Within the Indianapolis office of Joyful Noise Recordings, a specialty label that caters to vinyl-loving fans of underground rock, is a corner that employees call the "lathe cave."
There sits a Presto 6N record lathe — a 1940s-vintage machine the size of a microwave that makes records by cutting a groove into a blank vinyl platter. Unlike most standard records, which are pressed by the hundreds or thousands, each lathe-cut disc must be created individually.
"It's incredibly laborious," said Karl Hofstetter, the label's founder. "If a song is three minutes long, it takes three minutes to make every one."
This ancient technology — scuffed and dinged, the lathe looks like something from a World War II submarine — is a key part of Joyful Noise's strategy to survive the very surge of vinyl popularity the label has helped fuel. Left for dead with the advent of CDs in the 1980s, vinyl records are now the music industry's most popular and highest-grossing physical format, with fans choosing it for collectibility, sound quality or simply the tactile experience of music in an age of digital ephemerality. After growing steadily for more than a decade, LP sales exploded during the pandemic.
In the first six months of this year, 17 million vinyl records were sold in the United States, generating US$467 million ($651.4m) in retail revenue, nearly double the amount from the same period in 2020, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Sixteen million CDs were also sold in the first half of 2021, worth just US$205m. Physical recordings are now just a sliver of the overall music business — streaming is 84 per cent of domestic revenue — but they can be a strong indication of fan loyalty, and stars like Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo make vinyl an important part of their marketing.
Yet there are worrying signs that the vinyl bonanza has exceeded the industrial capacity needed to sustain it. Production logjams and a reliance on balky, decades-old pressing machines have led to what executives say are unprecedented delays. A couple of years ago, a new record could be turned around in a few months; now it can take up to a year, wreaking havoc on artists' release plans.
Kevin Morby, a singer-songwriter from Kansas City, Kan., said that his latest LP, "A Night at the Little Los Angeles," barely arrived in time to sell on his fall tour. And he is one of the lucky ones. Artists from the Beach Boys to Tyler, the Creator have seen their vinyl held up recently.
"It's almost how I feel about playing live music," Morby said in an interview. "I now count every show as a success. 'Wow, we pulled it off — no one got Covid.' Now I know what it's like for the world to completely stop. So even if it's going to be a little late I'm still grateful for that."
For Joyful Noise, the vinyl crunch has also presented a puzzling problem. Up to 500 V.I.P. customers pay the label US$200 a year for special editions of every LP it makes. But the production holdups mean the label cannot predict which titles will be ready during 2022.
"How do we in good conscience sell this for next year," Hofstetter said, "if we don't know when these records will show up?"
The label's solution is to make lathe-cut singles for each of the eight albums it intends to release next year, as placeholder bonuses while its customers wait. Doing so will cost Joyful Noise money and time — Hofstetter groaned as we calculated that eight records with five minutes of music per side, cut 500 times each, would take 666 hours of lathe work — but the label sees it as a necessary investment.
Others are just as frustrated. Thrill Jockey, a Chicago label for indie-rock connoisseurs, wants to celebrate its 30th anniversary next year with a series of reissues, but its founder, Bettina Richards, said she has no idea which titles can be made in time. John Brien of Important Records, which releases work by contemporary composers, recently declared online that "vinyl is dead," but clarified in an interview that the format is too essential to abandon.
Not even the biggest stars are immune. In an interview this month with BBC Radio, Adele, whose album "30" is due Nov. 19 — and is sure to be a blockbuster on LP — said her release date had been set six months ago to get vinyl and CDs made in time.
"There was like a 25-week lead time!" she exclaimed. "So many CD factories and vinyl factories, they bloody closed down even before Covid because no one bloody prints them anymore."
Music and manufacturing experts cite a variety of factors behind the holdup. The pandemic shut down many plants for a time, and problems in the global supply chain have slowed the movement of everything from cardboard and polyvinyl chloride — the "vinyl" that records (and plumbing pipes) are made from — to finished albums. In early 2020, a fire destroyed one of only two plants in the world that made lacquer discs, an essential part of the record-making process.
