By Sasha Podzorov, Andrew Zucker and Josh Joseph
Three owners of independent record stores on Long Island said that within this year, they expect to feel the industry-wide effects of a factory fire that destroyed one supplier of a key component in record production.
Apollo Transco, a California-based company that’s one of two in the world to provide lacquer master discs, suffered a fire that destroyed its sole manufacturing plant on Feb. 6. These discs serve as the first step in the reproduction process. Their grooves, cut by a lathe directly from tape, are molded and copied onto each vinyl record pressed at a mastering plant. A dwindling supply of lacquer discs threatens to limit the number of new vinyl pressings produced in the coming months.
“I think in the short term, we’re likely to see some shortages that won’t show up at retail probably till mid to late summer, fall and possibly spring,” Joe Harley, a producer at Blue Note Records, said. “I don’t think it’s gonna be years of this issue. I think it will be resolved quicker than most people thought. That doesn’t mean next week. That could be next spring. It could be that long.”
Vinyl record sales totaled $504 million in revenue last year, a 19% increase from 2018 and the 14th straight year sales have increased, according to the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) year-end report. This period, which media outlets called the “vinyl revival,” has brought record sections into retail chains like Target and Urban Outfitters. It has also brought business to local record stores.
“A lot of younger kids are now getting turntables, even buying cassettes,” Greg Baker, an employee at Mr. Cheapo CD and Record Exchange in Commack, said.
Younger generations are responsible for a significant portion of the vinyl revival, RIAA data shows. In 2018 alone, listeners ages 13-24 made up 25% of new vinyl sales.
“The only reason I know about records is because I was raised on records, and a lot of kids that come in here aren’t raised on records,” Tom Mitchell, a manager at Record Stop in Patchogue, said. “They just like having a physical big version of the album they see on their phone.”
But now that the vinyl supply chain is under stress, new releases from popular artists may face production struggles. The impact of the Apollo Transco fire will begin at the top of the industry and trickle down to the retail market by the end of the year, according to production insiders.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if you see a reduction in new releases for a little while,” Harley said. “Frequently, there already are situations where the digital format will come out one day and the vinyl, because of slow-downs… comes out later. Now, that’s going to be potentially delayed even further, which might make a band think twice about even bothering with contemporary release.”
On a local level, the record business has yet to see a change — and it likely won’t for months. Record stores like Mr. Cheapo and Record Stop mainly sell used vinyl, and the new releases they will stock come from existing pressings upstream.
“I believe it will be anywhere from six months to a year before anybody really starts feeling the pinch of this fire,” Robert Graw, an operations manager at Mono-Stereo, a Patchogue-based record label, said. “It’ll be the smaller independent artists that are going to be probably more hard-pressed to get their stuff printed up because of the lack of this lacquer.”
While new releases may face production difficulties, staples of the vinyl era will continue to sell as re-pressings, stamped from the same original molds.
“I suppose they could keep stamping what they have,” Tim Clair, owner of Record Reserve in Northport, said. “One stamper does like 10,000, so if you have a big band like Bowie or the Beatles, I think they can make more masters.”
Alternative methods of reproduction may become a crutch for mastering plants in need.
“Direct metal mastering (DMM) is still being used — cutting directly on metal, not lacquer,” Steve Hoffman, a mastering engineer, said. “There will still be new products, just, for a while, pressed from DMM parts.”
Record Store Day, an annual release of limited-run pressings at independent stores across the U.S., will take place on April 18. The exclusive records for this year’s release have already been printed, but the Apollo fire’s impact on similar events in the future remains to be seen.