Cover story: How the pandemic led to a vinyl music revival in India
Enthusiasts, experts and indie artistes talk to us about this trend and the surge of new releases
IN 2020, ALMOST every aspect of our daily lives went digital. From work to classes and even weddings — it all happened in front of a screen. But among music lovers, a small shift was brewing. As live music took a hit, there was a hankering for the tangible feel of analogue music and the escape that it provided from our virtual existence. The impermanence of streamed music, and the fleeting nature of one’s online library, just didn’t cut it anymore. More affordable turntables and tech, a wave of new hobbyists, and a love for all things retro, translated to record-breaking sales of vinyl (pardon the pun). Being a vinylhead no more meant digging through crates of vintage or second-hand records. Everyone from Harry Styles and Dua Lipa, to Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift have released their music on LPs in the last few years. Indulge explores this trend and the independent musicians who are driving it in India.
At the end of last year, sales numbers made headlines globally — ‘More than 27 million LPs sold’, ‘Vinyl sales highest ever since the ’90s’ and ‘Vinyl outsells CDs for the first time in 34 years.’ Of course, one of the reasons for the popularity is that one cannot deny the retro charm of an LP. Bengaluru-based musician Angad Berar, who recently released his album Elephants on the Beach on vinyl, reminisces, “My grandfather used to have a bunch of records. Every time I visited him for the summer, I would head straight for the cupboard where they were kept, open them up, and try to figure out how to use the record player.”
But the effect of the pandemic also cannot be denied. As live performances, all the way from large stadium tours to small intimate gigs, were out of the question, there was a need to fill the void of listening to music as an experience in itself. Bengaluru-based Akhil Hemdev is the founder of online record store On The Jungle Floor. He explains, “There’s been a lot of behavioural change over the last two years. People have confined themselves to smaller groups or have chosen to isolate themselves out of safety concerns. A lot of that has translated into investing in themselves and their home environments. In a year where social interaction has been minimal, and there haven’t been any gigs, it’s possible that listening to music on vinyl has given people this much-needed physical connection to music.”
As enthusiast and collector Asawari Ghatage puts it, “For me, personally, it’s the experience of turning off all gadgets and listening to albums from beginning to end.” Whereas in online streaming, listeners frequently skip songs or pause the music, with a record, it’s a seamless and sequential process. This also allows one to feel the whole album’s journey in its entirety, just as the musician intended. “Apart from the fact that records produce a fuller sound, it’s a space for me to disconnect from the world for a while and just listen without any of the distractions. Since my family and a lot of my friends share the same taste in music, it also becomes a way to get together and have quiet listening parties,” Asawari adds.
Angad agrees that there is something about the touch and feel of the record that just can’t be replaced. “It’s a very conscious step-by-step process — running your hands through the rows of records, placing the record in the player, placing the tonearm in the right place — it’s a very tactile approach to listening,” he tells us. A major part of the immersive feeling is also provided by the album art itself. You can identify the vibe of the artist as the album art says a lot about them. “The record cover is usually full of images or little snippets from behind the scenes and of the recording process. I personally loved these treasures,” Angad adds.
The independent music scene in India is always quick to catch up on global trends and it’s no different this time around. For the past couple of years we have seen a surge in Indian artistes releasing their music on vinyl. Nishant Mittal is a Delhi-based collector who is behind the Instagram handle Digging In India, which serves as an archive of Indian musical records. He says, “There are many Indian acts whose music has been released on vinyl recently. Kolkata duo Parekh & Singh have released two albums, Ocean and Science City on the UK label Peacefrog Records. Peter Cat Recording Co. have released two albums, Portrait Of A Time and Bismillah with the French label Panache. Mumbai-based producer Kumail released Yasmin on New York’s Bastard Jazz Recordings.”
A pioneer in the blues and rock space, Shillong-based band, Soulmate, also just announced an LP launch in the upcoming months. Fronted by Tipriti Kharbangar and Rudy Wallang, the outfit has an almost two-decade history. “It’s a dream come true. I grew up listening to music on vinyl. I love so many things about vinyl records — like the fact that you’ve got this album cover in your hands, you are checking out the artwork and reading the notes, all while the record is playing and you’re listening to the music. We are really looking forward to this one,” Rudy tells us.
Another equally iconic act, from the other end of the country is Kerala-based Avial. Known for songs like Nada Nada and Chekele, the band is soon going to re-release its self-titled 2007 album on vinyl later this year. Rex Vijayan, the lead guitarist explains its appeal, “Vinyl is the opposite of streaming. It’s like a physical form of music with images and writings. It can help you to get closer to how the artiste actually wants you to perceive the album.”
Rising to the challenge
But it’s not all smooth sailing when it comes to working with the format, both for the artiste, as well as for the distributors. The first being the cost. Angad explains how typically a batch of 300 vinyl would cost around $3,000 so it requires an initial investment. This limits who can release LPs, and who can buy them. And it also takes 4-6 months for a record to get pressed and reach your doorstep.
Even logistically speaking it has been a rocky road. Akhil tells us, “On one hand, the pandemic has created an environment conducive to record collecting but on the other, there have been a lot of production setbacks. Albums take a significantly longer time to come out because of the COVID-19 supply-chain mess.”
While it may still be a niche hobby that is enjoyed by a relatively smaller crowd, and it’s still early days to say how this will change the circuit, the popularity of the trend shows that audiophiles are prioritising active listening. “Pandemic or not, there’s no stopping a vinylhead from buying their favourite releases on wax,” Akhil sums up.
Twitter and Instagram: @anaghzzz