A "Kontor" is something deeply Hanseatic. And because it once meant a branch of Hansa merchants abroad, it was also used to designate Hamburg as the gateway to the world. Both - the Hanseatic roots and the global trading network - also apply to a dance label founded 25 years ago in Hamburg, which goes by the name of Kontor Records. When Jens Peter Thele, born in Hamburg on December 20th, 1967, started the label in 1996, he could not have foreseen that Kontor artists and releases would earn worldwide recognition, from Miami to St. Petersburg, from London to Rio de Janeiro and of course from Hamburg to Munich. But the founder certainly had big plans from day one.
Tractor employees in front of the storeKontor Records
Music as a Business - Tractor
Thele worked as the branch manager of the respected record store Tractor and then moved to the other side of the counter to join Edel in the telesales department from '92to'95, forming the dance department Club Tools, named after a radio show he hosted with Boris Dlugosch Tools.
Although Thele never tires of calling for the success of Kontor Records to be seen as a team effort, at the beginning of a business venture you need an entrepreneur who has a vision and the courage to realize it. And Jens Thele is such a person: After training as a wholesale and foreign trade merchant, the music lover forced his way into the music business.
It was at Edel, later Kontor's distribution partner and shareholder, where Thele learned the music business from scratch. And it was at Edel where chance played fate and brought him together with another Edel employee, East Frisian telesales manager Hans-Peter Geerdes. Even during their time together at Edel, Thele and Geerdes, who then called himself H.P. Baxxter, enjoyed considerable success (more on that later).
Boris Dlugosch at the Kontor Club and Jens Thele at the HR3 Club Night in Frankfurt.
Between 1995 to 1997, Thele was Senior A&R at Urban Records, a division of the global major Universal Music. Their German branch was still in Hamburg at the time - “an offer I couldn't refuse”. Thele was thus able to gain further knowledge of how the music business worked. He was also making a name for himself as a DJ and was keen to set up something of his own. The Kontor Club was launched in a venerable city centre office building in 1995 and the name would become synonymous with dance music, techno and house from Germany, earning a worldwide reputation. The club went from strength to strength and was the ideal place for Thele and other DJs to try out new productions.
Jens Thele holding up a "Kontor" signKontor Records
The Kontor name was born.
Jens Thele 1995.
The discotheque was renowned for its close relationship with a constantly evolving music scene and the club would also prove to be the decisive catalyst for the label. Just a few months after founding the Kontor club, Thele also registered Kontor Records at the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce. The first single release, "Drop The Gun" by D.O.N.S., only reached #100 on the Official Sales Charts (for a week) and it would take a few yearsfor the #1 spot to arrive, but notable successes soon followed. Thele stresses that the label was profitable from day one, as befits a Hanseatic merchant. Thele and his small initial team constantly sought to expand their artist base.
Oliver Goedicke aka D.O.N.S., who had the first release on Kontor Records.
The label has been profitable from day one, Thele emphasizes, in the tradition of a Hanseatic merchant. And after regional acts, Thele and his then still manageable team steadily expanded the artist base.
The first Kontor office in Hamburg Bramfeld.Kontor Records
Kontor Office No #1
In peaceful Bramfeld ...
... early hits were signed directly above the bakery.
A young DJ and producer from Bochum, André Tanneberger alias ATB, of all people, was responsible for Kontor Records’ first big hit in 1998. His track "9 PM (Till I Come)" reached number 14 in Germany and hit the jackpot in Great Britain: ATB was one of the very few German artists to make it all the way to the top with his production: 600,000 units sold, a Number One record! This track captures the musical essence of Kontor Records, a danceable and catchy song that represents a successful crossover of club and pop music. The label would repeatedly demonstrate a knack for releasing tracks that remain true to their club origins, but are melodically so strong that they can thrive in the mainstream, well received by pop fans.
