Unless you live under a rock (and no judgment if you do), you have probably noticed there are more and more albums being re-issued on vinyl these days. The trend that looked like a fad a few years ago has grown into a full-fledged thing. And now that is a thing, many are noticing it has become an expensive thing. Accusations of price gouging, ripping off artists, and flooding the market are all on the rise. So we thought we would dig into just exactly what is going on here. It is time to go behind the scenes and expose just what is going on with these high-priced re-issues once and for all.
So first things first, we have to acknowledge that a vinyl record is a living relic of the past. In today’s world of digitally exact precision and replication, it’s hard to imagine a time when things weren’t so… cookie-cutter. When the CD came along, it gave us an exact time limit of what could fit on each disc, no matter what type of music you put on it. Soft whispering music to loud death metal all took up the same space on a disc, even if there was a lot more sound on one when compared to the other. And the sound quality was set once the disc was burned – the 0’s and 1’s that make up the sound coming from CDs stay the same no matter what color or material you make the disc from. You could fix things somewhat with better equipment and equalizers, but there was nothing that could change what was put on the disc itself.
However, this level of precision was not previously a thing with vinyl. Louder music takes up more space in the plastic grooves, meaning you could fit more acoustic folk on side 1 than you could a blaring orchestral score. The louder the music means the less you can put on a side, which increases the width of the groove, thereby decreasing the quality of the music if you try to put more on there. Weird, I know. Making the disc out of thicker plastic improves the sound of the music even after you have finalized the mix in the studio. Before CDs came along, determining what your music would sound like before you picked out how much you would spend on the end materials was difficult at best. Today you can look up the price per unit for CD manufacturing, multiply it by the number of copies you want, and be done with it.
But vinyl? Not so fast.
First, you have to see if your music will fit on both sides of single disc. Oh, and will that be a 7-inch, a 10-inch, or a 12-inch disc? It’s kind of a sliding scale: the more music you put on a side, combined with the amount of it that is loud and noisy instead of soft and quiet, will decrease the quality to some degree. Will you need one disc of what size, or two? You can see how the prices can vary greatly already.
“But I know all of that” you say, “because you can still look all of this up online. I can see where a certain disc costs $20 per disc and these labels are charging a lot more!”
Well, good point. Is this proof that labels are ripping us off? Not necessarily.
There are many other costs involved in getting music ready for vinyl. You can’t just take the music files from decades ago and put them on vinyl. Sometimes they were mixed, mastered, and/or engineered poorly back in the day. Fixing any or all of those issues while also bringing them up to modern standards is expensive. Even with a sonically perfectly album, the sound still has to be adjusted for the limitations of vinyl (CDs and digital files can reproduce the full sonic spectrum better than vinyl can). You really want to get someone that knows what they are doing to make these adjustments.
So needless to say, comparing prices between one label and another is pretty much pointless. One company may decide to put less music on each disc and fork over a lot more for a double issue, while another may choose to squeeze a bit more on one disc to meet the budget.
Oh, and then there is the artwork. Some companies pay to have the artwork re-created from scratch (either as new designs or “faithful to the original” versions), while others try to stretch out the original artwork to fit on the larger vinyl format. As someone that has made artwork for vinyl re-releases, this is no easy task either way. And if you aren’t careful, you will end up with the pixilated fiasco that was the cover of the re-issue of Tourniquet’s Vanishing Lessons:
“Okay, I get it,” you say again, “it can all get expensive. So you just pass that cost on to the buyers, right? Surely it doesn’t come out to $30+ per disc like we are seeing now?”
Weeeellll… here is where the real expose comes in. The vinyl re-issues we see from the labels and bands that Down The Line covers don’t exactly… sell a whole lot of copies. Sorry, our “scene” is just not big enough to bring the prices down for most releases. Sure, there are anomalies like Starflyer 59 releases that sell huge numbers, but that seems to come from 5 fans that buy hundreds of copies a piece (or something like that). The real price break in manufacturing vinyl comes from buying releases in bulk, typically with 500 units being the first big price break. Some factories won’t even go below 500 as minimum purchase, while others will go as low as 300. However, many of the releases you and I are interested in would be lucky to sell 100-200 copies. There are a couple of factories that will do runs that small, but if you know how bulk pricing works… it gets more and more expensive as the numbers get smaller.
Many of labels have to decide whether to see if they can pay for 500 records and hope to sell them at a high enough price point to break even after selling 200 copies, or to go higher in price for 200 copies and hope to sell most of them to again reach the break-even point.
But many don’t. I have spoken with several bands and record companies about their vinyl re-issues behind the scenes. They rarely break even, and usually lose money on vinyl re-issues. Even at the prices they are charging.
And what about the bands? Well, if they still own the publishing rights to their music, they can usually charge a publishing fee. If not, that fee has to go to the company that currently holds those rights. It’s a sad side of the business, but many bands didn’t get paid for the music they put out on record labels back in the day. Some of the re-issue labels do work in some kind of payment for the bands. But on the other hand, often the band refuses to participate in the re-issue. You can’t even force them to take money even if there is some to be given.
Then there is the tedious aspect of shipping the vinyl to the buyers. Vinyl is fragile. The record jackets are fragile. Shake them even a bit in shipping, and the jackets fold and crease. Sometimes you can fix this by shipping the record outside of the sleeve, but then collectors will complain that you removed the wrap and they can no claim the album as “still sealed.”
A lot of the blame for this damage is often directed back to the record labels and/or bands, but the truth of the matter is that it is usually the post office that causes this damage. Even minor creases in the jacket can be caused by bending the packaging. Those cardboard mailers have a good amount of bend in them that won’t show up as visible damage on the package, but will crease the record jackets inside of them.
Of course, it’s not always the post office. If a large number of people are seeing the same major damage to their package even though the records were sent all over the country, there is probably a problem at the shipping or manufacturing facilities. This was probably the case with the recent re-issue of Starflyer 59’s Gold album, where hundreds of customers all over the nation had the same extreme crease marks on their jackets and inserts while there was no damage to the box at all. This is the rare case, though:
All of this to say that even packaging and shipping the vinyl can be a time consuming venture. I’m amazed that any labels even try it, to be honest. However, as someone that has bought a lot of vinyl as well, I know there are many companies that do their best to release quality products at the lowest possible price: the Limited Run family (Retroactive Records, Roxx Records, Girder Records, No Life Til Metal Records), Lo-Fidelity Records, Steadfast Records, Galaxy 21 Music, Old Bear Records, Latent Print Records, Velvet Blue Music, Burnt Toast Vinyl, Stunt Records, and others, as well as many of the bands we feature here, can all be trusted to put out quality vinyl releases at the best price possible: