What the Apollo Masters Fire Really Means for Vinyl
It was a chilly morning last February 6th, the small city of Banning was enjoying another one of those sunny California days that has inspired countless hit recordings. But on this morning, a thick stream of black smoke poured into the endless blue sky from a nondescript beige factory as explosions from within rocked the neighborhood. To collectors and professionals involved with vinyl record albums, the fire at the Apollo Masters plant would portend a calamity that has become known as “vinylgeddon”.
Fortunately, nobody was hurt in the blaze that firefighters got under control within hours, but the destruction of Apollo Masters was complete. In one terrible morning the world lost its top manufacturer of lacquer masters, a key component in the record industry supply chain. The plant that lay in ruins provided around 75% of the global supply of blank aluminum discs coated in a secret mix of nitrocellulose lacquer, a flammable substance that almost certainly accelerated the fire. Since California has some of the most strict environmental regulations in the country, many question whether Apollo Masters will even be permitted to rebuild on the location where it has been manufacturing blank lacquers since 1987.
Industry Bottlenecks of Lacquers and Cutter Styli
Audio engineers the world over use blank lacquers to cut the master recording that’s used to press any number of copies into vinyl records for a growing number of consumers interested in a music technology that continues to escape obsolescence. Apollo Masters was one of only two sources for blank lacquer masters. The only other company producing them is Japanese firm MDC, a smaller operation that’s already topped-out production of blank lacquers and has confirmed it won’t be taking new orders anytime soon. But if losing the top producer of lacquers wasn’t bad enough for the industry, Apollo Masters also happened to be one of only two sources for another important component in cutting its lacquers, the stylus. Now Adamant, another Japanese company remains the sole source for lacquer-cutting styli.
When Apollo Masters acquired Transco Masters in 2007, it took over the manufacture of the Transco ruby stylus. It’s a precision piece at the heart of the cutter head portion of the disc cutting system, a lathe that looks like an over-sized industrial turntable. The stylus does the work of heating and carving a V-shaped groove into the nitrocellulose layer of the aluminum disc to create a lacquer master.
Trivia: While the stylus is cutting a master on the lathe, excess bits of heated lacquer is constantly being vacuumed up for disposal. The heated bits of chemical are called “hot chip”, and if you’re thinking that would be a great name for a band - it’s already taken.
The Vinylgeddon Cometh!
The full effect of the fire has yet to impact consumers at record stores, but it’s definitely in the mail. The scarcity of blank lacquers will be felt when new releases are delayed on vinyl, which will probably start sometime next year. The experts agree that Record Store Day 2020 is safe because new releases by June will already have a lacquer master, making them ready for full production. Release delays are most likely to hit smaller, independent labels first and hardest. But the lacquer deficit shouldn’t have any effect on records already in production or on the collector’s market for classic or rare record albums. Of course, that probably won’t stop some dealers from seizing the opportunity to exploit uncertainty and confusion in the market by charging a little extra. But opportunism on the retail-side can only hurt the long term interests of dealers themselves and the industry as a whole. This is a time where the industry needs hopeful calm as the homegrown lacquer master industry rebuilds. It does not need misinformation or opportunism that will only frustrate collectors.
Lacquer Alternatives to the Rescue!
Direct Metal Mastering (DMM) is an alternative method for producing new vinyl records that foregoes the need for lacquers altogether. While there is debate about sound quality differences between vinyl pressed from DMM vs. lacquer, there’s no doubt that lacquer won the battle of the market overall, at least in North America. The alternate pressing technology declined in use through the 1980s, and today there are no DMM record manufacturers left on this side of the Atlantic, but there are still manufacturers using DMM in Europe.
Can record labels temporarily employ DMM for new releases on vinyl during the lacquer shortage?
Jessa Zapor-Gray, an independent vinyl and audio consultant in southern California, says that some labels or artists may look to DMM for a short-term fix. But she warns that switching production to DMM is expensive and there are no DMM record manufacturers in North America.
“The greatest concern I have is that labels and artists might take their business to plants overseas that have DMM machines… it is likely that business will permanently be lost to North American manufacturers.”
Vinyl Industry’s Loss
The loss of Apollo Masters couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time for the vinyl industry. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) announced in 2016 that despite declining sales of music on physical media… “vinyl comprised 26% of total physical shipments at retail value – their highest share since 1985.”
Rolling Stone commented on the stunning growth of vinyl through the second half of 2018 at 12.8% then 12.9% through the first half of 2019. It stated that if the trend continues vinyl will soon be generating more revenue than CDs. CD sales have declined as most listeners turn to streaming, while vinyl sales have increased. Best Buy’s response was to begin selling vinyl record albums soon after dropping retail CD sales. The Economist graph (below) running to 2018 shows a clear picture of vinyl rising from the retail grave. Meanwhile, a recent MarketWatch report from Jan 2020, says:
“Vinyl records still stand as one of the fastest selling and growing mediums of music, despite the acceptance of digital media.”
