Czech Company, Pressing Hits for Years on Vinyl, Finds It Has Become One

     By RICK LYMAN AUG. 6, 2015

08/2015 The New York Times

GZ Media’s vinyl record factory in Lodenice, Czech Republic. Driven by a global explosion of interest in vinyl, the company expects to produce around 20 million albums this year. Credit Pavel Horejsi for The New York Times

LODENICE, Czech Republic — He was a businessman, not a clairvoyant. Zdenek Pelc did not really foresee, a generation ago, that vinyl records would one day make a return from near extinction.
But he was smart enough to keep a vinyl record factory here, a relic of the Communist era, through all those years when albums gave way to CDs and then to iTunes and streaming, and to be ready when vinyl suddenly got hot again.
And that is why this village of 1,800, nestled in a lush furl of the Bohemian hills, improbably finds itself a world leader in the production of vinyl albums.
“I realized when I came to the company 33 years ago that vinyl would be finished one day,” said Mr. Pelc, 64, who now owns GZ Media and serves as president. “But I wanted our company to be the last one to stop making them.”
The trajectory of the company — and the village it once dominated — traces the Czech Republic’s transition to quirky capitalist colt from cranky Communist nag, all played to the kind of rock soundtrack that accompanies many modern Czech tales.
Instead of getting rid of the old equipment and moving CD-making machines into their space — as most music production companies around the world did in the late 1980s and early ’90s — Mr. Pelc kept only enough machines running to meet the dwindling demand, moving the rest into storage and cannibalizing their parts as needed.
“Frankly, if someone had told me back then that vinyl would return, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said.
In 1994, a year after the Czech Republic was founded with the division of Czechoslovakia, the company turned out 300,000 albums for a dwindling coterie of analog enthusiasts around the world. In 2014, driven by a global explosion of interest in vinyl, the company produced 14.5 million, Mr. Pelc said.
This year, the company expects to produce around 20 million albums, most likely edging out global rivals like United Record Pressing in Nashville and Optimal Media in Röbel, Germany.

“Vinyl rose from the ashes,” Mr. Pelc said happily.

By the New York Times

Lodenice (LO-dyen-ee-tsay) was caught one recent morning in the gray embrace of low-hanging clouds. Mayor Vaclav Bauer, 53, sat in his wood-beamed office, a whiskery portrait of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I on the wall behind him.
“In the historical records, the village is mentioned as far back as the 11th century,” Mr. Bauer said. “Originally, it was a town of lumbermen and woodworkers.”
The building at the heart of the GZ Media complex today is more than 100 years old and originally housed a weaving company. Later, in a nod to the village’s woodworking tradition, workers produced cabinets for gramophones. In 1951, the Communist authorities decided to move the country’s vinyl-record production to the plant as well.
“In those days, this was a company town,” said Jaroslava Bezrova, 67, the village’s registrar since 1976. “They employed everyone.”
Albums were popular around the world, but they have a special resonance in the region, where they became underground totems in the rock-infused Velvet Revolution that overthrew Communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989.
Under Communism, the company produced many records for sale in other countries, including rock classics forbidden in Czechoslovakia. Copies smuggled out of the plant or sold on the black market were extremely valuable.
Quality testing vinyl albums at GZ Media in Lodenice, a village of 1,800 people nestled in the Bohemian hills that has become a world leader in the industry. Credit Petr Josek/Reuters

