How to make a vinyl record
- 20 March 2023, Monday
It’s been more than 15 years since the so-called vinyl revival hit the music industry across the world. Nowadays, millions of vinyl records are sold every year with musicians opting for the format more and more. Are you considering releasing your music on vinyl? This article will give you all the information you need about vinyl releases and the industry.
Why you should care about vinyl as an artist
The key reason why you should care about vinyl records as an artist is fans’ general obsession with them. There is something undeniably magical and romantic about vinyl records - from the way they are designed, through the way they are produced, to the way they are consumed. As already mentioned, the general popularity of vinyl has increased dramatically over the past decade. In fact, a total of 43.46 million vinyl records were sold in the U.S. in 2022.
This marks 2022 the 17th consecutive year vinyl album sales grew in the country and, also, the largest year for LP sales since Luminate, the entertainment’s preeminent data and insights company, began tracking data in 1991. Additionally, vinyl LPs made up 43.4% of all albums sold that year across all formats - physical and digital.
In other words, a great number of people love buying music on vinyl, though it’s mostly as collection items rather than means of consuming music (reports say that only about half of vinyl buyers actually own a record player). However, this is nothing new in today’s music industry.
As people mostly use music streaming services, such as Spotify, Deezer, or Apple Music, to listen to music, physical records act rather as part of musicians’ merchandise. This means that they are in most cases purchased by fans solely to be collected.
For many musicians, physical records have actually been the most sought-after items from their merch, especially at live shows. This is, as they believe, particularly for enhanced user experience. While the sales of vinyl have gone up significantly, those of CDs have dropped three times as fast. It is therefore undeniable that vinyl has pretty much taken over CDs in the lives of music lovers.
Merchandising is often not only a vital income stream but also a powerful tool to maintain a solid relationship with your fans. Releasing music on vinyl may therefore be a great idea for independent artists like you, despite the fact that it may be rather costly to do so. Vinyl is considered cool, highly valuable, and simply special to own.
Music sales by format by the Recording Industry Association of America
Vinyls in comparison to other formats
Most can agree that vinyl records are highly fashionable but how do they hold up to other formats, you may ask? The truth is that many industry specialists praise vinyl records for their quality attributes, such as sound quality and, to a certain extent, longevity.
Sustainability, on the other hand, is not something that the format traditionally excels in. In fact, many have pointed out that the vinyl revival has had some serious impacts on our environment, from intoxicating wastewater to causing greenhouse gas emissions.
This comes mostly from the use of PVC (polyvinyl chloride), a plastic material from which records are made. The material is not particularly environmentally friendly, being toxic and quite difficult to recycle. Additionally, the production process itself is pollution-inducing, too, as it involves toxic acids and also consumes plenty of energy for steaming and cooling.
That is also why alternative, sustainable materials are currently in development to create a rather sustainable future for vinyl. It was actually last year that the first commercially available bioplastic record was released. The record featured a track called ‘Future if Future’, by the former R.E.M lead singer Michael Stipe, and in total 500 copies were produced and sold.
Regarding longevity, vinyl is, at first sight, also not doing very well in comparison to other formats. They are easy to break and even easier to scratch. However, unlike others, vinyl is the only format that’s fully analog and so doesn’t require any digital conversion or reading to be played back.
This means that there’s no risk of losing your musical data in a computer crash and, additionally, there is generally no need to convert any digital files, either (although, nowadays, some form of digital files may be involved in the production, too).
The main benefit of vinyl is then attributed to its audio characteristics. It’s said that as no data is lost when pressing a record, its sound quality is significantly better than that of digital recording. Some even claim that vinyl allows you to listen to the music exactly as the producer intended.
Moreover, vinyl records have traditionally avoided the so-called ‘loudness war’, which refers to the trend of increasing audio levels in recorded music. As a result, the loudness war reduces the audio fidelity and also, according to the critics, listener enjoyment.
With vinyl, increasing the loudness of the audio is not that easy, mainly as opposed to digital formats. Any sound that’s too loud can cause the needle to jump unevenly. This, as a consequence, may cause irreversible damage to the record. Therefore, the sound of vinyl is often described as warm and soothing, bringing its listeners a great amount of enjoyment.
How to release vinyl records
Now that you know the qualities of LPs, we can move on to what you need to know to actually release your music on vinyl.
1. Know your timeline
The high demand for vinyl has serious setbacks, too, mainly as a result of vinyl pressing plants shortage and lack of material. In 2021, the music magazine Mixmag reported that there were only roughly a hundred vinyl pressing plants in the world, out of which just 10 had the capacity to produce larger amounts of records.
To put it in perspective, the total capacity of the currently existing plants is around 160 million records per year, while the demand is between 320-400 million records. The most LPs sold in history so far were in 1978, totaling 334 million records. With adequate capacity and capability, the vinyl manufacturing industry would have certainly surpassed this number by now.
As none of the three big labels have launched their own vinyl pressing plants and most of those existing are owned by smaller labels (or prioritize big orders), independent artists may find it rather difficult to get their physical release out. It is also often the case that with larger plants unable to meet demand, smaller plants have to take over the orders from the big labels, too.
