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Back to black: The vinyl business in India is far from dead

As the tribe of 'crate diggers' grows, Lounge meets store owners, collectors, and hi-fi enthusiasts who are making the LP cool again

The vinyl business in India is far from dead.
The vinyl business in India is far from dead.

There are those who love vinyl enough to trudge to dusty vintage shops and dig through crates packed with old records to find that out-of-print album. The modern vinyl record came into the world post World War II, largely replacing the earlier 78 rpm shellac. And it almost immediately spawned crate-diggers (also known as record-diggers and vinylheads). Their tribe is still growing.

According to Nielsen Music’s 2016 “US Year-End Music Report", vinyl LP (long-playing) record sales reached an all-time high of 13 million units. A little less than two months ago, India saw its first celebration of Record Store Day. On 22 April, Mumbai-based audio and vinyl shop, The Revolver Club, together with Sony Digital Audio Disc Corporation (DADC), took the lead in organizing a blowout across Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru. On the same day, Delhi-based online music magazine Wild City celebrated its first Record Store Day with the inauguration of its “Selectors" listening sessions. These are planned to be monthly sessions, led by an individual who will take the audience through their vinyl collection.

It feels like a portent of things to come.

In January last year, when the news of David Bowie’s death started flooding social media and breaking a million hearts, my husband’s first reaction was to place an order on Amazon for a double vinyl edition of one of his best live concerts, Santa Monica ’72. Years of being an online crate-digger had given him a hound’s instinct when it came to predicting surges and dips in prices. Needless to say, he was spot on—all of Bowie on vinyl became worth its weight in gold soon after. By then, of course, our LP was well on its way.

Prof. Suresh Chandvankar at a talk during Record Store Day celebrations in Mumbai. Courtesy: The Revolver Club

Later that week, we carefully unwrapped one of the LPs and placed the needle on the groove. And just like that our Bandra flat faded away and we were one of the audience at Santa Monica, dazzled by our glam rock god. As the record kept spinning and the opening riffs of Ziggy Stardust filled the room, we were filled with sadness but we revelled in the incredible music he had left behind.

One corner of the houses we have lived in has always had a thriving ecosystem based around vinyl—the buying, storing and caring of each LP that comes in. Thanks to my husband’s singular devotion to LPs, I too have been drawn to the black. We now always have a vinyl tour bookending our holiday itineraries—we go digging in flea markets, old bazaars and hipster warehouses. It began with a trip to Melbourne, our first foreign holiday together, where we found a wealth of records, including a near-mint edition of The Graduate soundtrack. On a recent trip to Egypt, we discovered a wonderful old record shop in Zamalek, Cairo, stocked with retro turntables and old trunks filled with records of Arabian music, Western classical and oddball disco.

It has become such a tradition that even on my solo work trips, I take time out to go LP shopping. I found a rare Black Tie White Noise EP in the labyrinthine lanes of old Jaffa’s flea market in Tel Aviv. While wandering around the charming old town of Lucerne in Switzerland, I bagged a limited-edition 10-inch vinyl of Radiohead’s Kid A.

It would be fair to say that ever since we got our first vinyl (Radiohead’s Pablo Honey) in 2011, we have started listening more mindfully. Our attention-deficit, playlist-hoarding selves have learnt what it is to immerse ourselves in an artist and an album. We don’t play music to keep time as we run on the treadmill. We are not drowning out ambient sounds in our workplace. We listen for the sole pleasure of listening. We feel the thrill of watching the disc delicately wobble and spin, of hearing the occasional dirt-inflected crackle. What’s more, we have suddenly became part of a larger community of enthusiasts, hipsters, collectors, archivists, DJs, musicians, store owners and record labels with complete faith in vinyl.

Ashutosh Sharma of Amarrass Records with the Painted Caves vinyl record. Photo Courtesy: Amarrass

The crackling beauty of analogue

What we hear every time we put on an LP is detail, a singer clearing her throat, the gentle twang of a marimba, the background noise of a bar at a live gig. It feels like our favourite musicians and bands are closer to us than they have ever been. And sometimes if we close our eyes and just listen, it feels like they are playing right in front of us in our living room. That is what I identify as the warmth of a vinyl record’s analogue sound.