In addition to ATB and the prolific DJ and producer duo Blank & Jones, the Kontor team achieved another coup in 1998: Scooter. The formation, initially founded in 1993 as The Loop, brought techno sounds and flourishing club and DJ culture to a chart-rich denominator.Their history goes back even further. H.P. Baxxter, once a fan of musicians as diverse as Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore and Dave Gahan from Depeche Mode, met keyboardist Rick J. Jordan through a small ad for musicians and the pair started the moderately successful combo Celebrate The Nun.
With us from the very first day of Scooter: Jens Thele. He later said that it was a spontaneous decision during a band photo session to literally take a step back in order to direct proceedings behind the scenes as manager and co-producer in both business and creative fields. In the Edel sales team, where Thele and H.P. Baxxter ran into each other, they often, as they reveal today with a smile, made their own Scooter records attractive to dealers and sold plenty.
Jens Thele stayed with Scooter as manager and co-producer, even after taking the leap into independence with Kontor Records. But when Scooter moved from Edel to Kontor Records with a sub-label – Sheffield Tunes – created specifically for them, the label boss and his team lifted the formation to the next level.
In spite of a few line-up changes over the years, Scooter have raced from one success to another, writing music history in the process. In 2002, for example, Scooter conquered the German singles charts for the first time in Kontor’s history when “Nessaja” took the number one spot.
It was a memorable moment as two other Kontor acts, Jan Wayne and Mad‘House, occupied the second and fifth slots on the chart. The following week, Mad’House took the top spot, delivering Kontor’s second number one with their version of the Madonna hit “Like A Prayer” as Scooter dropped down to second place.
"Nessaja" versus "Like A Prayer" - two Kontor tracks took turns at #1 in 2002 (in the official German sales charts).
Jens Thele: “Scooter transcend generations. We are very happy to see new and really young fans coming to the concerts, while, at the same time, long-term fans who have been with us from the beginning simply grow old with the band - although that doesn’t apply to H.P. – he just doesn't get old ... "
Echo award 2003
Scooter would like to thank Kontor Records
It speaks for the skill, foresight, and the right A&R instinct on the part of Kontor Records to adapt to ever faster changing music fashions and tastes - and also to set trends yourself. The boom in dance music from Germany reached a new high in the late 90s, then subsided in the noughties, causing many dance labels to disappear.
In 2003, when it became clear that dance singles alone could no longer keep a company with almost 30 employees alive, Thele founded the digital distribution company Kontor New Media from the former new media department of Kontor Records, headed next to Thele by Michi Pohl, an old friend of Theles from Hamburg DJ days.
Kontor Records / Kontor New Media
Although the profit center, which was spun off as an independent company in 2006, is no longer part of Kontor under company law, it still contributes to Kontor Records' revenues as a digital distributor for all Kontor releases.
Today, Kontor New Media is a globally established digital service provider and distributor of a good 1,000 labels - and not just in the dance sector, but in all music genres as well as film, TV and audiobooks. Kontor Records has also always been active in the music publishing business, initially with Loop Dance Constructions, and in 2018 Sheffield Communications Publishing was founded. Kontor veteran Gareth Davies has taken over the management - in addition to his duties as Head Of International at Kontor Records.
The Kontor family concept also comes into play in the publishing business: the Kontor Records label and Kontor New Media aggregator represent powerful partners who can help writers with all the tools at their disposal just a few doors away. So it is no great surprise that many well-known Kontor faces - artists and employees - have made Sheffield Communications Publishing their publishing home, including ATB, H.P. Baxxter and Sono, as well as Markus Gardeweg, Jan Benkmann, Jerome and Hagen Feetly.
Kontor Top Of The Clubs Tour
As a further mainstay, Kontor Records also founded its own booking department. Kontor Records recognized the relevance of the live business early on and organized the "Kontor Top Of The Clubs" tours, for example.
No Deals With Assholes
In 2015, another new company was founded. Under the name No Deals With Assholes Consulting & Management, the agency took care of the artist management of the DJ duo Gestört aber GeiL.
