The Vinyl Issue: The Economics Of Vinyl

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Vinyl at its best is the aristocracy of music formats. That’s no excuse, though, for the Marie Antoinette-ish attitudes some labels and musicians have adopted to pricing it.

Flick through the racks of the record shops which are the vinyl revival’s heartbeat, and you’ll find most new LPs costing between £16 and £22. But why do Led Zeppelin’s single-disc reissues cost £17, when Pink Floyd’s The Endless River costs £35? And why, if you want Neil Young’s mediocre new album Storytone, does that figure double again? Once you note that high-quality pressings of albums on indie labels such as Domino cost their mostly young buyers £20 or less, while recent releases by Donald Fagen, Paul McCartney and Paul Weller shared Floyd’s £35 price, the suspicion must be that older fan-bases with more disposable income than sense are being charged sums plucked out of the air.

“There are labels where they feel that the public is so hungry for a record that the price-point can be that much higher,” explains Domino product manager Paul Briggs. “But young people can’t afford £35, and we want to make sure that people can buy our records.”

Prices also vary among the specialist vinyl labels, because they disagree about what the format is for. The Vinyl Factory see records as boutique craft items, with extras such as the silk-screen-printed sleeve of Weller’s 2012 Sonik Kicks LP justifying its £35 price. Music On Vinyl, with a catalogue ranging from Elvis Costello to Korn priced at about £20, take a different view. “You can go as crazy as you want, of course,” their product manager Michiel Kusters explains, “and have your records individually checked and packed, or use embossing, which can triple a sleeve’s normal price. But we’re trying to get the music brought to as many people as possible.”

Extras the new generation of vinyl fetishists revere, such as 180g discs and gatefold sleeves, add very little to production costs. Pink Floyd and Neil Young have both chucked in colour booklets to their double-disc new releases, and Young’s extreme audiophilia doubtless spared no expense in Storytone’s mastering. But a fact which seems to go against all of rock’s democratic principles remains: Young’s new vinyl album sits in the racks, costing 70 quid.

The record shops at the sharp end of selling it can’t publicly complain about their suppliers’ foibles. “People do still come in and buy that Neil Young album, and in a way it frustrates me that they do,” one record-shop worker tells me, on condition of anonymity. “I also run a record label, and I know that for a popular record that’s not at all rare, there’s no way it could possibly cost that much to make, no matter how flash it is. I don’t know why he does it, because he’s so pro-vinyl. It feels like a cheat.”

“I personally think £70 is a lot of money to pay for a record,” Kusters agrees. “But the more audiophile audience also pay £10,000 for an amplifier. The consumer decides. You’re always the last person in line. So you decide if that is value for your hard-earned cash.”