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when cds came on strong, they were scrapping the vinyl equipment...how times change..

The biggest music comeback of 2014: Vinyl records

Sales of LPs surge 49% but aging factories struggle to keep pace

The Wall Street Journal
Vinyl records hang on the wall at Quality Record Pressings, part of Acoustic Sounds
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Vinyl records hang on the wall at Quality Record Pressings, part of Acoustic Sounds, in Salina, Kan. in November. Acoustic Sounds, which started in 1986, re-issues old albums, records artists and sells music. The company started pressing its own records four years ago—it’s one of the nation’s newer plants. (Chad Pilster/WSJ)

Nearly eight million old-fashioned vinyl records have been sold this year, up 49% from the same period last year, industry data show. Younger people, especially indie-rock fans, are buying records in greater numbers, attracted to the perceived superior sound quality of vinyl and the ritual of putting needle to groove.

But while new LPs hit stores each week, the creaky machines that make them haven’t been manufactured for decades, and just one company supplies an estimated 90% of the raw vinyl that the industry needs. As such, the nation’s 15 or so still-running factories that press records face daily challenges with breakdowns and supply shortages.

Their efforts point to a problem now bedeviling a curious corner of the music industry. The record-making business is stirring to life—but it’s still on its last legs.

Robert Roczynski ’s dozen employees work overtime at a small factory in Hamden, Conn., to make parts for U.S. record makers struggling to keep abreast of the revived interest in LPs. Mr. Roczynski’s firm says orders for steel molds, which give records their flat, round shape, have tripled since 2008.

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“They’re trying to bring the industry back, but the era has gone by,” says Mr. Roczynski, 67 years old, president of Record Products of America Inc., one of the country’s few suppliers of parts for the industry.

Many producers, including the largest, United Record Pressing in Nashville, Tenn., are adding presses, but there has yet to be a big move by entrepreneurs to inject capital and confidence into this largely artisanal industry. Investors aren’t interested in sinking serious cash into an industry that represents 2% of U.S. music sales.

Record labels are waiting months for orders that used to get filled in weeks. That is because pressing machines spit out only around 125 records an hour. To boost production, record factories are running their machines so hard—sometimes around the clock—they have to shell out increasing sums for maintenance and repairs.

Large orders from superstars create bottlenecks, while music fans search the bins in vain for new releases by The War on Drugs, a Philadelphia indie group, or French electronic duo Daft Punk. More requests for novelty LPs—multi-colored, scented, glow-in-the-dark—gum things up further.

Nick Blandford, managing director of Secretly Group, a family of independent labels, in Bloomington, Ind., is putting in orders now to make sure his artists’ LPs are in stores for next year’s “Record Store Day” in April.

To get more machines, record-plant owners have been scouring the globe for mothballed presses, snapping them up for $15,000 to $30,000, and plunking down even more to refurbish them.

Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who studies what he calls “technology re-emergence,” is familiar with this industrial netherworld.

Swiss mechanical watches, fountain pens and independent bookstores all re-emerged from the doldrums by reinventing themselves for consumers and then attracting investment from entrepreneurs, he says.

“The question is whether there’s enough demand for vinyl to make this jump. And it’s too soon to tell,” Mr. Raffaelli says.

There are lots of hurdles in the way of any such reinvention.

Just one company, Thai Plastic & Chemicals , which has a three-person shop in Long Beach, Calif., supplies the vast majority—as much as 90%, the firm says—of the raw polyvinyl chloride compound needed to make records across the country.

Jack Cicerello, TPC manager for North America, says after his old company, Keyser Century, closed in the mid-2000s, there were no suppliers of raw vinyl left in the U.S.

Thai Plastic & Chemicals, a Thai maker of plastic products, tapped Mr. Cicerello to expand its presence in North America, and he and some colleagues proposed launching a side business of shuttling Thai-made raw vinyl to American record-pressing plants.

