Label of the Month: Kompakt
Michael Mayer‘s obsession with DJing came into full view when he was just 12-years-old. He was in his backyard, playing with his dog and repairing his bike when it happened.
“I played this tape that a neighbor had given to me, and it was perfect. Italo-disco, high energy stuff. Suddenly, this track came up, which I didn’t know at the time. It’s become one of my all-time favorite tunes — Mr. Flagio’s ‘Take a Chance‘. I recall my dog putting her head on my little tape machine’s speaker because she was enjoying it so much, and I did as well. We were both like, ‘Can you hear this? This is amazing.’ And that’s the moment when it all happened.”
Decades after he first shared this pivotal moment with his German Shepherd, Mayer’s unrelenting passion for music led him to co-found one of electronic music’s most distinguished labels, Kompakt Records. With hundreds upon hundreds of cherished singles, EPs, albums, and compilations under its belt — and numerous sub-labels to boot — Kompakt is much more than a label. It’s an institution, with a record store, distribution agency, webshop, and artist agency all attached. Comprehending the cosmos of accomplishments that Kompakt has achieved is a dizzying task, but simply put, it’s an imprint that’s helped solidify Germany’s authority in clubland and has been instrumental in nurturing the global growth of electronic music as we know it today.
Michael Mayer feels “all pretty and pink” when he calls in via Zoom from his daughter’s bedroom. “It’s the safest space for the moment. We’ve got a full house,” Mayer states with a smile. The Kompakt boss lives in Cologne, his adopted home, and a city that has become synonymous with his label. He grew up in Germany’s Black Forest, only 10 kilometers from the French border. In his youth, he befriended two local DJs who became his mentors, saving money to buy their old equipment in order to build his own mobile disco when he was only 14. By the time he was 20, he was fully proficient at running a dance floor, and the pull of city life led him to Cologne. While many of his friends migrated to Berlin, the city on the Rhine was a far more attractive destination for the budding DJ.
“Berlin was already quite busy,” Mayer explains. “There was already a lot of competition and DJs queuing up next to you, waiting for you to go to the toilet and sneak themselves onto the decks. Cologne was more relaxed in that regard. There was more space for someone like me. I like Berlin as a visitor, but I’m super happy I live here. We’ve really achieved something in Cologne.”
While Cologne did not have a reputation as one of Europe’s top dance floor destinations at the time, that changed with the arrival of Mayer and the clashing of worlds that occurred at the city’s newly established shop, Delerium Records, In 1993, Wolfgang Voigt, his brother Reinhard, Jörg Burger, Jürgen Paape, and Ingmar Koch created the record store, and Michael Mayer was one of their first customers on opening day. As the story goes, Mayer began mouthing off about their limited collection. Soon after, they brought him on as a buyer, an employee, and finally, as a partner after he sank the 1,000 Deutschmarks he inherited from his grandmother into the shop.
“Cologne was not a very easy place for techno,” Mayer says. “There were plenty of clubs and free parties, but there was nowhere I felt at home musically. So we had to start our own club nights.” The crew’s various parties and gigs at small and clandestine venues throughout the city were met with great success, and it soon became clear they needed a regular venue for their events. The real change came in on July 3, 1998, when the team took over a refurbished jazz club called Studio 672 for their first Total Confusion party. The weekly Friday night event soon became one of Cologne’s longest-running and most iconic parties.
“The party was really themed around us [Michael & Tobias Thomas] and our musical idea off of a club night,” Mayer says. “It was a small place, just one room with 350 people, max. One big dance floor with no way to escape, so either you were in it, or you had to leave. It was a melting pot for different scenes. For rock intellectuals, for technical freaks, house lovers, and more high-brow experimental music fans alike. It’s like a completely new mix of people, and they all went for it.”
By this time, Wolfgang had just launched his famed ambient moniker, GAS. And he and the rest of his compatriots continued cultivating strains of provocative and charming minimal techno pop that were upending sound systems throughout Germany. A far cry from the ruthless and dark four-four thump of techno taking over Berlin, the group locked into a more upbeat, easy-going, dynamic style. Incorporating folk, surf, pop, krautrock, disco, country, psychedelic, and glam rock into their productions, the genre lines first blurred, then expanded. All they needed now was a robust platform for their diverse sound styles.
Understanding power in numbers, all the imprints affiliated with the team — Profan, Studio1, Monochrome, LifeLine, New Transatlantic, and Forever Sweet Records — were brought under one umbrella, forming an independent super-label. And in 1998, Kompakt was born.
The label’s debut release was the compilation, Köln Kompakt 1, released on January 2, 1998, It featured the founders traversing minimal techno in various fashions. Over the next few years, a flurry of forward-thinking records followed, including tracks like Reinhard Voigt’s heady “Hier Und Jetzt,” Michael Mayer’s jackin’ “Speaker,” and Jürgen Paape’s alluring “So Weit Wie Noch Nie” — a timeless Kompakt classic. In 1999, they pushed out the first edition of their revered Total compilation series, and the 20th edition, Total 20, dropped this September. By now, Mayer, who heads the series, likens the annual release of Total to something like “Christmas or a birthday,” or “something that just reoccurs every year.”
By 2003, the core Kompakt team moved to a new location, a full office building complete with a new record shop, distributor, label offices, basement studios, and even living quarters for some of its staff. “It was almost like a lifetime life goal of Wolfgang’s to have all aspects of a proper record company or for a music company in one building,” Mayer says. The space and concept behind Kompakt’s new all-encompassing, farm-to-turntable approach took cues from the likes of Andy Warhol and his emblematic and experimental art studio, The Factory. Wolfgang held a great deal of reverence for the vital American artist. So much so, that his pop-art technique was the inspiration behind the static dots that make up Kompakt’s wholly recognizable aesthetic.
