The Vinyl Phenomena or is it?


Vinyl records or the “vinyl resurgence” is hardly a phenomenon nor is it a passing fad. Back in the days of the late 40s through the early 70s, the only mass market playback medium was vinyl until 8-track tapes and cassettes came out (There were reel to reel tape machines, but like today, very few people had one and generally albums were not produced on reel to reel tapes, so there was not a market for them to speak of). So, I’d say there really is no resurgence, but rather it is more like continuing history really.
There are those that say vinyl went away in the eighties and through 2000, but the fact is that it really did not. In the US there was a retreat of vinyl records as the industry nearly stopped making them as CDs took hold, but there were still very small pressing plants making them and of course many imports from countries such as Germany and  Japan to name  two that were still producing vinyl records in large quantity. Many of the large record and music stores in the US in the late eighties through 2000 all but stopped carrying vinyl records at the time, but small shops still had some.

Vinyl records are a global thing, so what may have seemed like a disappearance of vinyl records from stores in the U.S. (save the obscure underground shop or two scattered about), back in the eights, around the globe in other countries vinyl remained and remains quite strong. I’m not just talking about backwater, countries, but industrialized countries.
Vinyl records remain extremely popular not just in the US, but the UK, Germany, Holland, and yes, even Russia. In fact, it is not just the US, but turntable sales and record sales remain and still climb in those countries and more. One will find all brands in these countries, not just make shift obscure ones.
So, vinyl is huge world-wide, however, there is one strange aspect that has me scratching my head and that is with the US. Prices of analog gear including turntables of course are such a range that there is at least one, but often many choices for everybody to get a turntable and all the required gear to play records with much of it quite good even at the entry-level.
The only phenomena portion I see is the price of vinyl records in the US compared to the rest of the world. It doesn’t make sense to me, even when considering the cost to produce records. We all know that economies are different around the globe to a degree despite the push towards “global economy” (sadly based on capitalism). For example, wages and cost of living varies around the world and even among parts of the U.S., but let’s set aside economies of scale for a moment.

In the US, back in the sixties, seventies and early eighties, one could buy a new vinyl album for as little as $2 in the sixties. In the mid seventies and eighties prices started creeping up, but one could buy almost any new domestic vinyl record album for $3 to $6 for single LPs and $8 to $10 for double LPs and for $2 to $3 more one could buy a new import LP. Now days in the US, with the so-called “resurgence of vinyl” it cost on average, $30 for a new domestic vinyl record. However, in Russia for example, new imported vinyl records, no less from great labels like Parlophone, etc. can be had for 3 or 4 Euros or about $5 US dollars, while used records are about 2 to 3 Euros (about $3 US)!  Face it, it’s no fun paying $30 for a single domestic record, especially with questionable provenance.
Let’s break it down, ok, wages and cost of living are different you say? Not so fast, bring back economies of scale into the mix, we see that it is relative in ratios when we see what wages and costs are in other countries and around the US in different areas. So why the huge difference? Could it be cost of materials? It is tempting to say “yes” quickly, but wait a minute. The cost of petroleum is down these days and PVC used to make records pretty much comes from one source in Taiwan and is not that expensive, even when adding the other necessary ingredients to it back in the states. Generally, good PVC pellets are readily available, which means it is not all that costly.

Now the one main factor that does come into play at the moment though is the cost of the machines. Let’s face it, most have been mothballed for decades and are in very bad shape. The cost of just initially purchasing a machine in desperate need of restoration is quite high. Add to that, the cost of restoring just one of these machines and you are easily into five or six figures for just one machine arriving at almost the same cost as a new one. Pressing records is also self-destructive by design, so maintenance of machines is constant. So I believe that is the issue with the prices for new vinyl records in the US. On top of that, you have to pay for labor to operate the machines, but it comes at far lower cost than the machine itself, so I don’t think one can honestly factor that in. One important thing I would like to point out though is that restoring the machines and opening up record pressing facilities creates jobs and that is always a very good thing! Now how do we explain the vast difference in cost of new vinyl records? I believe one part of the explanation that I ran across is the fact that the pressing plants on some other countries never slowed down or stopped like in the US. So they had and have the ability to maintain the machines, upgrade them or make new ones far easier than the US, partly because sales of vinyl records never took a nose-dive in some of those other countries. Now they are even higher! By the way, all new presses in the US are imported.

Of course, the used market is about the same all over the globe and that’s a great thing. (One does find pockets of outrageously priced, non-collectable,used vinyl records in the US though and I feel there is something wrong with that). Still, I know some of you have the thought that it would be nice to be able to purchase a new record some time, but it is just not affordable. I had hopes that the prices of new records would start to come down a year ago to at least the level of the nineties, say $10 with all the new pressing plants opening and older ones running at full-speed, but I just don’t see that happening anymore with capitalism (A little bit of capitalism is healthy, but beyond that is where we get into trouble, when it becomes the end-all or almost a religion). That said though, the used market is also important because if ones knows how to shop it, one can easily get original or same year re-pressings, (not re-issues, two different things) and thereby are saving a piece of history as well.
If the economy changes (I fear it will for the worse) it may force prices down for those who want to sell the records or it may unfortunately, turn vinyl and analog sound into a prize only for the rich and that would be sad indeed.

Meanwhile, keep listening to vinyl records and enjoy them, keep the used market alive at least and don’t take it for granted.

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