For a population now used to ‘music on click’ in a matter of seconds, the concept of a record player would sound almost as alien as floppy disks. And yet, despite decades of digital advancement in the music and sound industry, there is a growing set of people continuing to indulge in the tedious process of setting up the almost obsolete record player and giving it a listen.
What is so distinctive about the music coming from a vinyl player that compels people to indulge in the gruelling procedure of setting it up to listen to music? On the 11th Record Store Day, when the world “celebrate(s) the culture of the independently owned record store”, let’s try and decode why music connoisseurs prefer the historical vinyl over a practical hassle-free download/play.
In February 2017, quinquagenarian Rajmani RajKumar was in Singapore for a performance by rock band Journey. On his trip, he happened to visit a record store when a huge record player caught his eye. Not having heard a vinyl record since the 1990s, he recalled people telling him that a record player amplified the essence of music. It was a magical rediscovery.
“There is something…especially regarding the fidelity, the pace (that gets lost in digital sound…seems to be very resonant and very ear pleasing. And also the concept of taking the record out, cleaning it and putting on that needle on it. It is like some old magic coming back in my life,” says RajKumar and it is from there that his journey began. He bought the player, and with the help of several Youtube videos, learnt how to assemble and play it. Starting with just 50 records last October, he now has over 400 in his collection.
And he’s just one of a growing fraternity of enthusiasts and collectors.
But it’s not that vinyl records have no semblance to modernity. Made in the late-19th century and gaining prominence in the early 20th century, vinyl records are an analogue sound storage system on which principle the later (and now depleting) compact disc (CD) was made — recording sound in an inscribed, modulated spiral groove.
In the case of a record, the groove starts at the periphery and ends near the centre, while in the CD, it’s the digital tracing is the other way around. These records were initially made of shellac, but in the 1950s, polyvinyl chloride became common, which led to them being called vinyl records or just vinyl.
These discs were all the rage in the music industry till the mid-20th century, co-existing with the phonograph cylinder and then cassettes, but couldn’t withstand the mass-marketing of the digital medium with CDs around 1991. Till the first decade of the 21st century, vinyls retained a small market share and was actively used by DJs. However, nostalgic millennials are causing a huge comeback of these black discs as market numbers clearly show. According to various reports in Wired, NME, etc., 9.2 million records were sold in the US in 2014, a 260 per cent increase since 2009. The UK sales have increased five-fold from 2009 to 2014.
Last year, 2017, is said to be the best for vinyl sales worldwide, which would explain why after almost 30 years of stopping production, music giant Sony announced that it will once again start manufacturing vinyl records internationally. In India, too, Universal Music cited a drastic increase in demand for vinyl from 2016-17. While the retailers for the company rose from single digit four to 12, the number of domestic titles released rose from 10 to 110. The organisation also confirmed a year on year sales growth of over 200 per cent in the format.
Sony and Saregama, both of whom make vinyl records for the Indian market, refused to comment when approached by indianexpress.com.
In fact, 2016 saw the first formal Indian participation in the World Record Day by the Mumbai audio and vinyl shop, The Revolver Club, with Sony Digital Audio Disc Corporation. Several others across Delhi and Bengaluru participated as well by launching selector editions.
The tribe of vinyl enthusiasts is growing, what with there even being a pop-up sale for this year’s Record Store Day on April 21, in Mumbai.
The tangibility of music
It seems the physical involvement in the process of the playing the music is a common thread for collectors, and their fascination with the gramophone and vinyl. Take corporate professional Ravi Teja Sharma, for instance. Unlike most senior collectors, who would have heard or handled these LPs (as they’re also known), Sharma was introduced to the disc world after receiving a player from his father-in-law, a couple of years back.
“I had heard that the voice quality is very different. But the most interesting aspect of a vinyl record player is that there is an interaction with music. If you look at streaming music, you don’t even think before changing the track. But in vinyl records, it is not like that. People buy a record and listen to the complete thing,” explains the 35-year-old.
Founder of Delhi’s hottest jazz place The Piano Man, Arjun Sagar Gupta agrees. “It makes you take out the time to do it right and that brings in the element of the activity of listening to music. It’s not just on demand. You can’t just hit a button and it goes on… It is the entire process…of pulling (the LPs) out, putting it on a player, replacing the needle. It’s a whole experience. Something that you enjoy. Something beautiful.” “For somebody who has grown up listening to it there is an appeal to the warmth of the song,” he adds.
The 32-year-old, who currently owns over 600 disc records, was exposed to music from around the world due to his father’s travelling job. He would bring back art and music from whichever country he travelled to, exposing the young entrepreneur to a wide range of collection.
A point of note, especially for Indian vinyl lovers, is Sunny’s Gramophone Museum and Records Archive called Discs and Machines in Plassanal, Kottayam, Kerala, which is a private collection of over 100,000 records (mostly 78 rpm), spread over two floors, and around 250 gramophones from pre-World War II. Owned by Sunny Mathew, the museum recounts the historical journey of the records and players, and a tour with the owner is a treat in it own.
The pull of the old
“No sound can be comparable to the depth of the audio sound. You can’t get that sound even in the best quality CD-player. This is the beauty of the analogue player. Once you put on the vinyl — which is a very tedious process and needs a lot of space — on the turntable you are driven to a different world,” says audio restoration expert Moloy Ghosh, who began his restoration career in 2009. For the 48-year-old, there is a sense of reality that comes when listening to a record player, which other digitised music lack.
“Whatever is pressed in a record, the sound of it is high quality,” insists Ramesh Rajpal, owner of New Gramophone House, his shop a punch of nostalgia amidst the crowded streets of Chandni Chowk. One of the oldest vinyl records shops in the Capital, Rajpal is part of the third generation running the business, after his family shifted from Lahore (in current Pakistan) in 1930. “When people want to listen to good music, they buy (vinyl) records,” he adds.
This sentiment is echoed by Universal Music Group CEO Devraj Sanyal. “A vinyl record is an analogue recording and has grooves that capture the original sound’s waveform, essentially no information is lost. Most of the music you listen to is stored and broadcast in a lossy format where details are lost and quality is reduced,” he explains over an email to indianexpress.com.
“Age is no bar when it comes to buying of vinyl records, but money is. A single record today, which consists of 10-12 songs, costs around Rs 1,500,” Rajpal says, lamenting that though business is not as flourishing as it once used to be, there are many who continue to buy on a regular basis.
The cost of listening to music has amounted to almost nothing with the latest applications available, but even so, people still go out of their way to invest in a hobby that does not just require space and money, but also a lot of patience. Flea markets and trinket bazaars are common stopovers for collectors, popularly called crate diggers.
Back to the future
A look at increased global sales figures of vinyls and a seemingly similar trend in India is indicative of a niche yet high-end market that companies such as Universal and Sony DADC perhaps want to cash in on. A look at online sales already present a variety of expensive turntables and gramophones, add to this the treasure troves in curio shops, and you have a burgeoning market. The increased participation of enthusiasts and veteran collectors in events such as Record Store Day form the testing ground for these companies and their investment modules.
While the business stage is still nascent, for the collectors — old and new — it’s all about crystal clear sounds, the tangibility of the process of ‘playing’ their favourite record and then have the world melt away around them. As Brett Milano writes in his book, Vinyl Junkies, “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.”