After Nearly 30 Years, Sony Rediscovers Vinyl

I must admit, the news took me by surprise. I know that vinyl is officially a thing, and a growing thing at that. But I was shocked, shocked I tell you, to learn that Sony was getting back into the LP business.

Sony has been laboring mightily to turn the proverbial corner and discover a way forward. Many of its old revenue generators, except for PlayStation, are in tatters, so the company has been searching for new markets to mine. One could even argue that Sony is searching for its new identity. What is Sony? What is Sony good at? What Sony products would people aspire to own? Apparently, someone in the company has decided that people will aspire to own Sony vinyl records. And who am I to say they are wrong?

Back in the day, like every other record label, Sony Music was big on vinyl. And as with many things Japanese, the quality of their vinyl was excellent. Then, partly because of innovations pioneered by Sony itself, analog seemingly became past-tense. The advent of the Compact Disc in 1982 helped put the whammy on LP sales, and in 1989, Sony pulled the plug on its in-house vinyl manufacturing. End of story.

Or maybe not. With steadily resurgent vinyl sales, Sony Music has decided that it could make a yen or two from the market it abandoned nearly 30 years ago. So, according to a report in the Nikkei Asian Review, Sony Music is installing the equipment needed to make LPs. Mastering will be done in a Tokyo recording studio and downstream replication will be done in a Sony facility near Tokyo. I wonder if this is vintage hardware being brought out of mothballs, or entirely new gear?

One crucial part of the manufacturing process that will need to be brought out of mothballs is the engineers and technicians with the knowledge of how to make records. As far as I know, LP production is not being seriously taught in schools anymore, and the skill set certainly isn't something trivial that can be gleaned by reading a mastering lathe's owners manual. The old-timers still possess the arcane analog wizardry of how to make music play from a plastic puck, and Sony will need their help if they intend to make quality records.

Sony's LP production is scheduled to resume in March 2018. At least initially, they anticipate that most releases will be reissues of older Japanese titles, and will be sold mainly in Japan. However, some new albums could be released. This new facility joins Toyokasei, the only other vinyl plant in the region.

The LP was introduced in 1948, and frankly, when you count it in technology-years, that makes it one very elderly format. But where many other analog technologies died, the LP has withstood the digital storm. Its market is expanding, and I suspect that vinyl records enjoy a profit margin that far exceeds that of music downloads or streams. If you are a music company, surely that catches your attention.

I strongly doubt that the future success of Sony Corporation hinges on its ability to press LP records, but if Sony Music can source some extra-quiet polyvinyl chloride, and get those center holes on center, then all power to them.