Vinyl Revival: Do Record Labels Actually Care about Quality?

by Robert Cowlin

You were promised a review of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ new record, Skeleton Tree. It’s a great record, I rated it 4/5 on All Music. I really like all the bubbling meandering synth work and Cave’s vocal is bang on. One could perhaps draw obvious lines of comparison with Blackstar based on the timing of surrounding events. The CD sounds like garbage but the YouTube videos (taken from the accompanying film) sound great. When it comes out on blu-ray I’ll rip the audio but until that time it shall remain in my Tidal streaming library.

Now that that’s out of the way, it’s time to turn to what could quite possibly be my favourite topic: moaning about vinyl. If you are one of the poor victims, unfortunate enough to have paid £20 for Skeleton Tree on vinyl, chances are high you’ll know what this article is going to be about. Pictures speak louder than words though, so if this recent scandal in the annals of audiophilia has somehow managed to pass you by, feast your eyes on these:

It seems that Kobalt Music, the company tasked with producing physical copies of Skeleton Tree, failed to perform any quality control checks on their monstrosity of a product and the result is a record with a murky surface, covered in scuffs, and there are even reports of glue being lodged in the playing surface. Complaints about quality control and the vinyl revival are not new. Many modern pressings are riddled with defects, and there is even a twenty-one page thread specifically devoted to issues arising from one particular pressing plant! To make matters worse, in the case of Skeleton Tree, the record comes in this ridiculous oversized sleeve making it impossible to store properly, especially if bought by the kind of vinylphile who likes to keep their records in protective polythene sleeves. I couldn’t tell you what it sounds like because I haven’t bought it (would you?). Needless to say, for a recording that is pretty sparse, you really do need to have it pressed on pristine vinyl if you want to enjoy it on that format. The combination of the unplayable record and stupid sleeve is the perfect embodiment of what the vinyl revival is truly about: conning music fans out of their money (duh, I hear you say). It didn’t have to be this way, and perhaps there was an innocent point over the revival’s now ten year history when vinyl was good, but greed has taken over and the labels are predictably putting just as much effort into their vinyl releases as they are their digital ones (hint: zero).

Think about it, here is a product that 48% of buyers probably won’t use, 7% of which can’t use, and for the remaining 52% it is highly likely they’re playing the record on this. Why on earth would anyone who is seriously concerned with audio reproduction entertain the notion that the labels actually care about their vinyl output when, statistically, that market is a niche within a niche? The biggest con of all is that vinyl is an objectively inferior technology to CD when it comes to sound reproduction, but it’s being marketed as a superior product! A cursory glance at Amazon’s Best Sellers in Vinyl reveals that consumers are spending on average £20 for a top 10 vinyl record that half of them aren’t going to listen to. With this in mind, it seems blindingly obvious that something like Skeleton Tree would happen sooner or later, as the labels realise they’re basically selling big pictures. I’m surprised Blackstar didn’t run into similar problems, being that it is a record that came packaged in a razor sharp plastic sleeve. Of course, these points won’t stop the kind of deluded vinylphiles that populate hi-fi forums and magazines from believing that anything pressed on Glorious Vinyl sounds like it has been produced by the ghost of George Martin, mastered by Orpheus on an all-tube lathe, and individually hand pressed by Japanese artisans…


It isn’t difficult to press a high quality record. All you need to do is make sure it’s mastered specifically for vinyl with dynamics intact, instruct the pressing facility not to apply any additional processing to the sound, and pay the extra fee to have the record packaged in a poly-lined inner sleeve. At the time of writing, a run of 500 LPs will cost a DIY label with no major label discount around £2,000 (including mastering and VAT). You can see that selling such a product for £20 would result in a huge profit for the label and many happy listeners. I don’t even know how it would be possible for a label to spend so little to end up with a record that looks as bad as Skeleton Tree but apparently Kobalt Music has found a way.

In addition to all that, I’ve even heard of labels that let their individual bands organise the mastering of their records. How stupid can you get? Imagine the hodge podge of varying sonic signatures such a label would be putting out, rather than releasing a string of products with an element of sonic consistency. Clearly, a label that does this (I’m naming no names here) has absolutely no clue about maintaining quality control or presenting some semblance of a coherent catalogue of albums. We are at such a low point for sound quality compared to the relative high point of current recording technology that it seems hard to imagine how we could sink any lower. Compare this to the movie industry and the successful implementation of the blu-ray format amongst videophiles and it’s not difficult to see why the home music industry is trailing behind home video (evidenced by the way in which What Hi-Fi has increasingly turned its attention to home cinema, and the popularity of home theatre forums over hi-fi ones).

