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Kansas City’s legendary four-woman rock group Frogpond took to the stage last weekend for the first time since 2000. The show, at the downtown record bar, also served as a record release night. for their new album Time Thief.
This concert had been sold out almost from the time it was announced.
Drummer Michelle Bacon, who joined Frogpond just before the pandemic, was in high school at the group’s peak. “They were one of the only local bands that I remember being played on the radio,” she recalls.
So for her, being part of the group for this big comeback was a revelation.
“We all got on stage just to check our instruments and people started screaming,” Bacon says. “And like every song, almost every song, people sang. I’ve never had this experience before.”
The album – their first since 1999 – had already been out for a few weeks on Spotify, and it didn’t disappoint: at full throttle in an unmistakably ’90s way, Bacon aptly called it a “sound barrier.” “.
Just one obvious thing was missing from this otherwise perfect record release: the record itself.
Frogpond recorded Time Thief over 10 days in April 2021, expecting to have a vinyl record in hand in early November. Then, due to supply chain issues, the ETA for vinyl was pushed back to December. He has since been pushed even further, due to a problem on the test pressing. Now, it is not known when their files will arrive.
But Frogpond isn’t the only band experiencing delays right now – Bacon knows a lot of musicians sitting on gear, not scheduling shows because they don’t know when they’ll have vinyl, a major source of income. for touring groups.
“We kind of expected that to happen,” Bacon said. “The supply chain appears to be weak across the board.”
Despite the slowdown, Frogpond kept the November show date. They had sold tickets before, and besides, they were excited to perform after a two-decade hiatus.
At the merchant table afterward, Bacon chatted with the fans. “They were like, ‘So what’s with the vinyl?’ And I said, ‘Oh, this is a supply chain problem.’ “
People have accepted this explanation at face value. “Which is good,” said Bacon, “because I couldn’t have explained it much more than that.”
You’ve probably heard that “supply chain issues” are affecting everything right now: the cost of gas and groceries, delivery times for online gift orders, even what kids do. can be expected to be served for lunch at school.
It is a vague explanation of a series of complicated and difficult to understand problems that pile on top of each other. But supply chains are all about people trying to do their jobs, after all.
So I decided to dig into the case of this missing Frogpond album and find out what went wrong and where.
A resurgence of vinyl
Frogpond’s first albums, released in the mid to late 1990s, weren’t released on vinyl – it was the heyday of CDs, after all. But in 2021, releasing vinyl records is something bands of all sizes want and expect to do.
“Vinyl is really important to everyone,” Bacon tells me. “It was like this was going to be a big deal. It was going to be something special for our fans.”
Shawn Saving runs the Black Site label co-op that manages the release of Time Thief. He says this renewed interest in vinyl is nothing new.
“Either way, a trendline was on the rise over the past 15 years,” Saving said.
But during the pandemic, vinyl exploded. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, vinyl sales topped CD sales for the first time in 34 years last year.
And demand has not weakened: vinyl record sales rose 94% in the first half of 2021.
The economy and others in the music industry attribute this to the pandemic: Stranded at home, people have invested in new forms of entertainment, including collecting records.
This is excellent news for the music industry, except that the means of production have remained stagnant. That is, there aren’t many places to make a vinyl record.
“A few different things have happened in the recording industry over the past two years that have contributed to this,” Saving said. “It’s not just COVID, it’s not just the supply chain, it’s not just all of this excess demand. All of these pieces together have created a mess.”
How to make a recording
To understand how we got into this mess, it helps to know how a vinyl record is actually made – a clunky, multi-step process that costs time and money.
You start with a lacquer disc, a round piece of metal covered with a smooth layer of lacquer acetate. An engineer engraves grooves on this lacquer disc, forming the song “cuts”.
Next comes the plating, a process that ultimately results in two objects called buffers – each buffer is the reverse of one side of the original disc. Together, the stamps form a mold that will shape all recording copies.
Finally, through a process called “pressing”, a melted vinyl washer is pressed between these pads using a big, expensive machine called a vinyl press, and voila! : a disk.
That’s a lot of heavy machinery needed to turn any album into a physical LP. And when CDs arrived and vinyl first fell out of favor, much of this equipment was scrapped or fell into disuse.
According to Saving, some of that pressing capacity was restored six or seven years ago. But in 2019, there were only two places in the world where you could produce a new lacquer for cutting records.
Just before the pandemic, one of these plants burned to the ground. Now there is only one left.
Already a bottleneck in the supply chain has become much narrower.
In the case of the Frogpond album, however, additional issues arose at the plating stage.
“What happened with Frogpond was that we had to reject the first press tests because they had, when I listened to them, I heard things that didn’t sound right,” says Saving. . “And they determined it was issues with the tackle. They listened to them and said, ‘No, we have to do this again.'”
Mistakes happen, says Saving. This is normal, especially when talking about analog processes.
But now he says they’re happening more, industry-wide. To find out why, he suggests I should speak to the most knowledgeable cutting engineer he works with: Chris Muth.
The people behind the vinyl
Muth has worked there for 40 years. He has one of the last record lasers in circulation and he is one of the few people who knows how to fix them, which is the bulk of his job.
There are not enough machines to meet current demand, and the ones that are currently operating are overloaded. But Muth doesn’t worry about the machines. He worries about people.
“People have to make them work,” he explains. “It’s always the big bottleneck. Some baling factories have talked about going to three shifts and things like that. But if someone is going to lose body parts, it always happens on squad 12. -8. It’s just hard to be alert at 4 in the morning, and it’s a big dangerous machine. So there are all kinds of considerations to take into account. “
To speed up the supply chain of an object created using analog technology, people have to work longer hours.
And right now, everyone is angry with Adele for blocking the work. The megastar released their recent album 30 on half a million vinyl records. To do this, it requisitioned most of the vinyl press capacity in the world. This delayed the production of a long line of independent artists who were waiting their turn.
As we’ve learned, any mistake in this analog process can set a recording back several steps in production. In the case of Time Thief, a problem detected during a squeeze test sent the entire process back to the veneer.
Mistakes in these early stages of production cost the same amount of money to correct whether you plan to print 500,000 discs like Adele or just 300 like Frogpond. Except that small farms rely on smaller profit margins – so mistakes can add up quickly and wipe out profitability.
Muth says this problem of scale is why vinyl factories will always be dominated by big groups and huge outings: the same thing happened with Michael Jackson in the 1980s. It’s just that when it comes to acquiring music, we – that is, a generation high on digital downloads – are not used to it.
“Everyone’s spoiled these days being able to just put something together on their laptop and hit the publish button and, bang, it’s in the world,” Muth says. “Especially with young people who have never lived like it was before, they have no idea of the process of making physical objects. This process usually takes almost six months, which drives groups crazy.”
For Michelle Bacon and the rest of Frogpond, the end product is worth the wait.
“When you sit down and listen to a record, it’s a special time for me, you know? It’s not like putting something in my CD player, ”says Bacon.
As Bacon describes, playing a record is a Event: by carefully revealing the vinyl of its jacket, placing it on the turntable and hearing the rich, textured sound coming from the speakers.
“For me, this is one of the most rewarding things,” she says. “It’s like the time and effort we’ve spent comes in this physical form. And with all of these supply chain issues, it’ll be even more of an accomplishment when we actually get it.”