SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")
DARIAN WOODS, HOST:
This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Darian Woods.
STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. And, Darian, there is an economic force that is descending on us tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EASY ON ME")
ADELE: (Singing) There ain't no gold in this river.
WOODS: Adele is back.
VANEK SMITH: Yes, she is. Adele's new album, "30," drops tomorrow. This is "Easy On Me," a single from that album. And "30" is basically expected to break the internet. You can pre-order the digital version, or there's also this very special deluxe double LP that you can get.
WOODS: Vinyl - yeah, so vinyl records have been having a mega comeback. Sales have been rising pretty steadily for about a decade now, and they surpassed CD sales last year for the first time.
VANEK SMITH: And, Darian, you know, Adele was not playing around with her LP release. She apparently pressed more than 500,000 copies of her album. That is a million single records. And this was just, like, a mega order for the little vinyl supply chain. I mean, supply chain issues had already been delaying a lot of vinyl, and now, Darian, they're basically saying that Adele broke the vinyl supply chain.
WOODS: That's awkward.
VANEK SMITH: It is awkward, but go easy on her, Darian, go easy on her.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EASY ON ME")
ADELE: (Singing) On me.
VANEK SMITH: Brandon Seavers owns Memphis Record Pressing, and his company has been making vinyl since 2014. Before that, the company was making CDs. And CD sales had been declining for years because music sales, they were all moving towards digital.
WOODS: And Brandon was watching this happen, and he knew he had to make some kind of move. So he moved from CDs back to vinyl.
BRANDON SEAVERS: We brought in a bunch of rusty old machines, and we found some guys that had been in the industry decades ago. They helped us get it up and running.
VANEK SMITH: So Brandon realized that vinyl had this kind of super power that CDs didn't. So initially, people opted for CDs over vinyl because CDs offered this really clean, consistent sound, and they were more convenient. You could play them in your car or your Discman. But digital music trumped CDs on both of those counts, and CDs just couldn't compete with digital. Vinyl, though, could because it offered something that CDs and digital music didn't.
SHAMIR: I mean, I love it. I mean, I always love anything that kind of sounds old. I think there's that warmth in the crackle and everything.
WOODS: This is Shamir, an artist and musician from Philadelphia. Shamir has a couple of albums out in vinyl.
VANEK SMITH: This is like something you're hearing from fans. They want this.
SHAMIR: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. It's like - it's such a sought after medium now at this point.
VANEK SMITH: Shamir says fans, they feel very emotionally attached to their favorite musicians, and they want, like, a physical object to connect with. And, like, the big photo spreads and liner notes and all the extras on an LP, they really fill that desire. And so young fans especially have started buying record players and snapping up LPs.
SHAMIR: It's like really intimate. You're putting the needle on and, like, you're making a moment of it.
WOODS: Record labels and musicians love this, too, because LPs are a lot more profitable than digital music. Adele's double LP, for example, that costs $40 in stores compared to $10 for the digital album and $12 for the CD.
VANEK SMITH: Yeah, vinyl sales, they started rising around 2008, but things really took off when the stores jumped on board. Urban Outfitters was a pioneer, and then Target and Walmart started carrying LPs. And that was just a game changer. And they started placing these giant orders that the handful of vinyl makers in the U.S. could barely keep up with, like Brandon Seavers of Memphis Record Pressing.
SEAVERS: Walmart's got 4,000-plus stores in the U.S. So even if they only ordered 10 for every store, that's 40,000 records.
WOODS: So Brandon went from six pressing machines to 16. That meant he was going from producing around a million records a year to seven million.
VANEK SMITH: But he points out vinyl has very real limitations. For one thing, record pressing machines are basically all antiques. They're fussy and they break down, and they require people who know how to run them and tweak them depending on the temperature and the humidity.
SEAVERS: Two things are required to make vinyl - steam and cold water - steam to heat the plastic up and to melt it and cold water to cool that record back down. And if - you know, if your steam isn't right and your cold water isn't right, you're not going to have a good record. And also it's powered by a huge steam boiler that if you turn it off every day, you got to wait an hour and a half for it to warm up every morning. It's much more dark arts than it is science.
