Czech village spins retro vinyl records comeback

     by Jan Marchal

06/2015 AFP -

© AFP / by Jan Marchal | A small Czech village has become a centre of the global boom in retro records as antiquated vinyl-pressing machines turn out the tunes of rock stars from Madonna to the Rolling Stones

LODENICE (CZECH REPUBLIC) (AFP) - A small Czech village has become a centre of the global boom in retro records as antiquated vinyl-pressing machines turn out the tunes of rock stars from Madonna to the Rolling Stones.

Despite the rise of CDs and digital music, a local company GZ Media decided to hold onto those old machines -- which are now paying off, as they press millions of vinyl records sold each year around the world.

Record collectors and music hipsters have fuelled a revival of vinyl in the West and Japan with claims that the format offers warmer sound and greater aesthetics.

"We pressed around 14 million records last year, the most in the world," said Michal Nemec, sales and marketing director for GZ Media, based in the village of Lodenice outside Prague.

"Despite the CD boom in the 1980s and 90s, someone with foresight decided to save the old vinyl record presses and store them in a warehouse," he said. "A good decision."

That is how a dizzying number of the world's vinyl records -- featuring Michael Jackson, Queen, U2 and other top artists -- has ended up coming out of this village of 1,800 people tucked away in a valley in the Czech Republic.

GZ Media pressed its first record there in 1951. Most of the equipment dates back to the 1960s and 70s.

"Vinyl is making a comeback," the local branch of the worldwide recording industry organisation IFPI said in its 2014 annual report.

It represents around seven percent of total physical album sales in the Czech Republic, and six percent in the United States, the biggest vinyl market, the report said.

"No major band or singer puts out a new album today without releasing some copies on vinyl," the IFPI said.

- 'Small round cake' -

With a dense network of pipes below the ceiling, the noisy production hall at GZ Media resembles the insides of a submarine -- and feels about as hot as in a tropical climate.

At regular intervals, workers feed the hydraulic presses with a vinyl biscuit -- "kolacek" or small round cake in Czech -- that is made of a polycarbonate mixture.

Weighed down by 150-200 tonnes, the kolacek only needs a few seconds to become a record.

"We've recorded annual growth of 25-30 percent in our vinyl production over the past four years, and we don't expect the situation to change dramatically -- at least not in the next two years," Nemec said.

While he declined to reveal sales figures, he said the company's largest contract to date has been a deluxe collection of reissues of around 30 Rolling Stones albums sent to the rock legends' fan clubs.

"But vinyl fans aren't just into records because of nostalgia. There are quite a lot of young people who want to be countercultural," Nemec said.

"CDs haven't wiped out vinyl, just like e-book readers didn't wipe out paper books."

Nemec attributed this contrast in quality of sound to the fact that the two formats contain differing ranges of the frequencies that the human ear can detect.

"Vinyl is biased towards the medium frequencies of the spectrum, which are warmer and more enjoyable to listen to," he said.

"CDs on the other hand have the entire range of frequencies, which results in a colder sound."

- Vinyl for soul -

Vinyl record enthusiast Petr Vacha, a young Prague resident with long dreadlocks, says he is sick of digital music: "You get everything except soul."

A new wave of buyers have caught on to vinyl, long valued only by collectors and purists who appreciate the acoustic richness of an analogue recording.

The United States alone, 9.2 million records were sold last year.

US sales went up by 52 percent against 2013, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- the best result for vinyl since the music industry monitor began tracking sales in 1991.

Reflecting the 20-year high in sales, Britain's chart compiler launched the country's first official ranking of vinyl records in April.

"People often buy records as gifts or to support their favourite artist," said Tomas Filip, head of the Czech division of US record label Universal Music Group.

Despite the rapid expansion, vinyl still accounts for just two percent of the annual $15 billion (14-million-euro) global recording industry.

The US market is crucial for GZ Media, with some five million 33 RPM discs exported there in 2014, followed by Britain and Germany.

"Every Friday, a plane takes off for California, carrying eight to 10 tonnes of records," says the firm's marketing manager Jana Brezinova.

The days are long gone when vinyl meant a black disc: about a quarter of the factory's output consists of shapes such as hearts or stars, often in bright colours or with splatter patterns.

One of their Bob Dylan records, for example, was shaped like a light-blue guitar pick.

"Speaking of special requests, an American rock group once asked us to incorporate the ashes of a late guitar player in a record," Nemec said.