The story of Kompakt, in terms of those who lived it and what has been produced, dates back over 25 years. It started out as a small Cologne-based record shop specialising in dance music, expanded into a growing family business under the lead of Kompakt visionary Wolfgang Voigt, and eventually became a legendary label, a worldwide distributor, a music publishing house, a mail-order firm, and finally an international artists’ agency. Following the latest major relocation to its own premises on Cologne’s Werderstaße, all the various aspects and business interests of Kompakt have been brought together under one roof, where everything still revolves around a well-stocked record shop.
The original, local nucleus consisting of founders Wolfgang and Reinhard Voigt, Jürgen Paape, Jörg Burger, and Michael Mayer has evolved into a cosmopolitan and international hub for everything associated with electronic music.
THE NUCLEUS: DELIRIUM KÖLN
On their first own label of Trance Atlantic, Wolfgang Voigt and Jörg Burger had already been collaborating musically since 1991, including as Mike Ink and Burger Industries. But all they could really offer, when the Frankfurt-based record shop Delirium asked about opening a Cologne branch in 1993, was the experience they had gained from second-hand record fairs. Having said this, the temptation of having their own shop, of somewhere to meet like-minded people and friends, share music, dream up new projects, and ultimately even sell their own music was simply too great. It was the early ‘90s, and everything seemed possible. It felt like a new age was dawning.
The Delirium Store Cologne at Gladbacher Straße (1993/1995) by unknownKompakt
Together with Wolfgang’s brother, Reinhard, and Jürgen Paape, Jörg Burger and Wolfgang Voigt founded Delirium Köln. On March 1, 1993, the blue door of the record shop at Gladbacher Straße 36 opened for the first time.
Jörg, Reinhard, Jürgen (1993) by unknownKompakt
What began as a charming and chaotic hangout for a small bunch of free-spirited techno enthusiasts soon developed a national reputation as a meeting place for those with an interest in electronic music. DJs, ravers, producers, event organizers, journalists, technology nerds, and similar creative types could regularly be seen huddled around the small counter, either checking out the latest records or simply happy to be around while music history was being written in their presence. Because this is exactly what the early ’90s felt like.
DJ CULTURE: THE FRIENDS EXPERIMENT
Two greenhorns from Offenburg, freshly arrived from southern Germany, the DJ duo Michael Mayer and Tobias Thomas soon joined the gang. It was an encounter that would have far-reaching consequences.
Michael Mayer, Tobias Thomas (1994) by Gregor WildermannKompakt
While Michael Mayer became an employee, and later a partner, shortly after Delirium was opened, Tobias Thomas was working as a music journalist and taking an interest in the parties where people could play this new sound that was developing and evolving on a daily basis. Tobias subsequently became the editor of the outfit’s own fanzine House Attack (see below), which was launched by Jörg Burger among others and later largely designed by Kompakt’s graphic designer Bianca Strauch.
»One day, a new record shop finally opened, another Delirium of all things, so my expectations were high. I came in, and all I could see were three plastic crates. One crate only contained records from Pete Namlook’s label Fax, while the second just had records from Structure or Monotone, so all that crazy stuff from those boys [Editor's note: Ingmar Koch, Cem Oral, Jörg Burger, and Wolfgang Voigt.]. And then they had another crate with Force Inc stuff. That was it. I said: you cannot be serious? Ingmar Koch simply looked at me, eyes wide, passed me the Discomania list, and said: then order something yourself. None of these were DJs, they were only interested in their own music. After two weeks, I started working there. About six months later, I invested my inheritance from my grandmother, a thousand German marks, and became a joint owner.«
Michael Mayer in an interview with Groove, October 2016
Under the name Friends Xperiment or T.O.B.Y and M. Higher, the two friends started their first club nights, with their friends from the Whirlpool gang acting as intermediary, at a venue on Luxemburger Straße called the IZ Club. This is where they would lay the foundations for their international DJ careers, and particularly for Total Confusion, from 1993 until it closed two years later. Thomas and Mayer developed a distinctive DJ style quite early, moving freely and eclectically between various forms of electronic dance music. They placed great emphasis on creating a sense of drama, with the warm-up, among other things, playing a decisive role during the early part in the club before the dancing actually starts. They opened up and expanded the range of music typically played in clubs to include genres such as ambient, electronica, and Clicks & Cuts. As a result, a kind of synergy emerged between Kompakt and the DJ sets put together for these and similar party nights, which proved to be really important in the history of the label and the »Sound of Cologne«.
