The King of Vinyl

As he leads the way into a 100-year-old building in the village of Loděnice, some 40 minutes outside Prague, Zdeněk Pelc is smiling. It’s the smile of a man who has been proved right. This two-storey former weaving factory in the Czech Republic has been the scene of a musical revolution.

Outside, it is a cold, foggy winter morning. Inside, the heat is tropical. Steam hisses as hot round black ‘cakes’, 10 cm in diameter and made from PVC, drop down from a maze of muscular pipes onto 49 presses, many of which look like museum pieces. Here they are percussively

flattened between engraved nickel plates known as ‘stampers’ under 120 tonnes of pressure and 200°C of heat.

Some 30 seconds later, nimble-fingered operators remove perfectly microgrooved 30 cm-wide discs that experts once said were heading for extinction: vinyl records. From one press alone, copies of Justin Bieber’s album Purpose are being flattened and stacked to cool at a rate of hundreds a minute.

Best-selling albums by The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Coldplay, The Chemical Brothers, U2, Black Sabbath and many others have all been given vinyl life here at GZ Media in the Czech Republic.

GZ is the world’s biggest producer of vinyl discs – every year it presses 20 million of them. Every week, 35 ton-nes of newly pressed discs packaged in their sleeves (which are also printed at GZ) leave the factory bound for the US alone.

And yet in 1994 GZ produced just 400,000 discs as, across the world, vinyl was slowly being consigned to analogue history, first by the advent of CDs, then by digital downloads and streaming. Most vinyl producers were scrapping their pressing machines.

But not Zdeněk Pelc. He decided to keep going. “I am not a visionary,” says the former steel-company marketing manager who joined GZ in 1983 as its 32-year-old CEO. “I did not foresee such a boom, but I did believe vinyl would have a small future – and if any company was going to be the last making them, I wanted it to be us.”

Pelc mothballed some machines and used their parts to keep the others going. “We went to the UK, Greece and Australia and bought up redundant vinyl presses.” Did those who had got out of the industry think Pelc was mad? “Maybe,” he shrugs, “but they were happy to take our money.”

Digital technology was supposed to spell the end of vinyl records. But in common with a growing number of serious music fans, Pelc simply prefers the sound that vinyl makes. He feels that the sound is richer and has more depth than other formats. “Digital or CDs are fine for the car,” he says, “but at home it’s always vinyl on the turntable. At weekends I like to relax with Dire Straits or the Bee Gees,” says the 64-year-old father of four.

It all comes down to frequencies. Vinyl is based around the medium frequencies of the sound spectrum, which are warmer and more enjoyable to listen to. Digital CDs employ the entire range of frequencies, making for a colder, harder sound. As Prague-based critic and vinyl enthusiast Petr Vacha puts it, “With digital music you get everything except soul.”

It is that search for ‘soul’ that has driven the vinyl revival among a new generation of music fans. Global vinyl sales dropped to their all-time low point of $35 million in 2005. But since then they have steadily risen, reaching $416 million in 2015.

Vinyl sales may have increased, but they still represent a tiny percentage of global music revenues, which totalled $15 billion in 2014. That said, almost no major artist today will release an album without offering it in vinyl as well as CD format.

In 2015, the UK launched its first Vinyl Charts after record sales reached a 20-year high. In the US, the world’s biggest market, Billboard also has a vinyl chart for albums.

Gramofonové Závody (Gramophone Record Factory) was founded back in 1948 and pressed its first record in 1951. The then state-controlled GZ produced state-approved classical music, folk tunes and music for weddings, funerals and patriotic celebrations.

Come the 1960s and ’70s, GZ was pressing albums for Western record companies, but most of these were not available at home. “The Rolling Stones were partly banned,” Pelc explains with a wry smile. “Just a couple of their albums were allowed. The Beatles were more politically acceptable and were banned less.”