For a brief moment it was possible for the modern music fan with a penchant for sound quality to “get it on vinyl” and not have to concern themselves with the loudness war or streaming distractions. This patently is no longer the case. In the seventies, when audio production quality was high, music consumers might have concerned themselves over whether a label was using recycled vinyl to press the latest record. Now the music consumer must simply ask: does the label care about quality at all?


Review: Nick Cave’s One More Time With Feeling

As Josh Cooper (Roadkill Records/Terminal Gods) is keen to remind me, I slated David Bowie’s Blackstar within hours of its release. I simply didn’t get the point. Within days (and Bowie’s subsequent death) I had done a complete U-Turn and was happily telling the world that it was the greatest work of genius ever conceived.

Unlike with Blackstar, we go into Skeleton Tree forearmed and forewarned of the momentous event informing the context of the work. And – with that in mind – I’ve come away with mixed feelings. It was a beautifully made piece of art and I learned a lot about Nick Cave from it, but it also clarified a few things about his modern incarnation that I don’t really like at all.

Firstly, he makes clear his abandonment of the traditional narrative as a way of relating to the world. He’s grown out of it. He’s older, wiser and more grounded and doesn’t need to fantasise about being a no-good gunslinger to communicate his identity to the world. Weirdly, and somewhat perversely, he’s filled the gaping hole this opened in his work up by turning his real self  into a construct, a character. This is a process we saw clearly in the heavily scripted and carefully contrived 20,000 Days On Earth and although Skeleton Tree is a darker, more intimate affair it follows the precedent closely.

Following on from this, he’s evidently found new excitement in capturing “realness” – whether in the performances or the words themselves (he openly admitted resurrecting old, previously abandoned lyrics that barely made sense at the time of writing). It’s all very admirable and a direct reference to the jazz influences that have always simmered quietly underneath the Bad Seeds, but if this film proved anything it’s that he’s perfectly willing to fabricate something as fictitious and contrived as any of his old narrative pieces and pass it off as intimate and real.


How Nick Cave wants you to view him.

A key part of the film was how you could always see, hear or sense the film crew in each shot. It was incredibly involving and personal, like an unguarded home video. But it wasn’t careless – it was precise. Beautiful and amazingly clever, but not unguarded at all. The opening scene sees Nick Cave mocking the crew for not being able to use their new black and white 3D camera, but by the end of the film we’re seeing a breathtakingly perfect, larger than life 3d performance as if they were playing just for us, and us alone.

People are going to lap this up because it makes them feel special. Nick Cave engineers sensation in the audience by which you can personally relate to his genius, empathise with his pain. The film achieves the double whammy of putting Cave ever higher on a pedestal and also congratulating the audience on how great they are by being able to be there with him. It has an almost religious fervour to it, which glorifies the worshiper as much as the worshipped.

It’s a sharp contrast from the younger Nick Cave that denigrated himself into a villain and relegated the audience into disposable extras in an apocalyptic musical nightmare world. Warren Ellis comes off as a creative, likeable and vital cornerstone of  current Bad Seeds line up, but sometimes I miss the Blixa Bargeldian sense of danger present in Bad Seeds past.


How I personally prefer to think of Nick Cave

Overall I’d give both the film and album a 10 out 10 for form and construct. It’s stunningly beautiful and exquisitely produced. None-the-less I wouldn’t be so generous with the content itself, which occasionally comes across as cynical. It’s a brave move by Nick Cave, replacing his ubiquitous American Gothic anti-hero with…. himself. For the chin stroking BBC 6 Music “mature” audience its going to be like crack cocaine, but for me… I *liked* the stupid fictions of his past work, rather more than the clever fictions he’s producing now.


NB: This review is the opinion of one half of the Heavy Leather editorial team. After listening to Skeleton Tree, Robert Cowlin came away with a rather different set of impressions, which you  will hopefully read here first, or follow us on facebook for the inevitable flame war in the comments section…