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You might go easy on Adele — the fragile vinyl record supply chain isn't her fault


Adele's new album, "30," is out today, so you can go ahead and stream or pick up an album. Reportedly more than 500,000 are being pressed. The massive order amid a vinyl boom has put a strain on an already precarious relationship between vinyl makers and indie artists. But as Stacey Vanek Smith and Darian Woods from NPR's podcast The Indicator tell us, we might want to go easy on Adele.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Brandon Seavers owns Memphis Record Pressing, and his company has been making vinyl since 2014. Before that, the company was making CDs, and CD sales have been declining for years because, music sales, they were all moving towards digital.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: And Brandon was watching this happen, and he knew he had to make some kind of move. So he moved from CDs back to vinyl.

BRANDON SEAVERS: We brought in a bunch of rusty, old machines. And we found some guys that had been in the industry decades ago. They helped us get it up and running.

SMITH: So Brandon realized that vinyl had this kind of superpower that CDs didn't.

SHAMIR: I mean, I always love anything that kind of sounds old. I think there's just that warmth in the crackle and everything.

WOODS: This is Shamir, an artist and musician from Philadelphia. Shamir has a couple of albums out in vinyl.

SMITH: This is like something you're hearing from fans. They want this.

SHAMIR: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. It's like it's such a sought after medium now at this point.

WOODS: Record labels and musicians love this, too, because LPs are a lot more profitable than digital music.

SMITH: Yeah. Vinyl sales, they started rising around 2008. But things really took off when the stores jumped on board, and that was just a game-changer.

SEAVERS: Walmart's got 4,000-plus stores in the U.S., so even if they only ordered 10 for every store, that's 40,000 records.

WOODS: So Brandon went from six pressing machines to 16. That meant he was going from producing around a million records a year to 7 million.

SMITH: But he points out vinyl has very real limitations. For one thing, record-pressing machines are basically all antiques. They're fussy, and they break down. And they require people who know how to run them and tweak them, depending on the temperature and the humidity. And, you know, slow machines, plus soaring demand, plus raw material from overseas equaled a major supply chain strain and huge delays on record releases.

WOODS: Brandon's vinyl now takes months to arrive, and the turnaround time for a record went from around eight weeks to now it's about eight months for new clients.

SEAVERS: Eight, 10, 12 months in the music industry is life and death three times over.

SMITH: And then in the midst of all of this, along came Adele. Her 500,000 LP mega order descended like a monolith onto the fragile, strained vinyl supply chain. Because even though vinyl has been growing for years, there still just aren't that many places on earth that even make vinyl.

SHAMIR: Adele is not the culprit, and I that, like, we were struggling with vinyl delay times before Adele. I think people are upset because Adele is not helping.

WOODS: Shamir has a new album coming out and has no plans to press any vinyl.

SHAMIR: I hate it as a small label owner, but I also made like kind of like a joke tweet where I was joking about, like, buying the Adele vinyl because it's just like, listen...

SMITH: You're buying Adele on vinyl?

SHAMIR: Probably.

SMITH: (Laughter).

SHAMIR: I mean, the new single's amazing. She's amazing. And it's just like, if anyone wants to be mad at anything, don't be mad at Adele. Be mad at capitalism. And, you know, and that's that.

SMITH: It's a good mantra for life. Don't be mad at Adele. Be mad at capitalism.

WOODS: Yeah, those are the two options.


WOODS: Darian Woods.

SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.