The two years at the IZ Club saw the emergence of an initial social network, featuring people who would later become Kompakt employees and artists (including Gesine Schönrock, Christian Schäfer, Schaben & Voss). During this time, Tobias Thomas and Michael Mayer also made their first contacts with labels and DJs from other cities and countries. Besides big international names like John Acquaviva or DJ Duke, there were also opportunities for young and totally unknown talent. One example was an 18-year-old DJ called Dixon, who Tobias Thomas had got to know during an appearance in Berlin and immediately invited to Cologne.
»That was an exciting time. I then made a conscious decision to rule out Berlin. There was just more room in Cologne. You had Whirlpool, and then Cosmic Orgasm and the Warehouse club as well. The music I liked at the time didn’t really have a proper home. At best, it was spread across these three different outlets. Warehouse wasn’t my scene. There were a lot of drugs about, and the music was being played at 140 bpm. Whirlpool had too much of a garage house feel for me, while Cosmic Orgasm had pretty much no limit when it came to tempo. I did have some of the best party nights at Cosmic Orgasm, but it was never really my thing musically. So we had to do something ourselves. The result was the first party nights at the IZ.«
Michael Mayer in an interview with Groove, October 2016
THE VOICE: HOUSE ATTACK
The House Attack magazine first appeared in January 1994 and featured material from a range of musicians, graphic designers, DJs, journalists, and other free spirits, with the main guiding lights in the early days being Jörg Burger, Gregor Wildermann, and Claus Bachor. Rather like a flip side, the first three editions contained another wildly creative, but rather vaguely titled magazine called ⌘#★!?*, with contributions from people like Ingmar Koch, Riley Reinhold, Sascha Kösch, and Rootpowder.
There were constant changes of editors, staff, and publishers, with the later and final phase of House Attack mainly influenced by the editors Tobias Thomas and Uwe Buschmann and the graphic designer Bianca Strauch.
The House Attack magazine provided a showcase for the various artistic activities associated with the Delirium crew and their circle and a chance to present and try out ideas, projects, and products in a protected, experimental, and non-commercial environment. The result was the emergence of new and unusual forms of text, which had little in common with more traditional music journalism. The magazine, which appeared at fairly irregular intervals, was regularly packed with subculture and pop culture content that could only be described as bizarre—in the best sense of the word. The democratization of the means of production and the use of high-performance but cheap computers, new graphics programs, and a scanner as a kind of quotation machine all helped the magazine’s exceptional artwork take center stage.
Instead of placing very expensive advertisements in other print media, house labels such as Profan, NTA, or Eat Raw were promoting their latest records in House Attack. Many of these advertisements became a kind of new art form in their own right.
The message at the time was: »Feature yourself like hell!«
THE FIRST RELOCATION
For two years, Delirium remained the pre-Kompakt nucleus. The first relocation to Brabanter Straße 42 was in the summer of 1995. This was deeper into the Belgian Quarter, near Friesenplatz. What had been a rather informal clique would now become a proper firm.
The Move to Brabanter Straße (1995-06) by unknownKompakt
WE ARE BUILDING A NEW CITY (AND A COMPANY)
This legendary photo shows the inner circle of Kompakt’s founders, who are busy with renovation work following the shop’s relocation to Brabanter Straße 42. After something of an underground and improvised set-up at Gladbacher Straße, the new record shop was planned and created with far more structure and professionalism from the very start. The now enormous range of records was stacked in boxes up to the ceiling or accommodated on smart DIY wooden shelving. The original two rooms, arranged one behind the other, would later become a large, coherent shop space. The first proper office was created on the second floor, where Kompakt’s fast-growing distribution operation was born and duly developed. A really lively, creative, and enterprising sociotope started to take shape and soon attracted worldwide attention. January 1998 saw a crucial change of future direction, when the outfit was renamed and relaunched as KOMPAKT.
The founders (1993) by KompaktKompakt
Wolfgang Voigt, Jürgen Paape at work (1995) by Tobias ThomasKompakt
THE STORY CONTINUES: BRABANTER STRAßE 42
Employee numbers increased rapidly at Brabanter Straße. Bianca Strauch and Veronika Unland were already actively involved, and the team was now joined, among others, by Aksel Schaufler aka Superpitcher, Gregor Schütz aka Geo, and Riley Reinhold aka Triple R.
