Sleeve specialists get into a groove

Simon Creasey
Monday, June 20, 2016

Last year was a watershed moment for sales of vinyl records in the UK. Just over 2 million LPs were purchased in 2015 – a 64% increase on the previous year and a 21-year sales high, according to research from music body BPI.

Conversely sales of CDs – which were widely tipped to kill off vinyl records when they were introduced in the 1980s – fell by 3.9%. The vinyl format has now enjoyed eight consecutive years of growth since teetering on the brink of extinction in 2007 when only 205,000 LPs were bought.

Its resurgence has been so strong that major supermarket groups like Tesco and Sainsbury’s recently started stocking vinyl records – the latter stopped selling vinyl in store in the 1980s – and the UK’s first official vinyl LP chart was introduced in April last year. In addition, a number of hi-fi retailers are seeing record player sales soar.

So what’s driven the recent vinyl revival, how sustainable is it and what opportunities does it offer printers?

The BPI attributes the renewed growth of vinyl sales to initiatives such as popular annual events like Record Store Day, plus a “new generation of rock bands and fans who regard vinyl as collectable art that is a badge of honour”.

It’s a view shared by Chris Muirhead, account director at Disc Manufacturing Services. “[The renewed demand is] most likely a response to the digital revolution and people wanting to own music again in a tangible format and not on a hard drive,” says Muirhead.

Ben Galea, from Bristol-based Squared Roots, which produces screen-printed record sleeves, agrees that a large part of the attraction of vinyl is its tactility. 

“We have a strong connection with the independent music scene, which includes many self-made artists and small labels, and the demand has grown within this scene, as rather than online digital downloads, which get forgotten about over time, they want a tangible product that their fans can collect and cherish,” says Galea.

Long players

Then there are those long-standing die-hard enthusiasts who argue that the LP offers a better listening experience than CDs or digital downloads. “According to one of our customers, who is a graphic designer, music sounds warmer on vinyl and holding a record sleeve and placing its contents on a turntable offers a more well-rounded aesthetic experience than a CD,” says Ian Davies, sales director at Scanplus Printing Group, which offers short- and long-run sleeves.

Another key factor that’s fuelled vinyl sales growth over the past few years is many music labels have begun reissuing back catalogues, as well as releasing old chart topping songs onto vinyl that were previously only available in other formats. Regardless of the individual factors that have driven the vinyl revival what’s not in doubt is sales are growing at an impressive rate at the moment. 

“We have had a dramatic increase in record sleeve sales over the past 12 months and have been working with independent record producers, solo artists and bands on a range of projects,” says Davies.

Adam Teskey, manufacturing director at The Vinyl Factory says his company saw an increase in production volumes of circa 24% in 2015 over 2014 – the production volume for 2014 was also 22% up on the previous year.

“Many artists have taken an interest or renewed their interest in the format and are asking – even demanding – their record labels release their music on vinyl specifically as well as other formats,” says Teskey. “Their belief, rightfully so, is that their music lends itself to be listened to properly – ie: encouraging people to sit down and listen to a recording rather than seeing it as disposable.”

Like The Vinyl Factory, Karen Emanuel, managing director at Key Production, has also been inundated with demand for vinyl from music labels and artists – so much so that lead times for deliveries have got significantly longer due to production capacity issues in Europe. 

“When I first started Key we would quote a three-week turnaround time for vinyl from start to finish, but now in the main we quote three months,” says Emanuel. “That timeframe can be shortened, but there are times when it can be lengthened.” 

As a result, it’s exciting times for suppliers to the industry who are cashing in on the resurrection of the format. 

“It’s been brilliant to see resurgence in vinyl, not just because of the nostalgia but for the music industry as well,” says Becky Wilcock, marketing and external communications manager at DS Smith’s UK packaging division. “So many products are now digital that it’s refreshing to see a traditional method rising in popularity again. It’s exciting to develop a modern-day packaging solution for a retro product.”

Pack potential

The upside for printers is – as Wilcock points out – that vinyl needs to be packaged properly as the “nature of the product is very fragile and so it could easily be damaged”. Therefore getting the packaging right is essential. You’d think this would in turn mean boom times for printers, however, just because vinyl sales have shot through the roof it doesn’t necessarily mean that the printing industry will be able to cash in because vinyl sleeve printing is a niche market that requires a specialist skill set and equipment, according to Emanuel.

“It’s not just a case of printing the sleeve,” she explains. “You have the inner bags and the outer sleeves and then there are the different materials you need to be able to print on. There are already enough printers that have the correct machinery and have been doing this for years that can fulfil the amount of capacity for vinyl.” 

So while the renewed interest in vinyl may only be relevant to a select band of printers, for those companies that are fortunate enough to already be active in this area the good news is it looks like there is plenty of mileage left in it yet. 

“We predict that vinyl sales will keep growing,” says Squared Roots’ Ben Galea. “Unfortunately I doubt it will ever return to how it was in the 60s, 70s and 80s, due to there being so many ways of buying music.”

Freek Godijn, co-owner at Vinyl, also has reservations about how big the vinyl industry could get.

“It’s hard to say what the future will bring, but we expect demand to level out,” says Godijn. “Right now it is still growing and has been for the last ten years. We’re hopeful there will be a consistently higher demand for vinyl than in previous years.”

Like Godijn, Disc Manufacturing Services’ Chris Muirhead isn’t sure how the future is going to pan out for the format.

“It might plateau or it may continue to grow,” says Muirhead. “One of the biggest growth demographics is in under-25s who could potentially continue to purchase throughout their lives meaning that it could continue to grow exponentially as it becomes more mainstream. Or the entire format could be overtaken by some new technology or change in trends. It’s difficult to say for sure, but as things are going I would say that it will continue.”

What’s not debatable is the potential scope for growth of vinyl. At the moment it only accounts for less than 2% of music consumption in the UK – compare that to the fact that 66% of all album sales in the UK are CDs, according to the BPI. On the flipside a lot of recent sales growth has been fuelled by record labels putting out artists’ back catalogues and when these albums have all been reissued on vinyl it’s inevitable that sales will start to slow as further production will focus on new releases. Even if that eventuality does come to pass it still won’t tarnish the recent vinyl revival, which is unprecedented, says Teskey.

“In the music industry you’ve seen music formats come and go, but what has rarely or never been seen is a format grow, decline and then grow again,” he says.

And that’s exactly what’s happened with vinyl. 

Vinyl tops the chart

In 2015, figures from music body BPI showed that sales of vinyl LPs hit 2.1 million – a significant increase on the 1.3 million units sold the previous year. According to the BPI the most popular releases were from iconic acts from rock’s heyday, such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, as well as more contemporary artists such as Arctic Monkeys and Royal Blood. The best-selling vinyl title of the year was Adele’s 25. Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black was the second highest selling record just ahead of the Stone Roses self-titled debut album from 1989. “The success of Adele and Amy on vinyl suggests that the format, which is often presented in premium quality packaging featuring added-value content, is increasingly lending itself to the gifting market – especially in the run-up to Christmas,” said the BPI. While vinyl sales continue to soar the opposite was true for CD albums in 2015, which slumped by 3.9%. Although this may sound like a depressing figure it was a significant improvement on declines experienced in preceding years – in 2012 sales fell by 20% and in 2014 sales were down 7.9%. Digital downloads of albums also suffered in 2015 thanks to the growing popularity of streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music.

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