When news broke that a massive fire had decimated Apollo Masters, which produced the world’s largest supply of the lacquer plates essential for pressing records, figures throughout the music industry described it as a potentially crippling blow to the future of vinyl, throwing around words such as “disaster” and “vinylgeddon.”
Apollo, based in Banning, CA, was consumed by a three-alarm fire on February 6, and the company said on its website that it had suffered “catastrophic damage” and was “uncertain of our future.”
It was one of two companies in the world that produce the blank lacquer discs needed to make a master, which is then electroplated and used to make pressing stampers. Its proprietary lacquer formula is highly regarded. Apollo is estimated to have produced 75-percent of the world’s lacquers, with Japan’s MDC providing the remainder.
Some industry experts aren’t nearly as gloomy, however.
Impact of the Apollo Masters Fire to Vinyl Record Production
Discogs secured statements from three high-profile label executives, including from two major label groups. All of them could only speak off the record, and all had good news for vinyl lovers worried about keeping their shelves filled.
One executive well-versed in vinyl production said that many titles slated for release this year would have already been mastered and made into stampers, including Record Store Day 2020 releases. More importantly, the majority of vinyl annually is pressed outside of the United States, and those plants already predominantly use MDC and DMM (direct metal mastering), which doesn’t require lacquers.
“This means that the territories where the majority of vinyl is already being produced will be largely unaffected,” said the executive. “Yes, there will be a ripple effect as US businesses adjust to where their boat will rise. Will those plants and mastering houses positioned to supply lacquer cuts via MDC or DMM gain market share in the short-term, you bet. Will that last? Only time will tell that tale.”
“In short, the short-term will see business as usual. As the supply of Apollo lacquers dissipates, you’ll see delays and adjustments. In the near longer-term you will see any business that relies strictly on Apollo lacquers to be impacted dramatically. This will be the stage where we actually see the true impact of the fire present itself.”
“We’ll also see, quite readily, if Apollo’s stated market share of the lacquer market is/was accurate. If the rest of the world was already pretty much using MDC lacquers and the majority of the global vinyl production resides outside the US it seems possible that the sum total will be less of an event than we currently expect. Now, if I were a pressing plant or a studio that replied on only Apollo lacquers, I would be quite worried.”
The Importance of Apollo Masters to the Vinyl Industry
Apollo started in 1936 as Audio Devices and has been making lacquers as Apollo since 1987, when it set up shop in Banning. In 2007, Apollo bought a competitor, Transco, and also began producing its Transco styli, which are used in cutting lathes when making the stampers used to actually press records.
The proprietary nature of Apollo’s formula is what prompted many of the doomsday reactions that sprung up post-fire. Apollo could choose not to share the formula, but if it doesn’t reopen, there would appear to be no reason for it to be kept a secret.
Apollo’s process was the traditional way to produce vinyl. It begins with a highly-polished aluminum disc that is coated in lacquer. Mastering engineers buy the lacquers and use a lathe to cut grooves into the lacquer plate. There are then two stages of electroplating before a stamper can be produced, and that’s what presses the grooves into a warm puck of vinyl.
DMM cuts the grooves directly into a copper plate, skipping the electroplating process, which is said to reduce surface noise and a more accurate sonic representation of the original recording. Some also feel that DMM produces a harsher sound.
“I don’t believe this is a doomsday situation or ‘vinylgeddon’ as one publication pronounced,” said a Sony marketing higher up. “Look at what vinyl has weathered over the last 30 years or so, given the advent of CD and other digital media. This is a setback to be sure given the amount of volume that came from Apollo, but the knowledge still exists, and there are enough creative and motivated individuals within this industry who have such a deep-seated passion for the format that I don’t see it being ‘the end.’
“It may take slightly longer for some titles to come to market in the next couple of years, but vinyl recordings will persevere, I have no doubt.”
Gil Tamazyan, the owner of Capsule Labs pressing plant in Los Angeles, told the Desert Sun newspaper that, “The worst case from (the fire) would be if Apollo doesn’t plan to return and doesn’t share the intellectual properties with another new willing company.”
“We all agree there needs to be more than one supplier for these materials,” Tamazyan added. “All my industry colleagues are worried this might take a long time to figure out, and, in the process, major delays may arise in the vinyl production market.”
New Opportunities Created by the Apollo Masters Fire
A prominent voice at one label sees a potential void left by Apollo as an opportunity for others.
“First off, I cannot imagine Apollo has any serious designs on reopening,” he said. “They are gonna take that insurance money and retire. The EPA regulations in California (to which they were supposedly grandfathered into) are too prohibitive, and trying to relocate that entire operation, man, forget about it.”
“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.”
“In the grand scheme of things, I predict a light hiccup, probably most felt by a handful of mastering houses primarily using Apollo discs. Plants and labels should feel slight if any, effects.”
And finally, Chad Kassem of Quality Record Pressings added, “Most of the lacquers QRP gets were MDC and half our business is reorders. I also have faith that someone or some company, whether if be Apollo or another, will step up and start making lacquers. So, although this is a huge blow to the vinyl world, it is not going to come to a complete stop.”
So a decimated Apollo is certainly bad news and there will definitely be a period of adjustment, along with a temporary dip in the number of releases available on vinyl, but it’s no “vinylgeddon.” The format has survived worse.