Vinyl sales have a 3.6% share of the overall recorded music market, including streaming. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian
For an event dedicated to the vinyl revival, the setting couldn’t be more appropriate. In the mid-70s David Bowie sat in the same wood panelled room of Berlin’s Meistersaal, recording Low and Heroes.
“He’d look out on to the nearby GDR watchtower and the joke was that the border guards would be listening in on the recordings,” Eduard Meyer, Bowie’s sound engineer recalls.
A little over 40 years on, the “big hall by the wall”, as Bowie nicknamed it, is full of mostly greying men in suits discussing how to make vinyl great again. There are sessions on everything from the art of pressing, to how to compete with Spotify, and Meyer regales the participants with his tales of working at the Meistersaal alongside the likes of Iggy Pop, Depeche Mode and Talking Heads.
“Bands liked its proximity to the Berlin Wall, because it meant they could make as much noise as they wanted without disturbing anyone,” he says. In those days, that part of west Berlin was pretty much deserted.
Making Vinyl, which was held on 2-3 May, is a conference that aims to recapture something of those glory days and to offer a sustainable way forward for an industry that in 2018 saw its global revenues increase for the 13th consecutive year, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).
Vinyl sales now enjoy a 3.6% share of the overall recorded music market, including streaming. In the week ending 18 April, vinyl sales in the US were up 193% year-on-year, from 282,000 to 827,000.
Like millions of others, Larry Jaffee, co-founder of Making Vinyl, threw away his 4,000-piece vinyl collection. But in the past few years he has been trying to rebuild it, and believes the IFPI numbers are a gross underestimate, “because most independent shops selling vinyl these days do not report their sales, and the research – at best – relies on estimates.”
Neither do the figures include the large number of second-hand sales. Pressing plants and vinyl distributors also say that the numbers in no way reflect the unit volumes coming from their facilities.
“Many bands sell records themselves when on tour, or via their websites and these are not being tracked,” says Nike Koch of Sony Music International. Although she believes there’s a limit to the growth potential for vinyl, Koch also admits that Sony returned to producing vinyl again six years ago“for the simple reason that we saw the dollar signs in our eyes”.
The real champions of the product are the smaller operators, the most dedicated that never stopped pressing, such as Hospital Records, an independent UK dance music record label from south London.
“There wouldn’t be a vinyl market if it wasn’t for the dance scene maintaining that market,” says Chris Goss, its co-founder. “We drove those presses when few others were interested, and have retained a dogged commitment to the format.”
Five pressing plants are responsible for at least half of the estimated 160m vinyl records produced every year, and they have had to adapt to the growing demand.
“Until recently you had to wait three to four months for a record to be pressed,” says Ton Vermeulen from Record Industry in Haarlem, a pressing plant he set up two decades ago with his wife Mieke. “Now it’s just six weeks”.
But those in the industry warn would-be vinyl pressers – often lured by the romanticism around vinyl – how tough the market is.
“When you’re running a factory you must be very pragmatic about it,” insists Michal Štěrba of GZ Media in Loděnice in central Bohemia. GZ is the world’s largest vinyl producer, pressing around 30m records a year and employing 2,000 people, with an annual revenue of €100m (£86m).
Inside Berlin’s Meistersaal – with its richly decorated wood ceilings and parquet floor. Photograph: Alamy
Formed under communism when all the small pressing plants were consolidated into one, GZ Media kept going even when vinyl went into decline, “so everyone came to us for their vinyl,” says Štěrba.
Six years ago he began overhauling the operation, and has produced collectors’ items like a Bruce Springsteen Collection Box – “it had to look like a leather suitcase but be made out of paper,” Štěrba says – as well as U2’s Joshua Tree 30th anniversary limited edition set.
Štěrba however, believes the market is no longer growing – not least because there is a limit to the number of backlists that plants can reproduce (the US vinyl charts are full of them, from Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan to Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones).
The big question now is how to encourage new vinyl enthusiasts, particularly young people, at a time when subscribers to streaming services are soaring. Spotify now has over 100m paid users.
“Make sure your product is superior, and don’t give inferior record players to your kids,” is the simple answer offered by Peter Runge of Berlin-based Optimal Media, which resurrected some old presses two decades ago.
At last week’s conference there was much talk about vinyl as a luxury product and the buzz that can be generated by stating where a record was pressed, similar to craft beers from particular breweries.
Record Store Day has also helped. Starting in San Francisco in 2007, it is now a global phenomenon involving tens of thousands of independent record stores.
But the biggest threat to the industry’s future may be one it has chosen to widely ignore. With production processes largely stuck in the late 70s, the production process is decidedly anti-green. It involves toxic acids, huge amounts of energy including steaming and cooling, and the records themselves are typically PVC, a plastic thought to be carcinogenic, which is due to be banned by the EU.
Customers look through racks of records at Rough Trade East in London on Record Store Day 2014. Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris/The Guardian
Harm Theunisse, an engineer from the Dutch company Symcon, plays his trademark Green Vinyl version of Fat Boy Slim on the conference sidelines.
“The record is non-PVC, and did not involve chlorine and steam,” he says, claiming his energy output is 60% lower, his production costs 25% less, his labour costs lower and his turnaround considerably quicker.
There is no static when he takes it out of its sleeve, no pop and crackle to be heard when it plays, and the purists, he admits, say it also doesn’t smell like conventional vinyl.
“I’m just trying to inject some innovation, but for a lot of people here that simply goes against the grain,” he says.
Top selling vinyl albums 2018
1 Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino
2 Motion Picture Cast Recording – The Greatest Showman