vinyl records: do the math

inflated, manipulated, market economics. the end of a needle in a wavy groove…

by Art Chantry (

Back in the days when vinyl was dying out (to be replaced by the lovely “CD”) there erupted a brief, sad and desperate surge of committed lunatics who love and wanted to save vinyl recording format. to that end, they created their own record companies devoted to the vinyl record – 7″ 45rpm, 10 & 12″ 33 1/3rpm LP’s, and the odd 10″ 78rpm release. they devised wonderful, creative (and often hand made) covers for their records and sold them any crazy way they could think of to other dedicated fanatic collectors who were happy to buy them just to “keep the vinyl alive”.

I was involved in that effort through several of my clients, most notably estrus records, who pushed off releasing on CD for the longest possible time and slowly, very slowly, over the years, was eventually forced to drop various formats until, finally, sadly, vinyl releases are now the exception and not the rule. dave crider (honcho at estrus records) said, toward the dismal end of the vinyl era, “man, i got into this to make RECORDS, not DOWNLOADS!” so true.

---AC:estrus had a cap on their pricing of around $12 for an LP (retail). but, then, dave always tried to keep pricing cheap. it was always weird to go to a record store and see all those cool estrus records $2 cheaper than anything else in the bin. i guess with vinyl pricing out that high, we'll see a lot of cool stuff suddenly become viable again. too bad there aren't more than one or two pressing plants left. dave was releasing a single in argentina (or was it brazil?) and it kept getting delayed. finally he asked what was going on and the guy admitted that the very last pressing plant in the south america closed down and the equipment was destroyed by the new buyer. i know dave is right now working hard to rebuild all those vinyl record covers (the artwork) because his new distributer is hot to promote his back catalog. so, a lot of the best sellers on estrus are going o become available again after years in the warehouse. vinyl, too (but no color vinyl, i think.) so, maybe it's good news

As the vinyl industry lost it’s market and the demand for it’s services, the whole supporting infrastructure began to shift and collapse. companies that manufactured covers and sleeves by the dumpster load, quickly went out of business. the places that created the oversized film work for the artwork vanished. the mastering plants and various recording support systems shrank down to almost nothing. and (most sad of all) the pressing plants, the guys who actually squished the molten plastic into vinyl disks, went away. in fact, the were ENCOURAGED by the record insdustry to go away. there were reports of the digital comapnies actually BUYING their equipment and then purposely destroying it.

You see, it was so much cheaper to manufacture a CD as opposed to a vinyl record, and the mark up on that CD was so astronomical compared to it’s creation expense, that the profits were unbelieveable. cd’s back then cost upwards of $20, but only cost a couple of bucks to make. contrarily, the vinyl record cost somewhere around $5-7 to manufacture, but you could only charge between $10-15 for it. do the math.

Vinyl died not because of the quality of the product (in the early days the CD was sold as indestructible – but it wasn’t- and it sounded shitty, too). the cd destroyed the vinyl record industry based totally on inflated manipulated market economics. it was a sort of fraud that we all accepted without the slightest question. on top of that we all had to purchase expensive new hardware (cd players – that didn’t record, so it stopped ‘free’ music as well). everybody was on board, and we all just accepted it as “progress”. behold the power of marketing.

Anyway, one of the things that erupted during the final days of vinyl was an explosion of crazy packaging. the 45 covers alone were so extreme and crazy and wonderful, that the whole period compares powerfully to the rest of the graphic design history in the 20th century. essentially, it was one of the most awesome displays of graphic innovation and experimentation of the last century. and it’s all ignored and forgotten.

But, the point of my little essay here is to talk about vinyl. pressing plants made wonderful objects. vinyl records are the coolest things – little scratched slabs of plastic then (when placed on the proper device) produces the most wonderful music. such simple, even crude technology (a needle in a wavy groove) is capable of such magic.

When we worked on estrus records, we made it a point to release a small limited run of colored vinyl for each release. we could usually get the colored vinyl materials left over from another (larger) record pressing run and simple ‘piggy back’ on the scrap color enough to produce a couple hundred colored vinyl samples. they were the “

ited edition” version for the extremist collectors. plus, they looked really cool.

Imagine every color of the rainbow – red, yellow, blue, white, black, clear – and then you start mixing them up. you could create all sorts of hues and shades and midrange colors. the vinyl plastic material started as ‘pellets’ and those pellets could be tossed in late in the process to create smears and spots and crazy colors. we tried it all. in fact using ALL the colors at once produces a color/visual texture of meatloaf. or barf. lovely.

Then there was the actual opacity of the plastic. if you used a solid white base, you could toss in color and get an opague slab of, say, yellow plastic. if you used transparent pellets as your base, you could get transparent see-thru yellow plastic. there was one record i saw that looked exactly like a raw egg – yolk and all. the possibilities became endless.