All the Lodenice plant was turning out for local consumption were official records to accompany weddings, funerals and various patriotic celebrations, as well as recorded fairy tales and hits from state-approved singers.
“You would buy the record on the black market and bring it home and invite all of your friends over,” Mr. Bauer said. “It was an occasion.”
By the time Mr. Pelc joined the company in the early 1980s, vinyl had already been losing ground to cassette tapes. But the arrival of the CD seemed to seal its doom.
By the early ’90s, the vinyl album was all but extinct.
Yet something else was happening in Lodenice at the same time.
Communism had fallen, and GZ Media went private. Mr. Pelc became one of the investors and, after many years, the owner. At the same time, a new highway was built, putting Prague just a 40-minute drive away., a vinyl and turntable store in Prague. Vinyl records began to show new signs of life a decade ago, driven by their use in nightclubs and their embrace by a new generation drawn to the format’s warmer sound. Credit Pavel Horejsi for The New York Times
“Suddenly, new housing began to go up,” Mr. Bauer said. “The new residents were not company workers, but people who’d had enough of Prague and wanted to get out.”
Now, Ms. Bezrova said, only 8 percent of the village’s population works for GZ Media.
The link between the company and the town has become gradually more distant, though poor retirees are still provided reduced-price meals in the company canteen, and Mr. Pelc showed up at the official opening of a new commercial center.
There are five restaurants in the village now, including a couple that cater to the cosmopolitan tastes of the Prague exiles. Housing prices have shot up, too, forcing many of the factory’s 1,400 full-time workers to commute.
“Now our problem is finding space in the grammar schools for new children,” Ms. Bezrova said.
Much to the surprise of Lodenice, and to executives at GZ Media, vinyl records began to show new signs of life a decade ago, driven by their use in nightclubs and their embrace by a new generation drawn to the format’s warmer sound.
The owner of the company, Zdenek Pelc, said GZ Media produced 300,000 records in 1994, but, with the global resurgence in the popularity of vinyl, it expects to produce 20 million this year. Credit Pavel Horejsi for The New York Times
“From around 2005, the demand for vinyl grew steadily,” said Michael Sterba, GZ Media’s chief executive. “Then, it really took off in the last two or three years, like, whoosh.”
There are no reliable statistics for global sales of vinyl records, taking into account the large players like GZ Media as well as the many small operations that turn out a few thousand units.
Optimal, one of the company’s largest competitors, estimates that it will produce 18 million albums this year, nearly matching GZ’s projections.
In 2011, the number of vinyl albums sold in the United States, the world’s largest market, was 3.9 million, according to Nielsen and Billboard’s annual U.S. Music Report. That rose to 9.2 million units in 2014.
Other countries that have experienced skyrocketing vinyl sales include Australia, Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands.
“Only an idiot thinks this can go on forever,” Mr. Sterba said. “Maybe making vinyl is a fashion that will disappear in a few years. Who knows? No one predicted this.”

Vinyl record production at GZ Media. Under Communism, the company produced many records for sale in other countries, including rock classics forbidden in Czechoslovakia. Credit Pavel Horejsi for The New York Times
Mr. Sterba strode rapidly through the labyrinth separating the cluster of GZ Media buildings.
In one of the mastering rooms, he watched intently as a diamond knife cut narrow grooves into a copper plate, the first step in the album-making process. There are only 23 such machines left in the world, he said, and GZ Media has four of them.
Now, instead of cannibalizing a dwindling number of old machines for parts, the company has its own technicians who maintain all of the machines they can get their hands on. The competitive search for derelict equipment continues constantly. “Africa is a good place to look,” Mr. Sterba said.
In a noisy factory space, workers grab pucks of vinyl, heated to 170 degrees, and gently place them on the stamp, a nickel plate made from the master. The pressing machines, using 150 tons of pressure, squash the pliable vinyl into an album that is slipped out of the machine and placed on a tall metal spindle to cool for 16 hours.
GZ Media has 49 presses, including six new machines built by a Czech company to GZ’s specifications. They are the first new equipment manufactured in decades to produce vinyl records, Mr. Sterba said.
Mr. Pelc, unexpectedly finding himself atop a Bohemian gold mine, said he, too, would like to know how long the boom will last.
“I know this,” he said, grinning broadly. “We’re seeing 50 percent growth now, and it is a long way from 50 to zero.”

Correction: August 10, 2015 
Because of an editing error, the Lodenice Journal article on Friday, about a village of 1,800 in the Czech Republic that is home to GZ Media, a world leader in the production of vinyl record albums, gave an incorrect guide for the pronunciation of Lodenice. It is LO-dyen-ee-tsay, not lo-DYEN-ee-sah.