Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Old vinyl pressing machinery – can it take the burden of major label box sets?

Earlier this month, John Harris wrote a good and long piece about the comeback of vinyl in the context of old machinery in The Guardian, you should definitely check it out. It is called "Vinyl’s difficult comeback  Can the creaking machinery of the few remaining record pressing plants cope with demand?". Almost every newspaper or online article on the much touted "recent comeback of vinyl" that has appeared in the last five years has striking similarities. It is based around a factory tour the writer is given of the production facilities at one of the few remaining pressing plants in Europe. Whether you are a small DIY label pressing punk vinyl, a techno label, or a major. Everyone is using the same production vendors.
I have seen similar articles on GZ in the Czech Republic, Pallas in Germany (see Youtube video below), Record Industry in the Netherlands, and now Optimal in the Northeast of Germany. So I guess their PR folks are doing a good job. My label has never done business with Optimal, but I hear from a lot of friends with labels that they are one of the best vinyl manufacturers around. They are usually reliable and their quality is high, so I send my friends there if they ask me for recommendations.
What really amuses me is the fact that in each and every article the manufacturer being portrayed claims to run the biggest vinyl pressing plant in Europe. In this case the Optimal operations director, Peter Runge, states that Optimal "is Europe’s biggest pressing plant". I wonder if the journalists ever read each other's writings on the same subject or if they will ever give us the statistics that underline such claims. Is it the number of presses? Is it the number of pieces of vinyl manufactured per year? Is it the potential number of LPs or Singles that could be manufactured in one year? Is it the annual revenue? Or is is the space they occupy in their town? We might never know. The article claims that Optimal presses "between 50,000 and 55,000 records" daily and operates in 24 hour shifts. Not bad indeed.

Optimal was founded by independent label Edel from Hamburg in the mid-90s, and at that time the focus was dance music maxis because back then techno and dance DJs had not yet sold out to laptops and USB sticks. In 2015 Optimal plans to operate 29 vinyl presses and press 18 million vinyl records. 
The focus of the article, as implied in its title, is the age of the machines and that they will not last forever. And that repairs are expensive as original spare parts are impossible to find. A topic which almost always comes up during the tours in every article on the subject, but is hardly ever mentioned as prominently as here. So every pressing plant tries to hunt down the few remaining machines that are still on the market around the globe. Or that could potentially be on the market. But they have to be repaired first and brought back into operation. To join those 24 hour shifts. But even a broken machine can be a spare-part supplier if it is of the same model as the production machines.
I heard that obtaining the wiring diagrams and other documentation can be almost as important as finding physical machines. With this info you can easier get metal spare parts made and repair broken presses. After all, a vinyl press is not that different from other machines that make other plastic parts. It always includes a lot of pressure and heat. But the electronic parts can also be a limiting factor if the original machine was from the 70s or 80s.
What the Guardian article also makes painfully clear is: Today's vinyl market is driven by reissues and major labels. The exact same labels that tried their best to kill off vinyl in the 80s and 90s. And that sold all their pressing plants and presses during that time. Now they come back to independent record presses to get their reissues of FLEETWOOD MAC - Rumours LPs and ULTRAVOX - Vienna LPs done for Record Store Day. At the same time, small labels have a hard time finding any capacities for new releases. Every record the writer mentions during the tour of the Optimal factory is a reissue, from a 60s soul release to a metal release from the early 90s.
In the Guardian article John Harris also visits a London "Classic Album Sunday" in Shoreditch, where hip young people assemble at a trendy bar to listen to vinyl on a top-notch stereo and speaker system. What are they listening to? Is it a lost gem from the distant past, or a great analog production from the last ten years (a modern classic)? No, it is a launch event for the new Bruce Springsteen box set, combining seven albums that originally came out between 1973 and 1984.

The recent trend of box sets surely is one of those annoying major label trends of recent years. And one of the Optimal employees also mentions it during the factory tour. Optimal proudly shows their BEATLES reissue box set on their website (pictured above). The majors with deep deep backlists found out that box sets of dinosaur bands make great gifts. So they are hogging resources at the pressing plants, and the result is that small labels cannot get anything done, esp. around Record Store Day and Christmas. They might indeed ruin the creaking machinery for smaller punk vinyl labels and everyone else. They surely are already ruining some other label folks' release schedules.


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