This month doom and gloom descended on the record industry. And by the ‘record industry,’ I mean the industry that manufactures, releases, and loves vinyl records. The fragility of the vinyl revival was dramatically revealed by a tragic fire at a factory in California. People are freaking out. And, as I wrote about the story for my newsletter, I started thinking about vinyl in a broader sense — why do we love it, what are its alternatives, and do we really need it?
Before we go down the rabbit hole, you might want to watch an informative video that shows the creation of a vinyl master:
Pretty cool, eh? So, back to this concerning fire. The quick summary: a couple of weeks ago, the Apollo Masters Corp. building in California burned to the ground. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but the damage to the facility was severe enough that it’s unlikely the plant will reopen. And that’s bad news because this plant was one of two in the world that provided the lacquers necessary to create master discs for vinyl record production. (You may have noticed that Gonsalves opens an Apollo box for his lacquer in the above video.) The other plant is MDC in Japan, reportedly behind schedule and turning down new customers even before the fire.
This tragedy triggered a lot of doomsday takes, with the founder of record presser Capsule Labs memorably coining the word “Vinylgeddon” in Billboard. I briefly spoke to Mike Dickinson of Austin’s Chicken Ranch Records, and he wasn’t as dramatic: “There could be a bottleneck in the new release categories for a bit, but I don’t think we will see much of a slowdown in already mastered and plated product. It will be interesting to see what labels will do to innovate during this time.”
Chicken Ranch presses with Gold Rush Vinyl, which fortunately uses the Japanese lacquer-maker. Once word gets out that this plant has a reliable source for lacquers, what happens to their backlog? Will prices rise? Will it take much longer for finished records to ship? And, more importantly, what happens to the plants that used Apollo for lacquers? Another wrinkle to this story is that Apollo was also a source for the cutting styli used in Westrex heads. Thus plants with Westrex equipment may have a problem replacing styli.
All is not lost. There is DMM (Direct Metal Mastering) technology that most European pressing plants use. DMM doesn’t require a lacquer, though some feel the sound of DMM records is harsh and lacks bass (thus not the preference for DJ music). With some tweaks, this process could be viable for everyone, but the promise of improving DMM tech might be a fool’s errand. Here’s Abbey Road Mastering Engineer Miles Showell being a total downer:
I highly doubt there will be any serious development in DMM. All the Neumann engineers who designed and knew about this stuff are dead. All of them. They did not write everything down which will probably make reverse engineering DMM technology prohibitively expensive.
The absence and cost of innovation are other issues. For all the talk of a vinyl resurgence, it’s still a niche business. Is there enough financial incentive for invention and new technologies? Physical manufacturing isn’t as sexy a pursuit as some shiny, disruptive music tech start-up. Where will we find the vinyl innovators?
The Discogs editorial team has a more optimistic take. There are quotes from ‘unnamed executives’ that other American lacquer plants could appear soon, and it’s hoped that a retired Apollo will openly share their proprietary technique. Also, master plates are created far in advance, so we shouldn’t see a slowdown in new releases for several months. Record Store Day 2020 is probably safe. And represses of classic titles make up most of a record plant’s business, and those plates are ready to go, no new lacquers needed.
Despite which way things end up, the Apollo fire is a wake-up call. The infrastructure for the vinyl industry is fragile. Another reminder of this instability is the recent — and on-going — scandal with Direct Shot Distribution. All three major labels now use Direct Shot to get their vinyl to stores, including the indie labels distributed through the majors’ indie services such as Warner’s ADA. The handling of all these records by a single distributor has created an inexcusable backlog, delays getting releases to stores, and weird things like shipments “supposed to contain music [instead] filled with bottles of prescription cough syrup.” The situation has prompted some to throw around the conspiracy theory that it’s the major labels’ way of killing off the vinyl revival. I don’t buy it — it’s merely the migraine headache of coping with unexpected analog hold-outs in a world that’s moving toward the digital. The ‘niche’ is so easy to maintain digitally that its physical side can’t keep up in the global market.
This brings me to what I really want to talk about: reliance and identity.
The identity of a lot of independent labels is tied up in vinyl. This strong link is a reason the news of the Apollo fire sent shockwaves around the music industry. I doubt many labels are depending on vinyl financially — the dirty secret of the ‘vinyl revival’ is that most independent labels would be stoked to sell 200 or 300 copies versus the couple of thousand pieces small labels shot for in the ‘90s. But, for many, the identity of the vinyl-pressing label is vital in the wake of digital labels.
Anyone can start a digital label, right? It’s believed that vinyl means you’re more serious, that there’s an investment, and, for artists, there’s prestige. There’s something to be said for all of that. It’s why many labels pressing vinyl do so at a loss — which is fine if you can afford it. But there are other ways to show you’re serious about your label. Springing for an exceptional website that engages fans comes to mind — or spending that vinyl money on someone to help with promotion. And seriousness doesn’t have to cost money. Operating your label professionally and with ambition and purpose says a lot more than a stack of unsold records in the corner of your home office.
