What impact will Metallica’s pressing plant acquisition have on the vinyl industry?

Credit: Herring&Herring/Press

The following op/ed comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured inset), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. UK-based Forde’s new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press. 

Given their enthusiastic interest in generating cubic hectares of cash, I am not sure just how deeply Metallica have structured their lives around the collected works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

One ideological underpinning of Marxism is, however, revealing itself in the world of stadium-centric hard-rockin’ as the band has, literally and figuratively, risen up and taken control of the means of production.

Admittedly, Metallica are not exactly the oppressed and downtrodden proletariat, but they have become the majority owners of a vinyl plant

They now own Furnace Record Pressing, the factory based in Alexandria, Virginia, that has manufactured their records for the past 15 years. Think of Metallica then as four Victor Kiams in black muscle vests. “We were so impressed we bought the company.”

Vinyl is a huge part of their business – not as huge, admittedly, as touring – and last year alone they pressed up over 900,000 separate pieces of vinyl for sale as part of over 620,000 sets (double-vinyl editions, box sets and so on).

They are also in the extraordinarily fortunate position of owning their own masters and have been ardently keeping their catalogue in print, selling hundreds of thousands of LPs a year in the US alone despite not releasing a new album since 2016. (Of course this pressing plant move coincides with the release of a new Metallica album next month.)

Not all of Metallica’s Everest of vinyl was pressed at Furnace, but it is the enormous backlog in vinyl production that was partly behind their decision to get hold of a factory to ensure they were not missing out on sales due to “supply chain” issues.

Metallica are busy people, dammit. They don’t have 12 months to wait for records to be pressed up. There’s hard-rockin’ to be done. Time, as if they needed anyone to tell them, is money.

Even Jack White, the Willy Wonka of vinyl authenticity with his own pressing plant, praised the move, calling it “outstanding” on his Instagram account. It was a two-way love-in, with Metallica simperingly reciprocating, “You have pioneered all of this, and we’re psyched to follow in your footsteps!”

White has been arguing for some time that the major labels really need to invest here and open their own vinyl factories. If they are going to flood the market with yet more anniversary versions of Rumours, Dark Side Of The Moon and Abbey Road or carpet bomb Urban Outfitters with the latest Taylor Swift/Adele/Harry Styles albums then it is about time they gave something back.

The majors all started pulling out of vinyl in the 1990s with the scent of greater profit margins from CDs filling their twitching nostrils. It was the independents that kept the small number of remaining vinyl factories going in the interim and then the majors, with a new scent of even greater profit margins from vinyl filling their twitching nostrils, came storming back over the past decade.

There are plenty of rumours of the bigger labels trying to skip the queue, promising plants they’ll put X millions of orders through their books if they can elbow their way past everyone else. This is not so much Back To Mono as Back To Monopoly.

Small operations like Press On Vinyl, which opened in Middlesbrough, UK, in 2022 are hugely welcome. But expecting them to shoulder most or all of the demand for vinyl production is akin to knitting the Eiffel Tower without admitting that it will take forever and will probably collapse if anyone tries to climb it.

If the major labels are the primary cause of the vinyl production logjam – and if they are the chief financial beneficiaries of the vinyl boom – then it is down to them to actually invest in solutions.

Perhaps the upfront costs and cautious forecasts that The Great Vinyl Revival will, sooner or later, run its course mean that the majors will not want to be left holding onto a massive pressing plant when the only orders they get are from indie labels doing runs of 500 7-inch singles.

It is almost – almost – like the majors want all the upside of vinyl and none of the risk. They are the goal hangers of fashionable physical formats.

Talking of goals and playing fields, just how level will Metallica make accessing vinyl production facilities for acts who are not Metallica?

How much, really, will they open it up to everyone else? Will they block acts that are “false metal” from using it? Will they and a few other top-tier acts choke the market with $300 box sets of albums from 40 years go in what amounts to a premium product aristocracy (an “arisROCKracy”, if you will)?

Or is it the private health care argument – “I am actually freeing up space in the NHS for people who need help much more than me because I am a good person” – applied to The Great Vinyl Shortage? Does that displacement argument even add up if most of their vinyl production was going through Furnace anyway? Are they merely opening up a few small slots at the factories they turned to in the recent past to handle any overspill orders?

It all feels like throwing pennies at a charity box from the steps of a Learjet.

Maybe this becomes the new rock band status symbol and an outward projection of towering success. You know you’ve really made it if you have your own vinyl factory to pump out millions more records from your past as if you don’t have enough money already. Will every other major heritage act now want to get in on the vinyl vanity project?

One fear is that it will curdle, like in Animal Farm, where the Communist thesis that all animals are equal gives way to the grasping belief that some animals are more equal than others.

As such, Metallica should dig into Marxist theory a bit more for a better understanding of the future. Alongside Marx urging the workers to seize the means of production, he also cautioned that brazen capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction.

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