ATHENS, Ga. — A Razor scooter was propped up against a human-height stack of cardboard boxes full of records in the warehouse that looked more like an elementary school with bright primary colors than a factory.
One employee shoveled a handful of Chex Mix into his mouth between trips carrying buckets of bright-pink PVC bits across the room to the pressers. Another turned up the volume of the music playing over the loudspeaker, bobbing his head to the beat while placing center labels onto a stack of freshly made records.
It was a Thursday afternoon at Kindercore, a vinyl pressing plant that several South Carolina artists use to produce their records in the retro format that reigned supreme in the 1960s and '70s, and now is making a comeback.
The vinyl factory, named after an Athens record label founded in '96, had its best month yet in March, pressing around 40,000 records, according to Director of Sales and Public Relations Micki Windham.
The ramped-up production of Record Store Day, which is this Saturday, had taken over the daily routines of Kindercore's seven employees for the last few months. The annual holiday for exclusive releases on vinyl was founded in 2008, around the same time that records were making a resurgence in the digital age.
It was an unexpected development in the music industry after the rise in popularity of CDs in the '80s and the emergence of the controversial digital music website Napster where millions of consumers could download music for free. New vinyl production all but disappeared in the '90s.
"In the era of Napster, nobody was buying music anymore," says Kindercore's Chief Operations Officer Cash Carter. "It really felt like music was dying."
Yet, a decade later, the vinyl format is back and gaining momentum, despite the expansion of streaming platforms. Vinyl sales in 2008, the same year that Record Store Day was created, were 1.9 million, up 1 million over two years, according to a study by Nielson Music.
In 2018, U.S. vinyl sales saw 13 years of consecutive growth with 16.8 million sales, up 14.6 percent from 2017 and more than eight times the amount sold a decade before. It was a new yearly high for vinyl sales since Nielson Music started tracking them in 1991. And for modern-day bands, it has become a welcome opportunity to expand a revenue stream that has otherwise dwindled.
So what accounts for vinyl's strange success?
"Music is an identifier of image," Carter says. "You may have nothing in common (with someone else), but you like the same bands and then you're friends."
There's a trendy factor, he says. Vintage is "in" — from music to fashion. It's a cool art piece and keepsake that can represent one's own style and personality.
D.J. Edwards of South Carolina record label Real South Records adds, "Vinyl's perceived value has changed. It's a piece of art, a physical thing you can hold and interact with, and there's sentimental value."
The millennial generation grew up with Walkmans, dial-up internet and, often, their parent's record collections. When the streaming age began, members of this generation felt they were losing something valuable and sought to re-embrace physical formats. There's the nostalgia factor, a longing for times when things were a little harder to achieve than by just the click of a button.
"It's a tangible experience," says Galen Hudson of Monster Music & Movies in West Ashley. "It's aural and visual and tactile, and dropping the needle onto a record is ritualistic, almost."
Having to sit down and listen to a full side of an album is, to some, a much-needed escape from the instant gratification and hectic pace of the present.
"Things have progressed in this digital world where everything is so quick-paced," says Greenville musician Darby Wilcox, whose latest album "11:11" was pressed at Kindercore. "For vinyl, you have to sit down and make a conscious effort to listen to it legitimately front to back. It gives people a moment to slow down and connect with music more than just hitting play on Spotify."
Then, there's the quality debate. Vinyl's analogue technology captures and conveys the entire sound wave, not a compressed digital re-creation. That makes it a worthwhile purchase for some connoisseurs who care about authentic sound quality.
Streaming Age Phenomenon
Though seemingly opposites, streaming and vinyl perhaps have more of a symbiotic relationship than it appears.
Unlike many of his contemporaries in the music industry who have scorned music streaming, Carter gives it some credit as an opportunity for music discovery that didn't exist when he was growing up. He also sees streaming as a stepping stone toward vinyl sales.
"First of all, the little guys can actually be heard," Carter says. "But also it's a way to find a new band. It used to just be the radio that was dictating that, but now you can find new music yourself, and then if you like that band, you might go out and buy their album or go to their show when they're in town."
