Still It Turns!
Often pronounced dead. But the gramophone record lives. One of the few manufacturers of the small, black discs is located in the German provinces. In the works of Optimal Media, nine million vinyl records were pressed in 2013. And there are more to come.
It all starts with a black granule. Tiny grains of polyvinyl chloride are heated to 140 degrees and formed into small, circular discs. A machine, which works like a waffle iron, flattens them. The process lasts only a few seconds. One hundred tons of weight makes the thing that looked like a hockey puck just before into a flat disc with fine grooves. A gramophone record, also called “vinyl”, has been born.
This process is a technology from the past century, it is no longer often practiced in Europe. One of the places where records are still produced is Röbel, a provincial town lying on the banks of Lake Müritz in the federal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. There stand the works of Optimal Media GmbH – one of the last producers of vinyl on the continent.
One million records per monthIn 2013 nine million long players and singles were produced here. In 2014 the aim was to produce more than ten million. Jörg Hahn, Managing Director of Optimal Media, proudly says: “At present we produce more than a million records every month”. Moreover, the proportion of vinyl in the company’s sales has increased greatly in recent years, especially in the last two years.
At the beginning, Hahn and his staff never expected vinyl to be so successful. The works in Röbel were built after the socio-political turnabout in Germany in 1990. The company then had twelve employees. And it focused mainly on the manufacture of CDs. In 1995 the vinyl production was added, and this at a time when record production everywhere else was being discontinued.
But this did not keep Optimal from investing in vinyl. In Röbel it saw the chance to conquer this market. The shutting of other record production works helped, because vinyl pressings have long been discontinued. Only used machines are available for this process and then generally only when another company has dropped out of production. In Russia, Optimal Media rescued the machines of the traditional East German brand of Deutsche Schallplatten (ie. German Records) from the scrapheap. They had been sold to Russia after 1990. Later Optimal also found machines in Scandinavia and England.
Thus Optimal has today assembled more than twenty presses, which are maintained at great expense. Some work automatically; others only by hand. They can manufacture ten thousand records a day. Orders come mainly from Europe, but also from many other regions of the world. Optimal serves Small music labels as well as industry giants. In Röbel albums of unknown bands came from the press, but also those of Rammstein, Kraftwerk, AC/DC and R.E.M.
“Vinyl is with the times”So many ears after the CD came on the market and after the first portable MP3 Player was sold, the vinyl record still exists. In the 1990s it was above all the disc jockeys of the hip-hop and techno culture that kept vinyl sales from breaking off. Since the turn of the millennium, the black discs are increasingly considered collector’s items.
“Vinyl reflects the current zeitgeist, the trend to analogy and traditional, quality and lavish manufacture”, says Jörg Hahn. For the Optimal director, records stand for the musical enjoyment with all the senses. This, he says, is also the secret of behind their renaissance: “As visual and haptic experience in a world dominated by digital content, this medium is again becoming increasingly important”.
Vinyl lives because there are music enthusiasts who celebrate listening to records, people who prize the sound of the black discs because it reproduces more of the musical nuances than any CD or MP3. The demand has accordingly grown in the last ten years. The sales of vinyl in Germany more than quadrupled from 2003 to 2013, rising to 1.4 million records sold.
But the trend will not last forever. Hahn is aware of this. The Optimal director expects the online and streaming business on the internet to continue to grow, and has therefore prepared his company for this. Thus Optimal offers records on which an online code is imprinted that allows the buyer to download content from the internet. “In this way he can enjoy the analogy musical experience and at the same time take advantage of the benefits of the digital in terms of mobility and compatibility”, says Hahn.
But even if more music is being sold on the internet, in his opinion the gramophone record keeps its raison d’être in the long run: “I’m convinced there will be a need also in future for physical media products”.