In early February, a three-alarm fire broke out at the Apollo Masters manufacturing and storage facility in Banning, California, one of the only producers of lacquer discs used for pressing vinyl records in the world. Nobody was hurt in the blaze, but the plant was almost completely destroyed. “We are uncertain of our future at this point and are evaluating options as we try to work through this difficult time,” the company explained in a short statement. For record labels, music fans, record stores and anyone else lashed to the medium, the news is devastating.
Apollo Masters began producing blank lacquer discs, or “lacquers,” back in 1938 in New York City. A large aluminum disc coated in acetate — a substance not unlike nail varnish — the lacquer is a crucial part of the vinyl manufacturing process. The disc is cut using a specialist cutting lathe tipped with a ruby or sapphire stylus, creating a master copy. This cut lacquer could be played on any commercial record player, but the acetate itself will only last a few plays. To counter this degradation, it's shipped to a pressing plant and put through a complex electroplating process where it's covered with silver, then nickel, to eventually produce stampers to shape the pressing of the vinyl discs we know and love.
In 2007, Apollo acquired Transco Masters, a longtime competitor; by the time of the fire, the Apollo/Transco conglomerate was responsible for supplying between 70 to 85 percent of lacquers globally. The only other plant in the world producing lacquers is MDC in Japan, which announced it wouldn’t be taking on new customers; the surge in interest in vinyl over the past decade has meant they've been operating at capacity for years.
Without Apollo producing more lacquer discs, the existing stock will soon be exhausted. All of this adds up to an existential threat to vinyl production.
Without Apollo producing more lacquer discs, the existing stock will soon be exhausted. The only alternative manufacturing process, direct metal mastering, is uncommon; currently, no pressing plants in America use it, and audiophiles often complain it yields a lower-quality result. All of this adds up to an existential threat to vinyl production.
I've been working with vinyl since the late 1990s, first as a DJ, then as an artist, as a record label owner, as a distributor, as a manufacturer and as a record-store clerk. In fact, as the son of an inveterate record collector, I don't remember a time without vinyl. Before I could even crawl I spent most weekends at record fairs or record shops. My dad would park up my stroller while he rifled through box upon box of dog-eared records, pulling out the cheapest prog rock oddities he could find while I eyed the room, trying to work out where I was or what I was seeing. As I grew older and became more mobile, I'd hunt through the crates myself, pulling out the records with the most interesting covers. At first, this was more likely to be Iron Maiden than anything like what I collect now; colorful artwork never failed to catch my eye and while the music didn't always live up to expectations, the process set me on a journey that I’ve been on ever since.
My dad's interest in vinyl was fleeting, though. He was an avid taper, and his room was lined with endless shelves of copied music. A C90 cassette tape provided 45 minutes per side, ample space to fit two regular-length albums. It was a more economical option than vinyl, and portable. A few years later, once he discovered that you could copy CDs, his interest in vinyl faded almost completely. When MP3s made CDs obsolete, hard drives replaced the shelves of cassettes. Dad was a music collector, not a record collector, and the format never really mattered to him. By this time, it mattered more to me.
I don’t have a straightforward explanation of why I began to care so much about vinyl. The music on it was always at the core of my obsession — I've never been one to hoard rare records or special editions too precious to actually play — but I've been collecting vinyl for decades. When I started producing music as a teenager, it wasn’t quite real to me until it was pressed to vinyl. When I started a record label, one of my chief motives was, somewhat selfishly, to own the music I loved on a high quality record. I wanted to hold it, to drop a needle on it, to watch it spin. I craved that specific experience and found a way to engineer it for myself.
Last year, I sold a large chunk of my collection and moved from America to Europe, placing the remaining boxes of discs in storage deep in the wilds of suburban Massachusetts. Right now, I don't even own a record player; my music is in the cloud, accessible but not tangible, reliant on invisible systems that dictate my experience. And while I've been a digital native for some time, I hadn't considered some of the implications of this shift. For years, despite pressing vinyl and enjoying it at home, I've been a staunch advocate of digital music. As a teen I ran an early pirate MP3 blog, and years before Spotify made an appearance, I would excitedly fantasize about a day where subscription models would re-shape the music industry. When CDJs became the standard method for DJs, I stopped trucking my vinyl to and from clubs each week and learned the new (better) system. As a journalist on dance music, I disagreed with my colleagues who saw the dwindling of vinyl as a sign of the music’s decline — I’m certain the genre is in healthier shape than it's ever been. But I wasn't completely cognizant of what we had lost, and what we continue to lose.
These discs and their often tattered covers, adorned with price stickers, scrawled notes and info tags, contain elements that are missing from digital files and completely absent from streaming playlists. They add up to a kind of biography.
As ephemeral as other aspects of my relationship to music have been, my record collection is still there, still solid, still taking up space. The Iron Maiden records I picked up when I was a child and the Brian Eno LPs my dad passed on to me when I was a teen have remained in my collection, joined by 12-by-12 reminders of subsequent phases of my life. These discs and their often tattered covers, adorned with price stickers, scrawled notes and info tags, contain elements that are missing from digital files and completely absent from streaming playlists. They add up to a kind of biography.
I've still got hard drives with MP3s from decades ago, but they don't do a lot for me; I often have trouble remembering where I even got them. Did my brother pass me that Kate Bush album? Was it a partner that sent me that random directory of old American folk music? I can't be sure, because the action was so trivial at the time that it never sunk in. But holding a record in my collection — Masters At Work's The Tenth Anniversary Collection, for example — I can remember the used record store in Brooklyn where I found it, massively underpriced. I remember who I was with, the road we crossed to get it, the bank we went to beforehand to get cash. Every disc is also a memory.
As a DJ, I'd keep records in groups to remind me what worked well together and what didn't. As the sleeves got more tattered, these details would add more personal history. The spilled drink damage, drug residues, spliff burns, and dried vomit all originated from some experience. Similarly, as I played the vinyl again and again, the content changed too. The first piece of music I ever had pressed to vinyl — a track from my first demo that ended up on Neo Ouija's Cottage Industries 2 compilation in 2002 — was an early prize of my collection. I often brought it with me when I DJed, and finally ruined it when, drunk, I accidentally smacked my hand down on the needle, carving a huge scar across the grooves. That audible mark is still there, reminding me of not only the accident, but where I stood in Birmingham's now long-gone Medicine Bar, who was working the bar, and which friends stood beside me watching me fuck up.
As I sit in my apartment on an unreliable Berlin internet connection, it's hard to predict whether I’ll be able to access my collection or not at any given time. If and when I can dig into my innumerable mass of titles, I'm acutely aware that my data is being shuttled back and forth between Apple and whoever they choose to share it with. Vinyl gave me a certain amount of privacy, as well as the choice to enjoy music with or without a functional internet connection.
My record collection is a reminder that, like all of us, I exist on a timeline. It includes unique data that can't be transcribed into zeroes and ones. As we self-consciously digitize our lives with iPhone camera rolls, Twitter nuggets and Instagram stories, we are entrusting our history to brands that don't have any incentive to care about our physical lives. If these brands burn to the ground, for whatever reason, our individuality will prove as fallible as the lacquer disc, and our personal histories will be compromised. For me, my record collection is a photo album, rich with detail, emotion and memory. As we travel deeper into the digital void, it reminds me of what we stand to lose.