But things can easily go awry. In October, a truck carrying raw vinyl to Quality Record Pressings, a plant in Salina, Kan., broke down just as the plant was ramping up production for Black Friday. “We almost ran out of vinyl,” says Gary Salstrom, QRP’s general manager.

Another step early in the record-making process—making the “master” record from which copies are made—is even more archaic.

Len Horowitz, 62, is one of a handful of people who know how to fix sensitive electronic components involved in record mastering. In September, one mastering firm’s cutting lathe—used to engrave music from an analog tape or digital file onto a blank disc that becomes the master—broke down. It took weeks to come back online.

“It’s one thing to be short presses, or short capacity,” Mr. Horowitz says. “If you can’t cut anything, everything stops—a real panic begins.”

The actual process of pressing records is surprisingly labor-intensive. During a visit to Brooklynphono, a smaller plant in New York City, the pressing machines required constant monitoring. Minor things kept going wrong, requiring workers to make adjustments.

“Things fall apart,” says Thomas Bernich, who runs the plant with his wife Fern. “I get lots of butterflies.” He could make a new machine, but that would cost him upwards of $250,000, which is prohibitively expensive.

Once the equipment is in place, technicians are needed to train younger staff. But maintaining the industry’s human capital as veterans like Mr. Roczynski retire is another big challenge.

Mr. Roczynski has been in the business since age 16, when he began working at his father’s company. In 1946, Mr. Roczynski’s father, Stanley, was tapped by CBS Records, which pressed records at America’s first LP plant in Bridgeport, Conn., to design equipment. The elder Mr. Roczynski eventually made record equipment the main focus at his factory.

Some 50 years later, Mr. Roczynski is acting as an equipment broker to connect people seeking old machines to those unloading them, for a fee—though it is getting harder to find anything usable. Since Mr. Roczynski has no one to pass Record Products to, he’ll probably sell when he retires—but he says he wants to stay on as a consultant for a while.

“We’ve done all the work,” he says. “Why throw it away?”

Write to Neil Shah at neil.shah@wsj.com

Views: 150

Replies to This Discussion

and this was just reviewed the other day as a great gadget for a christmas gift for your audiophile

yeah its quite a bummer ain't it ?? i still have about 600 or so albums left from the 70's mostly and some 80's .. but i sold about half of em when i moved to florida .. some i don't miss but every now and then i wish i had kept a few more .. and i knew everybody was movin towards cd's but i didn't care .. i thought the two would co exist side by side and let the better format win in the end but that don't always happen .. anybody remember the sony betamax vs. the jvc vhs ?? well the vhs won out in the end and the sony was the better machine as far as quality goes .. and up to that point sony had never lost a battle when it came to new technology , but the japanese victor company ( jvc ) went eyeball to eyeball with sony and sony blinked .. well actually they refused to get in the trenches with em .. when jvc lengthened their tapes to go 6 and then 8 hours sony just sat there and watched .. when they finally got their betamax to go 4 hours from a measly 2 hours it was already too late .. and then there was price .. the beta was a lot more than the vhs and video tape machines were not cheap in 1980 .. by the time sony realized they couldn't beat jvc unless they at least matched their price, again it was already too late .. but beta was the much better machine . and they lost because of poor marketing .. vinyl was a different story tho .. records are made from plastics which are made from oil . and when the price of oil went up so did records so the cd was seen as a way to make more money for less overhead and cost of materials .. and all they had to do was say it was superior to vinyl .. i never agreed with that but i was in the minority .. and vinyl albums were up to about 8 bucks each and cd's were about 16 .. hmm.. they doubled the price of an album overnight by puttin it on cd .. and soon you'd see all these vinyl albums in the trash on movin day.. along with turntables .. cause everybody had to have cd's . and you look at a cd .. its like a postage stamp .. a vinyl album is like a work of art .. if i had the wall space in my house i'd hang a bunch of em all around .. most of em are at least as good and even better than anything andy warhol ever did .. i'd love to see vinyl records make a come back and i know there are some that are interested .. but i don't think enough people will get on board to make it so .. its like neil youngs pono .. altho pono might have a better chance because all it will take is a dvd disk with more space to accomplish and of course the new pono players .. i don't think they can make the cd players now backwards compatible or should i say forward compatible .. technology is changin so fast by the time you decide on a system its time to upgrade to a different system .. or maybe i'm just older than i think i am .. damm .. either way i don't like it .. futhermucker ..        

