Is vinyl production really under threat?
We explore the implications of the fire at Apollo Masters and ask, 'What's the future of vinyl production?'
On Thursday 6th February, a devastating fire burned the Apollo Masters factory in California to the ground. Luckily, none of the staff were harmed in the fire, but the incident meant that the world’s largest supplier of blank lacquers for cutting vinyl was completely destroyed. Since, a lot of different opinions and conclusions have been drawn, from a keep-calm-and-carry-on approach to a complete ‘vinylgeddon’, resulting in huge delays and a fundamental change to how vinyl is manufactured. So what are the true implications of the fire at Apollo? And what does the future hold for vinyl production? We spoke to some key industry figures to find out.
“I am an optimist, so of course we are very sad for the Apollo staff, but I think after the dust settles this will leave the pressing community in a stronger position overall,” says Richard Dron, the founder of Mobineko, a pressing plant with operations in the UK, Taiwan and the US. “Until now nobody has bothered to come up with a real alternative to Apollo/MDC, and Apollo has held a monopoly on lacquer supply outside Japan. Like any monopoly, we have seen prices go up while quality has been extremely variable.”
‘Lacquer’ is the term used when referring to a coated aluminium disc that is created as the first step in pressing a record.
Once a track has been mastered, it’s then ‘cut’ to a lacquer-coated disc, which is then electroplated and used to make pressing stampers. This is the original master disc of the release. “Studios mostly handle sourcing of their own lacquers, so this is a problem felt more by the cutting studios and plants that do in-house lacquer cutting. Having said that, without master plates we can't press and we would have no business, so we are all in this together” Dron explains.
"Everyone is scrambling to buy MDC blanks from Japan but there just isn't enough to go around"
In the aftermath of Apollo’s fire, further pressure has been put on the sole provider of lacquers in the world — MDC in Japan — a company who’s already struggling to meet demand. Richard confirms, “Everyone is scrambling to buy MDC blanks from Japan but there just isn't enough to go around. They have a fixed supply level and we have heard they are basically closed to new business.”
The initial response to the fire from some areas of the industry focused on said strain and demand, and saw Gil Tamazyn of Californian pressing plant Capsule Labs declare, in an email to Billboard, “Unless something happens really quickly, there will soon be Vinylgeddon.” Most agree though, that it’s too soon to draw any sweeping conclusions from the impact of the fire. “The studios we work with are all industry veterans so they're not stupid,” says Dron. “They always have a very healthy stock of blanks on hand which will see us through the next few months at least.”
As the dust has settled on the fire, however, many industry figures are now seeing an opportunity among the tragedy. A different type of vinyl manufacturing called DMM — Direct Metal Mastering — bypasses the electroplating process, meaning that blank lacquers aren’t required. “Some of the biggest plants in Europe like GZ and Optimal already rely mostly on DMM which uses copper blanks, so they will be fine and this will take some pressure off the lacquer supply,” explains Dron. The process also claims to reduce surface noise, though some question its sonic range when it comes to dancefloor-focused releases.
For others, it’s an opportunity for new lacquer manufacturers to emerge, with multiple sources claiming more than one manufacturer is on the cusp of coming to market. An unnamed source told Discogs, “I know of no less than three different outfits/entities already tackling the idea of newly manufacturing lacquers in Apollo’s absence. It seems like whoever can get to market first will be in an enviable position, assuming the quality is there.” Dron agrees, “Personally I don't love the sound of DMM, so I think the way forward is for the pressing community to support newcomers to lacquer production. I know of operations in at least three different countries that are very close to coming online, and this incident will surely give them a kick in the right direction.”
"There's sort of a question mark about how long the existing lathes will keep running"
Regardless of the potential positive outcomes surrounding the fire at Apollo, there’s no doubt in the short term that some plants, especially those based in the US, will be negatively affected. San Francisco label Dark Entries has already cancelled half of its 2020 vinyl release schedule, telling Resident Advisor: “I immediately emailed ten different artists and told them that I'm not putting out their record this year... there's only so many lacquers to go around to all the record labels in the world."
Even if the restrictions around lacquer production are solved via a combination of new plants and DMM replacing the process for non-dance music releases, the legacy issues around vinyl production are still fairly widespread. “The next thing I am worried about is cutting styli — the special needles made out of precious gems that do the actual work of cutting,” says Dron. “There are only two companies I'm aware of that make these now that Apollo is gone.” The lathes themselves are in short supply too. “Cutting lathes are getting hard to find and expensive, but the demand doesn't really exist to make the development of a new lathe worthwhile. So there's sort of a question mark about how long the existing lathes will keep running”. Furthermore, vinyl’s impact on the environment is a long-running topic that doesn't seem to have a simple answer.
While ‘vinylgeddon’ might be an overstatement, and the format has certainly survived adversity in the past, it remains true that bottlenecks in the production process aren’t going away and are only highlighted by the recent fire at Apollo. Still, Richard remains largely positive about the future: “On the positive side we now have at least three companies making superb quality brand new pressing machines, lots of options for electroplating stampers and at least a dozen suppliers big and small for audio grade PVC. So as long as the lacquer and stylus situation improves we are good for a while yet.”