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Home > News> Big Story > Vinyl’s new listener is not a snooty ‘vinyl-head’ 

Vinyl’s new listener is not a snooty ‘vinyl-head’

Being into records is no longer the sole province of confirmed audiophiles and obsessive collectors. Bars and cafés are setting up turntables and welcoming the vinyl-curious dipping their toes into the cultural phenomenon

Record Room in Bengaluru has a dedicated vinyl programme with various events suited for all kinds of listeners; from those who are deeply into vinyl culture to those just starting out
Record Room in Bengaluru has a dedicated vinyl programme with various events suited for all kinds of listeners; from those who are deeply into vinyl culture to those just starting out (Sartaj Tanweer)

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When Rohan Mehta was 18, a friend gifted him a Long Playing (LP) record of American folk musician Father John Misty’s 2017 album, Pure Comedy. Mehta had always been into music, gravitating towards indie rock, noise rock, post-funk and folk in his teens and gradually developing a fascination for physical music formats like CDs and audio cassettes—partly out of a love for retro stuff and partly a desire to “feel closer” to the music he liked. But owning a record for the first time and listening to it on his friend’s Audio-Technica turntable pretty much changed his life, quite literally.

He started haunting The Revolver Club, an independent record store in Mumbai that started in 2014, joined their online communities, and even got a part-time job there. A growing obsession with vinyl also propelled him towards studying music marketing—the now 22-year-old Mehta is a student of Mumbai’s Whistling Woods International Institute of Film, Communications & Creative Arts, where he is studying for a bachelor’s degree in business administration, specialising in media management. He recently submitted an undergraduate dissertation on the “consumer psyche behind buying records”.

“Sure, there is a ‘cool’ aspect to collecting vinyl, and there is a certain attraction towards anything that’s seen as vintage right now, but the main reason you are going to get into records versus any other cultural artefact that you could also hipster out over is because you are into music,” says Mehta. “There’s no way someone will remain interested in vinyl if they aren’t really into music in the first place.”

Mehta may be a true audiophile whose love for records, and the kind of culture that builds up around it, propelled him towards becoming a thorough “vinyl-head”, but you don’t have to be one to dip your toes into the world of vinyl today. A passing interest in music, a subtle fascination for analogue stuff—from Polaroid cameras to fountain pens—and you will be able to satisfy your curiosity about vinyl. From the 2010s—when vinyl began clawing its way back into music lovers’ hearts after spending about two decades in the wilderness, overshadowed by cassettes, CDs and MP3s—records remained the province of an older generation that had actually grown up listening to music on vinyl. Over the last couple of years, though, vinyl has seen a second coming in India among millennials and Gen-Z-ers.

It’s not just the availability of cheaper record players or the fascination with all things vintage that has made it a subculture. A number of record stores, online resources, and venues like cafés and bars that promote vinyls have made it a much more easily accessible culture. And then came the pandemic, which experts we spoke to for this story acknowledge as a huge factor in kindling latent interests and a new desire to listen more “actively” than letting an unending Spotify playlist run in the background.

‘From the curious to the connoisseur’

Last month, a new pub opened in Bengaluru. That in itself is not news, for not a week goes by without a new pub opening in the self-confessed pub-city, except this one stands out as a craft beer and vinyl bar. Occupying the top two floors of a building in a busy area of the central business district, Record Room sports a distinctive hipster look with a lot of light wooden furniture and fittings and an airy, open ambience. It feels like a deliberate departure from what might have been a more lounge-y space with heavy furniture, soundproof walls and an aroma of cigars in the air—the kind of place that one admittedly imagines at the mention of a “vinyl bar”.

Clearly, though, the people behind Record Room want to shatter vinyl’s image of being somewhat exclusive, elitist and a bit stuffy, entirely in keeping with this new era of vinyl pushed by millennials and Gen Z-ers who have made the format’s popularity soar.

