It's the vinyl countdown! Global push of records and turntables brings back true listening experience
Did vinyl records ever go out of vogue? Is it hip to play music on turntables rather than mp3 devices? Are new-age artistes releasing their latest songs and album titles on vinyl?
Hiss, crackle and pop. That endless swish of a turntable stylus, swirling around in the last groove of a vinyl record.
A true audiophile might sit you down and explain to you, that it’s really all about that surge of static — almost like the sound of fragile, crinkly sheets of paper being turned over and over, ever so gently and lightly.
For some, that originative hiss might even be the essential component of the very idea of hi-fi sound.
For musicians and music-heads alike, who’re given to long hours of lonesome idling around, that sound of static playing endlessly on loop offers much solace and succour — even if it really is just the sound of the stylus picking up dust from the surface of the vinyl record, like measured, sweeping, circling sighs of breath.
Among vinyl heads, it is common to talk and think in this manner, especially in the context of long summers.
Some lifelong, die-hard vinyl enthusiasts will go as far as to suggest that it is all really about that originative essence of sound — and of, quite literally, giving birth to music.
Primitive as the idea might sound, the fact of the matter is that the vinyl revolution, as we know it — of scratchy loops, and 180 gm editions — has emerged strongly in India, in the last couple of seasons.
In the larger music world, however, vinyl production and consumption never went out of vogue, even as a lengthy roster of pop, modern rock and hip-hop artistes have continued to release their music in the vinyl format, apart from the regular digital versions.
As it turns out, for many vinyl heads — old hands, new converts, and a surprisingly large and growing number of super savvy DJs too — vinyl is a lot more than just a format for playing and listening to music. It is a matter of faith, credence and lucidity.
For industry veterans, it comes as no surprise that vinyls have become full-time obsessions for a number of youngsters — in a way that’s actually making an impact on the music business. And the trend is here to say, they insist, for a handful of simple reasons...
Caught in a groove
Foremost above all else, in a very direct context of urban lives caught up in a technology overload, and saturated by social media — it’s the tactile element of vinyls, and the idea of owning a physical copy of a piece of music, that’s quickly gaining favour.
Jay Mehta, Head Digital Services, Sony Music India, has been observing how the trend has been picking up lately in India.
“Earlier, we noticed that vinyl buyers were mainly from the 40-plus audience,” he explains. “This is either for nostalgia, or because people wanted a piece of their all-time favourite artistes."
"That is very different from today’s generation of listeners, who don’t tend to own a piece of any music — they only access the music."
"There’s a big difference in terms of accessing music through audio streaming, at any point of time from anywhere in the world. As for people owning a piece of music — they’re not really doing that today."
"But for a music fanatic, it’s extremely important to own a piece of their favourite artiste; owning merchandise is good, but for a true music connoisseur, they want to have a piece of the artiste to own, in a physical format.”
Sure, owning and maintaining vinyls needs a lot more time, effort and even space than running and operating any average mp3 player.
One might even hark back to summers of the 1980s, to think of oversized boomboxes being lugged around by hipsters on their shoulders, and improvised turntable setups in the boots of cars — all for the express purpose of making music portable, and heard outside of a living room.
The irony here might just be that the vinyl initiative is being led by Sony Music, the pioneers of music formats — who gave us audio cassettes, walkmans, compact discs and digital music players.
In an age of convenience, why then return to the vinyl format, which still remains rather cumbersome, clumsy, bulky and perhaps even boring, going by every practical measure.
“The difference really is in the sound between analog and digital,” reasons Mehta. “A lot of the music that we get to hear today are compressed sounds. And for the real music lover, the experience is huge, if we consider a really good vinyl record on a really good vinyl player. That’s how we are making this cool and aspirational.”
In India, the legends of vinyl largely remain caught between a holy triangle of sorts — between the grimy streets around Kolkata’s College Street, the landmark New Gramophone House in New Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, and Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar. Admittedly, none of these places are what they once used to be, given new clean-up drives, and the onset of new businesses.
Yet, each of those locations has long borne the reputation of being a haven for old, collectible vinyl records — and any collector worth his salt will speak with immense pride of having spent long days of rummaging and digging through piles of plastic-wrapped treasures, all in the hunt for that rare and precious release that would elevate and complete their prized collections.
Closer home in South India, collectors have tended to scour through the string of nondescript, hole-in-the-wall stores on Avenue Road in Bengaluru, or cut bargains with streetside vendors in Chennai’s Moore Market and even conducted torch-lit expeditions through old, mum-and-dad antique stores in Ooty — purely in the hope of landing an unexpected loot of unclaimed, and often discarded vinyl records.
But there’s the catch — we aren’t speaking of old, dusty records any longer. This is about new vinyl releases, hot off the pressing unit, being made available in prominent music stores and via online avenues.
Unfortunately, despite rumours of the same, production of new vinyls isn't about to begin in India immediately. Old-hands will still fondly recall the closing of older HMV factories at Dombivli (Mumbai) and Dum Dum (Kolkata), where they got to haul out cart-loads of records at the units’ closing, everything-must-go giveaway sales.
Mehta confirms, “Honestly, we’re not producing any vinyls in India now as yet. Whatever we’re doing now with vinyls, we are importing. But what we’re doing is that we have a significant range available for Indian buyers — that’s what we are investing in at the moment.”