Personal Note on Vinyl
I love that vinyl is growing in popularity among younger generations. I don’t care if it’s just niche hipsterism, there is an undeniable joy in the tactile feel of holding an abstract unit of a musician’s career in your fingertips. Digital streaming services may offer convenience, but it’s easily the most impersonal way to commoditize an important art. I’m old enough to know well the feeling of splitting the shrink wrap on a new release on vinyl and taking in the scent of fresh polymers as the cardboard edges waft the scent trapped inside… it smells like victory!
I collected vinyl for many years, storing albums inside stacks of milk crates from an old Detroit dairy that actually fit records nicely. The standard size of milk crates was actually changed at some point in the 80s and rumor has it that the change was so they could no longer be used to store records on their side like nearly everyone I knew did in those days. I guess they were losing too many to theft, but I got mine second-hand. I could still kick myself for never digitizing certain irreplaceable, locally released, punk-inspired Detroit and Chicago garage band collections I had on vinyl that are now lost to time. I’ll take shallow comfort in Aesop’s “Sour Grapes” and just tell myself that the tracks probably didn’t age well. But I know that just seeing the simple cover-art on my long-gone 1986 copy of “It Came From the Garage” would make my heart skip a beat. I still have the milk crates, but sadly the albums are all long gone.
I’ve embraced digital and keep a collection of high-res music files on a UPnP network drive accessible from anywhere over my household wi-fi. The 18-year-old from the late 80s inside me still marvels at digital technology. But if I were born in the late 80s I might feel differently today. The relationship today’s music fans have with their music has been reduced to endless algorithm-streamed playlists for an endless monthly fee. The subscription model has turned music into an underappreciated utility, taken for granted like running water or electricity. Although I can’t agree that vinyl inherently provides superior sound quality over digital music, vinyl does provide the superior experience.
Vinyl Not Going Away Anytime Soon
The Vinyl Alliance is an advocacy group dedicated to promoting vinyl records with members across the industry. The trade group released an official statement in the inaugural meeting of its freshly minted executive board that’s “dedicated to promoting awareness of vinyl records.”
The tone of the statement was optimistic as it threw a bucket of cold water on so much of the vinyl “doomsday” hyperbole around the Apollo Masters fire. The VA’s President, Guenter Loibi says:
“There are already alternatives available which will help bridge the shortage of lacquer disc. This can also be an opportunity to embrace new technologies and to strengthen collaboration within the industry.”
The VA emphasizes a four major points that will come together to help the industry deal with the shortage in the short term:
- MDC, the remaining manufacturer of lacquers is rationing supply in order to satisfy demand of as many customers as possible.
- Direct-to-Metal-Mastering (DMM) is a working alternative, which does not require a lacquer and is available worldwide.
- There are several start-ups planning to manufacture lacquers and they are expected to enter the market in the coming months.
- New technologies such as HD Vinyl – a modern way to produce stampers without lacquers – are in development.
Although the fire at Apollo Masters was a tragic accident that took many by surprise, rumor has it that the prospect of potential lacquer shortages due to the single point of failure in manufacturing was not completely unforeseen by all. There are startups that have been preparing to enter into the lacquer market for some time, as alluded to by the Vinyl Alliance.
Another source of unverified rumor says that some manufacturers may have even been storing several month’s supply of blank lacquers. Stereophile’s Michael Fremer has an interesting video where he recounts rumors of lacquer hording and a crazy story about possibly the only American DMM mastering facility owned by the Scientologists. Apparently, long ago in a bid to bring L. Ron Hubbard’s message to future civilizations after ours has passed, Scientologists may have created their own secret vinyl manufacturing facility. The story may not be true but it is certainly entertaining.
In the end, the vinyl industry will be fine. There will likely be delayed vinyl releases starting in late 2020 or 2021, but the greatest tragedy may be the loss of manufacturing in North America if labels and artists turn to European DMM. Not only would it mean fewer American made records, but it would make real lacquer-pressed albums and their unique sound quality even more rare. But the lacquer-making expertise from Apollo Masters is just too valuable a skill not to return to the industry in some form. Even if not in California due to environmental regulations.
Lastly, the main reason why the Apollo Masters fire will not mean “vinylgeddon” is due to the resilience of the vinyl market itself. Unlike 35-years ago, vinyl is no longer a purely functional vehicle for media distribution. Vinyl is now a luxury item. Scarcity in luxury markets generally only increases value. If the market were susceptible to pressure from alternative technologies, it would have already been rendered obsolete in our current digital age. The recording industry doesn’t rely on vinyl to promote its artists, so after some discomfort from delays, the industry will rebound from a period of “new release” scarcity stronger than ever.
Special thanks to Xavier Burgos aka. Capt. Analog for providing expert contributions to this story.
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Recent Forum Posts:
I put a few thoughts about the “vinylgeddon” scare that had been circulating over the last month. But it looks to me that the real danger in an extended blank lacquer scarcity would be if record companies begin switching to DMM as an alternative, because they're all in Europe. It wouldn't look good to lose the industry to overseas competition. I don't know about the sound quality of lacquer vs. DMM, but many believe that lacquer produces better sounding vinyl.
The title may be a bit presumptuous… I don't know if anyone can accurately predict the future. But I collected what many of the experts are saying. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that vinyl will be fine in the end, even we lose some manufacturing in North America and the world has fewer real lacquer pressed records in coming years.
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