Last month, the music industry got some decent news from the Nielsen SoundScan 2012 report.
In a year where Adele reigned again with 4.4 million copies of 21 sold in the US (10 million plus total), other sectors posted gains as well. Full album downloads were up 14 percent, achieving a new high of 118 million, while digital downloads increased by 5 percent to reach 1.3 billion. Solid smashes like Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” (6.8 million downloads), Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” (6.5 million) and fun.’s “We Are Young” (almost 6 million) set the pace on iTunes and Amazon.
One sector that outpaced all of the above was the growth of vinyl albums: the sales rise of 18 percent to 4.6 million set a new SoundScan record. And those millions are actually spread out among a wide number of releases – consider that Jack White’s “Blunderbuss” was #1 with 34,000 copies, besting the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” at #2.
Mastering engineers who know how to cut vinyl are one group that benefits directly from this trend. Craftsmen who were trained in the highly exclusive art of mastering, these engineers have a unique opportunity in this expanding market. But they could have told you that 2012 was going to be a bumper crop months ago, based on the increased activity they experienced throughout the year.
“I’ve seen a steady and dramatic increase in interest in vinyl for the past few years,” confirms Scott Hull, Owner of Masterdisk on NYC’s West Side. “And the increase grew this past year, in both number of new clients and gross billing. Two additional engineers on my staff have trained and apprenticed as cutting engineers this year — one of which is likely the youngest vinyl cutting engineer actively cutting. In dollars, for the year, 2012 showed a 15% increase in revenue attributable to vinyl over 2011.”
Get a quick primer on vinyl record creation here, then be sure to watch Part II.
For Pete Lyman, Co-Owner of Infrasonic Sound in Los Angeles, the trend was similarly positive. “The last 3 years have been steadily rising,” he says. “In 2012 our vinyl mastering more than doubled and it was our busiest year.”
Even more encouraging is the experience of Carl Rowatti of Trutone Mastering, which operates just north of NYC, and sees 2013 off to an even faster start than his already healthy 2012. “As a rough guess I would estimate 20 to 25% [increase in vinyl cutting projects],” he says, “However the increase ramped up as the year progressed, so the later part of the year saw a substantially greater increase. And already January 2013 shipped twice as many lacquers as January 2012.”
Why Vinyl Keeps Rising
Up until a few years ago, dance records dominated the lathes of mastering engineers who cut vinyl. But just as DJ’s have been graced with a growing number of solutions that allow them to make better use of digital files and thereby de-emphasize platters, there has been a crossfade to increased appreciation for vinyl by a rapidly growing number of indie artists and their fans.
“Bands often tell me that one of the greatest feelings as a recording artist is when they hold a vinyl record of their recording in hand,” notes Joe Lambert, founder of Joe Lambert Mastering in Brooklyn’s DUMBO district. “It represents something to us. It’s something you can’t do in your bedroom. It’s big, physical, it reminds us of the records we loved and grew up admiring. Bands and labels also realized that fans at shows became less interested in buying their CD but were interested in buying the vinyl: If you have a band that will be touring they can sell a lot of records on the road, so labels are willing to invest in the product.”
“Vinyl is the last viable physical format,” agrees Lyman, whose mastering credits include Matt & Kim, Black Rebel Motorycle Club, J Rocc, Maroon 5, PJ Harvey, and Imperial Teen. “It gives listeners an experience that you can’t get from a digital download. You get nice artwork, liner notes, and a great-sounding playback format. I like to compare it to the difference between watching a reality TV show and a fine film: Vinyl delivers the music the way the artist intended.”
As Paul Gold of Brooklyn’s Salt Mastering notes, that attitude can often come from the top down as well, originating from the label side – which often have more ample funds to budget for a vinyl pressing. “Serious music lovers listen to vinyl,” he points out. “Vinyl gets into the right hands. Certain genres are vinyl-centric. Many of the labels I work for release vinyl for almost every release. It is important to them.”
In addition, with the vast reduction of physical product retailers in the US, stocking vinyl records – along with their steadily-declining-in-sales CD’s — has emerged as a necessity for the few chains and mom & pop stores that remain. Equally important is the aural experience that consumers have when they take the shrink wrap off their purchase, drop the needle, and begin to listen.
“As a pro-audio guy I have to believe that the sound of the product has drawn people to the format,” says Hull, who has mastered for the likes of Sting, Dave Matthews, Bob Dylan, Wynton Marsalis, Garbage, Panic at the Disco, Herbie Hancock, The Indigo Girls and Bruce Springsteen. “I’m finding it interesting that compared to lo-bit rate MP3 downloads, vinyl is Hi-Fidelity — that’s pretty funny considering what was said about CD when it replaced vinyl. But with several generations of music fans being very used to low bit-rate digital, they are often surprised by what a pro-quality vinyl sounds like.”
Gains Across Genres
Mastering engineers with vinyl-cutting expertise are seeing business gains from across the musical spectrum. The consensus was the same from facility to facility: the once-mighty dance is down, and almost everything else is on the increase.
“Vinyl sales are up across the board with all genres,” says Infrasonic’s Pete Lyman. “For a long time we had indie and hip hop clients doing vinyl even when no one else was. Now almost every major label LP is coming out on vinyl again.”
Pete Lyman just appeared on Pensado’s Place to talk vinyl and much more.
“I have to say that everyone – across the board is interested in making vinyl,” Hull observes. “From metal to avant-garde, classical to pop/rock, indie and funk and jazz…The genre doesn’t really matter. Most bands want to make a record and many of them find a way to sell enough of them to come back and do it again.”
At Sterling Sound, Senior Mastering Engineer Ryan Smith has seen his own suite get particularly busy with audiophile re-issue projects, which cater to vinyl enthusiasts by commissioning new pressings of classic recordings. “In these cases, attention to sonic detail is the focus with the hope of presenting the record in the best light possible, says Smith. “For me, I’m doing more audiophile re-issue work than new records. A lot of that has to do with my particular studio setup that includes an all-analog signal path for cutting vinyl directly from original master tapes — some of which are over 50 years old. This type of setup is fairly rare these days and really appeals to the audiophile crowd who want the shortest route from the artist’s master tape to the product they purchase.”