But the bigger issue may be simple supply and demand. Consumption of vinyl LPs has grown much faster than the industry's ability to make records. The business relies on an aging infrastructure of pressing machines, most of which date to the 1970s or earlier and can be costly to maintain. New machines came along only in recent years, and can cost up to US$300,000 each. There's a backlog of orders for those, too.
Exotic problems pop up that would never interfere with a release on YouTube or SoundCloud. "We had a raccoon infestation," said Caren Kelleher of Gold Rush Vinyl, a boutique plant in Austin, Texas. "That set us back a week."
The limits of this infrastructure are being tested as major artists — and super-retailers like Walmart and Amazon — increasingly push vinyl. It is not hard to see why: At a time when CD sales are vanishing and streaming has left artists complaining about minuscule payouts, a new LP, especially if offered in eye-catching colours or in collector-baiting design variants, can sell for U$25 or more. As some see it, releases by top pop acts are gumming up the production chain, crowding out the smaller artists and labels that have remained loyal to the format all along.
"What worries me more than anything is that the major labels will dominate and take over all of the capacity, which I don't think is a good idea," said Rick Hashimoto of Record Technology Inc., a midsize plant in Camarillo, Calif., that works with many indie labels.
Others say the big labels are just a convenient target. The real problem, they believe, isn't celebrities jumping on the vinyl bandwagon but that the industrial network simply has not expanded quickly enough to meet growing demand.
"Am I mad that Olivia Rodrigo sold 76,000 vinyl copies of her album?" said Ben Blackwell of Third Man, the record label and vinyl empire that counts Jack White of the White Stripes as one of its founders. "Not at all! This is what I would have dreamed of when we started Third Man — that the biggest frontline artists are all pushing vinyl, and that young kids are into it.
"If someone is mad that that prevents some other title from being pressed," Blackwell continued, "it feels a little bit elitist and gatekeep-y."
Still, there are worries that the renaissance may be at risk if further delays frustrate consumers and artists — or if vinyl comes to be treated as just another merchandise item, like T-shirts or key chains, from which fickle fans will simply move on.
Among old-school record types, there have long been suspicions that many new fans buy vinyl for a collectible thrill but never actually drop a needle.
"We noticed during Covid that we got a lot more mail-order complaints like, 'The jacket has a 10th-of-an-inch bend on the corner,'" said Brian Lowit of Dischord Records, the Washington label behind post-punk icons like Fugazi. "We ask them if the record is playing well and they'll say, 'I don't know, I just keep it in the shrink wrap.'"
For artists, especially ones without major-label backing, sticking with vinyl has now become a question about whether it is worth the trouble.
"Right now vinyl feels legitimising," said Cassandra Jenkins, a singer-songwriter in Brooklyn whose last album, "An Overview on Phenomenal Nature," was a surprise vinyl hit — it started with a pressing of 300 copies and eventually went to 7,000.
"It's an investment for an artist," she added. "I want these objects that I can sell, so I am going to invest in that."
For some musicians like Jenkins, that investment has now begun to affect the creative process. After the release of her last album, in February, she began working on follow-up material. But the long turnaround time for vinyl meant she had to get started immediately, with a tight deadline, to get her music in the manufacturing pipeline.
In Jenkins's case, the pressure had a positive effect. She recorded an EP of new material, due by the end of the year on vinyl only. Another release, "(An Overview on) An Overview on Phenomenal Nature," with outtakes and a new track, will come out on CD and digital formats next month — with vinyl to follow in April.
"It oddly pushed me into making more music than I would have had we the more luxurious deadlines of yore," Jenkins said.
And her next project?
"This year, it was really important to me to have vinyl," she said. "Maybe next year it won't be."
Written by: Ben Sisario
Photographs by: AJ Mast
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES