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Musical Space: Vinyl Crisis

A fire destroyed an obscure factory in California a few weeks ago. Apollo Masters Corporation ran one of only two plants in the world that supplied lacquers, crucial components in the creation of vinyl records. The source of three-quarters of the world’s lacquers is now gone. I had never thought much about this process before, but the prospect of a lacquer shortage has given me a new appreciation for the arcane art of making records.

Music: Bo Diddley, “Make a Hit Record,” The London Bo Diddley Sessions (1973)

A lacquer is a disc coated with a proprietary material and shipped to cutters who scribe the music into a spiral groove with a lathe. It’s plated with metal and then destroyed when the metal layer is separated so it can be used as a mold for a disc called a “mother.” From the mother are made the stampers, which go into the pressing machine to make the vinyl. Stampers and mothers eventually wear out, so there’s a constant need for new lacquers, which can only be used once. 

Vinyl now accounts for more than a quarter of all physical album sales, so record companies are scrambling. Some cutters are considering using a much more difficult technique involving copper instead of lacquer. It’s cheaper, but sound quality can suffer. There is worry at domestic pressing plants that orders will be sent overseas. This could affect Kansas: Quality Record Pressings, an important audiophile producer, operates just up the road in Salina.

The rich experience of vinyl — the sound quality, the cover art, the collectability — looks to become an even more rare and valuable thing very soon.


Listening list:

Robert Johnson, “Phonograph Blues” (1936)

Tom Tall, “Stack-A-Records” (1958). Rockabilly.

Willie Nelson, “Mr. Record Man,” And Then I Wrote (1962)

Ben E. King, “The Record (Baby I love You)” (1967)

Sister Gertrude Morgan, “Let Us Make A Record” (early 1970s). “Outsider art."

King Britt “Let's Make a Record” (2005). Going meta: A DJ makes a record about a record about making a record.

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.