The Vinyl Pause of 2020: FAQ in progress

The Vinyl Pause of 2020: FAQ in progress

If you don’t care about vinyl, the music medium, at all — no judgment — you’ll want to skip this post. You’re welcome.

Yes, I heard about the Apollo Masters fire on Friday.

Yes, this is really really bad news for vinyl lovers, especially those who buy new product.

No, I’m not a vinyl mastering guru.

Yes, I put together the FAQ below about the incident, and I make predictions about what will come next. Take these predictions no more seriously than you would take predictions from, say, The Amazing Criswell. However, I’ve been a music collector since I was a toddler, and I started observing and following music culture not long after that, so I’d like to think this will help inform my friends and, in turn, their friends.

If you see something below that’s flat out wrong, call me out on my falsehoods in the comments. I’m always happy to learn.

  • So what just happened, and why should I care?

Apollo Master Audiodiscs’ building burned down the morning of Friday, February 7th 2020 circa 8am PST. Here is one of the first reports on the fire. Thankfully, no one involved was physically hurt. Of course, the workers at Apollo no longer have jobs for the foreseeable future.

Apollo provided at least 90% of vinyl mastering studios/plants with the needed lacquers (acetate discs) to cut masters for any new audio vinyl pressing in the entire world. They were also apparently the only manufacturer of the cutting styli needed to create such masters.

  • Where did this happen?

Apollo Masters is/was in Banning, California. Banning is a small town halfway between Riverside and Palm Springs, all in Riverside County, California.

  • Why did we allow having only one building in the entire world be in the critical path of 90% of new vinyl pressings?

A very fair question. My hot-ish take is that it was a combination of the following factors:

  1. Apollo didn’t mind having little to no competition — no business would have minded that — and few people questioned it, since Apollo has been in the business for a very long time. Apollo merged or bought out competitors over time as well (such as Transco.) The only other producer of lacquers in the world — currently the only one, now — is MDC in Japan. And they are tiny compared to Apollo.
  2. While the 21st century vinyl resurgence has been strong for almost 15 years, that’s still a blip compared to the initial era of vinyl media — from roughly the 1880s until the 1980s [Ed: The first phonograph record era; vinyl’s first major presence was in the 1940s] — so, many people in the industry were still questioning whether there was such a major investment to make in creating entirely new plants for vinyl music pressings, given that the vinyl format is still considered by most people, in 2020, to be far in the past.
  3. Most importantly, many private U.S. industries barely prioritize disaster recoveryespecially the music industry. See also Jody Rosen’s excellent and devastating New York Times piece “The Day the Music Burned” from mid-2019 about the 2008 Universal Studios fire for more context on this example of legacy neglect.
  • So why not just build a new lacquer plant, or just use MDC in Japan instead?

Also a fair question, although the downsides are immediate to point out:

  1. MDC in Japan is no longer accepting new clients due to high demand. And that was before the Apollo fire.
  2. Apollo wasn’t just selling a liquid compound sold in bottles that was created in a vat. Apollo sold blank acetate discs which require a far more complex and unique process.
  3. Apollo is/was pretty much the only knowledge expert on lacquers for mastering in the Western half of the world.
  4. Even if Apollo had a backstock of lacquers saved elsewhere; and if all their insurance paperwork was in order; and if Apollo’s scientific formulae and their product design paperwork were saved offsite, reopening a plant still requires a lot of new paperwork and bureaucracy — which, among dozens of issues, includes finding a new location for Apollo’s needs and adhering to updated environmental standards in California. Lacquers are not exactly organic products, so reopening in California in 2020, where environmental standards are high, would take a while even if all else went well. (I’ve never run a lacquer business in California, so this is all my best guess, anyway.) Sure, Apollo could possibly reopen more quickly in a different U.S. state, provided all the backup above was in place.

It’s too early to know what Apollo’s exact situation is, just days after the fire. I don’t envy Apollo Masters, to put it mildly. Being idealistic, it could take at least a few years for either Apollo to reopen or a new company to open — whichever happens first — and start making lacquers again for vinyl mastering. Again, that’s a mighty idealistic estimate.

  • Does that mean I won’t be able to buy new vinyl in 2020?

You will be able to buy new vinyl titles in 2020 — or most of 2020, anyway. Ironically, the long waiting time to get a respective record pressed after cutting its master may be critical in delaying the consequences of low supply of vinyl offerings. That waiting time to press can take several months — and that’s assuming all money needed for the pressing is gathered and ready to spend. (Incidentally, before the mid 2000s, the waiting time used to be dramatically shorter.) Many new albums coming out in 2020 already had their respective masters cut in 2019.

Moreover, some labels that can afford the overhead do purchase and stock up on blank acetate discs in advance. If you guessed that major labels have the upper hand on this overhead compared to independent labels, you’d be right. [Ed: Bigger pressing plants invest in this overhead too, of course.]

However, from the end of 2020 onward will be the big question mark regarding vinyl supply in retail.

