FYI: vinyl is back

Analog music in India continues to grow, with both Millennials and Gen Z collecting records, labels releasing albums and even a vinyl bar now in the mix

Analog music in India continues to grow, with both Millennials and Gen Z collecting records, labels releasing albums and even a vinyl bar now in the mix

It can’t get any more ironic than that. Fifteen days after Record Store Day (April 23), Apple announced the discontinuation of iPod production. This iconic gadget that changed the way we listen to, store and share our favorite songs has gone silent. If someone had kept a scoreboard on May 10, it would have read Analog: 1, Digital: 0.

While it’s true that most of us stream songs to our phones and computers, a steady stream of music lovers around the world are trading algorithm-based music for the intimate, tangible joy of vinyl. The format that was riding high in the 70s, had plunged in the 90s and was almost gone with the arrival of the new millennium. It should have disappeared, like the iPod, but this is where it gets curious. Piled up in the shelves and dusty corners of antique stores, vinyl managed to stay alive until, over the past decade, curious millennials began digging up records that reminded them of summer vacations. summers spent with the grandparents, a gramophone playing in the background.

A vinyl community event organized by India Record Co. in Mumbai

A vinyl community event organized by India Record Co. in Mumbai | Photo credit: special arrangement

What started as a silent wave is now in full gear – the pandemic years, in fact, have accelerated it. According to reports, 2020 was the first year since the 1980s that vinyl records sold more than CDs, and last year it broke more records: in the United States, sales reached 1 billion million, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, while a New Musical Express report says more than five million vinyl records have been sold in the UK. Sales in India might not make the headlines, but vinyl heads are most definitely in the know and following the trend.

Balm during the pandemic

“The current generation is looking for a deeper connection with things because due to the way social media or algorithms are programmed, we are unable to connect with everything we love,” says Nehal Shah. For the Mumbai-based co-founder and director of India Record Co., the void created by our hyper-digital lives is best filled by the analogue lifestyle promoted by vinyl. “He puts the music in the foreground rather than in the background. You listen to the whole album without interruption. There are no screens to stare at, no ads, no mixing or skipping songs. You can’t talk over the music and it gives you an absolute hour or two of me time,” she says. “That’s probably why more young people become attached to vinyl and respect it than those in their 50s and 60s.”

Nehal Shah, co-founder and director of India Record Co.

Nehal Shah, co-founder and director of India Record Co. | Photo credit: special arrangement

Delhi-based Nishant Mittal is one such youngster. “I was probably 19 when I bought my first record. Over the next two years I collected over a hundred, and I didn’t even have a record player until then,” he said via email.Today, the 26-year-old collector, archivist and DJ runs the popular Instagram address @digginginindia, where he distributes trivia and anecdotes about well-known and obscure Indian and international records that he possesses or of which he is aware.

Spread the beat

Black Groove Music, which debuted in February 2021, is a young entrant. “The vinyl record industry isn’t easy to get into, but it’s certainly exciting,” says the company spokesperson, who doesn’t wish to be named. “Besides being passionate about vinyl, what drove us to create the label is that the major record labels aren’t very keen on releasing records because it’s expensive to produce, store and maintain them. This is not a workable business plan for them,” the spokesperson adds. Over the past year, Black Groove has managed to create a catalog of 14 albums, including that of Manoj Watch out for the windAdvaita’s group Anchored in space, Shujaat Khan – Living in San FranciscoFlight 1, and Rama Srirama, a compilation of performances by the late Mandolin U Srinivas made in collaboration with musician Peter Gabriel’s record label, Real World Records. The response was good. “We have an active customer base of 500 vinyl enthusiasts, have sold around 3,000 records and aim to release another 5-10 vinyl albums by 2023.”

Mittal has managed to create his own community where people of all ages turn to him for vinyl information.

Joys of the “physical”

Digital is the default mode for musicians today, but lately a number of artists including big names like Adele, Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo and Weeknd have been burning their albums to vinyl. In India too, a few independent artists and bands have pressed records, and more are expected to join the list.