As early as 2006 – just one year after YouTube was founded – Kontor.TV, the label's official YouTube channel, was launched. The official music videos of the Kontor acts are regularly shown there, which has given the Kontor community a fixed point of contact on the net. In November 2012, the channel was one of the first German YouTube channels to reach one million subscribers.
In 2013 the channel KEDC was created. KEDC (Kontor Electronic Dance Channel) was supposed to be the first magazine for electronic music on YouTube. Here the presenters Amissmelle and Jerome presented every week the latest EDM news and info from around the world: parties, releases, festivals and lifestyle.
In July 2021, Kontor reported almost six million subscribers. The Kontor.FM playlist launched in March 2012 on the Spotify streaming service is no less successful, now with more than 780,000 subscribers. Offshoots such as Kontor Festival Sounds, Kontor Sports or Kontor Sunset Chill have been added to the Kontor playlist portfolio. Kontor Records is always at the forefront of other digital new developments: The label was one of the first in Germany to launch an NFT (Non Fungible Token) – based on the 2021 Scooter album "God Save The Rave".
Jens Thele on digitization
"It has and will continue to change the business. What the majors have propagated as 360-degree marketing for a while, we had already implemented in practice anyway, at least to a certain extent, as long as Kontor has existed."
This range of activities, added to the label’s creative work and marketing efforts, ensures that the Kontor Records label never fell into the fast-moving “here today, gone tomorrow” trap which some in the dance world have fallen into. Instead, Kontor Records has succeeded in becoming a brand itself through clever collaborations and a strong media presence (from Viva Club Rotation way back when to DJ sets at Music Deluxe today). Few labels have managed this, even fewer in the dance world (more of a pop/rock thing). The bond with Edel, Thele's former employer, led to the sale of shares in Edel. Jens Thele and H.P. Baxxter from Scooter hold the remaining shares. Thele, a founding member of the band, is still involved as manager, co-producer and writer.
Jens Thele on success: “You have to want success. We have written on the Kontor flag that you have to press the gas pedal down to the floor - or further."
This success can then be seen in a truly impressive string of hundreds of gold and platinum awards, as well as two rare Diamond Awards, each for one million units. This rare honor was bestowed on Belgian artist Lost Frequecies with "Are You With Me" (2014) and Stereoact feat. Kerstin Ott with "Die immer lacht" (2016).
Behind these figures, in addition to the apparently never-ending ideas and unbroken contact to the young electronic scene, there is a committed team working for the company with loyalty and, above all, passion. Jens Thele invokes team spirit time and again. It may be an empty phrase in other companies, but it rings true at Kontor Records. You can see that not least in the fact that Markus Gardeweg, A&R manager at Kontor, DJ and a Kontor artist, Jan Schwede, general manager, and Martin Weiland, in-house graphic designer have stayed with the label as three influential figures since the early successes until today.
Jan Benkmann, Director Marketing & Social Media, who joined Kontor in 1999, and Gareth Davies, Head of International / Publishing, are also among the label's veterans. At the same time, Kontor Records has always understood the benefits of mentoring young people as trainees for the company, so that fresh ideas and close contact with the dance base are never lost. It is quite remarkable that since the company was founded, 36 trainees have learned the dance business from scratch, many of whom have made their way in the world, either within or outside the Kontor family.
Over the decades, this well-established and proven Kontor team has made sure that newcomers as well as well-known acts have found their way to the label and continue to do so. Sooner or later, it is said in the industry, they all end up at Kontor. This also applies to big international names like Tiesto, Armin van Buuren, DJ Antoine or Lost Frequencies, who, if they are not or were not directly signed to Kontor Records, were or are represented by the Hamburg-based label through its international partner and licensing network, at least in German-speaking countries.
Office No #4
The label's fourth location in Neumühlen 17 directly on the Elbe since 2004 (after offices at Bramfelder Dorfplatz 21, Bramfelder Dorfplatz 2A and Maimoorweg 44) houses a total of 32 permanent staff and three freelancers as of July 2021.