And, that still makes for sweet music to our ears. “When we started off with this entire idea of reviving an interest in vinyls, we realised that one of the big problems was in terms of a huge demand-supply and accessibility gap, which goes beyond a few retail stores, and even Amazon — as not everybody is making vinyl available, in the true sense."
So we had to ensure that we got in touch with global vinyl manufacturers, especially in the UK and Germany, to get new vinyl titles in advance. Now, we have a good system going.”
What that means for the eager vinyl beaver online is that they need not bide their time over eBay bidding battles, or bother with frantic emails for packages from friendly DJs and dollar stores in the US, for new vinyl releases.
While Amazon and other online outlets are busy ramping up their stocks, Sony India is playing its part in bringing those very titles closer to buyers, to complete the touch-feel experience of sorting and sifting through records, checking them out at a listening booth, and making a purchase.
Rock around the clock
In many ways, this is a case of the good old rock ’n’ roll way, trouncing a new-age manner of instant gratification.
Loss-less FLAC audio files might well be the quick-fire, sure-shot means of getting onto the most number of fan playlists, but vinyl is still the way to make a lasting impression.
“Last year, when we started the pop-up, we began planning three months in advance,” recounts Mehta.
“For that day, we made sure there were at least 2,500 Indian titles, across the Sony Music and Universal labels. We did not restrict ourselves only to one label, as we want to build a vinyl culture across genres.”
He adds, “Most importantly, we didn’t make a commodity sale — we created a festival around it. So, we had a DJ mixing workshop, and listening sessions, for people to listen, realise and experience the sound of vinyl.”
The selection of titles, while being fairly broad, involves a mix of the old and new. “What normally sells is classic and modern rock — Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, David Bowie, The Doors, Eagles and Bob Dylan are always going to sell,” says Mehta, by way of offering some insight.
“But what makes things exciting is that this year, John Mayer got sold out. Coldplay, Ed Sheeran and George Ezra — their vinyls are getting sold, alongside titles by AR Rahman and Jagjit Singh, among others."
"So we’re trying to stock classics that any vinyl connoisseur will be interested to buy, and we’re also getting new-age artistes who have a significant following."
"That gives us a lot of confidence, that this is not a one-off phenomenon and that it is here to stay — both in terms of the new generation coming and buying vinyls, and also of new material from new artistes getting sold.”
The gramophone grammar
Among all other efforts to revive an interest in vinyl, one name that stands out as a long-time advocate is Dr Suresh Chandvankar, the Hon. Secretary of the Society of Indian Record Collectors, who has been pouring all of his energy into the restoration of old vinyls — 78 rpm ‘mud’ records, and also the smaller 45 rpm vinyls that are best played on a jukebox, apart from antique gramophones.
At the Serendipity Festival, held in Goa earlier this year, Chandvankar co-curated an exhibition along with musician Aneesh Pradhan, to present Revolutions Per Minute: Early Hindustani Music Recordings by Goan Musicians — dedicated to the legacy of Goan practitioners of Hindustani music, and preserved on 78 rpm gramophone discs, all recorded in the first half of the 20th century.
The show presented a rich resource for musicians, scholars, students and listeners alike, while offering a stellar showcase of the personal journeys of each musician, as performers for the gramophone industry.
Chandvankar has been playing a most active role in documenting and preserving music history, and he hosts a number of talks, apart from running a widely circulated newsletter.
It isn’t uncommon, in his many writings, to find sentiments along these lines: “Many copies were lying in the godown and later on, scrapped. Die-hard record collectors found a few copies in Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar, and thus, this part of history was preserved.”
In keeping with the romantic tone of such discourses, we’re hard-pressed to imagine — could we really expect vinyls to be strewn around households of the future, just like some of us had in our childhood? The answer is a reassuring and resounding, yes.
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Vinyl essentials: On revolving discs
The basics of vinyl
The most important thing to be careful of when storing vinyls is that dust is its biggest foe. The internet offers many resources for newbies to begin collecting and maintaining their collections. It’s wise to invest in vinyl cleaning equipment, which often comes in kits of spray solution and a record brush. Also, look out for online communities or local vinyl-listening groups to get more tips and pointers.
Buy a good player
As a part of their efforts to promote vinyl culture, Sony is also promoting a number of player makers to get aggressive with their production, and ramp up their servicing. A good turntable can be bought for as less as INR 10,000-15,000 online, while high-end players that cost a lot more are also available. Sony is also assuring exclusive vinyl-only content that is expected to be released in India very soon.
Custom vinyl records
Vinylify.com is among a few niche services that offers personalised records on demand. Buyers get to decide what music they want on their vinyl, and also create their own cover art. The company takes care of the rest and even delivers the record to your door, so you can begin spinning your own music. A great gift idea, the service is not too expensive, and has found many trust-worthy recommendations.
A fixture in many Western sitcoms, often seen as coin-operated nickelodeons, jukeboxes are a classic way of playing vinyls, especially 45 rpm records, and a great way to jump-start any party. There are many makers of jukeboxes, and you’d most likely have to import a jukebox, which could prove a tad expensive, or you could track players available online. All said, a jukebox is for keeps!