Partisan's Zena White on the industry's vinyl problem

Partisan's Zena White on the industry's vinyl problem

Partisan Records had the No.1 vinyl record with Idles’ Crawler in the most recent albums chart. 

The label’s Brooklyn-based MD Zena White spoke to us about the campaign and the band’s return to touring. In the latest edition of Music Week, she also flagged a key issue for the independent sector - global vinyl capacity.

It’s a problem that major label execs have recently discussed in light of the big Q4 releases - including albums from Adele, Ed Sheeran, ABBA and Coldplay - that have taken up a significant amount of the available production at pressing plants.

In her Music Week Q&A, Zena White described the “very tough landscape” for the independent sector as it has to weigh up whether to wait for a vinyl slot or go digital-first.

“It’s something that we have to be really conscious of as an industry because there is a delicate ecosystem,” said White.

Partisan retained the Independent Record Company trophy at the Music Week Awards.

The label had its first chart-topping album in 2020 with Idles’ Ultra Mono, as well as a No.2 with Fontaines DC’s A Hero’s Death.

“We’re only able to achieve that when we're able to marry physical and digital together,” said White. “And there is such a backlog at record plants now. It is a perfect storm because of the pandemic and Brexit’s definitely had an impact, as most of the plants are in Europe. So that definitely did create chaos.”

White suggested that the growth of vinyl as a format could be at the expense of independent artists.

“As vinyl continues to grow, and as major labels see it as merchandising, they will have blocks on [vinyl] lathes if they can sell 10,000 or 15,000 copies of something from their catalogue,” she said. “I don’t want to be indie vigilante about it, but it’s a tension in the marketplace and it’s something which is very difficult for indies.” 

I don’t want to be indie vigilante about it, but it’s a tension in the marketplace

Zena White

For a label like Partisan, week one vinyl sales are key to the development of an act. 

“We're not chasing chart positions for accolades,” White explained. “We're doing it because it's showing people, whether it's festival bookers or radio programmers, that these acts matter and that they have fanbases that care about them. Sometimes in this attention economy, there is no way to really draw people's attention to that. 

“So if we're not able to marry up physical and digital, then it basically means that the goalposts are changing for us. It gets to a point where, if it’s going to take up so much of the team's time just to get production lined up, what are we not spending time on elsewhere? It's a total nightmare, if i’m honest.”

While the label has embraced streaming, physical releases can help set the pace for a campaign.

“It's something which is just very difficult for indies, because this is our bread and butter, getting those physical records into the hands of fans after experiencing that act at a live show,” said White. “That's actually a huge marketing opportunity in a digital landscape, because the majority of people will buy the vinyl but most of the time they're listening on Spotify or on YouTube, wherever the convenience of streaming provides.” 

The vinyl production issues mean that labels are having to make tough decisions about release strategies.

“The solution is having very difficult conversations with artists that perhaps their [physical and digital] release dates aren't going to line up,” said White. “For a band like Geese, who are brand new, we're splitting the physical and the digital. If you're a new band, you can build the digital and create demand for physical. It used to be that the [physical] stores would penalise you for that, but they now understand the issues that we're facing and are accepting of that.

“For that mid-level artist who is at a critical stage of their career, they have the chance to break through into being a more established act, an arena level act. So [the vinyl release] does matter for that.”

Click here to read Zena White on the Idles campaign.

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