Needling The Clientele – Vinyl Prices in 2018

People of a certain age will fondly remember the mid-price CD offers that Woolworths would flood their racks with throughout the year and the ‘Nice Price’ stickers that used to adorn successful titles that had sold their way into hundreds of thousands of homes and could now be offered for less, having recouped costs and some.

More recently, we have been made aware by the smaller labels of how much it costs to do small runs of vinyl and that the only way to get prices down is to do loads or go via not especially consistent manufacturers preferred by the intermediaries who broker the deals. The logical extension of this is, surely, that more popular titles being pressed frequently in order to keep them in stock in the nation’s most passionate supporters of the format, such as HMV and Sainsbury’s, should be cheaper based on quantity. Add in the old mid-price logic that ‘Parklife’ or ‘The Queen Is Dead’ are exceptionally profitable records for their label and it seems perfectly reasonable to expect Warner to be offering them to shops at a price that allows them to be sold well below the ever-increasing, approximately £20-a-pop, new release prices.

And yet news emerged this week, via Transmission and Mo Fidelity Records, that Warner has cranked its dealer price on exactly those catalogue titles and more, with customers likely to have to stump up an extra £10 on top of what they would have paid until now. Costs of production are rising as a consequence of increased demand but largely unchanged capacity, not helped by annual novelty frisbee day releases, but just as blighted by bonkers catalogue reissues whereby a mid-nineties Annie Lennox covers album now sits in the racks for £20.

However, the genius at the heart of all of this price gouging, which seems a not unreasonable claim at this stage, is the largely successful positioning of vinyl as a collectible, deluxe item posited on appearance, not sound. You don’t need a great deal of knowledge about vinyl to be aware that coloured pressings with bizarre patterns running through them will sound like horseshit. They look pretty though. £24 to you, thanks.

As generous as it is of certain labels to do variant coloured editions for independent record shops, it would be nice if they were to ensure the USP of these versions was being well-pressed and well-mastered. It’s quite the novelty these days, but not especially sexy. Increasing prices – and in the case of Warner: inflating prices – while presiding over a notable drop in production quality, does seem a surefire way to stymie the ‘vinyl revival’. Or perhaps the price hikes suggest that labels are spotting a slowing down already underway.

In recent months, I’ve encountered faulty pressings from pretty much all of the major manufacturers, including those I would normally trumpet over the more notorious bargain merchants. The combined impact of churning out more and more bizarre back catalogue from the last thirty years with the urgent need for Shaggy 7”s and Belinda Carlisle box sets ahead of Record Store Day seems to be reducing the quality of the actual product still further.

Vinyl could never have plugged the sales gap caused by the dramatic drop in CD sales towards the end of the noughties and the failure of digital download sales to ignite. However, it was offering a foothold for our beloved independent shops and a totem for inventive labels across the world. By alienating shops with prices and customers with quality, the industry runs the risk of hubristically killing off a beloved format for, remarkably, a second time.

The flipside of the vinyl revival – a reality Czech

When I first started work on this site it had a different name. ‘Vinyl Junkies’ came about because of my enduring love of what seemed then to be a declining format. A lot of what I wrote about was stuff I’d picked up on 12 inches of plastic rather than my little digital friend. I’ve been buying vinyl since I was six and, while there are so many variables it’s hard to know anything with absolute certainty, I feel like I’m fairly well placed to comment on the way in which it is pressed, packaged and sold in the 21st century.

Those who follow me on Twitter will be used to my fairly regular commentary on the quality of numerous pressings and will also be alert to one particular source of my ire over the years. I find myself writing this to dip a toe in the water and see what is out there. I find myself writing this after getting the phrase ‘we’ve not had any other complaints’ a few times of late. I find myself writing this because the people responsible don’t seem too bothered right now and I have a suspicion it’s not just me getting frustrated.