For Rajat Kakar, managing director, Sony DADC India, the vinyl experience is intrinsically linked with the romance of un-sleeving the record, the original inlay and the artwork. He believes that vinyl is largely the preserve of collectors and connoisseurs with a passion for high- fidelity sound which gets lost in compressed digital formats. “The sound quality is really good and you can hear each instrument clearly," says Kakar, who has a collection of over 500 vinyl records. According to Jude de Souza, chief executive officer (CEO) and founder of The Revolver Club in Mahim, Mumbai, “People who get into vinyl are usually those who have an intrinsic need to touch and feel."

Though vinyl gradually faded from the mainstream when the audio cassette was introduced in the US in 1966, there was another group of people, apart from audiophiles and vinyl collectors, who kept the second-hand LP market alive—the DJs. Crate-digging in far corners of the world for specific tracks, underground sounds and lesser-known artists, DJs shared a close relationship with the LP, swearing by its superior sound. It is this cool aspect of mixing on vinyl that is the focus of the new Netflix TV show The Get Down. Set in 1970s’ Bronx, New York, the show charts the rise of hip hop. It begins with a DJ instructing his protégé on a quick mix by physically marking a climactic point or “the get down" across a bunch of vinyl records. This then enables him to match tracks and mix a loop of unique beats.

Home-grown DJs like Mumbai-based Pramod Sippy aka DJ Pramz, who has recently started doing vinyl-only sets, agrees the sound quality is much superior to digital tracks—and it is a lot more fun to play. “Usually, when DJs play digital music, they don’t have much to do and it’s like they are literally idling away behind the console. Playing with vinyl is challenging as mixing and matching tracks is a task," he says. And although sourcing, buying, storing and caring for vinyl is a major investment, it is worth it. “I believe what I hear and to my ears, vinyl sounds really sweet," says DJ Pramz. He believes a vinyl set is an audiovisual experience for the audience, which can really see the DJ at work, handling an LP.

An informal listening session at The Revolver Club in Mahim. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

The fine art of the vinyl collector

In his book Vinyl Junkies, Brett Milano writes, “Love for the music, love for the artefact, the thrill of the chase: those are the three elements that turn a garden-variety music lover into a vinyl junkie."

Vinyl collectors range from fledgling crate-diggers to collector-archivists like Zero Freitas, a Brazilian businessman who at last count had the world’s largest private collection—over six million LPs—stored across his massive warehouse; he intends to catalogue it and make it available for public use. On a much smaller scale, retired forest officer Sunny Mathew in Kerala is doing the same thing. He runs the Discs & Machines, Sunny’s Gramophone Museum and Records Archive in the little town of Plassanal in Kerala; it has a collection of over 100,000 records (mostly 78 rpm shellac) and more than 250 gramophones from the pre-World War II era.

Suresh Chandvankar in Mumbai has over 10,000 records in his collection. A former physicist with the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Chandvankar is honorary secretary of the Society of Indian Record Collectors, Mumbai, which tries to bring together Indian record lovers, combine resources and create a vast archive of Indian recordings. At the 2017 anniversary seminar held at the Discs & Machines museum, Chandvankar spoke about the association. “In 1990, we came up with the idea of collecting the collectors and drawing them out of the isolated empires of their households to form some kind of a collective," he says. He stresses the importance of this community of sellers, buyers, swappers and researchers involved in discography. “While record collectors can be madcaps, their madness will go a long way in writing the history of the recorded past of India."

This cult of vinyl lovers has found its modern-day expression in a WhatsApp group called Vinyl Addicts Anonymous, which brings together 256 collectors and enthusiasts from across India. Run by The Revolver Club, the group has vinylheads sharing all kinds of nerdy trivia, weird vinyl humour, and all manner of useful and random information. There are obscure LPs up for sale, discussions on the most effective record cleaners, travel tips on where to scour the best vinyl, curious artwork and much more.