“Every major artist today is pressing vinyls…. Taylor Swift’s Evermore broke the all-time records for largest vinyl album sales in a single week,” says Karthik Chandrasekaran, one of the three partners at Record Room and the resident vinyl-head of the team who used to DJ during a stint in the US and has built up a substantial personal collection of vinyls over the past few years. To build the Record Room’s collection of over 300 vinyls, the three partners went “crate digging” in Mumbai—a term coined by vinyl lovers to describe the activity of literally digging through crates of old vinyls to find a few that are in working condition. Their collection spans decades—from Frank Sinatra to Drake.

Along with two listening stations to encourage guests to play records from the bar’s collection, the Record Room has crafted a robust vinyl programme to cater to everyone with any level of interest—“from the curious to the connoisseur”, as Chandrasekaran puts it. The vinyl programme at Record Room, curated by singer-songwriter Andrew Sabu, is a mix of online and offline activities, such as “Vinyl Jukebox” evenings where each hour is dedicated to a particular genre of music and guests can sift through the crates of records and select songs of their choice to cue, listed on a whiteboard.

For those who are a little more used to playing vinyls, there are events like “Bring Your Own Vinyl” evenings and “My Handpicked Mix”—an event Sabu describes as “like a radio show but offline”. Guests are encouraged to play their favourite music, either from their own collections or from the Record Room’s collection, and intersperse this with trivia, stories and anecdotes associated with that music.

In the West, vinyl is now practically back to being mainstream. Just a few months ago, something unprecedented happened in the global music industry: The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (Ifpi), a non-profit founded in Italy in 1933 that represents the interests of the recording industry worldwide, introduced a new category— the Global Vinyl Album Chart. The chart, which combines global sales of “vinyl format physical albums to rank the top albums in a calendar year”, has been introduced to acknowledge and reflect “the continued strong growth of the format”, says Ifpi. Adele’s 30 topped the chart for 2021.

It is somewhat ironic that the industry body had to introduce a category for a format that dominated world music for much of its own existence—there was a time when “album” meant a “vinyl album” by default. But as the default medium in which music was played globally changed, the organisation perhaps paid less attention to the format and more to the music, till the resurgence of vinyl and the growing sales of vinyl records over the past decade forced its hand. Just take a look at the inaugural top 10 list, reflecting the top-selling vinyl albums of 2021: Along with albums by contemporary singers of decidedly pop sensibilities like Adele, Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo and Taylor Swift, there’s Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon.

This isn’t the only marker of vinyl’s resurgence. There is solid proof of it not being a passing fad arising from nostalgia-driven novelty—in 2021, $1 billion (around 7,800 crore now) worth of vinyls were sold worldwide, the highest in 30 years (the last time vinyl sales exceeded $1 billion was in 1986, Variety reported); numbers have been growing steadily for 15 years or so. In June 2017, Sony Music announced that it would start production of vinyl records in-house for the first time since it was halted in 1989.

Nor is it the exclusive domain of dedicated vinyl-heads any more. There are many who have but a casual interest in the format, and have the option of indulging it at venues that encourage just this. The Revolver Club celebrated Record Store Day—an annual global event held on one Saturday in April to support independently owned record stores—at The Craftery by Mumbai’s Subko Coffee Roasters recently. It was an all-day programme for vinyl enthusiasts, collectors and “the ones just starting out” (as Subko’s Instagram post on the event puts it), opening with Indian classical music and spilling over into indie, jazz and experimental electronica. “We’re working on the horizon with a more permanent vinyl listening/record shopping experience at Subko,” the post adds. “Stay tuned.”

