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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

Discomat: behind the scenes of the last vinyl pressing plant in Belgium

Discomat: behind the scenes of the last vinyl pressing plant in Belgium

To be honest: we didn’t really experience the so-called vinyl revival. We’re just trying to stay afloat.

Interview Pieter Colpaert
Photographs Debby Termonia

Discomat in Herk-de-Stad is one of a dying breed – the last vinyl pressing plant in the country, and one of about ten in all of Europe. Despite the drastically increased consumer demand for vinyl, the plant’s manager Tom Willems has a rather bleak vision of its future: “Don’t underestimate just how difficult it is to keep those machines, which have been out of production for forty years, going. Think of them as a classic car: you’ll be fine if you only use it for brief rides in summer, but if you drive it everyday, it’s going to break down. Those high waiting times you hear about: that’s because everyone’s machines are down half the time. It’s what’s happened to our competitors, and it’s what’s happening to us. Lots of the design plans for our machines are lost, the machine parts are not on the market anymore, it’s a real challenge to keep them going. Luckily, our staff is very knowledgeable, and we work with metallurgists who can analyse parts that are broken and can come up with a metal alloy to replace it.”

Buying new pressing machines isn’t an option either. The only company making them right now is German start-up Newbilt, but its machines are hardly a solution to Willems’ woes: they cost about €150,000, have to be operated by hand, use huge amounts of electricity, and only press about thirty to forty records each hour. “That would mean generating a revenue of just €31 each hour. There’s no way I could ever turn a profit that way. Not even if I’d put those machines in China or Bangladesh!” Right now, one of his fully automatic machines can press over one hundred vinyl records an hour – with three machines being handled by just one person – and he’s barely keeping his head above water. Discomat only deals directly with artists and through independent labels, too. Dealing with a major label would mean only being able to work for one client, and having to lower the prices.

So why even bother at all? “It’s a passion. We work day and night, even though I know this business will never make me rich”, Willems explains. And it’s a family business, on top of that. His father Andre Willems – once an engineer for Rocco Granata’s Cardinal Records – started the place back in 1974. Discomat has been pressing vinyl records non-stop ever since. “Even ten or twenty years ago, when a lot of record stores weren’t selling them anymore, record companies were still releasing a lot on vinyl and distributing it amongst DJs – hoping they would play it in the clubs. To be honest: we didn’t really experience the so-called vinyl revival. That’s more the consumer’s perception, as people suddenly see new vinyl records available in stores again. The only real difference to us, is that vinyl shifted from being a marketing tool for record companies to something they can actually make money from again.” The biggest shift he has seen, Willems says, is one in music genres. Until eight years ago, about ninety per cent of the vinyl they’d press featured electronic music. Today, this has dropped to perhaps three per cent. They are making records now in pretty much any genre imaginable – from jazz and death metal to Helmut Lotti.

When we ask Tom how he sees the future for vinyl and his own factory, he sighs. “Everyone asks that question, and I honestly don’t know. Everyone in the business is facing enormous problems in just trying to keep the production process going. Between machines breaking down and certain products in our raw materials being outlawed, it’s becoming more and more difficult to make a decent vinyl record.” He explains that making a vinyl record is an artisanal process – akin to producing a wine. “There are lots of different factors influencing the quality of your record. The way it works is, we generate steam through heating and cooling down, trying to find the right balance to make the record. In about half a minute, solid material needs to be made fluid through the steam of the press and then it has to spread itself over a mould, with a stamper on top of it. Then the record is shaped, cooled down and cut. All within those thirty seconds! It’s such a complicated process, and just like two different wine-makers using the same grapes will end up with a different wine, two record pressing plants using the same raw materials, might make a completely different vinyl record. Which one is best? That would totally depend on whether you like your wine dry or sweet.”