After visiting Denmark over the last couple of episodes (Issue 174 and Issue 173), it is now time to travel to the opposite end of Europe, to the warm south, just in time for the winter.
We will be visiting a rather unlikely destination in the historical timeline of disk recording. Tucked away in the southeastern-most corner of Europe, connected to the rest of the European Union only through a narrow land corridor nowadays (in the past there was no roadway to the rest of the EU), a significant part of which was only recently paved as a normal highway, with war-torn countries all around up until a couple of decades ago, Greece is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. With great weather and fine food, it is the place everybody would want to move to…after retirement! This, sadly, is due to an economic and political climate that has famously been grotesquely hostile to conducting business. It has never been easy to make money in Greece, but if you already have money coming in from elsewhere (in the form of a pension or a large inheritance), it can feel like paradise. Not only are the weather, natural beauty and food culture beyond compare, but the locals are also warm and friendly and the country offers world-class healthcare at truly competitive prices, making it a foremost destination for medical tourism, as well as conventional tourism, in the world.
Back in the early 1900s, when in many of the world’s developed regions at the time, inventors and engineers were frantically setting the foundations for the recording industry, Greece was largely an agrarian state, with small-scale farming conducted with primitive means. Donkeys and oxen were the tractive power of the more fortunate, and bare hands were what got the job done for the peasantry.
In the decades to follow, when every industrialized nation in the world had produced a disk recording lathe, Greece was not among then. Columbia Records set up camp in Greece in 1931, constructing a recording facility and record pressing plant, which they were hoping would give them a foothold in the Middle East as well. However, all the equipment and much of the early workforce were imported. Columbia owned the disk mastering lathes and, for many years, had the sound recording monopoly in the country. Small independent studios did not appear until the 1950s, when my grandfather, Ilias, started what I believe was the first independent recording studio in the country, called Terra. The very first recordings of Vangelis Papathanasiou, Lucas Sideras, and Demis Roussos were conducted there, by my grandfather. The equipment, once again, was all imported.
Despite being a small country with a population of under nine million at the time, during the golden age of the vinyl record, Greece had no fewer than seven pressing plants operating, although some did not appear to ever exist on paper. It was a lucrative business for some time, but by the 1990s, there were only three plants surviving, the last one closing its doors in early 2000. Since then, and to this day, there are no pressing plants in Greece, despite the global resurgence. Vinyl record sales in Greece are sky-high and the internet age has made it possible for Greek bands to go on tour in a van, something which was not an option when the country was surrounded by war zones. Many Greek artists are now releasing their music on vinyl, alongside digital formats, and some of these releases do very well, both locally and internationally.
However, the manufacturing is always handled abroad.
It is not that there has been no interest in setting up a local manufacturing plant. Quite the contrary. There have been several attempts at starting a record pressing plant in Greece over the past decade, but they always reach the same obstacles: Insane levels of bureaucracy and corruption, extortionate energy costs, gross over-taxation of individuals and businesses, real estate and motor vehicles, and a crippled banking system. While the local market is small, pressing plants are often export-oriented, especially in the European Union, where cross-border trade is supposedly made simple. Greece, however, imposes a special export tax, punishing businesses that bring money into the country. Yes, you have read that correctly, a business based in Greece has to pay a fee for each export, in addition to the normal income tax and of course the duties and customs for all imports.
While things are looking rather grim for building up pressing plants, in recent years we have been witnessing something groundbreaking in the country.
Throughout the entire time from the 1930s to 2000, when pressing plants operated in the country, the mastering facilities were always part of the pressing plants. There were no independent disk mastering facilities in the country. I personally started the very first independent disk mastering facility in Greece in 2014, called Magnetic Fidelity, along with my wife, Sabine. Since then, I have helped others set up disk recording lathes in Greece, creating a small ecosystem of “lathe trolls,” cutting records in various parts of the country. (Most, if not all of the lathe trolls have olive trees and harvest their own olives, including myself.)