The phenomenon is spread across several cities. In 2020, audio engineer and architect Buland Shukla, who has been restoring vinyls and turntables for several years, started For The Record in Panaji, Goa, a charming and cosy pub with a focus on vinyls and local brews like feni. Before starting the bar, Shukla used to run a popular vinyl club and record store from the space of his restoration company, Audiophile Goa, and created a community of vinyl lovers. “I am a musician first, but for me listening to music had become just an academic exercise…. I would listen only to learn or transcribe and so on. But when I heard music on vinyl for the first time, my interest in just sitting down and listening to music was rekindled,” says Shukla.

Going by the number of people requesting restoration of their turntables alone, Shukla is optimistic about the resurgence of vinyl in India. For vinyl-heads like him, the fact that a lot of people know about vinyl records now is validation enough. “Not many of them will get into listening to vinyl at home but that’s fine. Awareness is the first step. It’s a slow journey and an expensive hobby,” says Shukla. “It’s mostly nostalgia and retro feel that’s bringing people to vinyl currently but we hope that they will stay, not for any of that but for the sheer purity of audio playback and the quality of music.”

For The Record in Panjim, Goa
For The Record in Panjim, Goa

Also helping this resurgence is the fact that turntables are much cheaper today than they used to be. It is possible to buy a decent entry-level turntable for as little as 8,000 today and there are several options in the 12,000-15,000 range from brands like Nedis and Wockoder, as a cursory search on Amazon.in will reveal. Audiophiles, however, warn against using very cheap turntables as they can ruin your records; an entry-level turntable like the Denon DP 29-F is a good place to start, suggests The Revolver Club.

An Uber for vinyl?

“When I was just starting out on my own vinyl journey, I often didn’t know whom to ask basic stuff—things like which kind of turntable to buy, where to get records…. So we see the community we are building through India Record Co. as a way to democratise the love of vinyl and not make it seem elitist or unapproachable in any way,” says Nehal Shah, founder and director of India Record Co., which believes vinyl has made a comeback and is here to stay. It aims to be a one-stop shop for all things vinyl. So it sells turntables (categorised as “entry level”, “mid range” and “the gems”, spanning budgets from 19,000 to 2.15 lakh), English and Hindi records—from old restored ones to new releases—and is starting a monthly subscription programme for record collectors.

Like The Revolver Club, it also acts as the nodal point for a community of vinyl lovers through its online forums, including WhatsApp and Discord groups. It runs a “mentor-mentee” programme, for instance, that introduces a new vinyl convert to a veteran who can guide them through their first vinyl experiences. “We have all sorts of stuff happening on the groups beyond finding records and discovering new music. Say, someone in Jaipur has a technical problem with their turntable—it’s very difficult to find technicians who know how to fix issues with record players, so they reach out to the group and someone in, say, Bengaluru helps them figure out what the issue is, maybe even help fix it,” says Shah.

India Record Co organises vinyl events across pubs and cafes in Mumbai 
India Record Co organises vinyl events across pubs and cafes in Mumbai  (Nehal Shah)

During the pandemic, the community raised money to help out a record store owner in Fort, Mumbai, who had 50,000 records and was close to shutting down because of the sudden drop in sales. Most of his records were bought out by the community, says Shah.

Although she is currently based in Mumbai, Shah says Bengaluru has the most thriving vinyl culture among Indian cities, with many private listening clubs and older collectors who hunt enthusiastically for forgotten records through their networks across the country, as well as a younger generation of music lovers who are creating their own ways of experiencing vinyl culture—such as pooling in money to buy turntables and records and conducting personal vinyl-listening sessions at homes.

Even as we speak, some Bengaluru startup is probably thinking of creating an app to facilitate these informal vinyl-sharing programmes—an Uber for vinyls, if you will.

Jokes aside, Indian musicians are also increasingly interested in cutting vinyls when they release new music, says Andrew Sabu, who is in the process of recording his own album, which will be out in vinyl. Last year, the Delhi-based band Peter Cat Recording Co. released its album Bismillah on vinyl. In 2020, Bengaluru-based musician Angad Berar released an LP of his album Elephants On The Beach. Jazz pianist Ronojit Chaliha aka Ron Cha is releasing an EP of four tracks soon. Meanwhile, India Record Co. is in the process of setting up its own vinyl label and a number of artists have signed up, says Shah, though she cannot discuss names at this point. The whole process has been delayed by the Russia-Ukraine war, she says, because most Indian artists get vinyls made by European presses—there are not many commercial presses in India, the last one by HMV having closed down in 1983.

