How the vinyl shortage is affecting the grassroots music scene

Changing timelines, new formats and delayed tours… here's how and why the vinyl shortage is having such an impact on smaller scenes.

How the vinyl shortage is affecting the grassroots music scene
Eloise Bulmer

We all know by now that vinyl is properly back. Sales have overtaken CDs for the first time since 1986, having pretty constantly remained popular in the DIY and grassroots scenes but now firmly returning to the mainstream. And all sorts of artists are looking to capitalise on this: from major label pop stars who are aiming for a high chart position, to legacy acts reissuing their back-catalogues.

However, as vinyl’s popularity reaches new heights, supply hasn’t risen with it. Currently, only one plant in the world – MDC in Japan – can produce the lacquer disks needed to make records. There just aren’t enough resources to get vinyl to all who want it, and although everyone is affected, the bigger labels and artists have more money and resources to tackle the issue.

Most recently, Adele's label ordered 500,000 copies of her latest album 30, halting production for other LPs to ensure hers would be ready for release day. Meanwhile, the DIY bands who have relied on and celebrated the format for years are struggling to get their records pressed. And for bands, having vinyl to sell at the merch table is often how they're able to tour at all. "We've had to re-juggle pretty much all our plans," says Jacob Rice of Bristol noise-pop duo Superlove. "We were going to do a run of seven-inch vinyls for the singles, 100 copies or so of each of all the different colours, so each track is represented by one colour. We started the campaign, and then it became apparent that this would just not work for any other singles."

They decided to forget vinyl singles altogether, instead focusing on firming up their album release date to ensure they can at least get vinyl in time for then. This has affected all facets of the band's album campaign, including touring plans.

"We're seeing around four to five shows a month at the moment currently postponing," shares Chris Pritchard of grassroots venue The Tunbridge Wells Forum. "The vinyl issue that's adding to delays in touring is our main issue at the moment. We've dealt with a complete fallout from lockdown, and another thing like this happening is just an additional thorn in the side of keeping your venue above water."

What's especially difficult is how last-minute these decisions can often be, made sometimes only two or three weeks ahead of time. "They're completely wasted days in the diary for the venue. It's revenue that's lost across the board, including staff that essentially work on a day-by-day basis… they're sometimes getting less than 24 hours' notice to know that the tour’s not happening, because there's been a delay on the vinyl," Chris continues.

Small bands and labels are getting creative with how they overcome the vinyl shortage, however. Alex Lichtenauer, who founded independent label Get Better Records, has seen the worst of how it can affect small artists. The standard timeline to write, record and release an album is out the window, and artists and labels are having to adapt – and fast – to keep up with the ever-extended release cycle.

"We're having two different street dates: one for digital and one for physical… we're still figuring out how to manage our time when it comes to when records are being recorded vs. when they're coming out."

This is a trend across the grassroots music scene as people scramble to supplement or replace the once-reliable income from vinyl.

"If a band are going on tour they'll get priority to get records on tour," admits Alex, who has to make those difficult decisions at Get Better Records. "Right now we have six records turned into us but we can't have six records come out all at the same time."

This doesn't solve all problems, though, as often bands use sales of vinyl to finance and plan upcoming tours – when that vinyl doesn't materialise in time is when tours can get cancelled. But does that have to be the case?

"I think people want to own something and feel that they've paid the artist something, regardless of it being a shirt they can wear or a vinyl, just a keepsake that is a reminder of the tour. Sell more merchandise and do some unique things," suggests Chris. "I think the audiences are there to see them whether they've got vinyl or not."

For Get Better Records, the focus is more on cassette tapes for the time being. "Everyone wants vinyl but often cassettes are the right move, especially for a newer band who maybe don't have as big a fanbase. Direct to consumer, [cassettes] do really, really well."

As for the bands, Superlove state that coming out to local gigs is the best way to support them right now: “Buy a T-shirt maybe, just come and have fun."

And, although the huge order of Adele records has shone a spotlight on this issue, in reality it's been a problem for a long time. "At the end of the day, it's not her fault. I mean, it's just awful timing," commiserates Jacob.

What has come out of this, however, is the knowledge that major labels are also struggling with orders. "Now it's a global thing that's happening where even major labels are affected, I feel like the whole industry is changing to rework itself to keep things going and figure out new ways to get fans and artists excited," says Alex. "Whether you're with us or you're with a major label, everyone's dealing with the same thing, which for us is comforting."

No-one knows how long this issue will last, but without immediate plans to increase manufacturing capacity, it could be years yet. In the meantime, there are plenty of ways to support grassroots scenes outside of buying and collecting vinyl on release. Pre-order those records, go to shows, pick up a T-shirt when you're there. It all helps.

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