And it wouldn’t be surprising if labels began to start a more conservative release schedule effective ASAP. If any label does have a stash of lacquers, they will likely be reserved for releases that the label would consider low-risk in sales — such as legacy artists or hot new acts.

I’m guessing RSD 2020 will go on as planned in April, since most of the titles will have already been pressed, or at least had their masters cut. As for RSD Black Friday 2020 and RSD 2021? Hmmm.

  • I recorded some music and was planning to fund my own vinyl pressing of it. What do I do now?

I hope you have quite a bit of money and patience — more than ever before.

Your only immediate options for mastering new vinyl in the near term will be DMM aka Direct Metal Mastering. You can get excited about the science of it described on their Wikipedia page, if you wish. And, yes, the noticeable lack of a dependence on lacquers is key.

The problem with mastering at a DMM plant isn’t that it won’t work — today anyway. This interview with Abbey Road mastering engineer Miles Showell highlights the key dilemma: all of the original DMM designers are now dead, and they didn’t write everything down. So any DMM plant will operate until, well, it no longer can. Then that’s basically it for that plant.

The more pressing (pun semi-intended) problem with getting a mastering done at a DMM plant is that there are only half a dozen of them in the world. Most of the queued up demand for new vinyl pressings will spill over onto these DMM plants — increasing their new client base by roughly 10 times more than they had before. If you know how high demand and low supply work, you can already guess what I’m about to say. Expect a very high quote for an offer from a DMM plant if you get one; and expect the wait time for your mastering to be long as well.

Keep in mind that you are also in the same race as other record labels, especially major labels, who will make competition fierce.

There may be cheaper alternatives that do very limited runs, such as lathe cuts. But I think any plant that deals with mastering for a pressing that can be played on a turntable is going to be very overwhelmed in the coming year.

  • So why can’t artists put out cassettes or CDs again?

Many independent bands and independent labels have been releasing cassettes for the past decade — especially bands that can’t afford vinyl pressings. Cassettes are far cheaper to manufacture than vinyl. While there is Burger Records, for example, we will probably see more cassette-only labels starting up or coming back. (Yes, cassette-only labels have been a thing since the 80s and early 90s. Anyone remember ROIR or Shrimper?)

What about CDs? Most titles on major labels and a few on independent labels are still released on CD. While I could see D.I.Y. artists putting out more limited-edition CD-R’s again in the future, I don’t think there will be a full CD resurgence again like in the 90s and early 2000s, thanks to the mass schadenfreude of the 1999 launch of Napster. (In my humble opinion, there is very little wrong with the CD as an audio medium and product, especially with the potential artwork and metadata presentation — small as it can be — so an artist or label ruling out well packaged CDs after 2020 might be foolish.).

In the meantime, selling digital albums on sites like Bandcamp are an easy option for artists. They’re not physical products, but Bandcamp’s sales model is more analogous to brick-and-mortar retail than MP3 stores on Apple Music (iTunes) or Amazon, for example.

All that said, we can’t ignore streaming services’ presence in the CD or Digital Album scenarios. Many music fans have long checked out from the digital music purchasing model.

  • How are record labels and record stores going to deal with this?

This is likely the most painful question to answer, given that most of my friends in my entire life work or worked in record stores and/or record labels — mostly independent ones.

Labels are probably thinking deeply about the Vinyl Pause right now. If they’re not, they should. Should they go forward with pursuing new vinyl pressing opportunities, independent labels will likely miss out on relationships with DMM mastering plants (mentioned above) due to competition from major labels. I wouldn’t be surprised if some independent labels stopped vinyl pressings for new titles for a few years, at best, in hope of lacquer production coming back.

Not that major labels are going to recreate the same level of supply as now. Every regular vinyl consumer is going to notice a particular dearth of product by 2021.

Whatever new vinyl pressings that do come out that are DMM mastered will likely cost more and sound brighter and, ur, more different than before because of the nature of DMM mastering. This will likely become the new normal — and again, this is a best case scenario. Be prepared for shiny “Now mastered with DMM!” stickers.

(And regarding the sound of DMM mastered vinyl, I own quite a bit of vinyl, and I believe I own maybe 3 DMM mastered records? So I am staying out of that DMM vs. lacquer debate.)

Now, record stores…

Record stores whose models primarily deal with selling new vinyl pressings are going to suffer circa 2021, for obvious reasons. There’s no way to sugarcoat this.

Record stores that deal almost exclusively with vintage vinyl will be less affected, though record stores in the former category may decide to pivot to selling mainly vintage vinyl as well — adding to the competition for used vinyl product. Either way, I sadly expect to see an acceleration of record stores closing down.

If the Vinyl Pause becomes worse than a pause, no one in the entire vinyl industry is winning — including companies that sell peripherals. When a format is about to die, mass devaluation begins all across the board.

  • Is vinyl as a format going to die?

Everything comes to an end. I guarantee 100% that vinyl will die as a format in the future. How far into the future is the question.