Inside Brabanter Straße 42_1 (2002) by Hiroshi WatanabeKompakt
Phase two of the Kompakt story, around the end of the ‘90s and the start of the new millennium, can only be described as a kind of golden era. So-called minimal techno enjoyed its first international boom, and one of the leading protagonists of this genre was to be Wolfgang Voigt, who set new standards in this area with things like the conceptual series Studio 1 he began in 1995. Reinhard Voigt, Michael Mayer, Tobias Thomas (collectively: Forever Sweet), Jürgen Paape and Jörg Burger (aka Triola, The Modernist, The Bionaut) provided variations and interpretations of this all-pervasive sound esthetic and added their own musical ideas, styles, shades, and forms, as well as founding other labels and producing remixes and mix CDs. An all-encompassing productivity was driving the firm to constantly new creative achievements of the highest caliber.
New artists such as Dettinger, Schaeben & Voss, Superpitcher, Jonas Bering, Peter Grummich, Sascha Funke, Gustavo Lamas, Justus Köhncke, Kaito, Gebr. Teichmann, T. Raumschmiere, and DJ Koze, as well as many others, joined the family in quick succession and influenced the Kompakt sound for the next 10 years in a way that would go down in music history.
Through the label, but also its own shop and distribution arm, Kompakt increasingly became part of an international network with other like-minded collectives. A unique global ecosystem of producers, DJs, labels, distributors, and magazines had emerged, with Brabanter Straße in Cologne becoming one of the absolute epicenters.
With the album »Life's A Gas« under the alias Love Inc., released in 1996 by Force Inc., Wolfgang Voigt succeeded in creating his "opus magnus" of the nineties, on which he combined his personal pop socialisation with acid house, minimal techno and ambient to create an artistic manifesto that made even the desks of the previously rather techno-sceptical editorial offices of rock magazines shake, which led, among other things, to the award of "Album of the Year" in the leading German pop magazine of the time, SPEX. The editors of GROOVE voted "Life's A Gas" into the ranking of the best 50 albums of the last 25 years in 2014.
While the underground techno and house reality in the mid-nineties still consisted mainly of black hole covers and anonymous pseudonyms, the cover and tracks of "Life's A Gas" were filled with meaningful quotes and allusions from pop, punk, disco, glam rock and electronic in the »free fall of the signs«.
THE FACTORY: EVERYTHING UNDER ONE ROOF
Old KOMPAKT store sign by unknownKompakt
»There are two aspects around Warhol that interest me. One aspect is the connection with the Kompakt company, the much-cited idea of The Factory. I've always been a bit inspired by that, because that's how I grew up: Living and working under one roof, with friends. The art of company-making in a family context.«
Wolfgang Voigt in a conversation with Ableton, September 2013
Wolfgang Voigt planning the factory (2003) by UnlandKompakt
In the spring of 2003, just as the Delirium/Kompakt combo was celebrating its 10th anniversary, there was a relocation to Werderstaße. The new refuge was more than just another shop. It was a complete house, not far from Cologne’s Stadtgarten park, where the various parts of the business would now finally have the freedom to develop. From now on, there was no shortage of space. Besides adequate floor space for the record shop’s extensive stock of records, the associated warehouse, and the stock kept back for distribution and mail order purposes, the imposing building now also offered enough capacity for spacious offices, the booking agency, several recording studios, a mastering facility, communal spaces, and some private living space.
Meanwhile, the success story, both inside the business and outside, was continuing apace. Kompakt was regarded as a social and creative phenomenon, and was therefore heavily featured in the press more broadly. A year after the relocation, Michael Mayer was a guest at a talk at the Red Bull Music Academy, which was founded by Torsten Schmidt and Many Ameri and was also based in Cologne. The talk had a lot to say about the status quo at the time.
In March/April 2003, the cover story »KOMPAKT - Ein Haus aus Pop« appeared in GROOVE magazine, with pictures by Wolfgang Tillmans.
THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH: THE SOUND OF COLOGNE
The noughties marked the start of another period of artistic and commercial success for Kompakt. The »Sound Of Cologne« was booming, and a series of musical milestones were reached.
Justus Köhncke live at Total 4, Stadtgarten (2002-08-16) by KompaktKompakt
At the start of the millennium, a further expansion phase had begun for Kompakt and the Sound of Cologne. The music market—or at least parts of it—was still intact, with DJs and live musicians from the label or the Kompakt agency now continuously flying around the world and appearing all over the globe. The regularly sold out Kompakt events (including at Popkomm, and then from 2004 as part of Cologne’s c/o pop festival), the Total Confusion series in nearby Studio 672, the legendary Beach Parties in Barcelona, the traditional CSD- and carnival-style open air raves influenced an entire generation and also developed into magnets for international pilgrims in search of electronic music.