“The dance business is international,” Thele emphasizes, referring to label partnerships with, among others, Armada from the Netherlands, Magic in Poland, Central Station from Australia, Roton (Romania), Do It Yourself from Italy, All Around the World from Great Britain and Vidisco from Portugal. And in Germany too, the label was and continues to be a valuable network hub. Kontor worked closely with the labels of dance pioneer Gottfried Engels, who died in 2015, and is responsible for marketing the Gang Go and Tiger Records catalogues, as well as the influential techno label Low Spirit.
The Kontor compilation series also benefit from the international network - above all the flagship “Kontor Top Of The Clubs”, with a new episode appearing every three months since 1998. Volume 90 has recently been released. The sales figures for physical CDs and downloads are impressive: over four million units sold since "Kontor Top Of The Clubs" began - and that in times of advancing digitization and declining CD sales in the overall market. Compiled with loving attention to detail and expert musical taste, TOTC was originally introduced as a double CD and now offers three, sometimes four discs. The compilation has developed into a coveted collector's item, with many fans collecting every single edition to grace their shelves. But “Kontor Top Of The Clubs” has long since arrived in the streaming world as well. Here, the label has impressively racked up more than 60 million hits across the key portals.
Top Of The Clubs Collage by KontorKontor Records
The series, which regularly occupies the top spots in GfK's official compilation Top 30, also reflects the label philosophy of Kontor Records. For in addition to underground electronic club tracks, poppy dance numbers and dancy pop numbers can also be found here, and hip-hop beats have long since become an integral part of "Kontor Top Of The Clubs". In addition, the series has received numerous spin-offs, which are accepted by fans and collectors as physical releases as well as digitally. These include "Kontor House Of House", various series for all imaginable situations and the "Sunset Chill"-couplings, which are especially appreciated by connoisseurs, because here the boss personally contributes a selection of noble chill-out tracks (not for nothing does Jens Thele make a point of having "Head Of A&R" in his job title next to "Managing Director" ...).
Event-related compilations extend the Kontor range even further: Mayday, Nature One and Tomorrowland have all entrusted their collections to Kontor Records. The corona pandemic put a stop to electronics festivals in 2020, of course, but Kontor Records soon found a way to bring dance music to fans in times of crisis. On March 17th 2020, Jens Thele, also involved in the “Musik hilft” organization in previous years, launched the Kontor DJ Delivery Service.
Because on March 17, Jens Thele, who had also been involved with the organization Musik Hilft in previous years, launched the Kontor DJ Delivery Service. Since then, the dedicated service has been providing dance fans all over the world with live sets by well-known DJs seven days a week, even when clubs are closed and events are canceled - directly from the Kontor headquarters. For this achievement, the Kontor DJ Delivery Service was awarded the prestigious Gunnar Uldall Business Award. The Kontor DJ Delivery Service livestream has made it to more than twelve million views in its 15 months on YouTube and Twitch. With an impressive playback time of over 100,000 hours, the free service generated 75 million page impressions, with more than 110,000 views per stream.
Trailer: Kontor DJ Delivery Service
360° look behind the scenes of DJ Delivery Service
Jens Thele on Kontor DJ Delivery Service: “It is a pleasure for all of us to bring a smile to faces out there and everywhere. We actually created a win-win situation for artists and DJs, enabling them to perform in front of an audience despite current club closures."
Nor was Kontor DJ Delivery Service the first time Thele and his team have shown heart.
The “Dance United” aid project, initiated by Kontor, raised 60,000 euros for the victims of the 2002 German flood disaster. Scooter and ATB were involved in the benefit single.
A few years later, the “Help! Asia” initiative saw Kontor Records enlist the stars of the German dance scene to donate 20,000 euros for victims of the 2004. Perhaps these benefit campaigns from the label's formative years all the way through to the 2021 anniversary demonstrate more clearly than all the tracks sold, the gold and platinum awards and the pattern of commercial growth, where the heart of Kontor Records lies: it’s all about the music. From Kontor to the world.
Text: Dietmar Schwenger