The Apollo Masters fire certainly seems to accelerate the vinyl industry toward this death. However, there will always be vinyl collectors in the decades to come. And optimistically, there will be an adjustment to a new normal in the coming years as I mention above.

What is worrisome is if the vinyl industry continues to ignore supporting and maintaining all its parts — turntable makers, stylus makers, recording studios, mastering plants, pressing plants, brick-and-mortar record stores, etc. — it could be forced to pause for a long enough time such that even avid vinyl consumers will switch to different hobbies.

And if that happens, vinyl will “die” and become one with the 8-track tape — now an ancient curio that will still exist in thrift shops but will require buyers to be on their own for procuring used working equipment to play them.

Now, I don’t think the Apollo Masters fire alone will do this, but it’s hard not to be cynical about a stubbornness in the music industry in neglecting disaster recovery. Within a year, we’ve now seen two major stories regarding this very crisis: poor archiving practice via the 2008 Universal Studios fire; and now poor, fragile infrastructure in the vinyl industry with the Apollo Masters fire.

In the near term — sidestepping a needless debate about analog vs. digital, vinyl vs. CDs vs. MP3s, zzzzzzz — streaming services are gaining more and more clients as years go by. Most new consumers of vinyl are most likely to gravitate to streaming services, abandoning vinyl in the coming year if there is a perceived slowdown in the supply. So there’s obviously going to be a dip in new vinyl purchases after 2020, no doubt.

  • Why do you care for vinyl so much? I mean, formats come and go, right? You know that, right?

Despite talking so much about vinyl in this entire piece, the primary reason I’m writing all of this is that we don’t lose a vital part of the music industry, period — notably our core network of independent labels whose innovations have allowed the entire music industry to thrive. The music industry has flirted with disaster on and off through the past century, but I no longer trust we can risk another flirt and ignore it.

While I don’t agree with everything in his article, Craig Havighurst’s “The Devaluation of Music: It’s Worse Than You Think” from 2015 hits on many key points that are still valid today — and highlights why the music industry is in a more fragile spot than ever. It’s become more common to hear from friends, “I just listen to podcasts now. I rarely listen to music anymore.” Music is becoming more ephemeral to more people, and this feels entirely preventable. And yet, here we are.

This can’t be more easily said than done, but perhaps it’s time for a conference to discuss upgrading the vinyl industry’s infrastructure. Major labels will likely prefer to play to their own tune, but I do hope that at least independent labels, stores, and artists alike can converge on a solution that will protect their livelihoods. If that means vinyl is deemed too expensive an industry to maintain, so be it. It would be better to have a network of independent music lovers making a living than none at all.

  • With the advent of 3D printers, why can’t kids just 3D print their own custom rec…

// Steady State has logged off from this post

9 thoughts on “The Vinyl Pause of 2020: FAQ in progress

  1. You actually probably own more DMM records than you know. The largest plant in the world (i think i heard they had 100+ presses working 24 hours a day), GZ in Czech has used DMM exclusively as long as Ive been in the game (16 years). They have several exclusive brokers in the US, including Pirates Press in SF. So if any of your records have a tiny “Made in Czech Republic” marking on the back, they are almost definitely DMM.

    Also, for what its worth, Apollo never tried to keep competition out, they were so far overextended trying to keep up with supply, they probably wouldn’t have minded someone else to ease up the market. But getting a full chemical plant, along with aluminum disc prep (a surprisingly involved process), wasn’t something any other players were willing to invest in. The folks at Apollo were good friends of mine, and they were the tiniest little cog under an enormous chemical conglomerate who originally just provided the lacquer to them. The chemical company bought them up after the first death of vinyl just to keep them going as a service to the industry and then they merged with Transco because otherwise they would have both gone out of business. There were always grumblings in the industry about the “price gouging monopoly“ that Apollo had, but my business partner found a lacquer/styli price list from 1950 (when the industry was enormous and established and there were dozens of competitors) and when he ran the prices through an inflation calculator, Apollo’s pricing was within 10% of the 1950 prices.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mike, thank you for your reply! Looking back, my tone may have seemed accusatory in some places. I never like a situation where an entire business is gone in just minutes, so I hope Apollo makes a decision that’s best for them.

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    2. Mike, exactly. Celebrate Records in Germany manufactured in 2019 over 5 Mio. records, 90% of that are made with DMM cut inhouse on 2 DMM lathes, 5% are inhouse too on a lqcuer lathe, the rest of 5% are supplied by ecternal cutting studios in lacquer.

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  2. Actually vinyl does not extend back to the 1880s. Until the 1940s the primary material to press discs was shellac. Several companies, most notably Capitol Records began issuing vinyl 78s in the 40s but it with the introduction of 33 1/3 and 45 rpm records late in that decade that use of vinyl really took off.

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    1. Bill, thank you for writing. You are correct. The phonograph record industry started around the 1880s via shellac, but vinyl took decades after that. I’ll be posting a small appendix including some errata on my side such as this fact. Thanks again!

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