I used to stack up my seven Moody Blues albums, play side A then flip over to side B... Hours of listening pleasure...

some of the younger people might want lush fullness of vinyl rather than the flat harshness that cds seem to impart to music. their ears are less damaged so, depending on what they listen to, some are knocked out by the difference between digital which only plays what is there while the old tech analog plays the spectrum of the recording, not just the notes played but the shuffle of feet, the breathing all the background noises, the slight echo of the venue where the musicians are playing. there are a lot of recordings these days where the musicians never even met. they all just show up at different times to play their part on the tracks being recorded so it is produced like  a car on an assembly line. that's why some recordings are technically so perfect but so dead.

for future reference, sometimes vinyl can be saved if it is thoroughly washed to remove the dirt and sediment, then sandwiched between two sheets of glass in a warm environment  or outside on a nice sunny day with weight on them to flatten the warps as the vinyl softens

an ironic twist is that vinyl is now more expensive than cds. some collectors vinyl goes for up to 70 bucks for a new pressing...

they are remastering albums and releasing them on vinyl....here's a great one

yeah i agree chiefy .. kids today won't and don't care .. i grew up watchin black and white tv and a lot of movies were in black and white too .. i'll admit that i never thought that black and white added anything to a movie .. or not usually anyway .. maybe a period piece from time to time perhaps but mostly ..no .. but i can still watch an old bogey film in black and white and enjoy it for what it was .. but .. i didn't grow up in the age of silent films so i have no nostalgic feelins for them at all .. you couldn't keep me awake long enough to sit thru one of them .. once the sound is removed i've lost interest entirely .. nancy tries to get me to watch one from time to time to no avail .. i guess i don't have any culture.. but i can see the parallel to todays kids and vinyl and me and silent films .. yeah sure there will always be that small percentage that will pay double for vinyl .. but most won't .. and you need more than 2% to make this thing fly ..

and i can feel your pain about losin everything chief .. i sold half my collection before movin south to florida but i was ready to let go and was tryin to travel light .. you on the other hand weren't goin anywhere and had no reason to let go .. you didn't lose any instruments or amps too by any chance didja ?? that would really hurt .. i had a dream last night that somebody stole my gibson les paul and my sg .. and that disturbed me .. the last time i had a dream like that somebody did steal my sg.. but in the dream i was walkin around in nyc lookin in pawn shops and i found it . and oh yeah i memorized the serial number .. 835959 .. and sure as shit stinks a few months later i was in nyc lookin for a guitar and decided to look in a few pawn shops .. and after lookin all day and was ready to go home i looked in one more .. and there it was .. i didn't remember the serial numbers in my dream last night .. uh oh .. maybe i should huh..  

Actually my nephew has been an aficionado of vinyl for a while now.  That younger generation is indeed intrigued by that richer sound and the depth of those recording as they are captured on vinyl.  I am not sure how sustainable it will be.  It is usually about the next best thing....hard to imagine that they will not figure out a new improved digital means of recording that will result in rich and storied recordings. 

the difference between vinyl which is analog and cds or downloads as digital may sound a little strange but esssentially digitaal records only what is there only what is played....but the really good recording engineers by the use of the boards and the placement of the mics even record what isn't there. a high point on analog recordings was in the 70s when record companies were willing to pour the money into recordings and the results were recordings where you can hear the acoustics of the hall, the breathing of the musicians and the tapping of their feet. they were recording not just the music but the way it filled the space.  so in some ways the recording is BETTER as analog

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