If we're talking about vinyl in 2014, we have to talk about Jack White. In April, rock'n'roll's self-appointed analog evangelist celebrated Record Store Day by teaming up with United Record Pressing in Nashville to put out the "World's Fastest Released Record." At 10 a.m., White and his band recorded a live version of his new album Lazaretto's title track at his own Third Man studios, then drove the masters to United, where it went immediately onto a 7" press, before ending up in fans' hands at the Third Man store. From start to finish, the process took 3 hours, 55 minutes, and 21 seconds.
It was only the beginning of White's latest streak of vinyl whimsy. In June, he packed the LP version of Lazaretto with all sorts of ear- and eye-candy including hidden tracks beneath the label; engineering side A to play from the inside-out; a matte finish on side B; a hand-etched hologram, and more. Fans were excited about the extras, which led to record-breaking sales: Not only did the album reach #1 on the charts, it also set a new high for the most first-week vinyl sales since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking data in 1991. White sold more than 40,000 copies of the Lazaretto LP in its first week.
Which is great news for the vinyl industry. Mostly.
"Every time I see a headline about Jack White's latest gimmick, it's kind of maddening," one indie-label employee who declined to be named tells me. "While he's making records 'in one day,' normal customers can go weeks not knowing the status of their orders."
More and more people are buying vinyl; sales hit a record 6.1 million units in the U.S. last year. But as demand increases, the number of American pressing plants remains relatively fixed. No one is building new presses because, by all accounts, it would be prohibitively expensive. So the industry is limited to the dozen or so plants currently operating in the States. The biggest is Nashville's United, which operates 22 presses that pump out 30,000 to 40,000 records a day. California-based Rainbo Records and Erika Records are similarly large outfits, and after that come mid-size operations like Record Technology, Inc., also in California, with nine presses, and Cleveland's Gotta Groove Records, which turns out between 4,000 and 5,000 records a day on six presses. Boutique manufacturers like Musicol in Columbus, Archer in Detroit, and Palomino in Kentucky operate between one and five presses.
"You used to be able to turn over a record in four weeks," says John Beeler, project manager at Asthmatic Kitty, the label home of Sufjan Stevens. "But I'm now telling my artists that we need at least three months from the time they turn it in to the time we get it back." Across the board, lengthy lead times that were once anomalies are now the norm. "They've been longer this year than they were even nine months ago," says Nick Blandford, managing director of the Secretly Label Group, which includes prominent indie imprints Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, and Dead Oceans, and artists including Bon Iver and the War on Drugs. "We crossed our fingers and hoped that turn times would improve after Record Store Day in April, but they're still about the same. We've just accepted this as the reality."
So when it comes to the current state of the vinyl industry's unlikely resurrection, everyone is happy. And everyone is frustrated.