After a few years that have had little but bad news, what could be worse for a music lover than hearing about a global vinyl shortage?
Vinyl enjoyed a bumper year in 2021, seeing its fourteenth consecutive rise in sales. And this came after a great 2020, when LPs outsold CDs for the first time in over 30 years.
But even then, the sales are still a fraction of what they were in the format’s 80s heyday. So, why are manufacturers now struggling to get PVC to press records?
It’s Adele’s fault
When Variety revealed that more than 500,000 copies of Adele’s 30 were ordered, it set a hare running. Picking up on Sony Music using multiple manufacturers and pushing out other artists, some concluded that Adele, along with other big artists and Abba’s record-breaking return to the studio, were to blame for the vinyl shortage.
There have also been suggestions that labels have used their weight to push their best-selling artists to the front of the queue. Those without a major label on their side have been forced, instead, to wait up to nine months to get their LPs pressed.
It’s easy to see why the story would spread: it’s simple, mildly humorous, and it has David and Goliath elements (although without the giant killing). And for those that don’t really know the industry numbers — which is most of us — 500,000 copies of 30 seems a lot.
But like most simple explanations, it is wrong. There might be a lot of vinyl in Adele’s 500,000 albums, but it’s a fraction of what was needed to produce the estimated 150 million LPs pressed last year. And Adele was a victim too, having to complete her album six months before release to get her place in the production queue. Sadly, like most fun stories, the truth is disappointingly mundane.
What is really causing the vinyl shortage?
The industry caught Covid
It would be surprising if Covid-19 didn’t have an effect. There are the obvious issues of Covid-created problems for manufacturers, from staff shortages to working under restrictions. But it also changed behaviours.
Consumers didn’t just have more time on their hands, they often had more cash too. Instead of going to gigs, many sought to support artists in other ways. And artists, looking to replace money from tours, also seem to have looked to LPs as to increase their income. Both increased the demand for vinyl.
Capacity is lower
As much as we love vinyl, we can’t pretend it’s as popular as it was. In the 80s there were presses across the country, creating a huge capacity: an LP might hit the stores just weeks after recording. But almost all of that manufacturing capacity was lost as vinyl’s popularity declined, and while new factories are opening, they take time to set up and in 2021, there simply weren’t enough to meet demand.
Brexit made things difficult
Although the vinyl shortage is global, many have suggested Brexit made matters worse for the UK. With difficulties in securing transport, additional costs, and red tape, it was harder for British labels to secure time at European presses, who preferred the certainty offered by EU-based artists and retailers.
Supply is short
LPs might be the most important use of PVC, obviously, but it isn’t the only one. Unfortunately for music lovers, it meant they lost out as the PVC pellets — the raw material that goes into the records — were snapped up for other uses. With plastic needed in everything from PPE to piping, vinyl was just one of the areas that lost out.
What can we do?
Waiting might be all we can do. As the world discovered with toilet paper, modern supply chains are a miracle, but it doesn’t take much to disrupt them. There are signs the supply is improving, but it will take time to return to normal and deal with the backlogs. So, what can you do in the meantime?
One thing is to take advantage of the LPs that are released. It might mean you find some new artists, and the shortage means that every LP released is, in effect, a limited edition. You can also check out the second-hand market. Whether it’s in your local shop or through marketplaces like Discogs, there is still plenty of vinyl for sale.
And, of course, if you want to be sure of a regular supply of vinyl, curated and delivered to your door, don’t forget a Retro Store subscription. It’s an easy way to guarantee the vinyl shortage is something that other people have to worry about.