What the Apollo Masters Fire Means for the Vinyl Market: Insiders Weigh In

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"It's like the Taylor Swift song, 'You Need To Calm Down,'" says Record Store Day co-founder Michael Kurtz.

When news spread the Apollo Masters manufacturing plant burnt down Thursday in Banning, California, it caused widespread panic: How will losing the only lacquer manufacturer in the U.S. disrupt vinyl's growth over the past decade?

Nearly a week later, though, industry insiders and stakeholders in the vinyl market are clarifying the alarmist headlines and social media reactions -- and confirming that things, overall, are very much OK. 

“People may be under the impression that all record production will cease and that there will be no more records pressed,” says David Read, vinyl coordinator at Canada-based pressing plant Duplication. “This is false.” Another early misconception was that Apollo Masters housed masters, and as such that recorded music may have been lost, which is also untrue. Says Record Store Day co-founder Michael Kurtz: “It’s like the Taylor Swift song ‘You Need To Calm Down.’ It’s not a good situation, but it’s not the end of the world, that’s for sure.”

At least, not for the industry at large. For Apollo, however, it very well might be the end of the road. The company posted a statement to its site following the fire that called the damage “catastrophic,” and assured that while all of its employees are safe, that the future of Apollo Masters was “uncertain” and that they are “evaluating options.” Apollo has not responded to requests for comment.

Several sources say that Apollo's options might be more limited than expected. Third Man Records co-founder Ben Blackwell says that it seems unlikely Apollo will be able to reopen in its former location due to California's “onerous EPA requirements.” Sources say the facility was grandfathered into the space, which started production there in 1989. “If I was them and I was planning on reopening, that would be the first thing I would say: ‘We will rebuild,’" says Blackwell. "But I think they’re probably having to explore, ‘Shit, can we?’"

While that question hangs over Apollo’s potential future, there are whispers of other companies looking to capitalize on an opportunity that didn’t, and couldn’t, exist before. Since Apollo acquired the assets of its longtime competitor, Transco Masters, in 2007, it has remained the only lacquer manufacturer in the U.S. There is only one other lacquer manufacturing plant in the world, Japan’s MDC, which sources say produced superior quality lacquer. "At risk of oversimplifying it, it seems like those two companies met the demand," says Blackwell. "So if a third company came in, they were going to have to build a better product or offer better pricing -- and maybe that could be prohibitive.”

Blackwell says following the fire he spoke with people who have in the past explored new lacquer production. And despite Apollo’s site saying that their formulation and process of preparing lacquer is “totally proprietary,” Blackwell compares it to Coke: “You can still go get a Pepsi. I’m sure [Apollo] has a special sauce, but that doesn’t mean other folks can’t figure it out.”

Kurtz confirms that other folks are trying to figure it out, and that Eric Astor -- president/CEO of Virginia’s Furnace Record Pressing, who works closely with Record Store Day -- has said that vinyl manufacturers have been discussing how to create a new company, and that there’s a lot of interest. Cheryl Pawelski, Omnivore Records’ founder, agrees, saying that while she’s unclear on the barrier to entry as far as cost and resources are concerned, “make no mistake, there’s money to be made in making lacquers. When Jack White goes and opens up a pressing plant, you have to think he’s maybe looking at lacquers, too. This is part of the manufacturing, so I have to believe that there are still some smart people in our business that want to make some money and solve some problems.”

In the interim, though, a handful of problems do exist following the fire at Apollo, from potential longer turnaround for upcoming releases to spikes in costs -- on both the manufacturer and consumer end, especially for 45s. While both Apollo and MDC manufactured 14-inch lacquers, the preferred format for cutting a 12-inch on, sources say only Apollo made 10-inch and 12-inch lacquers, from which you can cut 7-inch 45s. While it’s still possible to cut 45s from a 14-inch master, Blackwell points out it’s far less cost-effective. Pawelski estimates the price of 45s will surely increase, if only for a brief while.

A major-label source says that those who will be most hurt by this are fully independent artists who are unsigned and unafilliated, and trying to sell 7-inch records at their merch table while on the road. The source says other options for such artists exist, like Pirates Press in San Francisco, but that six months from now the true loss of Apollo will start to sink in. Unless, of course, a solution arises by then. Its not only independent artists who might suffer, but also smaller labels and pressing plants that most relied on Apollo. And, of course, Apollo's staff.

Cleveland-based record manufacturer Gotta Groove posted a statement clarifying that while it didn't rely on Apollo, it does anticipate delays in 7-inch production and that the biggest change will be the temporary hold on reference lacquers -- a sample disc created prior to lacquer mastering and plating. According to Blackwell, though, it's a fairly uncommon process in his experience. "I've been in the industry 20 years now across 600-plus releases at Third Man, and probably another 100 outside of that, and I've maybe only requested a reference three times, and maybe another three times had an engineer ask to cut one for me for their sake and safety."

Otherwise, upcoming vinyl releases -- including the anticipated annual Record Store Day, which this year will offer around 400 exclusives -- should rollout as planned with little to no disruption, as most releases through summer have likely already been cut. Blackwell notes that Third Man has already cut all but four of its releases (about one a week) through August.

As for releases that haven't been cut yet, most major players seem to rely on MDC; the manufacturer isn't accepting new clients as of now, but a source believes it will find a way to slowly expand while still maintaining its top-quality product. 

The non-lacquer process known as Direct Metal Mastering, exists as well; however, Pawelski says that she personally thinks DMM lacks in quality compared to lacquer masters. “Nearly over 100 years, the vinyl process was perfected for a reason,” she says. “You can hear the difference. It’s inferior quality reproduction, but maybe this is an opportunity for that process to be improved.” Read says that while plants that cut masters using DMM may see an increase in customers, “most cutting houses have blanks on hand, so there will still be new lacquer-cut product available.”

No matter where or what option people turn to, though, everyone says that the general attitude within the industry following the fire at Apollo is that everyone just wants to help. The major label source says it's a tragedy for everyone who works at Apollo, and heart-wrenching for anyone involved, but believes that soon enough people will come online and say, "'Hey, we have a solution for this.'"


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