I’m talking about the work of the world’s largest producer of vinyl records, GZ Media in the Czech Republic. Now, as an emphatic endorser of the format, you might expect me to be deeply indebted to their sizeable contribution to the racks of record shops the world over. And yet. While I don’t doubt that GZ can produce a quiet, clean, well packaged piece of vinyl – I even have a couple in my sizeable collection – it’s got to the point where I can spot their handiwork before the needle lands in the groove. You might recognise some of the following signs: LP incredibly tight to the sleeve, often with one or more of the sides of that sleeve cut through by the disc, light scuff marks on the disc itself, lines of some sort of white dust or grit that when brushed aren’t always keen to depart. Add in numerous releases where the vinyl looks blotchy, dirty or heavily scratched and you’re starting to get the idea. Now, those latter details are far less common, but the first list includes defects I encounter so very often. I am well aware that I’m a stickler and my sensitive equipment probably doesn’t help in my quest for quiet vinyl. However, the popular media narrative that vinyl has the ‘lovely warm crackle’ added to the sound is ludicrous. If you bought a CD and there was digital noise and distortion at points or, frankly, any sort of noise that wasn’t what the artist intended, you’d take it back as faulty. If you purchased a digital download and it didn’t play properly, an email would be swiftly sent. And yet, popular culture would have us believe that purchasing an LP with ticks and pops is all part of the charm. Pressing plants like MPO, Optimal and Pallas would beg to differ, but that’s largely because they consistently have higher standards than some of their competitors.

An example of a GZ 'white line'
An example of a GZ ‘white line’
A typical GZ stamper
A typical GZ stamper

I’ve included a selection of pictures with this piece to highlight whether your LPs are GZ pressings. is often stamped in the run out groove, along with a digital stamped code similar to the one shown below. Increasingly, I’ve noticed the absence of the identifying web address, almost as if labels aren’t so keen to draw attention to a record’s origins. I’ve been in touch with people at GZ who have paid lip service to what I’ve said, assured me they’d investigate and get back to me and then gone silent. I’ve spoken to independent labels who’ve acknowledged a problem but pointed to the need to keep costs down. I’ve spoken to other independent labels who’ve switched to different plants to avoid such problems. I’ve even dealt with the physical production staff at the world’s biggest record label who actively switched production of a particular reissue programme from GZ to Optimal because of concerns about the quality of the product. They still use them for other reissues, but noticeably less when it comes to special editions where they know the quality will be especially scrutinised. As someone who buys a lot of vinyl and just wants it to sound good, it concerns me that people are so often able to pinpoint them as the source of so many problems. They are victims of their own success and the demand currently massively outstrips supply when it comes to vinyl production, but their refusal to engage on the subject and generous puff-pieces like The Quietus‘ recent feature on their operation do leave a sour taste. Could the labels insist on more? Yes. If Universal keep accepting hundreds of thousands of pressings without checking any of them will GZ be all that bothered about the odd determined complaint? Probably not.

A blotchy pressing of Bombay Bicycle Club
A blotchy pressing of Bombay Bicycle Club

So, in hope rather than expectation, I turn to you, the customers. I get rather tired of the “we’ve not had any other complaints” response from artists or labels. Most are all too happy to engage and some have even had pressings done elsewhere to make up for the problems with the initial GZ pressing, but there are still plenty who don’t want to know. I suspect this is largely down to lots of us being willing to put up with dirty, slightly noisy pressings. One music journalist I spoke with recently said he didn’t even notice surface noise when playing vinyl and I fully acknowledged I’m some way off in the opposite direction, but I still reckon there are plenty of people making do because it’s easier than chasing it up. In 2014, I resolutely returned every single even slightly dodgy pressing to my wonderful local independent record shop, Rise. They totally understood what I was getting at and helped me sort out decent copies wherever possible. I imagine I have a certain reputation as a result, but I know from previous Twitter rants on that subject that I’m far from the only one experiencing this downturn in standards. There’s already a fair amount of supporting evidence for my claims on this particular thread over on an audiophile forum.

For now, I’d just like people with experience of GZ pressings to comment below. Share a link to this page and see what we find. I’d like to be able to refer labels and artists to this page when I get the “first we’ve heard of it” response in the future. I’d like to point out to GZ themselves that the issues aren’t one-offs. I’d like more decent, quiet, clean records. So, please comment and we’ll take it from there. If I’m constructing a metaphorical geeky mountain from a gently neurotic molehill, then I’m sure you’ll tell me too. Over to you.