A small Czech village is at the heart of the global vinyl record revival
Having steered through communism and revolution, Czechia's GZ Media is now leading the global vinyl record revival.
Having steered through communism and revolution to lead the global comeback of the vinyl record, Czechia’s GZ Media is now confronting pandemic, populism and war, as Tim Gosling reports from Lodenice.
Lodenice doesn't look very much like the heart of rock 'n' roll. But the small Czech village, peering over the motorway linking the capital Prague with Germany, is home to the biggest vinyl record producer in the world.
The vinyl revival of recent years has driven GZ Media to heights that owner and President Zdenek Pelc could barely have imagined as he steered the company through the tumultuous days of communism, revolution and transition to a capitalist system.
"It was like the Wild West at times," said Pelc, who joined state enterprise Gramofonove Zavody as a manager in 1983. He smiled as he remembered steering the privatized company through the unruly 1990s. The decade witnessed the birth of the Czech Republic out of the ruins of former communist Czechoslovakia, but also the near death of vinyl.
As the arrival of CDs all but throttled the older technology, GZ Media's vinyl presses ground nearly to a halt. By 1994, the company was producing just 350,000 records annually, the vinyl presses kept going by punk and metal bands seeking cheap production and tiny batches.
"Now we turn out the same amount in one day," said CEO Michal Sterba.
The vinyl revival has driven an expansion that, aside from the sprawling site in Lodenice, sees the company operating six plants in four different countries. Last year, GZ Media pressed 56.5 million records by the likes of The Rolling Stones, Nat King Cole, Black Sabbath, and Ariana Grande. It hopes by 2024 to be turning out 140 million.
Hence, history did not end in the 1990s after all. But that cuts both ways.
This leaves 71-year-old Pelc — who, since "stepping back" from running the day-to-day operations is only in the office for four days a week — and CEO Sterba not navigating vinyl's boom but also the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, populism, and war.
Back from the dead
"Nothing will ever beat the rich, natural sound of a vinyl record!" declares the GZ Media website.
While the company also produces CDs, DVDs and has a large printing operation, it's the vinyl division that gets all the attention amid a stunning revival, as fans of rock and pop have developed a fresh taste for the aural, visual and tactile pleasures of the LP.
During vinyl's 1990s nadir, just 1 million albums were sold in the United States — the globe's biggest market by far — according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Though still a drop in the ocean compared with streaming, US vinyl sales topped 22 million in 2020.
"It's the only example I know of a product all but dying only to return," enthused Pelc. "The world has too much digital information filling it up. Some people like to hold a nice package in their hand. It's the same reason that books still exist."
These newly appreciated objects of desire got an additional boost when COVID-19 forced people to stop spending their hard-earned cash on concerts, restaurants and holidays, and locked them up at home, the GZ Media president said.
But while the pandemic increased demand for records, it also disrupted trade and transportation, Sterba pointed out — issues already complicated by the recurrence of trade barriers, raised by populist agendas.
The effects of Donald Trump's bickering with Europe or Brexit mean transport containers still take longer to traverse the Atlantic, with costs having tripled for GZ Media. Lockdown is still delaying the arrival of a Chinese technician to install a machine purchased in China two years ago.
Both the president and CEO declare that the company's ability to adapt while navigating the whims of the music world over the decades, allows them to take such bumps in their stride. But Pelc reddens visibly when the ongoing hike in energy costs comes up.
The company's vinyl presses — over 70 run 24 hours a day in Lodenice — are greedy guzzlers of gas and electricity as they heat the vinyl up to 160 degrees Celsius (320 degrees Fahrenheit).
With the war in Ukraine driving prices to eyewatering levels, GZ Media's energy costs have risen by 2,000% over the past year. Pelc hinted at suspicions that the country's powerful energy lobby may have helped push Czech energy prices to the highest in the EU.
That raises the question of sustainability. Although there are efforts afoot to investigate making vinyl more sustainable using recycled plastics, Sterba said that it's early days.
"The most sustainable solution is to download music of course, but consumers want an emotion connection that that [music downloads] just doesn't supply," he said.
Music of the future?
GZ Media also claims that its environmental impact is lowered by basing production close to consumers. In June, the company launched its second US plant in the music hub of Nashville. The company also has production bases in Canada and France.
With "the vinyl revival largely limited to the US and Western Europe," that covers the expansion plans for the division, Sterba said, although the company is also proud of its high-end, high-tech printing and packaging services. "The US is the biggest vinyl market in the world, so expansion there is a simple decision," Pelc added.
But other destinations are trickier. Asked about European markets to the east, he frowned. GZ Media used to have some Russian clients, "but we stopped working in that market because they would simply disappear without paying."
However, "adaptability" is clearly a key word, and one that Sterba must keep handy while working alongside the longtime company president.
"It makes sense to build the investment in the US now," Pelc said with a smile, "but maybe in three or four years we'll be off to Asia. Or the UK following Brexit."
At this, CEO Sterba, whose job it is to deal with the nuts and bolts, gives a good-natured grimace at his colleague's grand ideas.
"We always remain ready to adapt," said the president and shrugged. "Vinyl is big now, for instance, but in 10 years, who knows?"