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The Art & Science of Sound -

Is the Vinyl Revival Doomed After the Apollo Masters Fire?

Banning, CA - On February 6, 2020, a massive fire at a non-descript industrial building on West Lincoln Street caused widespread panic within the music industry, in particular the vinyl LP segment.

A lacquer-coated aluminum disk is used to master recordings for vinyl pressing. In business since the 1930s, Apollo Masters was considered the world-wide leader in the manufacture of blank lacquer masters. Another plant, MDC, in Japan was a distant second in terms of industry reach, and with the vinyl revival that has been going strong since the early twenty-teens, they were barely able to keep up with demand.

In the eighty years since its founding, Apollo had perfected the formula for exceptionally high-quality lacquer masters. To produce a vinyl record, the audio is ‘cut’ into a lacquer master with a cutting lathe outfitted with a sapphire-tipped stylus. Think of the master as a negative of the original. The master then stamps heated vinyl, producing the ‘positive’ cut that you listen to on your turntable. A box of 25 blank lacquers typically cost the record pressing plant or label around a thousand dollars.

Most pressing plants buy lacquer masters in bulk, so any looming shortage might not be felt until the middle of 2021, but unless Apollo gets ack in production – or another manufacturer is able to step up to Apollo’s pre-fire production levels – new vinyl releases are going to be seriously affected.

If a record has already been pressed once, even f it was pressed forty years ago, there is no need to cut a new master, so only new releases and re-packaged re-issues will be affected. Even though, after a record 14.5% leap in sales, vinyl only accounted to 4% of all music sales in 2019, (streaming accounted for 82% with the remaining 14% split between digital downloads and CDs). Independent and boutique labels will be hardest hit, as their artists don’t make the income via streaming that artists on larger labels do, so they cater to fans and buyers of vinyl for the income from music sales. You can definitely expect the price of a 12” LP to go up considerably in the next year. This might cut the vinyl revival off at the knees, or there might not be as much doom on the horizon as people first thought.

The brightside of the vinyl revival is that there is money to be made from producing lacquer masters. If this fire had happened twenty years ago, its conceivable to think the revival may never have occurred because there simply wasn’t anyone capable of making the high-quality blanks Apollo manufactured – and monopolized the market with.

But now, even a startup funded with a GoFundMe page could have Apollo or a startup rival padded with more than enough money in a very short time, just from investment from within the music industry. There are also alternatives to lacquer blanks, including Direct-to-Metal Mastering (DMM) which is already available and HD Vinyl that produces masters without lacquer blanks, which is in the final stages of development.

Vinyl Alliance president Guter Loibl said in a prepared release last week, “There are already alternatives available which will help bridge the shortage of lacquer disks. This can also be an opportunity to embrace new technologies and to strengthen collaboration within the industry.”   

Perhaps the predictions of doom withing the industry will turn into nothing more than a blip in the history of the vinyl revival. Time will tell, but for now the families and employees of Apollo Masters are the most immediately affected and the thoughts and concerns of everyone within the industry and every fan of vinyl are with them.

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