So, what is the outcome of all of it for independent musicians, you may ask? Mostly, it is the major pressing plant delays and so long waiting times for artists. What used to be 10-15 weeks can now possibly be up to one year of waiting to get to the top of the queue and have your records finally pressed. What’s more, the estimated production turnover time often doesn’t include additional delays, potential manufacturing defects (yes, that can happen), or shipping difficulties.
Announcement by a vinyl pressing plant, Musicol
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should give up on the idea of releasing your music on vinyl – you may just need to have a schedule in place to avoid waiting around and putting your career on hold.
As vinyl requires a separate mastering and production process from your digital release, scheduling a separate release date may be a good idea. This way, you can still put out and promote your new music, before and after the release date, while preparing it to be released on vinyl in the meantime.
Such a strategy also goes along with the fact that many individuals buy vinyl only to collect them. By releasing your music on vinyl sometime after it’s already been available on music streaming platforms, you may actually give your fans a chance to get to know and love your new release. Afterward, buying your record on vinyl may for many be a no-brainer.
2. Master your recording properly
As already mentioned, mastering a vinyl record and a digital recording requires two different processes. This is due to differences in audiovisual qualities of each format and, specifically, various limitations that vinyl imposes.
Now, many artists tend to use their digital masters for the vinyl-cutting process but this may have a significant impact on the sound quality of the record. It is therefore rather important that you have the knowledge of mastering a vinyl record or choose a reliable and well-equipped mastering engineer that will do the work for you.
As explained earlier, it is mostly the issues of volume and possible distortion that need to be considered when mastering a vinyl record. One may want to avoid using too much stereo bass or highly sibilant vocals (making sounds with too much of a hissing effect), which can be done by using de-essers or manually de-essing the digital cutting source. It is also advised to opt for compression to control any excessive dynamics and, most importantly, appropriate sequencing, which we will talk about in the next section.
3. Focus on sequencing
Album sequencing refers to the process of ordering your tracks on an album, EP, or mixtape. It’s not only a question of simply putting the tracks in a particular order, but also defining the silence between songs and the individual fades-in and fades-out. Sequencing, generally, is important for how the piece of work is perceived by its listeners as it defines the relationships and flow between individual songs and so creates the whole character of the record.
Bear in mind that unlike with a digital release or even a CD, you can’t skip around between tracks on vinyl. The grooves on an LP don’t mark the beginning and end of a song and the more you move around the needle of your record player out of sequence, the more likely you can damage it.
It’s therefore important to put your tracks on vinyl in such a sequence that the flow of the tracklist is sonically pleasant to listen to and the record has your listener’s attention throughout its entire playing time. Firstly, consider having your louder songs placed on the outside of the disc and the quieter ones on the inside. The curvature of the vinyl grooving is less angular on the outside which means that it allows for higher-volume sounds.
Though not directly connected to sequencing, it is also crucial to have an ideal length of audio on each side of the record. Each side of a 12-inch LP can only hold up to 22 minutes, though some experts recommend keeping it to around 18 minutes to avoid any possible issues. Too much music on one side of the vinyl may hinder the ultimate sound quality of the record.
Lastly, be sure to keep around 30 seconds of quiet runtime between the end of one side of the vinyl and the beginning of the other one. This will enable for a smoother-sounding flip between each side and won’t cause tracks to start or stop too early.
4. Consider all costs associated with releasing a vinyl
Having your music released on vinyl is not the cheapest thing you can do as a musician. The ultimate cost of the production process depends on numerous factors, including the type of mastering (in-house vs in the pressing plant vs third party), the size of the LP (7”, 10” or 12”), the length of your recording, the quantity you order, the color and weight of the vinyl and, of course, the pressing plant you select.
As we researched, the average minimum price for 100 LPs is around $1000-$1225. However, as explained earlier, the price can very much differ from one order to another just like from one pressing plant to a different one. Also, be aware that it is generally rare for pressing plants to accept orders to produce only 100 LPs. Often, the manufacturers require a minimum order of 200 or, more commonly, 300 copies as it is economically more convenient and easier for them to produce in bulk quantities.
Regarding the variety of offers, some manufacturers offer so-called bundle deals, where the price may include a number of utilities, such as mastering, stampers, pressing, etc. This applies, for instance, to the MUSICOL pressing plant or Standard Vinyl.
More commonly, however, the companies simply provide a pricing list and you pay for what you choose – this is, for instance, the case of 2424 Vinyl, Burlington Record Plant, or the Third Man Pressing, owned and operated by Jack White. The DeepGrooves Vinyl Pressing Plant then offers both – you can either choose one of their package deals or have your price calculated based on your requirements.
A vinyl price calculation by Deepgrooves
Expenses that may often be overlooked and that are traditionally not included in the pricing package are shipping, handling, packaging, or storage and scrapping fees. Then there is also the vinyl jacket cover, for which you will need test pressings, double LPs, or other special components that will make the final price higher. Making custom vinyl will also drive up the costs of your order.