WOODS: It takes nearly 30 seconds to press each record, and that compares with a CD, which you can make in less than two seconds.
VANEK SMITH: Also don't forget the raw materials, the vinyl itself, which basically all comes from overseas in these giant crates.
SEAVERS: You ever had a Nerd, the candy? They look exactly like nerds. So you've got these little nerds that are in different colors.
WOODS: Last year, when so many people were stuck in their homes during COVID, vinyl sales went bananas.
VANEK SMITH: And, you know, slow machines plus soaring demand plus raw material from overseas equaled a major supply chain strain and huge delays on record releases.
WOODS: Brandon's vinyl now takes months to arrive, and the turnaround time for a record went from around eight weeks to now it's about eight months for new clients.
SEAVERS: Eight, 10, 12 months in the music industry is life and death three times over.
VANEK SMITH: And then in the midst of all of this, along came Adele. Her 500,000 LP mega order descended like a monolith onto the fragile, strained vinyl supply chain. Because even though vinyl has been growing for years, there's still just aren't that many places on Earth that even make vinyl. And for the companies that do exist, like Brandon Seavers, there's this slowness, remember, 30 seconds per record. You can't rush it.
SEAVERS: I'm going to do some math real quick. All right. So if you're making two records, a minute, 500,000 LPs is 174 days of production - six months. That's 24-hour days, seven-day production.
WOODS: Now, of course, if you're Adele or Ed Sheeran or Beyonce, you can probably just make it happen, pay what you've got to pay to cut the line and rush a record. But if you're an independent musician like the ones who made vinyl popular again in the first place, like Shamir, the Adele factor happening at this particular moment means you probably can't get a vinyl album out for six months or more.
SHAMIR: Adele's not the culprit, and I think I - we were struggling with vinyl delay times before Adele. I think people are upset because Adele is not helping.
VANEK SMITH: Adele (laughter)...
WOODS: Adele is not helping, and this has affected Shamir. And Shamir has a new album coming out and has no plans to press any vinyl.
SHAMIR: I hate it as a small label owner, but I also made, like, kind of, like, a joke tweet where I was joking about, like, buying the Adele vinyl because it's just like, listen, like...
VANEK SMITH: You're buying Adele on vinyl.
SHAMIR: Probably. I mean...
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).
SHAMIR: The new single is amazing. She's amazing. And it's just like, if anyone wants to be mad at anything, don't be mad at Adele. Be mad at capitalism and you know - and that's that.
VANEK SMITH: But all of this really worries vinyl maker Brandon Seavers. He's worried that if vinyl cannot rise to this occasion, people will just move on from it again, musicians like Shamir will stop pressing records and fans will migrate to other formats that might also be a physical album that they can connect with but might be faster to produce than LPs so they can come out, you know, the day an album drops and not eight months later.
WOODS: And Brandon's actually already seeing that.
SEAVERS: It's astonishing. I'm like, there's no way you're selling them. They're like, we sold out. You know, we're making 50,000 CDs for this new release, and we're selling out. We never thought we would make CDs like that again. Cassettes are the same thing. There are a very, very limited number of cassette manufacturers left, and you can't get cassettes for months.
WOODS: By the way, the Adele album also is available on cassette. That's about $17 - a lot more expensive than the CD, by the way. The CD only costs 12 bucks. Go figure.
VANEK SMITH: Somehow, there's a cassette premium, which is interesting, but Shamir, our artist, you know, says, do not count vinyl out. You know, he says vinyl, for all of its faults, still has that special warmth, that crackle. And when all the supply chain issues ease up, he actually does plan to release his new album on vinyl, and he's especially excited to hear this one song called "Cisgender" in vinyl.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CISGENDER")
SHAMIR: (Singing) I'm not cisgender. I'm not binary trans. I don't wanna be a girl. I don't wanna be a man.
VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Adrian Ma and Julia Ritchie, with help from Isaac Rodrigues and Taylor Washington. Our senior producer is Viet Le. Our editor is Kate Concannon. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CISGENDER")
SHAMIR: (Singing) Or you can just stay back.
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