Kansas City bands are waiting months for vinyl records. It’s more than a ‘supply chain’ problem
It's hard to get a record made right now, unless you're Adele. But what, exactly, are the "supply chain issues" keeping vinyl out of indie bands' hands? The experience of Kansas City band Frogpond offers an illuminating look into this complex problem.
Frogpond, Kansas City's legendary four-woman rock band, took the stage last weekend for the first time since the year 2000. The show, at recordBar downtown, doubled as a record release party for their new album Time Thief.
This gig had been sold out since practically the moment it was announced.
Drummer Michelle Bacon, who joined Frogpond right before the pandemic, was in high school during the band's original heyday. "They were one of the only local bands I remember being played on the radio," she recalls.
So for her, becoming part of the band for this grand return was a revelation.
"We all got up on stage just to check our instruments and people started screaming," Bacon says. "And like every song, almost every song, people were singing along. I've never had that experience before."
The album — their first since 1999 — had already been out for a few weeks on Spotify, and it did not disappoint: rocking full-throttle in an unmistakably '90s way, Bacon aptly called it a "wall of sound."
Just one, obvious thing was missing from this otherwise-perfect record release: the record itself.
Frogpond recorded Time Thief over 10 days in April 2021, expecting to have a vinyl record in hand by early November. Then, because of supply chain issues, the ETA for the vinyl got pushed back to December. It's since been pushed even further, due to a glitch on the test-pressing. Now, there's no telling when their records will arrive.
But Frogpond is not the only band experiencing delays right now — Bacon knows a lot of musicians just sitting on material, not scheduling shows because they don't know when they'll have vinyl, an important source of revenue for touring bands.
"We kind of expected this might happen," Bacon says. "The supply chain seems to be low across the board."
Despite the slowdown, Frogpond kept the November show date. They'd already sold tickets, and besides, they were excited to perform after a two-decade hiatus.
At the merch table afterwards, Bacon chatted up fans. "They were like, 'So what's up with the vinyl?' And I said, like, 'Oh, it's a supply chain issue.'"
People accepted that explanation at face value. "Which is good," Bacon says, "because I wouldn't have been able to explain it much further than that."
You've probably heard that "supply chain issues" are affecting everything right now: the cost of gas and groceries, delivery timetables for online gift orders, even what kids can expect to be served for school lunch.
That's a vague explanation for a complicated, and difficult-to-understand, series of problems stacking on top of each other. But supply chains are just made of people trying to do their jobs, after all.
So I decided to dig into the case of this missing Frogpond album and find out what went wrong, and where.
A vinyl resurgence
Frogpond's earlier albums, which came out in the mid-to-late 1990s, weren't released on vinyl — that was the heyday of CDs, after all. But in 2021, putting out vinyl records is something bands of all sizes want and expect to do.
"The vinyl is really important to everyone," Bacon tells me. "It was like, this is going to be a big deal. It's going to be something special for our fans."
"A trend line had been going up for the last 15 years anyway," Saving says.
But during the pandemic, vinyl blew up. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, vinyl sales surpassed CD sales for the first time in 34 years last year.
And the demand hasn't let up: sales of vinyl LPs grew 94% in the first half of 2021.
Saving and other music industry folk attribute that to the pandemic: stuck at home, people invested in new forms of entertainment, including record collecting.
That's great news for the music industry, except that the means of production have remained stagnant. Which is to say, there aren't many very places to get a vinyl record made.
"A few different things have happened in the record industry in last couple of years that are contributing to this," Saving says. "It's not just COVID, it's not just the supply chain, it's not just all this excess demand. All those together have created a mess."
How to make a record
To understand how we got into this mess, it helps to know how a vinyl record actually gets made — a clunky, multi-step process that costs time and money.
You start with a lacquer disc, a round piece of metal coated with a smooth layer of lacquer acetate. An engineer etches grooves onto that lacquer disc, forming the song "cuts."
Next comes plating, a process that ultimately results in two objects called stampers — each stamper is the inverse of one side of the original record. Together, the stampers form a mold that will shape all the record copies.
Finally, through a process called "pressing," a puck of molten vinyl gets squeezed between those stampers using a big, expensive machine called a vinyl press, and voilà!: a record.
That's a lot of heavy-duty machinery needed to turn any given album into a physical LP. And when CDs came along, and vinyl first fell out of favor, a lot of that equipment got scrapped or fell into disrepair.
According to Saving, some of this pressing capacity was restored six or seven years ago. But as of 2019, there were just two places in the world where you could produce a new lacquer for cutting records.
Right before the pandemic,one of those plants burned to the ground. Now there's just one left.
Already, a bottleneck in the supply chain has gotten a whole lot tighter.
In the case of the Frogpond album, though, some additional problems occurred at the plating stage.
"What happened with Frogpond is, we had to reject the first test pressings because they had, when I listened to them, I'm hearing things that didn't sound good," Saving explains. "And they determined that it was issues with the plating. They listened to 'em said, 'Nah, we gotta do this again.'"
Mistakes happen, Saving says. That's normal, especially when you're talking about analog processes.
But he says now they're happening more, industry-wide. To find out why, he suggests I should talk to the most knowledgeable cutting engineer he works with: Chris Muth.
The people behind the vinyl
Muth has been at it for 40 years. He owns a record-cutting lathe, one of the last in circulation, and he's one of the few people left who knows how to fix them — which makes up most of his work.
There aren't enough machines to meet the current demand, and the ones currently up and running are way overtaxed. But Muth isn't worried about machines. He's worried about people.
"People have to operate them," he explains. "That's always the big bottleneck. Some of the pressing plants have talked about going to three shifts and things like that. But if someone's going to lose body parts, that always happens on the 12-8 shift. It's just hard to be alert at 4 in the morning, and this is big, dangerous machinery. So there's all sorts of considerations to think about."
To speed up the supply chain for an object created using analog technology, people have to work more hours.
And right now,everyone's mad at Adele for clogging up the works. The megastar released her recent album 30 onto a half-million vinyl records. To do that, she commandeered most of the vinyl-press capacity in the world. That pushed back production for a long line of indie artists waiting their turn.
As we learned, any mistake in this analog process can take a record back several steps in production. In the case of Time Thief, a glitch detected on a test pressing sent the whole process back to plating.
Mistakes in those early stages of production cost the same amount of money to fix whether you're planning to print 500,000 records like Adele or just 300 like Frogpond. Except smaller runs bank on smaller margins of profit — so errors can add up fast, and wipe out profitability.
Muth says that issue of scale is why vinyl plants will always be dominated by big acts and huge releases: the same thing happened with Michael Jackson in the 1980s. It's just that when it comes to acquiring music, we — meaning a generation raised on digital downloads — aren't used to it.
"Everybody is spoiled these days, being able to just put something together on their laptop and hit the post button and, bang, it's out in the world," Muth says. "Especially with youngsters that haven't been through how it was before, they don't really have any idea what the process is to make physical objects. That process generally does take almost half a year, which drives bands crazy."
To Michelle Bacon and the rest of Frogpond, the end product is worth the wait.
"When you sit down and listen to a record, it's kind of a special moment to me, you know? It's not just like popping something in my CD player," Bacon says.
As Bacon describes it, playing a record is an event: carefully unveiling the vinyl from its jacket, placing it on the turntable, and hearing the lush, textured sound emerge from the speakers.
"To me, that's one of the most rewarding things," she says. "It's like the sheer amount of time and effort we've put in, kind of just comes out in this physical form. And with all of these supply chain issues, it's going to feel like even more of an accomplishment when we actually get it."