Things have calmed down a bit since the fire, but labels relying on a vinyl identity were initially terrified at the news of Apollo’s demise. What would their futures look like if the infrastructure for vinyl collapsed? Here’s an unwelcome comparison: is this fear the same for a label that put all its eggs in the Spotify basket, and now Spotify is shifting its focus to podcasts? Or, how about the fears of an industry propped up by the insane profit margin on compact discs, and a few years later, no one wants CDs anymore?
Today there’s so much opportunity for diversification. Not only in the delivery format of a musical release, but also in the means that a label and an artist can inspire income streams, distribute themselves, and find previously untapped audiences. There’s no reason to narrow one’s scope. Nurturing an identity is cool — branding is a necessary consideration — but not at the expense of putting your project in a predicament if that one aspect you’re tied up in changes direction.
Do we need vinyl? I want to think so, though I did sell my entire collection in one not-as-painful-as-you’d-think decision strategically before moving to a new house. Here I’ll defer to Shawn Reynaldo, who asks some crucial questions about the need for vinyl in his outstanding First Floor newsletter. Provocatively, Shawn — who primarily writes about DJ-oriented genres — states:
It’s funny, electronic music is supposed to be rooted in notions of futurism… But so many of our practices are rooted in sentimentality and notions of “this is the way it’s always been done.” Traditions can be a good thing, and I’m not the kind of person who regularly advocates for “smashing the system,” but when it comes to vinyl, we’re long overdue for a change. The [Apollo] fire is a major bummer, but it might also be the catalyst we need to make some real changes.
Vinyl enthusiasts are sometimes puzzled by people who purchase records and never open them. These record-buyers do listen, but they opt to use streaming platforms or digital downloads (the vinyl probably came with a download code). The album is an appreciation of the music, a totem of sorts, something to look at or to show friends. It’s often a measure of support. And more than a t-shirt, albums become decor, giving voice to the fan like a collection of books on a shelf.
I’d venture that in 2020 most albums are purchased like this. And that gives me pause about an album’s purpose. I wonder if this power is transferable to other collectible items. The answer: of course it is. We already see it in the surprising return — and popularity! — of cassette releases on Bandcamp. The mocking was rampant when cassettes started to reappear. But think about it — if we’re buying a personalized item to support a band and to physically show that support in our homes, a cassette is equally effective. It’s even more potent wrapped in a groovy and personalized package. Financially, a cassette is a lot less risky and more hands-on for the band. And, refreshingly, the investment is in the personalization and creativity of the object, not the cost.
The door is open for imaginative stand-ins for the vinyl album. It could be a screen-printed wooden box containing photos from the recording session and an odd-shaped USB for the music. Or perhaps a compact disc in a hand-stitched multi-page zine with artwork reflecting the band’s political activism. And if you want to get really nostalgic and downright weird with your format, how about releasing your music on a floppy disc?
I’ll go one further. Does this physical object even require music? As long as the listener has the audio files or access to the release via streaming, anything can represent the fan’s love for the band.
I recall my friend David and his support for the South African electronic musician Felix Laband. Felix is also an excellent visual artist and David tracked down and purchased one of his paintings to proudly hang on his wall. Though he loves the artwork on its own, this was primarily a show of support for Felix’s music. As David writes on his blog about the purchase, “If we could do the same for John Kennedy Toole for having written A Confederacy of Dunces or for Brian Hutton directing Kelly’s Heroes we would, but they’re dead so you’re it. We hope that repatriating your art is adequate compensation.”
The first trick is inspiring your fans to offer support and want to display your object in their homes. Next, come up with something crafty, surprising, and personal that connects with a dedicated listener and dazzles her friends. This something could be a vinyl record, but it doesn’t have to be. And, someday, it’s possible that it can’t be. Be ready.
A quick addendum: We can’t ignore that vinyl manufacturing is an environmentally hazardous procedure. The Apollo Masters Corp. supposedly ran afoul of the EPA in the past. Apparently, the plant didn’t have to adhere to some environmental regulations due to grandfather exemptions. Building a new plant removes these exemptions, and that could be one reason Apollo is hesitant to reopen.
Furthermore, as pointed out in a recent must-read article in The Guardian, the PVC in vinyl contains carcinogenic chemicals. The Thai factory where half the world’s supply originates is likely contaminating a local river with toxic wastewater. Records are a petrochemical product, so let’s not forget the pollution and greenhouse gas that entails.
But, as also mentioned in The Guardian piece, digital streaming has its own impact on greenhouse gas. The manufacturing of the phones and computers we use to listen results in toxic waste. And, as our devices are updated, the old ones end up in landfills. Like a lot of news these days, this knowledge is dispiriting. But having this conversation offers a glimmer of hope as we explore and imagine alternative, less harmful ways to listen.
This post was adapted from the second episode of my email newsletter Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care. Click here to check out the full issue and subscribe.