At least anecdotally, the long and painful vinyl process seems to have also been a boon for other traditional formats including cassettes and CDs. Dania Shihab, co-founder of Barcelona’s Paralaxe Editions label, which specializes in experimental sounds, was releasing more tapes than vinyl even prior to the pandemic, partly due to shorter turnaround times of around four to six weeks. “I wouldn’t say that I’ll never do a vinyl release again, but it would have to be an especially interesting release and artist for me to make that sort of commitment,” she says.
Atlanta’s ambient-inclined Geographic North, which has released music by Fennesz and Mary Lattimore, started in 2008 as a vinyl-only label but has increasingly looked toward cassettes as well. Label co-founders Bobby Power and Farbod Kokabi say that if they press 300 copies of an ambient LP, it’s hard to know if copies will go unsold or if some fans will have to wait eight months for a second pressing: “There seems to be blowback either way.” Sietse van Erve, founder of Amsterdam’s Moving Furniture Records, recently canceled a couple of planned vinyl releases after weighing concerns about delays, opting for CDs instead. “I mainly release minimalism and microtonal music—why put it on vinyl?” he says. “A lot of people who are into experimental electronic music really like CDs.”
For some, digital downloads are still the format of choice, despite the streaming and vinyl boom—not to mention the ethereality of a file that lives on a hard drive or in the cloud. New York City dance producer Kush Jones prefers the convenience, low cost, and flexibility of downloads. “We simply can’t be bound by those limitations of vinyl delays,” he says, “so for now digital is the move.”
For others, the decision to forgo vinyl is an artistic one. NYC rapper MIKE, whose sample-based sound is seemingly built for wax, intentionally chose to skip the format for his past few releases. “Sonically he didn’t feel that those records were right for vinyl,” says MIKE’s manager, Naavin Karimbux. Slauson Malone, a hip-hop producer from a similar jazz-inflected orbit, says he was opposed to vinyl for his first solo projects because of environmental concerns, but also due to capitalism’s insistence that artists produce objects, adding, “Music’s real power is in its lack of physical form.”
The surge of mainstream demand for vinyl to such an extent that shoestring operations are being forced to give it up highlights this tension between music’s idealized role as a soul-nourishing astral pleasure and its workaday existence as a commercial product (and petrochemical-devouring threat to the Earth). Maybe the most successful artists, from their listeners’ perspectives, will be those who can walk this tightrope gracefully. Alyssa DeHayes, a publicist and founder of Athens, Georgia’s Arrowhawk Records, says that for last year’s You Become the Mountain, by Jeffrey Silverstein—a singer-songwriter who’s also a trail runner—the label offered a custom Nalgene bottle and two types of bandanas as merch, along with releasing cassette and digital editions of the album. “It was a way to expand the theme and narrative around the album,” she says. Beyond vinyl, the possibilities are endless, the implications both artistic and economic.