There is, however, a “boutique” outfit that creates original LPs—Delhi's Amarass Records, which owns a small press that produces small batches of records, mostly for the company’s own label—it brings out music by folk artists like Barmer Boys, Lakha Khan and Jumme Khan. “At the moment we can make around 8-10 records a day but we have been getting calls from indie artists who want to cut records,” says Ashutosh Sharma, co-founder of Amarass Records. He attributes the rise of vinyl to something pure—the quality of the music it offers. “Make someone listen to Dark Side Of The Moon on vinyl for the first time and they get blown away...they may have heard the song a gazillion times on MP3 but it’s only when you hear it on vinyl that you can make out all the small sounds that are compressed by digital formats, such as the mids,” he says, referring to mid-frequency sounds in the 250 hertz-4,000 Hz range. “When we recently did a listening event at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Delhi, although initially some of the kids were like ‘yeh kaisa CD hai, itna bada?’ (‘What’s this really big CD?), they took to it very quickly, and one of them has now designed a very cool album cover for the Barmer Boys album Kesariya Balm,” says Sharma.

Who is a ‘real’ vinyl-head?

“Every few months, a journalist will call me and ask me the same questions about a ‘vinyl resurgence’ in India,” says Jude D’Souza, founder of The Revolver Club, somewhat cynically. “Don’t mind me, I am a cranky old guy,” says the 34-year-old in the next breath.

His annoyance is understandable; vinyls are something most people profess an interest in at first glance—“no one looked at a record collection and said ‘this is boring’, ever,” as D’Souza puts it—but really passionate collectors who are into vinyls for the love of music are rarer.

D’Souza puts most of his customers and members of the online vinyl communities run by The Revolver Club (mainly WhatsApp groups) into three buckets. The first belong to a category he calls “lifestyle customers”—people who are casually attracted to vinyls and record players as an aesthetic choice and because “friends will be blown away when they see that they own a turntable”; budding audiophiles, who are drawn to the sound of music played on records and can discern the difference between this and digital music; and the hard-core collectors, who are absolutely passionate about the format and spend a lot of time and money hunting down records, building collections, and listening to music “actively”. The image this immediately conjures up is of a man in his 50s who comes back from work, gets himself a glass of single malt, dims the lights, slips a record into the turntable and sits in a recliner, just listening to music and sipping on his drink.

There aren’t enough such people to sustain a real culture, D’Souza acknowledges, despite his slight contempt for people who are “inauthentic” in their love for vinyl and get into it because it’s cool. Even he admits, however, that listening to vinyl doesn’t mean you have to reject every other musical format—if Spotify is like a meal at McDonald’s, records are like a gourmet meal. There are times when you need both, and The Revolver Club caters to both audiences.

Ask Rohan Mehta if there is a certain amount of fetishisation of vinyl records among vinyl-heads as well as those who have never touched a turntable, and he bristles. “Tell me one cultural artefact that has not been fetishised. Anything that has intrinsic value to a person or a community becomes a part of their identity—it is no longer about the product but about identity. So yes, I am buying records to be seen as smart, erudite, discerning—and of course it is fetishised. But what isn’t?” He is offended by the suggestion that vinyl culture, like subcultures that arise out of love or rejection of a dominant culture or a combination of both, can be shallow.

Thankfully, the question of who is a “real” vinyl-head is redundant today. From the curious to the connoisseur, you can pursue the interest at the level you are comfortable with. All you need is a love of music.

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    10.06.2022 | 04:11 PM IST

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