The collector’s love for vinyl also expands into a love for the independent record store. Although many go online for good deals, the brick-and-mortar vinyl store is an unbeatable experience. This is where one can sift through old and new albums and experience the tactility that is such an important aspect of the format. And that is why, in 2007, independent record-store owners came up with the idea of an annual event to get artists, enthusiasts, first-timers and record labels together to celebrate vinyl. The first Record Store Day was flagged off at the Rasputin Music store in Berkeley, California, in 2008. Over the last decade, this event has turned into one large party, featuring everything from vinyl-only DJ sets, listening sessions and special discounted merchandise to academic discussions and debate. “If you look at why Record Store Day started, it was pretty much because store owners wanted to tell the world that they were still around and to inform journalists who were always writing obituaries to vinyl that they were fine," says De Souza of The Revolver Club.

Groovy business

This renewed interest in vinyl is something a company like Sony DADC wants to leverage. It plans to bring turntables into the Indian market at accessible price points that it hopes will boost vinyl sales. Talks are on to set up a pressing plant in Europe to stay abreast of the growing demand both in India and globally.

However, these are still early days for the business in India—the vinyl market here is largely a collector’s market. So the sales strategies are different from mainstream music marketing. “We can’t just bring in records of random pop acts and expect them to sell. Genres like jazz, blues, classic rock and Bollywood are the top sellers. The records are placed in old-school brick-and-mortar stores across the country that have a certain mindset and a dedicated audience," says Kakar.

De Souza also has distinct catalogue choices for vinyl records based onthe top 100 albums of all time across genres. His sales strategy, however, is different from Kakar’s. The Revolver Club drives most of its business through online retail. “Eighty per cent of our sales happen online. While it is romantic to say vinyl is about crate-digging, it costs money to keep crates and that gets passed on to the customer, and since India is a price-sensitive market, it wouldn’t work," says De Souza.

Apart from the metros, he says, a large number of orders for records as well as turntables come from Patna, Shillong, Ajmer and Indore. “From a business standpoint, I want to be a Walmart of vinyl. I want to get a guy who knows nothing about vinyl, a guy from Ajmer who has a fascination with rock ‘n’ roll, and introduce him to the world of turntables and records," he adds. For such beginner audiophiles, De Souza offers audio packages complete with turntables, speakers and amps at a variety of levels and price points, starting from Rs75,000 and going up to Rs10 lakh.

Much is said about the pleasant imperfections of vinyl, though purists will argue that the pops and crackles just mean you haven’t cleaned your record well. In an article titled “It Kind Of Gives You That Vintage Feel: Vinyl Records And The Trope Of Death", published in the book Media, Culture And Society in 2008, Emily Chivers Yochim and Megan Biddinger from the University of Michigan quote a young record collector on the sound of vinyl: “I like the popping and crackling to an extent. Some of them are so bad that you can’t really hear the music, but if they are in moderation, that little fuzz that you get from a record, I like that…if you are listening to a record from 1960, you have a record that sounds like it’s from 1960…in a good way though. It kind of gives you that vintage feel."

While the jury may be out on this notion of warmth, for me the LP exudes a certain sound that is pure and easy and accessible. It is the kind of sound that enabled me to pick up the first barks of Seamus in the eponymously titled song from Pink Floyd’s 1971 album Meddle and almost go running to my front door to say hello to the dog outside. After playing Miles Davis’ version of Concierto De Aranjuez on vinyl innumerable times, I could hear every crescendo, track the dips and follow the turns from gentle and sweet to operatic and brooding. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about the vinyl sound that turns casual listeners into converts, but what I know is that I will keep listening in and adding to our LP collection, as will a whole new generation of 21st century crate-diggers. It is not yet time to say goodbye to the long player.


Collector’s notes

Three crate diggers tell us about their turning points in the search for vinyl

Chancing upon ‘Rhapsody’ in Japan

The first LP I ever bought for myself was at a bargain sale at the Students’ Union building in the University of Warwick in 2002. It was the Spin Doctors’ Pocket Full Of Kryptonite, pulled out of a bin of second-hand records. I didn’t have a record player, so it seemed like a frivolous purchase, but it was £3 (around Rs250 now), which made it cheaper than a sandwich. I finally listened to it only six years later, and even on my low-fi Lenco turntable, the opening riff of Jimmy Olsen’s Blues made me dance like I was 13 again.