That said, he complains about the low revenue that streaming services like Spotify, Amazon, Pandora and Apple Music are offering artists.
On average, musicians are making $.0006 to $.00084 per stream on Spotify. For 1,000 streams, they are racking up a whopping $6-$8.40. That's less than the price of a typical CD sale (about $15) and much less than a vinyl sale (about $25).
That's why merchandise sales are so important for today's musicians. Besides the payout from live concerts and tours, it's one of the few ways bands are making money. Several bands, even mid-tier bands selling out 500-cap rooms, are barely making ends meet.
For Charleston band The High Divers, who tour extensively throughout the year, singer and keyboard player Mary Alice Mitchell says that vinyl is the best-selling music format for the band, topping CDs in the last couple of years, and far ahead of streaming. Their latest full-length album, "Chicora," was pressed at Kindercore.
"We sell a lot of t-shirts and some CDs, but now most people will buy vinyl if they’re going to buy music from us," she says. "If it wasn’t for selling merch, I don’t know if we’d still be putting gas in the van. Depending on where we play, sometimes we’ll make more off merch than actually playing the show."
Many older folks at shows are surprised to see vinyl on the merch table, she says.
"A lot of them will say, 'Oh my God, why'd I give all my vinyl to my kids? I didn't know it was going to be cool again,'" Mitchell says with a laugh.
The High Divers' lead singer and guitar player Luke Mitchell also points out that serious fans purchase vinyl because they know that bands aren't making a ton of money outside of merch. It's a way to help artists you hope will succeed.
"Vinyl is this tangible thing that people can hold onto and be proud of, that they helped support a band and gave them a platform to keep doing their music," he says.
Sticking it out
When Aaron Levy opened former downtown Charleston record store Vinyl Countdown in 2015, he did it with his own private collection.
Yet, once that collection was depleted, the business side of ordering new vinyl and keeping the operation running proved difficult. The store closed in 2018 and was replaced with another record store as a temporary tenant, Graveface Records, which also has a store in Savannah. When the rent cycle was up, the store closed, but not for lack of demand.
In December, owner Ryan Graveface said he was searching for other locations to re-open in Charleston.
That same year, Record Stop opened on John Street. Proprietor Bruce Berg once owned and operated 10 record stores on Long Island. The first, he opened with just $1,000 in 1974. Now, one store in New York remains — and this one in Charleston.
Berg remained in business through the rise of CDs and digital downloads.
"It's unbelievable how records have come back around," Berg says. "Just to watch 12-year-olds come in and ask for Etta James and Frank Sinatra blows my mind. They'll want The Beatles and a Disney record at the same time. That never would've happened in my day."
In the groove
The mood was light after Record Store Day boxes were cleared from the Kindercore Vinyl factory and a somewhat normal schedule of operation resumed after March's bulk order.
Carter hadn't taken a single day off this year.
Kindercore opened in 2017, thanks to a $1 million investment by an environmental activist interested in making the record-making process more eco-friendly by using renewable vinyl alternatives like a plant-based PVC and making the production process more efficient.
The three yellow and blue pressers in the main space of the factory cost about $300,000 each. But it was an investment that saved the plant from purchasing and refurbishing old machinery, as most vinyl plants that popped up in the mid-2000s had done.
The new machinery is more environmentally friendly and produces records of a higher quality, according to Carter.
"The presses are better now," he says. "A laser scans the surface of the record, sensors can detect melt temperature and there are new analytics."
In 2017, there were an estimated 23 pressing plants in the United States, according to an article by Sound Exchange. That's the year that Kindercore opened, and it was on the upswing of a curve that's still on the rise. According to an up-to-date list, the number of plants now is 29, with several other vinyl service operations popping up as well, from dubplate cutters to brokers.
This year's Record Store Day features 170 exclusive vinyl releases, 126 Record Store Day-first releases and 111 limited-run and regional focus releases. Record stores across the state, including two in Charleston, will be participating.
Vinyl is back — and thriving.