“When I hear Kompakt, I immediately think of minimalist graphic design and equally stripped-down yet sentimental electronic music,” German techno DJ-producer and Kompakt regular Patrice Bäumel says. The label’s second and equally recognizable logo, the Speicher Eagle, was Cologne’s coat of arms until the city rebranded in the early 2000s. “We were looking for something to distinguish our newly minted Kompakt Extra sub-label from the usual look of Kompakt,” Mayer explains. “We thought since they’re not using it anymore, and we love it, that we’d take it.” With this eagle’s adoption, the Speicher series was born — an ongoing collection of two-trackers that now boasts 115 editions from some of electronic music’s most beloved creators, including Laurent Garnier, Danny Daze, Anna, Oxia, La Fleur, and dozens more.
With the opening of the label’s headquarters, Cologne now had a culture factory of its own. The city’s nightlife was theirs, and soon budding talent from all over Germany was itching to release on the label. “I clearly remember the early years when it was still quite easy to handle,” Mayer says fondly. “Like maybe once a month, we got together with a pizza, sat in the park with a boombox, and listened to some potential tracks. And then maybe after five years or so, the onslaught. We had plastic bags full of CDRs. It was like an ecological problem because we couldn’t recycle them. We were quite pleased when SoundCloud became the industry standard for sending out demos. At this point, I still receive about 100 demos per day.”
Early on, Kompakt introduced the world to acts like Sascha Funke, DJ Koze, Superpitcher, Lawrence, Ferenc, and many more. The label was also gaining a reputation internationally. “I first learned of the label during my first trip to Cologne in 1999,” Kompakt artist and LA techno luminary John Tejada says. “Kompakt, along with all its sub-labels of experimental sounds, was refreshing and inspiring. At that time, you really had to go to a place to experience it, so to get a crash course into everything that was going on felt like a breath of fresh air.” After signing artists like France’s Jonas Bering and Japan’s Kaito — Kompakt’s first non-German signings — other highly-regarded producers would follow, such as the UK’s electro wizard Rex The Dog, Sweden’s looping mastermind The Field, and one of Brazil’s most cherished dance music mavens, Gui Boratto. “Michael is my musical guru,” Boratto says. “I remember him pushing me to do a full-length album with them in 2006, so I made Chromophobia. After that, I started to tour endlessly, and Kompakt became my family. It’s the mothership. A place I can go wherever I feel like it. That’s freedom. I feel proud to be part of this iconic pillar of electronic music culture.”
As releases on Kompakt continued flying off the shelves, the company snatched up smaller independent imprints from all over the world with its wildly appealing distribution model. “In the beginning, Kompakt’s distribution was me, a little iMac, and a fax machine,” Mayer says. “As we brought on more labels, I needed help. I built up a small and energetic team, but we felt that we’re reaching our limits pretty fast. I didn’t have time to make music anymore, and getting into the studio was just unthinkable. Every time we hired someone new, we took another step forward and took more labels on board. In fact, I never managed to spend as much time in the studio as I always wanted. Until now. Thanks, COVID-19.”
Today, Kompakt has a full-time staff of 25 people and handles distribution for almost 150 independent labels. Their artist agency represents over 30 artists, including Marc Romboy, Barnt, Robag Wruhme, Rebolledo, La Fraicheur, and Kölsch, who released his debut 12-inch Speicher 68 via Kompakt Extra in 2010. When asked what Kompakt means to him personally, the Danish superstar replied: “It’s really very simple. Without Kompakt, there would be no Kölsch.”
In the 27 years following Kompakt’s founders’ fateful gathering at Delerium Records in Cologne, the group has not once faltered in their ability to advance their label’s sound in the right direction. Over the past decade, they’ve given rise to popular groups like the Netherlands duo Weval, pushed the intersection between electronic and the avant-garde with their yearly Pop Ambient series, and helped revisit and reinterpret the influence of established acts like Terranova, Sasha, and WhoMadeWho. “When we started releasing on Kompakt, it felt like a whole new world was unfolding for me somehow,” WhoMadeWho’s Jeppe Kjellberg explains. “When I first met Michael, it was like meeting a brother that you didn’t know you had.”
For Michael, nurturing connections with artists is all in a day’s work. His go-to A&R strategy reads something like, “Let’s get drunk and talk about what music we like right now,” and all who cross his path are more than happy to comply. “One of Kompakt’s strengths is that we can connect the dots between artists that would normally never play on the same floor,” Mayer says. “I like how colorful our portfolio is.”
In a year of unprecedented disarray for the music industry, Michael Mayer remains hopeful that a return to the dance floor is not so far away. He’s energized, having just played a couple of gigs in Poland, where restrictions are more relaxed, and feels pleased with how COVID safety measures were carried out. Back at home, Kompakt has received help from the government, and they’ve managed to keep their entire staff employed without any layoffs. “When the lockdown came, we very quickly realized that it’s important to keep the machine running,” Mayer says. “People were at home and locked down, and what did they do? They listened to music, and music gave them strength and hope.”
The Kompakt headquarters currently sits empty, as social distancing measures warrant the team working from home. But in the meantime, Mayer and the rest of the founders have some exciting new plans for their base of operations. “17 years after our current record shop opened in its current location, we’re making changes for the first time,” Mayer says with an eager grin on his face. “We’ve got amazing plans to improve the store. It’s where everything started, and it deserves a little makeover. We’ve also already had some anxious people looking inside, like, ‘Oh my God, what are you doing? Are you closing down?’ No. Right now, we’re in the middle of this process where the whole team’s just trying to make things better, and when the light goes on again, we’ll be there. And we’ll be better than ever.”