I get it…
Times are tough and everybody is struggling to make a buck and a dime… and vinyl is a hot and highly visible commodity these days… But I fear there is a tipping point where short term profit motives may undermine the industry over the long-haul.
I’ll stop vague-blogging and zero in on what seems to be upsetting many vinyl collecting fans. I’m talking about the “limited edition” release concept which has escalated to fairly ridiculous levels.
I’m talking about rare albums which are reissued as special colored vinyl editions or on super duper, uber-audiophile versions… or special web exclusive sets…. or a previously unreleased concert or studio recording by a famous artist… These kinds of releases have become almost events unto themselves. And if you are a marketer of these products, you are probably excited about that factor. However, if you are the consumer, the excitement may be waning…
Don’t get me wrong. I’m OK with having these special versions. In fact, I like them, especially when issued around the time of Record Store Day which helps to drive fans into the stores and ultimately helps keep the retail infrastructure afloat… When the process works it can be fun. I’m good with that level of exclusivity as it gives fans a fair chance to get their hands on a copy — especially if enough copies are manufactured — this is a key thing, folks.
But it doesn’t always work that way and in these pandemic times many labels have taken to leveraging the Internet to sell these special editions… and this is where the problems seem to be creeping in… For example, in recent years there have been a number of fine specialized, niche audiophile boutique labels popping up which have been doing some great work generally. These labels (some backed by major label entities) are offering affordably priced high quality editions which is indeed helping to inspire new generations of collectors and music fans. It is allowing them to experience classic recordings that have long been out of reach for most people due to high prices — and relative rarity — on the collectors resale market.
Those things are all good, as they say… Blue Note Tone Poet and Verve Acoustic Sounds… heck, even basic Mobile Fidelity’s limited edition runs are popular but I haven’t really heard any significant grumbling. Most people seem to be able to get what they want without too much hassle. I even purchased a recent reissue of a popular MoFi edition which sold out initially, Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach’s Painted From Memory. I even wrote about that experience (click here to read it)
But then you have new technologies driving development of even more specialized and more limited edition releases such as Mobile Fidelity’s Ultradisc One-Step pressings. These releases often put classic albums out as two LP sets, spinning at 45 RPM and charging more than $100 per set. Typically, these albums seem to sell out quickly. Perhaps too quickly. Concord Music’s Craft Recordings label has started a similar series — called “Small Batch” — that is already upsetting many fans because many fans can not get their hands on them. They sell out on pre-order. Several people have grumbled to me about these and others, in part prompting this thought piece.
The reason for the vinyl fan upset is similar to the reason that concert goers get mad at ticket scalpers: they feel like they are getting the short shrift, burned even. Many true fans of their favorite artists are not able to get through on the pre-orders because of circumstance or lack of sophisticated online buying strategies.
I have heard speculation from some people that “bots” are snapping up the titles before the fans. Apparently this was an issue in the sneaker collecting market (click here for an old article on Wired exploring this). I’ve heard stories that this kind of thing is going on in the video games universe as well. And the “flippers” (as they are known in collecting circles) seem to be putting them up on places like eBay and Discogs at enormously inflated prices. Don’t believe me? Click here for eBay and here for Discogs.
This process is seemingly self defeating. Sure, the labels make a bit more on each sale but they are also LOSING money because the flippers are making as much if not more in the aftermarket resale. Are extra wealthy collectors willing to pay those premium prices for the convenience or just to be in that exclusive group who get the albums first (ie. bragging rights)?
Copies of the recently released Small Batch version of John Coltrane’s Lush Life are up on eBay for upwards of $700! (click here for a recent search on that) and they begin on Discogs at $500 going up from there (click here for that search). Mobile Fidelity’s One Step series releases are also seemingly fetching some coin there (click here for a recent search). The copies of Santana’s Abraxas on that disc format begin at $800 and go upwards on Discogs (and they go way up!!).
And this issue is not just limited to these super high end editions. Paul McCartney’s new half-speed mastered edition of RAM has already sold out on pre-order on his website! And yes, people are already offering them for double that amount on eBay (click here for a recent search)
As I wasn’t able to get one of the Record Store Day half speed mastered edition of Sir Paul’s first solo album, this latest process was more upsetting than it needed to be. And I hear you cynics in the back row saying “awww… boo hoo…” These are “first world” problems, I know. (I did ultimately find a way to pre-order RAM online from an independent record store in Grass Valley, California!).
If this process makes me, a lifetime music collector, feel crummy, I can imagine younger collectors getting discouraged. And that is ultimately what bothers me. It shouldn’t be this difficult. I wouldn’t be surprised if limited editions from Billie Eilish or Doja Cat or whomever are also hard to come by… At least Billie is selling her posable dolls at Target so hopefully fans can get them there… I’ve read online and heard from some friends that Bowie fans have been going through vinyl collector gyrations lately as well.
Is it any wonder that streaming music services thrive, many shafting artists out of proper royalties due to low pay out structures?
Again, I think these super special editions are at their root a good thing. That isn’t the problem here. The issue is that the industry is not serving the marketplace well, and it seems to be priming a secondary market for price-gouging flippers.
The industry should consider the impact it may have over the long-haul. I know that’s easier said than done because for many executives if they don’t make their numbers they get laid off.
But if everybody takes that short term profit center attitude, there may not be much of an industry left…