Vinyl Shortages: Is This the Harshest Winter on Records?

Peter Vinyl piece

With Vinyl sales at an all-time high, Vinyl has never been in more demand. But recent shortages may make the next few months difficult for smaller stores. Peter Wellman reports.

With 2021 being the biggest year for Vinyl record purchases since 1990 according to the BPI (British Phonographic Industry)[1] the demand for physical media is at its highest peak ever. Within the r/vinyl subreddit one Redditor ask’s the question ‘Am I crazy, or is this the worst time to start collecting records?’[2] And whilst we are living in a vinyl renaissance at the moment, prices of records have been skyrocketing recently and alongside delays in printing of new vinyl.

‘Retailers are losing money’ says Rob Palmer, the owner of Roan Records[3], a small independent record store and coffee shop in Teddington. ‘Every time someone comes in asking for an album from the last 20-30 years, I look on the portal and there is zero stock.’ Rob opened his shop in December 2019 so has been faces challenges all through the shops opening. The shortage of vinyl means that there are first printings and nothing else. When a new album releases you get to order ‘5-10 and that’s all you get’. He talks about losing customers as there simply isn’t the stock to meet the huge demand. 

However, in late 2021 and early 2022 these stores are facing a global vinyl shortage caused by burgeoning demand, wildfires and potentially Adele. 2021 was the 14th consecutive year of growth for vinyl records. Many stores and even larger chain stores like ASDA have gotten in on the boom. Many collectible markets have seen a huge boost to their sales over the pandemic. Those glossy album arts and heavy spinning discs have a draw to the music fan that CDs don’t provide. Although it is worth mentioning it is the biggest year for cassettes sales ever with the acoustic mediums trumping the digital.  

Peter Vinyl piece

The issues started in early 2020 the lacquer plant Apollo and Transco burnt down[4]. The plant used highly explosive nitrocellulose, a material that is extremely explosive and at one time was used for a replacement for gunpowder. Apollo and Transco claim to produce 80% of the world’s lacquers (the plates that you need to make stampers and master discs) although other sources claim this to be untrue. UK stamping houses where unaffected but with one of the two major plants in the world that can make these. 

With more pressure on production houses the amount of time it takes to produce a record has increased. Rob tells me that most artists wait ‘6-9 months to get their record pressed’ as all the record factories shut down when vinyl went on life support during the 2000’s. If things couldn’t get worse, there is a global PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) shortage due to ice storms in Texas last year. Its price has shot up 30%[5] to its highest point in ten years. Many chemical plants had to shut down as stock was material was destroyed as it couldn’t be kept at a high temperature.  

PVC’s main property is that it is a thermoset material. When it sets, it cannot be melted or reformed into a new shape which makes it perfect for durable records that need to keep their grooves. This comes at the cost of sustainability as a shortage cannot be supplemented with recyclable materials. These factors meant that going into the latter half of 2021 the vinyl industry was already facing a lack of resources. Prices for vinyl’s were starting to increase and even becoming too much for smaller artists. Then Adele released her album 30

Ed Sheeran in an interview with Kyle and Jakie O revealed he had to rush the release of his album = to get it printed on vinyl in time for the release, ‘There are like three vinyl factories in the world, so you have to be really upfront and Adele had booked out all three.’ Adele printed 500,000 copies of her album 30 and whilst she is not to blame, printing half a million albums during a shortage of resources has put a tangible strain on the industry[6]. Rob mentions that one of the largest pressing plants in Prague has been ‘booked out for a year by Universal Music’ as record labels fight for space and factories that means they can get albums ready for that all important release day. 

Smaller artists now cannot get vinyl’s to be released the same day their album has, with some notable figures even straying away from it. I find it interesting that Silk Sonic’s ‘An Evening with Silk Sonic’, an album that has a strong retro aesthetic did not get a vinyl release.

As vinyl continues to surge in popularity, bigger artists are incentivised to invest into this goldmine. Whilst it may have started with the connotations of the albums ‘you’ve never heard of’ for bigger artists it is one of the few ways to make money in the music industry nowadays. With difficulties around live gigs due to the Covid-19 pandemic, physical releases that you can buy safely online look like the way to actually turn a profit on an album. The meagre gains of digital streaming has led to physical media being one of the few means to return the investment on an album. 

The next few months are going to be tough on the smaller record stores. With a higher demand for vinyl than the current factories can produce and a higher demand for coloured vinyl (which require the presses to be cleaned out completely for each new printing) means that for the next few months there might be severe delays for collectors receiving vinyl in the future.

The vinyl record bubble is going to under an immense amount of pressure for the next few months. Your local record shops need your help more than any other until the industry can recover. Some smaller artists may not get a vinyl release. Maybe this could sound the beginning of the new cassette wave, or even the compact disc revolution? But hopefully the vinyl industry can recover enough to meet demands or vinyl records might become a little scarcer in the future. With 2022 looking like a standout year for music it might be a digital 6 months. 

Special thanks to Rob from Roan records for speaking to me. 

Words: Peter Wellman

Images: Ella Kenneally