In the far south of the country, among ancient castles, stunning beaches and olive groves, a professional olive oil producer decided to follow his dream of cutting his own records, and started a record label and built a cutting room with a vintage Rek-O-Kut lathe with a modified Presto cutter head. Epos Laboratory has been releasing limited editions of lathe-cut records ever since, specializing in ambient electronic music. In his quest for the ultimate sound, Epos Labs has been experimenting with small-scale cutting stylus manufacturing, offering the results to other cutting rooms around the world.
It is not only cutting rooms that have begun springing up in Greece. Somewhat belatedly, Greece is now finally home to a manufacturer of disk recording and mastering equipment, which happened when the looming Brexit and the mess that would certainly follow forced me to move the core of my manufacturing operations for Agnew Analog Reference Instruments from England to Greece. The weather is certainly better, and so is the food.
Now based in one of the most picturesque holiday resorts in the north of Greece, our Agnew Analog facility has been supplying most of the world’s record-cutting facilities and pressing plants with lathes, parts, upgrades, and engineering consulting services.
Agnew Analog designs and manufactures lathes, cutter heads and other precision engineering assemblies. I’d like to think I’m simply stating fact, not hyperbole when I note that we have brought a level of engineering and manufacturing to the country that had never previously existed, in a sector where all the equipment had traditionally been imported into Greece from elsewhere. Now, specialized equipment is being exported around the world, greatly supporting the local economy through the purchasing of materials, the creation of new jobs, and enormous tax contributions. With appropriate tax incentives and other legislative reforms, Greece could easily attract related businesses, including record pressing plants, print shops specializing in record sleeves, more cutting rooms, and even specialized manufacturing operations for lacquer master disks, making the jump to a market leader in media manufacturing, while at the same time reducing the, as of now, still rampant unemployment that has been plaguing the country.
Recently, Agnew Analog Reference Instruments has designed and manufactured disk recording stylus manufacturing equipment for a new startup in Athens, Greece, aiming to export much-needed styli, currently in very short supply, all around the world.
The ongoing growth of the vinyl record manufacturing sector, prompted by the increasing demand for the medium, has seen the rapid expansion of business for Agnew Analog. While our lathes are currently proudly handcrafted in Greece, we are serving a significant market in the US and many other countries.
Being of American and Greek ancestry myself, but having spent much of my adult life living and working in England, I can settle and be happy in many places, enjoying the virtues each culture has to offer. Our presence as a business in Greece will remain, but as the business expands further, we are now considering setting up shop in the US as well, expanding our manufacturing operations to the other side of the pond.
Is the world experiencing a return of quality manufacturing on a sustainable scale? This certainly appears to be the case in some specialized sectors. Whether it will catch on to the mainstream remains to be seen. It will certainly require the appropriate conditions to be established, as flowers don’t usually grow out of concrete. But once the soil is prepared, we might start experiencing levels of growth and prosperity such as those that were conductive to the developments during the golden age of high fidelity.
It has been said before that the quality of life in any country is directly linked to the development of its manufacturing sector. I would argue that a far more accurate indication of the quality of life in any particular nation is its audio industry. The countries that are home to world-class recording and mastering studios, high-end audio equipment manufacturers, audio publications, and research programs in audio and acoustics tend to be the countries that have a lot to offer in terms of stability, economic prosperity and overall quality of life.
Despite the great momentum that has been building up in the audio sector, whether Greece will become the Mecca of vinyl or quickly return to audio obscurity, with all the associated consequences for quality of life in the country, remains to be seen. As the media manufacturing sector is currently experiencing rapid growth, many new and established businesses are on the lookout for strategic locations to establish new plants. This has always been a competition among the world’s most developed countries, to establish the conditions that would attract such investment. The popular destinations have a lot to gain. A competent administration would certainly not let such an opportunity go to waste.
Header image: a batch of Agnew Analog vacuum platters for disk mastering lathes. All photos courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments except where noted.