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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

Stefaan Vandenberghe

Oh well, as long as my bank account doesn’t go in the red.

Interview Koen Galle
Photographs Thomas Sweertvaegher

His friends don’t want to help him move anymore. They have experienced first-hand how many hernias fit in one cubic meter of vinyl, and with around 40,000 copies, Stefaan Vandenberghe’s collection adds up to quite of few cubic meters altogether.

Of course, you don’t just put 40,000 records anywhere. Inside the recently renovated living room of his welllit house, about a quarter of Stefaan’s collection is exhibited in an impressive piece of custom-made wall furniture. “The ladder was the most difficult to find. After a quest that led me to a bunch of libraries and architectural firms, we finally found one high enough for me to climb to the top of my five meter-high record cabinet.” He elaborates on his quest with great enthusiasm as he jabs his fingers in all directions to point out the different genres. Chicago, New York, house, techno, disco, soul, funk, jazz, Brazilian, new wave, afro, reggae, exotica, they are all there, with the exception of pop and rock. In his opinion, those two genres have always been somewhat imposed upon people by the big record companies.

Digging further into the collection, it becomes clear that Stefaan’s broad musical taste is mainly led by emotion, “and by how electronic music has the power to inspire both me and someone on the other side of the world alike. That is definitely a quality that has attracted me to it since the very beginning.”

I still believe there’s a future for vinyl records. In fact, I’m starting a new label to reissue gems from the ‘70s.

Stefaan reveals the second part of his collection in the back of his big rural home, in a depot that is yet to be renovated and currently houses dozens of stacked cardboard boxes bearing the logo of his company N.E.W.S. Records. The faded color of the logo on the boxes indicates – a bit like the growth rings on trees – how long they have been standing there. “My parents had a cafe with a jukebox and I always accompanied my mom on her weekly trip to the record store in a town called Merelbeke, where she went to buy new singles. Michael Jackson was the one who got me into collecting. I just had to have everything he made. Up until the moment I realized I had often bought an album two or sometimes even three times, but always with a slightly different track list or cover. That’s how record companies used to do it, and it made me feel tricked. My collecting madness receded quickly after that.”

Ghent-based radio S.I.S. – the predecessor of today’s Topradio – got him back into buying records again towards the end of the ‘80s. “I was fascinated by the weird music they played: from Joy Division to funk, from early in the morning till late night. Every once in a while, S.I.S. would also do live broadcasts from a venue called Fifty-Five. I went there to discover music I had never heard of, and those parties really opened a whole new world for me. From then on, I locked myself up in my room with my record player and spent all of my allowance on 12-inch records, which back then sold at around three hundred Belgian francs each. Every week, I had to choose between going out with my friends and buying new vinyl – a heartrending choice.” Nowadays Stefaan spends up to €1,500 per month on vinyl, and he goes on digging trips that take him as far as Brazil. Although admittedly, those trips abroad always are a combination of labor and leisure.

The record boss is not interested in owning every single release by a certain label or certain artist. “I really can’t fit a lot more records in my house. It’s already madness right now. But I still want to improve my collection with things I really love. So yes, for me, it’s about the music. I feel no affinity with diggers hunting down originals. That’s where it gets too nerdy. I have no problem with a reissue – as long as the quality is right. And I’ve never really been a ‘fan’ either. At some point, all artists go through uninspired moments in their careers, or they get lost in an ‘experimental phase’. So why would I want to get my hands on, literally, everything they have ever made?”

Despite all of the capital investments he made, Stefaan rarely talks about the financial value of his collection. Maybe in the back of his mind, he believes he’s saving for a rainy day, but he admits that selling his collection would be an extremely hard thing to do. He would rather give a record to a beginning DJ – for free. And who knows, maybe someday his kids will grow to appreciate what’s in his musical vaults. Although for now, they’d rather stick to listening to music on their iPods.

Stefaan’s most valued records are the ones that started the whole electronic music movement, like Odyssey by Johnny Harris or Looking from a Hilltop by Section 25. His copy literally has a cutting edge, by the way. The record bears a jagged scar from when it was viciously attacked by an angry French bulldog. “Bummer,” Stefaan sighs. “A couple of albums that dog shredded to pieces were worth a pretty penny. Like this one, per example.” He shows us the soundtrack of the Brazilian soft porn movie A Virgem de Saint Tropez. It is practically the only time we hear Stefaan mentioning money – or porno, for that matter – and he is quick to laughingly dismiss his own remark. “Oh well, as long as my bank account doesn’t go in the red.”

I feel no affinity with diggers hunting down originals. That's where it gets too nerdy. For me, it's about the music.

Stefaan does not easily complain, except about the lack of time to work on his collection. It wouldn’t hurt to make a complete inventory for the insurance company, and he has also been toying with the idea of digitizing everything – just to be sure. But he just doesn’t get around to it.

The record collector is part of the management department of the Ghent label N.EW.S. Records – his business card reads ‘A&R’. As a pure music lover he has been in the company’s ranks every since the label came into existence between the crates of legendary Ghent record store Music Man in 1994. After a period of visiting the shop as a regular customer, he got a job there – starting out as a salesman but swiftly climbing up the ranks. Joining the label was a logical step and a job he could easily combine with a busy DJ career. First as T-Quest, later as Dr. Lektroluv, the green-masked alien who started out as a joke – a joke that got more and more out of hand over the past twelve years. “Even the mask was initially just for laughs. I was never supposed to carry it to every gig. But history decided differently, and I think I’ve worn out four of them by now.”

His DJ-sets are completely digital nowadays. Not only for practical reasons – after all, vinyl weighs a ton – but also “because those Pioneer CD players have become the norm and sound quality doesn’t seem to matter that much anymore. I still prefer vinyl though, because of the superior sound quality and because of the fact I have a photographic memory, but I have given up asking party promoters to supply me with record players. Mind you, the end is nowhere near. All of this black gold just breathes handcraft and creativity, and still today, it’s a significant source of revenue for N.E.W.S. Records – even though there is an undeniable evolution going on, from owning music to strictly consuming it. But I still believe there’s a future for vinyl records. In fact, I’m starting a new label to reissue gems from the ‘70s.”

Stefaan hardly ever buys records simply because he likes the artwork – never judge a record by its cover, so to speak. But he does have some eye-catching gems studding his collection. Like a vinyl by Caustic Window (aka Aphex Twin) shaped like a Roland TB-303. “I also went to great lengths to find that beautiful gatefold cover of Isaac Hayes’ Black Moses, and I adore the artwork by artists like Lonnie Liston Smith and Bruce Haack. Like every collector, I also have a weak spot for flaws and imperfections. I remember one record by Future/Past & Balil on the Belgian label R&S that ended up with a misprinted song – a small disaster that caused the whole batch to end up in a trash container. Except for that one copy that I saved from the landfill, of course.” If Stefaan’s home would go up in flames tomorrow, he wouldn’t start all over again. “Even with a Mount Everest of antidepressants I wouldn’t be able to muster up the courage to start from scratch. I remember this one time I was trucking around London with Olivier Abbeloos from T99, and after a whole day of hauling from one record store to the next we were left with one shop on our list. So we took a taxi to go visit this last store and of course we leave all of our hardfought finds from that day on the backseat of the cab! I swear, that had me absolutely devastated, and we’re only talking fifteen records here.”