Article by Kwon Mee-yoo, Video by Shim Hyun-chul, Photos by Choi Won-suk
In the era when G-Dragon's new thumb drive album causes a dispute over what defines a music album, there are people who return to an antiquated and cumbersome format of music appreciation ― vinyl records.
The resurgence of vinyl is visible all across the globe, emerging from the late 2000s. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, 5 million vinyl records were sold in 2008, but the number jumped 600 percent to 32 million in 2015.
Machang Music & Pictures opened a brand-new vinyl record-pressing plant in Seongsu-dong, eastern Seoul, earlier this month, signaling the resurrection of the vinyl records industry in Korea.
Vinyl records enjoyed their golden age in the 1970s and '80s, but the music industry was reorganized centering on digital mediums such as CDs and music files and analog vinyl-pressing plants went out of business in the '90s.
Before Machang Music reopened the plant, the vinyl-pressing industry died in Korea over 10 years ago in 2004 when Seorabul Record closed down. There was an attempt to bring back a vinyl-pressing plant in 2012, but the plant did not own a lacquer cutter and had to import a master plate, or lacquer, transcribed overseas. It didn't last long.
Korean artists who want to make vinyl records had to look for one of the few remaining LP-pressing plants in Germany or the Czech Republic. The process took up to six months due to the large volume of orders at the factories and shipping time.
|Machang Music & Pictures operates the Korea's only vinyl pressing plant in Seongsu, eastern Seoul. / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
Meanwhile, the Korean LP market has also showed notable growth in recent years. Some of the popular vinyl records were relaunched in the 2000s and young musicians such as IU, 2AM and Busker Busker ventured on releasing their new albums in the vinyl format.
The size of the vinyl market is estimated around 10 billion won ($9 million) annually now. As of last year, 280,000 vinyl records are sold, jumping from about 10,000 six years ago.
It still takes up a small share of the music industry compared to CDs, but vinyl is surely on an upward trajectory.
Ha Jong-wook, a music columnist and concert organizer, thought a local vinyl-pressing plant was essential to sustain the record boom.
"Without a vinyl pressing plant here, it is difficult to keep up with the rising demand. So we revived the vinyl factory in Korea after 13 years," Ha said. "We also want to take part in restoring the beauty of analog music. We hope we can see people browsing through records for hours at music stores again."
|Pellets of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) used to make vinyl records / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
Vinyl making process
Machang Music went through three years of development before finally opening the plant, equipped with a made-in-Korea vinyl pressing machine.
Most Korean vinyl-pressing plants shut down in the '90s and the pressing machines also became scrap metal. To overcome deterioration of pressing machines used over three decades since the 1970s, Machang Music created a new pressing plant system, which allows an all-in-one process of vinyl making from cutting the master plate, also known as lacquer, and plating the discs to make stamper plates, to pressing the vinyl and packaging them into sleeves.
Cutting into lacquers from the master source is conducted at the company's studio in Majong-dong, Seoul. The name of the company also comes from the studio, which was formerly known as the Universal Recording Studio, a mecca of musicians in the vinyl era.
After cutting the audio grooves on the lacquer, the lacquer goes through a plating process to make a stamper for the pressing machine. The lacquer first turns into a "father," or a mirror image of the original lacquer, then into a "mother," a positive copy of the original.
Pellets of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are heated into a lump of vinyl called "biscuit" or "puck" and the pressing machine with a pair of stampers flattens it and presses the grooves on the biscuit, turning it into a vinyl record.
|The PVC pellets heated into a lump of vinyl called 'biscuit' and the record pressing machine flattens it and presses the grooves on the PVC disc. / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
The Machang Music Vinyl Factory currently has two pressing machines and manufactures about 1,000 records a day. Since the label has a long list of albums lined up for release, the factory is busy.
The first vinyl title produced at the plant was singer-songwriter Jo Dong-jin's sixth studio album "As a Tree."
"We are proud that such a great artist granted us to transcribe his music onto vinyl," said Yong Lee, marketing manager of Machang Music & Pictures.
The company has a two-track strategy and releases original albums in vinyl format while re-issuing highly sought-after vinyl records such as Johanna Martzy's Bach violin sonata series and jazz albums by Chet Baker and Bill Evans Trio. It will also produce the Korean Heritage Series, capturing the sound of master pansori (traditional Korean narrative music) singers such as Im Bang-ul.
Lee said the impractical records have found a niche market amid the megatrend of digital music files.
"Most people listen to music digitally on their cell phones or through computers. However, musicians still need to release physical albums and they revert to analog mediums such as vinyl or cassette tapes because it is rather fun and fresh. The large size of vinyl became an advantage as it gives more physicality and the artist can experiment with album art on a bigger canvas," he explained.
The plant produces mostly Korean albums and reissued albums as of now, but the company is looking forward to attracting more customers from overseas, along with the popularity of K-pop.
"Currently, vinyl records have a higher unit cost compared to CDs, but there certainly are needs for this old-fashioned music listening format," Lee said. "We don't know when we will reach the break-even point from this vinyl pressing plant business, but we are looking far ahead."
|Vinyl records go through microscopic inspection before packed into sleeves. / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
|Machang Music & Pictures' marketing manager Yong Lee holds vinyl record of Common Ground's fourth album 'Dance Republica,' manufactured at the company's vinyl pressing plant in Seongsu, eastern Seoul. / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|