Five years ago, a friend in Berlin introduced me to The Vinyl District (TVD), an app that locates the record stores closest to your geographical location. It has become my principal navigation system on foreign streets, leading me to dens, basements, warehouses and garages. In 2014, TVD led me to RECOfan in Yokohama. A diminutive store manager walked over to me after I had spent 2 hours sifting through their entire jazz section. I was looking for Leonard Bernstein conducting Rhapsody In Blue, which I had never found. The next day, when I returned to the store, he showed me two copies, and to my surprise packed the cheaper one. “It has a small skip on Side B but overall it’s better. Just a small...(and then he made a gesture like a hiccup)."

Two years ago, I found a record of my favourite album by complete accident. I was at Chicago’s Dusty Groove, looking through their rather modest stock of second-hand rock LPs. As I moved from “Q" to “R", I saw the edges of what looked like the orange cover of R.E.M.’s Monster. I had been hunting for it for eight years but it was out of print and I had only found rare copies of it online, upwards of $150 (around Rs9,670 now). I pulled it out. It was $40. I was so overwhelmed. I walked slowly to one of their listening stations, and standing still for the next 45 minutes, I heard the album from start to finish, as if for the first time. There were no hiccups.

—Neel Chaudhuri, founder and artistic director of The Tadpole Repertory theatre company, Delhi

Digging around in Chandni Chowk

Back in 2011, I had shamelessly bought my wife a red plastic retro-style turntable for her birthday as a treat for both of us. The “gift" was graciously accepted; however, the sound was tinny and of poor quality and the wave of disappointment was soul-crushing. That did not stop me from acquiring records. Seeking out record shops became a quest which took us to places such as the Shah Music Centre in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk area, where the kindly old proprietor told us many stories of collecting records and showed us his mammoth stockpile. Holidays abroad turned into cross-city crate-digging treasure hunts armed with vinyl maps.

A helpful friend suggested in 2013 that I try a turntable with a built-in pre-amp and that opened the doorway to an unmatched sonic experience. The vinyl sound to me is more well-rounded and wholesome, and the various instruments feel more relaxed being where they are in the arrangement. So in The Who’s Baba O’Riley, when the piano kicks in, it doesn’t seem to try to challenge the rest of the amply muscular arrangement to a fistfight but is just happy to be given a chance to be part of the song.

Add to that the sheer physical pleasure of feverishly anticipating a delivery, carefully unboxing and unwrapping and sliding out the shiny black discs while admiring the artwork on the sleeves. The ample space available for the artwork is a boon—over the years, I have collected some amazing inner sleeves (Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach), picture discs (Rage Against The Machine’s eponymous album) and colour discs (T-Bone Walker’s T-Bone Blues).

Finally, there is the constant fussing and caring about storage solutions, cleaning solutions and so on. Vinyl is back. Who would have given it a second chance? Now I spend my weekends lovingly cleaning, sleeving and dancing to my records.

—Rahul Roy, associate, global banking, The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp. (HSBC) Ltd, Mumbai

‘Yesterday And Today’ by The Beatles...forever

I have always been that child who never threw his toys away, some might even call me a hoarder. But it was with vinyl that I truly learnt what it meant to be a collector. My father’s stamp collection was something that inspired me to start something of my own, a collection that I would care for and be proud of. After listening to my first record, I was blown away by the warmth of analogue sound. It was like nothing I had ever heard. And as I played it through my speakers, my living room turned into a lounge or a rock concert arena, depending on the album playing.

Although there are new albums being released on vinyl, classic rock is what draws me. I also can’t deny the guilty pleasure of 1960s’ pop and dance music. Those in my family who also collect vinyl warned me about the care and maintenance of records. However, I soon realized that I really liked taking care of my vinyl. I usually grab my cleaning equipment, settle down with my records and make an evening of it.

Although I started off fairly recently, my collection already comprises 122 albums. Funnily enough, when I tell my older relatives I collect vinyl, they just hand me their old stuff as well, and it just keeps growing. My most prized possession is the Mothers of Invention album Freak Out! and my collection of The Beatles, including a rare print of Yesterday And Today.

—Tarun Abraham Paul, content writer with a leading entertainment channel

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