Pressing Vinyl: The Intersection of Band and Business

Christopher Paul Stelling spent two weeks sliding 12-inch vinyl records, lyric sheets and download cards into pre-printed record sleeves when he released his first album in 2012. The work was not glamorous.

He assembled 500 copies of Songs of Praise and Scorn, sealing the final product in plastic and at the same time siphoning valuable time away from preparations for a tour that would take him, his ‘64 Gibson C-1 nylon-string guitar and his stomping folk, to more than 150 stops across the country. He vowed never to handle a release that way again.

Christopher Paul Stelling

“I was trying to save money,” the singer-songwriter says during a break between shows in Texas. “But time is money. It can cost two or three weeks to do a project to save $1,000.”

Stelling put out two records on his own before handing the reins to the ANTI- record label earlier this year. He remains blissfully unaware of the manufacturing process behind the 12” release of Labor Against Waste.

His rough introduction to record making is not unique. Ask anyone in the business. Vinyl, with its luxurious sheen, up-front expense and potential for slim-to-nil margins, comes with a learning curve.

“We shied away from vinyl for years,” says Scott Pollack, president of A to Z Media, a brokerage that connects labels and musicians with vendors who make records, CDs and other artifacts. “It is a dirty, time-consuming, expensive process. But now we are really focusing on vinyl.”

Artists are gravitating to the format, he says, and the company has seen a rise in orders from individual bands and indie labels that are pressing 1,000 or fewer records. “A lot of those bands are not ordering CDs. They are pouring money for physical [products] into vinyl.”

Profit margins

Artists have reason to consider records. Put aside, for a moment, the aesthetic allure of a well-executed vinyl record: the sound, the big artwork and the orchestration of songs. Put aside, even, the thrill felt in the niche community of vinyl fans. Think only of the economics.

“You’re able to make money,” says Evan Way, frontman for The Parson Red Heads. The band loves the physicality of vinyl, he says, the sound and the holistic process of listening to a record. But the projects also make financial sense. “People are willing to pay more for vinyl because it has more value.”

It’s the ideal form for your art to be released. And it demands small-business decisions. You’re really looking at cost-benefit ratios. It’s where the business world and band world collide.”

The indie psych-folk band has put out five records on four different labels, including their first, a 2009 limited edition 7-inch encased in an envelope that Way says he screen printed himself “for cost savings.” Their full-length LPs retail for more than $20 and, depending on packaging, inserts and other variables, cost between $7 and $8 to manufacture, leaving the band with a healthy margin.

“It's funny,” Way says. “It’s the ideal form for your art to be released. And it demands small-business decisions. You’re really looking at cost-benefit ratios. It’s where the business world and band world collide.”

Reality checks

Artists interested in putting out records need to take a hard look at their sales histories and their audiences’ listening habits and decide if they can sell enough records to overcome the start-up expenses of pressing vinyl, stakeholders say.

Pressing plants may take orders for as few as 100 records, but the cost per unit will be high if an artist does not spread the cost of producing necessary start-up infrastructure across a larger run. Lacquers, metal plates and test pressings, for example, can cost more than $600 at the storied California-based manufacturer Rainbo Records. Simply put, it is easier to make the financial case for running 500 records than for running 100.

But only if an artist can find buyers for those records. “You have to be honest about how many records you can sell,” Way says. “I know a lot of bands that have vinyl in their basements. [The Parsons] like to do small runs. If you do a run of 500 and sell them all, you make enough money to do the next run.”

James Agren, founder of indie label Darla Records, has applied that same strategy to pressing records from artists including My Morning Jacket. He cautions against pressing fewer than 300 units. “You get a decent return depending on how many you can sell,” he says. “But it’s the man-hours required. If you sell 300 records, you can get $1,500 each to the artist and to the label. And those [records] better sell fast. You can end up sitting on inventory for years.”

Small-business details

Turnaround is the most critical element a band needs to understand when deciding to press a record, says Steve Sheldon, owner of Rainbo Records. About 20% of the business at his plant comes from individual bands, and their orders share the same presses busily pumping out catalog product that large labels are building up in the face of a burgeoning vinyl market. Supply currently is running about 20 weeks behind demand. If bands want to stay on budget, “don’t schedule a release party until you know when you will have your records,” Sheldon says.

If artists are following the small, multi-batch model recommended by the Parsons and Darla Records, they should consider printing all of the packaging at once, Sheldon says. The difference between printing 500 and 1,000 premium single-pocket jackets at Rainbo, for example, is less than $150. Combine the savings on packaging with a second pressing of an album on the same metal plates used for the first run, and margins on the second batch of the records could be higher than the margins on the first.

Artists who are trying to control costs want to avoid pricey embellishments like gatefolded jackets and colored vinyl, which can easily double costs, Sheldon says.

Bands also can shave a few dollars off the cost of packaging by designing the product themselves, using templates provided by manufacturers. But A to Z Media advises bands to look at investing in work from a local designer. It’s better to spend money for quality black-and-white graphics than to print mediocre four-color images, Pollack says.

Bands also need to consider the cost of shipping heavy vinyl pallets, which can erode margins and make geography a consideration when looking at vendors. When Cascade Records, for example, turned on its Portland, Ore., presses earlier this year, musicians within driving distance took note. Shipping can add $150 to $200 to the cost of 500 records in standard jackets, Cascade COO Mark Rainey says. Bands can pick up shipments to avoid that cost.

Incentives

The printing and insertion of CDs and download cards has become a standard in the industry, and bands should be aware of the effect it can have on price, says Darla Record’s Agren. “We pay 10 cents for every hand motion, every card inserted, every sticker applied.”

But those download cards and other value-added inserts do help sell the vinyl, even in a market in which streaming services are cutting into both physical and digital sales. The Parsons, who sell a majority of their vinyl at shows, spend less than a dollar per record to bundle CDs into the packaging, Way says. And Christopher Paul Stelling’s new record, Labor Against Waste, includes a download card.

In the age of streaming, Stelling says, the reality that musicians are up against is stark. “These days, we’re lucky people buy anything at all.”

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