April 2002 saw the debut of Tobias Thomas, who at this time, along with Michael Mayer, Superpitcher, and DJ Koze, was one of the most successful DJs to represent Kompakt, on the main stage of Mayday, Germany’s biggest and most commercially successful indoor rave. A year later, on April 30, 2003, Kompakt had its own stage at the May Day Troopa Of Tomorrow event. So part of the establishment, at last.
Wir wollten das schon tun. Es ist schon so, dass es eine bestimmte Spielart von »Kölner« Minimal Techno gegeben hat und daran bin ich nicht ganz unschuldig. Aber dass diese weltweite Trademark entstanden ist und sich in der musikalischen Geschichtsschreibung festgesetzt hat, war nie geplant. Es war nun so, dass die englische Musikpresse Mitte der 90er - durchaus im Zusammenhang mit meinem voluminösen und auch sehr individuellen Output - auf einmal in Köln das Mekka einer bestimmten Art von Minimalelektronik gefunden zu haben glaubte, und diese dann auch noch aus der Tradition von Can und Kraftwerk heraus erklären wollte. Das haben wir damals als eher unangenehm empfunden, wir wollten keinen Hype, auch wenn wir sicher für den Sound, um den es ging, mitverantwortlich waren (...).
Dabei sind wir dann entschlossen vorgegangen und haben gesagt: Diese Musik hat eine Adresse, einen Urheber - und das ist Kompakt.
(Wolfgang Voigt, im Interview mit SPEX im Mai 2003)
A TIME TO CELEBRATE: 20 YEARS OF KOMPAKT
20 Years of Kompakt Fanzine Cover (2013) by KompaktKompakt
2013 saw great celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of Kompakt, as calculated from the year (1993) the Delirium record label was founded. Besides numerous 20 Years of Kompakt Parties around the world and two compilations, a fanzine was produced, covering the history and background of the whole thing in the form of articles, archive recordings, private snapshots, and historical documents of all kinds. In various cities and with partners such as Ableton or Electronic Beats, the first Kompakt pop-up stores were set up and continued to appear for a few years afterward as a kind of flagship for the label, particularly in Amsterdam and Barcelona. Documentary films (see below) and numerous features (RA, The Guardian, The Quietus, Groove) marked the anniversary to an extent not seen before. The final crowning glory in this anniversary year was an unusual album called Gregor Schwellenbach spielt 20 Jahre Kompakt—a project that, among other things, also helped raise Kompakt’s profile in other circles.
THE SOUND OF THE FAMILY
Kompakt staff (2013) by KompaktKompakt
Much has been said about the birth of Kompakt in 1993, but it was mainly based on two essential components: family and friendship. The original social nucleus of the Voigt brothers Wolfgang and Reinhard and their best friends Jörg Burger and Jürgen Paape, later joined by kindred spirits Veronika Unland and the two close friends Michael Mayer and Tobias Thomas, was gradually turned into a family business. Other people duly joined in stages, who were friendly with and knew each other through a series of close relationships and connections, and the Kompakt system was to benefit from the skills these brought to the table. This mixture of homeliness, social incestuousness, and the sense of a creative collective so typical of Cologne was to become a trademark and USP and certainly helped consolidate the firm’s success and longevity.
The outside world often saw Kompakt as this one big family, but reduced—just as often—to the exclusively male protagonists and representatives Wolfgang Voigt or Michael Mayer, who both enjoyed worldwide success as producers and DJs. But there were and are lots of other people behind the scenes of this success story, and Kompakt would not have become what it is without them.
As testament to the many female employees behind the scenes and in keeping with that rather curious motto “Behind every great man …,” here are the portraits of Veronika Unland, Sidonie Carrard-Mayer, Bianca Strauch, Sarah Idarous, Gesine Schönrock, Caro Kress, Mareena von Cube, and Claudia Jericho.
THE ANTHEM: SO WEIT WIE NOCH NIE
»So Weit Wie Noch Nie« by Jürgen Paape could be described as the unofficial anthem of KOMPAKT. Besides the great Wolfgang Voigt/Wassermann hits »Fackeln Im Sturm«, »In Tyrannis« and »W.I.R.«, hardly any other track/song has summed up the various emotional, musical and artistic ingredients of the Sound Of Cologne like Paape's dreamy pop-house ode to Daliah Lavi.
In the video embedded above, you can hear the original version (with the original sample), but it does not show the official video. Both versions have reached almost 1 million clicks on YouTube, and "So Weit Wie Noch Nie" has even made it to its own Wikipedia entry.
We hear a singing in the room
We chase the monotony
We make a year out of hours
And moonlight from our hair
We fly as far as never before
Tobias Thomas, Veronika Unland, KOMPAKT