Everything has a place in the circle of life and that is as true for small record labels as it is for cute cartoon animals in sub-Saharan Africa. While the small record label will usually retain a certain amount of autonomy – not being as reliant on wider media trends as the bigger organisations, they are still part of a chain. If the price of vinyl goes up at the company that supplies the pressing plant, the price will probably go up all the way through to the final customer. Lodged firmly in between the small record label and the customer is the postal service and the relationship between these three parties is a vital part of how the micro-industry of DIY music functions.
The last couple of weeks have seen a controversy flare up across the Atlantic as the US Postal Service have been forced to raise their international shipping prices exponentially. Small (and not so small) record labels have been up in arms as the potential impact on their businesses begins to hit home. One of the most drastic examples is Hooker Vision, a small tape label from Georgia who posted “Due to the recent increase in postage costs, we will be temporarily closed” on their blog last week.
The reaction is understandable. You can read the full breakdown of the price changes on the USPS website and it makes for tough going. While the price of domestic shipping has increased, it is not a massive or unmanageable hike. International shipping however has increased anywhere from 14.5% to 50%, depending on what you’re shipping and where it’s going. Small packages (like cassettes) are particularly affected, to the point where shipping will easily outstrip the cost of the actual tape. This will undoubtedly have a large impact on how many people will choose to buy directly from small labels, most of who do not have distribution (and might not print more than 50 copies of anything…).
James Jackson Toth spoke to several label heads for Stereogum and their situation is pretty bleak. Jeremy Bible, who runs the record store and label Experimedia, also spoke to NPR about the rise and he notes how the price increase will trickle down the chain, bit by bit, with the largest lump coming at the end. Mark Cul from Further Records, a DIY label in Seattle, says the increase for single LPs isn’t so bad, especially if you use the online service and take into account the soon-to-be-included-as-default international tracking (a service which currently costs $11 as an extra). Posting with the online service rather than at the actual post office can save him as much as $2, so Cul’s international rate for a single LP has gone from $13 to $16. Cul also says he is looking forward to the logistical challenge of the whole thing and stresses the need to “not put people off buying”.
Importantly, he also mentioned the importance of not blaming the USPS for the hike. Blame should instead be laid at the feet of the US Congress, who passed a bill in 2006 which requires the USPS to fund all their pensions and benefits for the next 70 years, up front. Given that the organization employs over half a million people (plus those potential employees who aren’t even born yet), this amounts to a large wad of cash. The immediate result is the USPS reportedly losing $25 million a day as it attempts to keep everything going. If the rather sensible questions of “why did Congress pass this bill?” pops into your head, you can look to the two other major shipping organisations in the US for your answer. FedEx and UPS both lobbied heavily in favour of the bill, knowing that it would hamstring their state-funded competitor for decades to come.
So as a corporate butterfly flaps its little wings on one side of the world, a tsunami envelops a bunch of niche music buyers on the other. It will be a few months before we see the full effects of this hike as losses get absorbed and sales disappear. One thing is for sure, whatever labels manage to keep their head above water in an already saturated and dying industry will deserve every penny they earn.