You could take blobs of one color and set them on the machine next to blobs of another color, and get two-tone records. i did one that looked like the coloration of a pinto pony. I also did vinyl that glowed in the dark. if you chose to go the route of the ‘picture disk’, then the ideas opened up even wider. for instance, you could place anything flat and printed in between the two layers of clear vinyl and encase it inside the record! imagine money (real cash) or lotto tickets or anything at all inside a vinyl record spinning on your turntable.

Then there were those crazy DIY folks who would cut the records into squares or silkscreen images on the vinyl. lotsa time consuming handwork there, you betcha.

There wasn’t as much variation with changes in labels and other things like that (for instance there were extreme limitations on the size of the holes and the actual circumference of the record was VERY difficult to change.) if you went with picture disks, however, the sky was the limit.

But labels could still be played with dramatically. just creating a record with an off-center label could be enough to drive any collector crazy – until they figured out it was part of the design. and extra holes? man, that’s a lotta fun, too.

The strangest part of this saga is that the origins of the record pressing plants happens to be community churches. that’s right, small churches in semi-rural communities simply began recording their own religious music and then (in accordance with american traditions) simply BOUGHT the recording equipment to make those records – including the pressing equipment, boilers and all. as time went on, many of these churches took on the job of pressing other community church’s recordings and before long, small companies expanded in national concerns. even to this day, many of the remaining pressing plants (the precious few remaining) began life in church basements.

It’s interesting to think that (for instance) all of the early northwest punk rock singles released here before the late 80’s wer actually pressed in a church basement in sumner washington. the u-men, the accident, the fartz, the enemy, the lewd, the refuzors, the telepaths, solger, etc. etc. etc. – all that mayhem and bile spewing was pressed by a church in a small town near here. amazing, huh?

At estrus, we actually had problems with companies attempting to censor our recordings on religious grounds. on more than one occasion we had to switch plants, simply because they had heard that we sometimes put ‘naked ladies’ on our record covers. it was often a problem. but, it was all part of the fun – seeing what we could sneak past the censors.

I recently went looking for that old equipment from that pressing plant in Sumner. I had fantasies of starting my own pressing plant and doing strictly high-custom crazy vinyl for specialty labels. no luck, it’s all long gone. probably went to the dump.

This little image today is a label from an old religious 45. it’s always disturbing to see hucksters (even religious hucksters) promoting pretty little girls to sell their wares – especially religious hymns. but, this was the standard of the era. it’s a little too “jean-benay ramsey” for me now. times have changed (a lot.)

oh, and the “virtually unbreakable vinyl?” broken. two massive cracks. HAH!

Art Chantry:oh, and i realize that CD’s sound much better today. i spent a lot of time checking over the years to see how much better they got. now, they are VERY good. too good, actually. i like scratches. maybe that makes me a dinosaur, but i love imperfections. cd’s sound so scary to me. inhuman.

naw, i only listen to 10ยข 45’s i get in thrift stores. they look like they’ve been danced on. they sound horrible. that’s what i listen to. it’s heavenly.

for instance, this little religious 45 label here? i listened to it! i even copied a couple of the songs onto recordable cd’s (that sound much worse!). i even like the popping sound as the needle skips on the cracks. it’s VERY disturbing music….

…ya know, there was a time where i sort of felt like i was on a lone crusade to share all this interesting stuff with the whole world. sorta “look! this is where it’s at! always has been! you just are too snobby to look!”

but as time went on, and i realized nobody except lunatics not much different from me were the only ones who cared about this stuff, i sorta lost that mad urge to ‘spread the word’. now, i do this for myself and anybody else who is interested in it. they can find it it just fine. the rest of the whole world? i don’t give a rat’s ass. they don’t care about it. jes’ the facks, jack.
AC:by the way, i was right about the computers being the downfall of design.

think about it:
– you have to compete like crazy with anybody who literally bought the software “two weeks ago” and are now practicing ‘professional’ graphic designers (you compete with DIY).
– you have to fight for work for far less money, probably paid hourly in some way. you have a line at the door who will be happy to take it if you waver in the slightest.
– the client now knows enough to dictate everything and then open up the disk you give them and change whatever they want.
– you have to supply everything – design, photography, illustration, copyrighting, proof reading, pre press, film, delivery, everything, etc. etc. – that used to be a something you hired out (at a markup – and it came with it’s own built-in quality control system) and you now have to supply ALL of that YOURSELF for even less money that before.
– you have to take on ALL liability, every typo is your fault, even if it was made by the client. and ultimately,
– you have to support 20 thousand dollars worth of equipment, software and upgrades at your cost.

now, explain how the computer made our lives as professional graphic designers easier or more profitable or even slightly better? are we all now ‘better artists?”

please explain the “improvements’ the computer gave to the industry? please?

see? heavenly!

This entry was posted in Feature Article, Ideas/Opinion, Marketing/Advertising/Media, Modern Arts/Craft and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>