However, banned albums did find their way out of the GZ factory and circulated widely, as Loděnice’s mayor, Václav Bauer, recalls. “You would buy a record on the black market, bring it home and invite all your friends over. It was an occasion.”

As protest and youth culture spread in Western countries, the times were also changing behind the Iron Curtain. A John Lennon Wall appeared in Prague, covered in graffiti inspired by the singer following his death in 1980. The authorities painted it over, but the famous face and the ‘Give Peace a Chance’ slogans reappeared overnight. Young Czechs no longer talked of Leninism but Lennonism and knew all the words to the Beatles song ‘Revolution’. Today, the wall is an established feature on the Prague tourist trail.

As the nonviolent Velvet Revolution against Moscow-controlled Czechoslovakia took hold in November 1989, it did so to a soundtrack provided by the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa and home-produced bands such as Plastic People of the Universe, one of whose fans was Václav Havel, who became president of a free Czechoslovakia in December 1989.

The previous year Pelc had added CD production to GZ’s services. He had the chance to run the business along Western lines and expand the product range, essential to GZ’s survival.

GZ was privatised and then in 1998 Pelc met the man who, he says, “changed my life”: veteran American investor Kenneth Brody, an ex-partner at Goldman Sachs. Pelc convinced Brody to buy into GZ. Within two years Brody had bought them out and owned the company outright.

Pelc and Brody took GZ global, broadening its print and packaging range, investing in the best machinery and winning contracts from IKEA, Johnnie Walker, Samsung and Microsoft. In 2001 it started making DVDs.

Then in 2006 Pelc raised the funds to buy the company from Brody. “When Ken sold to me he told me, ‘You are the best investment of my life.’”

Pelc has brought a distinctive management style to his company, introducing an annual award for the best employee with the prize of a job for life and a salary to match.

The first winner was Lada Kuss, who joined GZ 52 years ago. Now 80, he is in his home away from home, an upstairs suite where a diamond knife machine is cutting narrow grooves into a slowly revolving copper-coated steel disc. This is the first stage of the album-making process. Copies of these master discs are used to make the stampers on the machines downstairs in the pressing room.

There are only 23 of these machines left in the world and GZ has four of them. They are well over 30 years old and require careful tending under Lada’s watchful eye. “In 2014 Lada had a heart operation and was in a coma for three weeks,” Pelc explains. “The first thing he said when he came out of the coma was, ‘Are my machines OK?’. He loves his machines.”

“It’s true,” Lada admits modestly. “It was the longest I had been away from them.”

These days, GZ can produce vinyl records in all sorts of shapes and colours: elaborate picture discs, discs of many colours, a Bob Dylan album in the shape of a blue guitar pick. “Everything is possible,” says Pelc.

From The Beatles’s Magical Mystery Tour to Monty Python’s Total Rubbish, Pelc takes pride in his products, but it is the lavish double-box set of Rolling Stones albums, EPs and hits compilations from 1964 to 2005, produced in 2010, that is top of his personal charts.

Each individually numbered limited edition ran to 27 separate pieces of vinyl in original sleeves. “Fifteen thousand double boxed sets, hundreds of thousands of pieces of vinyl – a very big project.” This sought-after collection was not long ago selling for just under US$3000 on eBay.

Today, GZ Media has 1940 staff and is the biggest employer in this part of Bohemia. Sixty per cent of GZ’s workforce are women. “They work harder, are more focused and are better with their hands,” he says. GZ now has sales teams in London, Paris, New York and California pitching for contracts. This year, it opens a plant outside Toronto.

And GZ’s fastest-growing product line is its first. Its vinyl records account for 45 per cent of its business and it is now making new presses from the original designs – 18 so far – to satisfy demand, which Pelc predicts will hit 28 million units in the next year.

Can the boom continue? “I am no astrologer,” he smiles. “All I can tell you is that we’re seeing 50 per cent growth now and it’s a long way from 50 down to zero.”

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