Be sure that you consider all costs and have your price calculated before you place your order. Not knowing what your total expenses will be may well cause some financial discrepancies at the end of the process, which you will probably want to avoid.
Vinyls and mechanical licensing
Music licensing can be often misleading and seem too complex, especially when releasing music for the first time. It may happen that the track you’re about to release on vinyl is not a record of which you own the copyright - meaning you have not written the song. In such a case, you need to gain respective permission, a so-called mechanical license, to be able to reproduce and distribute your physical recording of the song.
A mechanical license grants one the rights to the composition of the song, which refers to the music notes and lyrics that define the song. With the license, the licensee is able to record the particular track in a medium, in our case a vinyl, or reproduce the song and afterward distribute it.
Be aware that even if you use a portion of someone else’s song, you will need to obtain a mechanical license. The rights to the composition are usually owned by the composer of the song (the songwriters) or their publisher.
Based on the license, the owner(s) of the rights to the composition is paid so-called mechanical royalties. Such royalties are generated every time the song is sold, downloaded, or streamed via "on-demand" streaming services.
Be aware that a mechanical license should be acquired before you distribute your physical product and that the manufacturers are likely to require proof of licensing before they are to press your vinyl. To obtain the license, you can contact either the publisher who owns and control the copyright to the composition of the song, or the respective Performance Rights Organization (PRO) or Collective Management Organization (CMO). If you’d generally like to learn more about music licensing, check out our guide about how music licensing works.
Also, should you need to acquire a mechanical license, be sure to include it in your costs, too. As of January 2023, the statutory US fee for a standard mechanical license is 12¢/song per copy providing that your song is up to 5 minutes in length. If the song is over 5 minutes long, the fee equals 2.4¢/song per minute, times the total number of copies.
5. Get your artwork done
Not that artwork is any less important when it comes to a digital release or a CD cover, but by far no other format other than vinyl offers such exposure for the recording’s visuals. This is, of course, due to the size of the record and so of its cover, too. Make therefore sure that the artwork you’re using for the cover is of the best quality it can be – a high-resolution image is a must!
The type of artwork you end up choosing may strongly depend on the type of outer sleeve (also known as the record jacket) that you select for the vinyl. The outer sleeve refers to a thicker paper cover of the record that usually contains the artwork. There are primarily two types of outer sleeves - single sleeves (also known as discobags) and fold-out sleeves (more known as gatefolds).
The single sleeves are simple slipovers that have one hole to insert the vinyl and cannot be further opened. The gatefolds, on the other hand, can be opened like a book or a magazine, with the inside part usually used to create space for additional information such as song lyrics, pictures, or artist information. As a result, the gatefold covers require more attention to design. Depending on the number of records, either only one of the sleeves or both of them are used to store the LPs.
A gatefold vinyl edition of A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead
In addition to those two formats, there is the tri-fold cover that folds out three times (for example, Chromatica by Lady Gaga, Wildflowers by Tom Petty, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John). Nowadays, the tri-fold sleeve is more commonly used for recorded movie soundtracks.
A tri-fold vinyl edition of Chromatica by Lady Gaga
Lastly, vinyl can be covered in box sets - solid cardboard boxes with a removable lid where three or more records, usually of particularly high quality, can be stored (e.g. Divine Symmetry by David Bowie, B-Sides, Demos & Rarities by PJ Harvey or Revolver Special Edition by The Beatles).
The limited vinyl box of the Singles Collection by The Beatles
Additionally, when thinking of your vinyl artwork, consider including the back and inner sleeves of the vinyl packaging, too. You can use them to complement your music piece with some additional visuals. It can be a piece of art (by you or an artist of your choice) or, for instance, your lyrics are written down in an unusual way. In fact, inner sleeves are a great place to showcase your lyrics and a lot of older LPs had them displayed this way.
Always remember that while, sadly, not everyone will listen to the LP, for sure everyone will look through it. So, be sure to make it an enjoyable and unique experience for your fans.
After managing to have your vinyl pressed, the next step is to get them to your fans, alias to distribute them. The usual way of distributing your vinyl records as an independent musician is to directly offer them at your live gigs as part of your merchandise, and, further, have them available on your website. You can also deposit your records at DIY record shops located in your area.
Another option is to offer and sell them through huge e-commerce websites, such as Amazon. However, in such a case, be sure to follow the rules and requirements of such a company. Lastly, you can distribute your records with a specialized physical records distributor, such as DBH Music Distribution GmbH, URP Music Distributors, or Symphonic.
What’s to come next in the vinyl music industry?
While the interest in vinyl is booming, the vinyl pressing industry doesn’t seem to catch up. For a few years now, the already mentioned musician, Jack White, has appealed to the big record labels, Universal, Warner Brothers, and Sony Music Entertainment, to build their own plants so that independent artists, too, have a chance of having their music released on vinyl.
And while, there hasn’t been any answer, smaller pressing plants are being launched across countries every year. Their aim is to help meet the great demand of both the fans and artists, too. Let’s hope it's the only time that is needed for the three big industry players to become part of the flow.
If you’re interested in learning more about the current situation of vinyl, check out our article about what’s happening in the vinyl industry on our portal!
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