The ongoing upswing in sales of vinyl records, as CD sales collapse, has been heartening for all who still value their warm analogue sound and substantial, striking packaging. But it is being accompanied by the less pleasantly familiar sight of major labels latching on to something they can actually make money on, with the same misconceived, short-term greed that helped get them into their current mess.
Paul Weller's latest LP, Sonik Kicks, retailing in shops at an eye-watering £30-36, seems anecdotally to have been a line in the sand for many outraged consumers. But the last studio LPs by Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan were priced similarly. Neil Young's new collection of rough-hewn folk music, Americana, is a Marie Antoinette-esque £40, while limited-edition, Karl Lagerfeld-designed singles from Florence + the Machine are £50 each. For that, you'd want one of Lagerfeld's dresses, too.
The idea that pop is a democratic form, and the LP and 45 its iconic formats, is insulted by such prices. The stunned question often heard in Britain's already struggling record stores when Sonik Kicks arrived was: "Is Weller retiring after this one?"
Sean Bidder, creative director at Vinyl Factory, who pressed and released the Weller and Florence records among many others, is startled by the criticism. "I don't think records are a popular medium," he says. "Now you can get music for free online, on price and convenience vinyl can't compete. So it shouldn't try to. Our records are more expensive generally than other labels, predominantly because we spend another few pounds to make them feel incredibly beautiful. There's quality and craftsmanship, or there's digital."
We're talking in Vinyl Factory's chic South Kensington gallery as a collection of tattered original punk seven-inch sleeves are readied for exhibition. Bidder reverently hands me a copy of Sonik Kicks, explaining its intricate, high-gloss printing and special Michael Horowitz liner notes, agreed after detailed discussions with Weller himself.
This rarefied new rock world is punctured by Chris Bailey, singer in The Saints, one of the punk bands curated on those walls. "You're actually just doing vinyl copies of regular blokes' records," he says. "And how do you justify £35 for a Paul Weller album when the actual product, the music, doesn't compute at that price hike? Unless you're pressing it in gold."
"These days vinyl's a speciality product that usually sells a couple of thousand, so you can't charge £5 any more," says Joe Foster, a former partner with Alan McGee in Creation Records who is now boss at PoppyDisc. "The pricing is pretty random, because it's an artefact that speciality customers want, so some people feel they can charge top dollar."
The question of what and who vinyl is for in the 21st century, and what it should cost, is fraught. Its revival is genuine: Vinyl Factory sold 13,000 of Massive Attack's last LP and the last Radiohead and Black Keys releases did similarly well. Domino sold upwards of 5,000 for Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion; in the US, Bon Iver sold 50,000 LPs last year.
"In America, there's a real vinyl revival and you can even get new records for $8-10 (£5-6)," Bidder says. "They're cheap-looking and feeling and they'll warp in no time. That is disposable culture. This is not. We'd love to sell records for $8, but we're about making a beautiful thing and that's not cheap."
Indie labels such as Touch and Go, Drag City and Domino, though, typically charge £15-18 for an LP – half what fans of Weller and co are being asked for, despite Domino pressing many of its records with Vinyl Factory and not skimping on their production. "Domino's ethos has always been to make our records as widely available as possible to whoever wants to listen to them, on whatever format," the label's production manager Paul Briggs says. "Where we have a deluxe vinyl edition, we also have an equally well-pressed standard version."
The love and craft put into its work by Vinyl Factory – an indie that collaborates closely with majors such as Universal – isn't in doubt. But the majors now often seem to be charging prices far more prohibitive than their costs. It's hard to find any physical reason for Paul McCartney's latest costing twice as much as Jack White's – except that sufficient McCartney fans are twice as loaded.
The fetish for 180g "heavyweight" vinyl doesn't make a "tangible difference" to the sound, Bidder says.
"The only exceptions that would possibly merit those very high price points, unless it is really esoteric packaging, would be if there was some very, very special mastering," Briggs says.
"But that only applies to audiophile classical and reissue labels," Foster says. "A gatefold sleeve with two discs, say, shouldn't have a dramatic effect on the price. Around £20, maybe a little less, makes profit possible for a good product and people will buy more of them. Large companies could do it for a little less."
Bev Nipps, a 20-year veteran manager of Reading record stores, thinks the majors' agenda is more predictable: "Unfortunately, as record companies saw CD sales diminishing, their logical tactic was to squeeze the people who were buying vinyl who are so loyal – and push to see how far they could go. If they kept the price down, they would have a lot of loyal youngsters who once they become hooked, would be vinyl buyers for life. In the long run, they would make far more money."Reuse content