophiles who used to buy CDs, this gives them a way to have a physical disc to listen to the music on, as well as a way to easily tote it with them.

"People don't need their discs to be compact anymore," said Millar, "because you can't get much more compact than MP3. So it's back to the big discs."

Pictured is what is known as a stamper, the fourth step in the process of making an LP. The process begins with the original recording, which is used to make the master recording, which unlike a record, has ridges instead of grooves. Then, the master is used to make the "mother," a metal version of the record that can actually be played. The stamper is made from the mother, and it too has ridges. All vinyl records are made by pressing the stamper down onto hot vinyl.

This display piece at United Record Pressing in Nashville demonstrates the steps to finishing a record. The process starts with the original recording--in this case a tape--and then proceeds through the master, which has ridges rather than grooves, and is lacquer-sprayed with silver. The master is used to make the mother, which is a playable metal version of the record. That in turn is used to make the stamper, which also has ridges and which is used to press all the LPs.

This is a record-pressing machine, as seen from the front. Hot vinyl is fed into it and pressed between two plates and the stamper. Then, out comes a record.

United Record Pressing makes 7-inch and 12-inch records in several colors. Here, a red 12-inch LP is being pressed. The excess hot vinyl will be cut off and will fall into a bin below. The record will slide out and fall onto a stack of others on a pin.

Most records are black, but United Record Pressing uses several colors, including blue. This is a bin of the raw vinyl pellets used to make records.
(there's Jay Millar)

Around the United Record Pressing plant in Nashville, one finds bin after bin full of vinyl pellets.

On a wall at United Record Pressing is a display showing all the albums being pressed that week. During reporter Daniel Terdiman's visit, the sign showed that the company--if the list was up to date--was working on albums by artists including Kid Rock, Bob Dylan, and R. Kelly.

Before labels can be pressed onto a record, they must first be baked in an oven to remove any moisture. Moisture could cause the labels to bubble up after being pressed onto the record. Here, stacks of labels get baked.

A stack of labels on the back of a record-pressing machine. The labels are being grabbed one by one by the machine and pressed onto new records.

For each LP United Record Pressing works on, the facility keeps a folder with a sample of everything involved, including the stamper, liner notes, a label, a jacket and, in the case of this Elvis Costello album, the coupon for a digital download of all the tracks.

The United Record Pressing library has thousands of folders holding all the materials for each album. These represent every record the company has ever worked on, including the Beatles' first American release.

After a quick inspection, a United Record Pressing worker puts each record in a sleeve to make sure it looks ready to go.

This machine shrink-wraps each record after it has been put into its sleeve and then placed inside its jacket. The complete package is then fed onto a conveyor belt that carries it through the shrink-wrapping machine.

These finished records have gone through every step of the process, including being shrink-wrapped.

United Record Pressing works on lots of records, such as singles, that require special labels. These are stacks of such labels that are ready in case they're needed.

These are rolls of "parental advisory" labels that are applied to records containing explicit content.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Retailers giving vinyl records another spin

PORTLAND, Oregon (AP) -- It was a fortuitous typo for the Fred Meyer retail chain.

The best-seller so far at Fred Meyer is The Beatles album "Abbey Road."

This spring, an employee intending to order a special CD-DVD edition of R.E.M.'s latest release "Accelerate" inadvertently entered the "LP" code instead. Soon boxes of the big, vinyl discs showed up at several stores.

Some sent them back. But a handful put them on the shelves, and 20 LPs sold the first day.

The Portland-based company, owned by The Kroger Co., realized the error might not be so bad after all. Fred Meyer is now testing vinyl sales at 60 of its stores in Oregon, Washington and Alaska. The company says, based on the response so far, it plans to roll out vinyl in July in all its stores that sell music.

Other mainstream retailers are giving vinyl a spin too. Best Buy is testing sales at some stores. And online music giant, which has sold vinyl for most of the 13 years it has been in business online, created a special vinyl-only section last fall.

The best-seller so far at Fred Meyer is The Beatles album "Abbey Road." But musicians from the White Stripes and the Foo Fighters to Metallica and Pink Floyd are selling well, the company says.

"It's not just a nostalgia thing," said Melinda Merrill, spokeswoman for Fred Meyer. "The response from customers has just been that they like it, they feel like it has a better sound."

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, manufacturers' shipments of LPs jumped more than 36 percent from 2006 to 2007 to more than 1.3 million. Shipments of CDs dropped more than 17 percent during the same period to 511 million, as they lost some ground to digital formats.

The resurgence of vinyl centers on a long-standing debate over analog versus digital sound. Digital recordings capture samples of sound and place them very close together as a complete package that sounds nearly identical to continuous sound to many people.

Analog recordings on most LPs are continuous, which produces a truer sound -- though, paradoxically, some new LP releases are being recorded and mixed digitally but delivered analog.

Some purists also argue that the compression required to allow loudness in some digital formats weakens the quality as well.

But it's not just about the sound. Audiophiles say they also want the format's overall experience -- the sensory experience of putting the needle on the record, the feeling of side A and side B and the joy of lingering over the liner notes.

"I think music products should be more than just music," said Isaac Hudson, a 28-year-old vinyl fan standing outside one of Portland's larger independent music stores.

The interest seems to be catching on. Turntable sales are picking up, and the few remaining record pressers say business is booming.

But the LP isn't going to muscle out CDs or iPod soon.

Nearly 450 million CDs were sold last year, versus just under 1 million LPs, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Based on the first three months of this year, Nielsen says vinyl album sales could reach 1.6 million in 2008.

"I don't think vinyl is for everyone; it's for the die-hard music consumer," said Jay Millar, director of marketing at United Record Pressing, a Nashville based company that is the nation's largest record pressing plant.

Many major artists -- Elvis Costello, the Raconteurs and others -- are issuing LPs and encouraging fans to check out their albums on vinyl. On, one of the best-selling LPs is Madonna's latest album, "Hard Candy".

Some artists package vinyl and digital versions of their music together, including offers for free digital downloads along with the record.

"We've definitely had some talks with the major retailers about exclusives on the manufacturing end," Millar said of United Record Pressing, which focuses primarily on independent recordings.

An avid music fan himself, Millar says he has moved to vinyl in recent years.

"Once I got my first iPod ... I'm looking at my wall of CDs and trying to justify it," Millar said. "The things I like -- the artwork, the liner notes, the sound quality -- it dawns on me, those are things I like better on vinyl." He welcomed back the pops and clicks, even some of the scratches.

"I like that fact that it's imperfect in a lot of ways, live music is imperfect too," Millar said.

Independent music stores, which have been the primary source of LPs in recent years, say many fans never left the medium.

"People have been buying vinyl all along," said Cathy Hagen, manager at 2nd Avenue Records in Portland. "There was a fairly good supply from independent labels on vinyl all these years. As far as a resurgence, the major labels are just pressing more now."

In this game, big retailers aren't necessarily competing head to head with independent sellers' regular clientele of nostalgic baby boomers, independent label fans and turntable DJs.

"I cannot see that Best Buy or Fred Meyer would order the same things we would," Hagen said. "They aren't going to be ordering the reggae, funk, punk or industrial music."