Maalavika Manoj, 28, a Chennai-based singer-songwriter, has released her debut album, Watch out for the wind, on vinyl. For Manoj, the first joy of having a vinyl lies in the physical aspect of holding it in his hands. “When I held the test press, all I could think of was the blood, sweat, time and thought that had gone into making this little record.” Then there is the sound quality. “You feel like you’re right in front of the musician,” she says. Manoj’s album was produced by Mumbai-based Black Groove Music.

Maalavika Manoj

Malavika Manoj | Photo credit: special arrangement

Joginder ‘Joe’ Luca Singh, 42, the Italian-Indian founder of Pagal Records Store, has seen the “music scene change” since he opened the Delhi store around eight years ago. “They called me videshi pagal when I started it because they thought no one would listen to vinyl anymore,” he laughs. Today, Singh’s store is the go-to place for Delhi’s vinyl heads and musicians. Not only that. As a DJ, he also runs a vinyl selection project called Awara Sounds, where he curates and plays old school Bollywood, Indian Funky, Bolly Swing, Bombay Disco and psych rock & roll setlists.

The current vinyl music scene in India, he says, is doing well. “DJ Arjun Vagale performs vinyl only sets. Delhi Sultanate as BFR Sound System performs a selection of strictly vinyl records. Amarrass Records has produced Rajasthani folk music records and I know many DJs who take samples records to create new music.

For connoisseurs and the curious

Nothing indicates the popularity of a trend than a common expression of it. In Bangalore, the interiors of the brand new Record Room scream vinyl. Two walls on the first level have neatly wedged record albums. A DIY-style wooden chandelier, which crosses the semi-outdoor deck, holds more record sleeves. But it’s the listening corner with its semi-automatic record player and its limited edition white vinyl turntable dedicated to white album by the Beatles that attracts you.

The country’s first craft beer and vinyl bar opened on May 13. The idea for the space, according to founders Nakul Bhonsle, Akshar Halgali and Karthik Chandrasekaran, was born out of their mutual love of vinyl, coffee and beer. As one of the first places to serve this unique combination, they are aware of their first-mover advantage. “We want to be at the forefront of this scene. We hope to build a platform that introduces many more people to vinyl culture,” says Bhonsle. With events planned like Bring Your Own Vinyl, Vinyl Jukebox and Vinyl Sunday Sundowner – and a vinyl program director at the helm – the trio hopes to entertain both vinyl curious and connoisseurs alike.

The analog lifestyle may well rise above the hype and become momentum. After all, there’s no doubt that once you fall in love with vinyl, there’s no going back. Mittal thinks the trend will grow. “I’m happy to see people of all ages, especially my age group, making a habit of collecting music in physical formats and enjoying the analog feel and touch of a vinyl record” , he concludes.

The author is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore.

An urgent matter

Unlike digital music (which can be created on a computer with minimal recording software), making a recording – or “pressing a recording”, to use the insider term – is a time-consuming and expensive process. They are made in pressing factories equipped with (mostly) decades-old machinery. It is estimated that there are around 100 or fewer such installations worldwide (mainly in the United States and Europe). And with international artists releasing their songs on vinyl in far greater numbers – Sony Music, for example, placed an order for 500,000 vinyl records for Adele’s 30 last year – production is backed up for six to eight months. In India, record production, which started in 1958 with Gramophone Company of India/HMV (now Saregama India Ltd), stopped in the 1980s. “Our last factory closed in 1983 and after that, we had to import records,” says Nehal Shah. Amarrass Records, a Delhi-based record label, is probably the only entity with its own vinyl cutting facility. “Our machine allows us to make one disc at a time and we can do a limited production of 20 to 50 discs per week”, explains Ashutosh Sharma, who founded Amarrass with Ankur Malhotra. He and Malhotra traveled to a small town in Germany to learn how to operate the machine. The company represents (mainly folk) artists which include Padma Laureate Shri Lakha Khan, Barmer Boys, Rehmat-e-Nusrat and Jumme Khan. Amarrass averages around 60-80 records per album. “Most Indian artists cannot afford to print discs, so our goal is to enable smaller artists to create their own discs.”

Jack L. Goldstein