It was sometime around noon. I was at the Radio and Gramophone House in Delhi’s Connaught place, listening to Lata Mangeshkar on a record playing on a Lenco turntable. I was staring at vinyl covers of Megadeth, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, R.D. Burman and a bhajan collection I had never know of. It was then that I couldn’t help but discern a very specific difference in the sound that I heard. The clarity in Lata Mangeshkar’s notes and in the organic instruments surrounding her voice was impeccable. But that wasn’t all. No matter how high the notes went, I didn’t have the urge to reduce the volume. This was the most unique experience I have had with sounds emanating from a speaker. And the novelty of the experience was based on the fact that before this, I had only heard music in the digital format; this was the first time ever that I was brought in contact with its analogue counterpart.
One would like to believe that vinyl, the essence of what is considered vintage, is simply a thing of the past. I mean, come to think of it, with the internet having made free streaming and downloading possible, one doesn’t put the effort of stepping outside the range of a laptop or cellphone to go to a store where aisles are made by stacks of records. The idea is foreign to most of us. But there is a “niche”, as Jude D’Souza, owner of The Revolver Club in Mumbai, puts it — which still longs to go to a store and stare at collections until they find something new to buy and play.
Vinyl records have a deep and rich history, and started way back in the late 1800s. It was the main form of access to recorded sounds along with the phonograph cylinder (if you’ve even heard of it). Records out did phonograph cylinders and were then challenged by compact-discs. Anuj Rajpal, the owner of New Gramophone House in Chandni Chowk, Delhi, in a conversation with Guardian 20, narrated the story of his family business. His grandfather started the establishment in 1930, and ran a successful store where records were available along with gramophones. “It was in the 1990s,” Anuj Rajpal says, “that our business witnessed the market vanish completely and it wasn’t until recently that it began rising once again.”
But the question remains, why put in the effort of buying vinyls and a turntable when you could just connect a bluetooth speaker with your laptop and listen to anything over the internet? The answer is really simple: quality. Rakesh Dogra, who manages the sale of vinyls at Radio and Gramophone House in Connaught Place, had only one thing to say, “Record is the master. Anyone who really cares about the music they listen to will put in the effort of listening to music on records.”
The primary assumption one can then run with is that since most people are busy listening to music in the digital format, and exchanging it through pen drives and downloads, there can’t really be a market for records. Surprisingly, what Anuj Rajpal revealed was contrary to this. “I have a collection of about 20,000-30,000 records at the store always and about 200,000 records in the godown, and we always keep replenishing supplies because everything sells,” he says. There is a pretty good market, but this market took its own sweet time to surface in India.
One of the main contributors to expanding the market has been the internet itself. Anuj Rajpal’s New Gramophone House and Jude D’Souza’s The Revolver Club were able to make a rapport with buyers through the internet. It granted them visibility and made access for interested buyers easier. Jude D’Souza, maintains a relatively smaller collection but always makes heavy sales. When he started his enterprise in 2015 and people asked him why he wanted to sell records, the lack of faith was obvious. His beginning was with all music-playing equipment, like speakers and amplifiers, but he slowly realised, in his own words, that “I was a small fish in a very big pond”. So he decided to focus on this niche market and started selling vinyls dedicatedly while also handling music-playing equipment.
He began with selling 50-100 vinyls a month back in the day, and now he has a monthly sale of 500-600 vinyls. That’s a pretty big leap and it took time for him to understand the market. He says, “See, I was caught up in a loop. I used to buy few vinyls for my stock because I was scared no one would buy all those titles. And buyers didn’t wish to buy turntables or vinyls because they didn’t see new titles showing up in the store regularly. Once I recognised this issue I started buying more vinyls regularly and it gently escalated.” The Revolver Club has a unique set up — you can go in there and if there is a vinyl record which is not sealed you can play it on a turntable and listen, just so that you’re able to understand and appreciate the difference in sound.
Vinyls are available in three primary varieties: 33rpm, 45rpm and 78rpm. These are all available at rather affordable prices. At stores like Radio and Gramophone House and The Revolver Club, vinyl records start at the price of Rs 1,200 and go up to Rs 2,500.
The second aspect of the whole process of buying vinyls has to do with availability. Rakesh Dogra, from Radio and Gramophone House, says, “Well, it’s a matter of chance. You can only buy what is available with the distributors in India.” Even though this market is steadily growing, it has not attained a large enough ecosystem for manufacturing to start in India. There are many companies in India that import vinyls but none that wish to make them. Jude D’Souza, is better aware of the situation: “There are two big players in the distributors market: Sony and Universal Music. They practically have everything under them. And they make imported records available with smaller distributors about twice a month, which is better than what it used to be like earlier.” D’Souza also puts in the effort of getting his vinyls from sellers in Europe just to expand the variety he offers.
It’s also good to know that variety is really not a problem with vinyls. All sorts of music is available on vinyls – as well as a lot of music which can’t be found in the digital format. While Radio and Gramophone House sells a lot of R.D. Burman, Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Jagjit Singh records, along with AC/DC and Coldplay, The New Gramophone House sells practically all of old Hindi film classics. D’Souza on the other hand offers the likes of Led Zeppelin, Nirvana and The Beatles. Mohammad Ilyas, who has a gramophone repair shop in Kolkata, has a massive collection of classics in Bengali, which he takes great pride in; he says, “Humein bangla sunne ka shauq hai.” and gleefully invites me to visit and have a look at them.
Vinyls are available in three primary varieties: 33rpm, 45rpm and 78rpm. These are all available at rather affordable prices. At stores like Radio and Gramophone House and The Revolver Club, vinyl records start at the price of Rs 1,200 and go up to Rs 2,500, whereas at New Gramophone House these can cost around Rs 750. “You can also buy them in sets,” says Jude D’Souza, “like the Led Zeppelin sessions box set has four LPs and it costs Rs 8,000.”
There is also a great variety of turntables available in the market for interested buyers. The problem though is about getting the right one to begin with. The Lenco turntable which supports the 38rpm and 45rpm vinyls is available at the Radio and Gramophone house for Rs 17,000. The store has already sold over 700 of these. Turntables can be pretty expensive, the solution to which, as D’Souza says, “is the Crosely turntable which comes in a suitcase sort of support, thus making it easy to carry around, and it costs about Rs 10,000.”
“Vinyls make better companions than cassettes, CD’s and other digital prints,” Rakesh Dogra of Radio and Gramophone House adds. “If you keep them clean they last you a lifetime. And a vinyl is not about adding music and deleting music. A vinyl is a dedicated piece, it only has one album recorded on it and it stays that way forever.”
Sellers also collect, but the primary intention of their work with vinyls is to sell. But there are many who have a colossal personal collection. Hamza, a DJ who lives in Delhi but plays all over the world, has a collection of some 2,000 vinyls. And he takes his music very seriously. “Vinyl output is always much richer in quality.” He explains, “As the sound is more open and less compressed, one can feel all the frequencies way more and it almost feels like sounds are more present. Also in digital music the high frequencies are sometimes too high and hurt the ears. You will never hear this in vinyl. Digital music may be easier to collect but the sound of vinyl is unbeatable especially when the system is tuned.”
And Hamza’s collection is probably the finest example of the variety that exists in the analog format, “I collect deep tech minimal house, super organic house vibes and then harder techno records for peak time moments. I collect records every summer in Europe and this is my way of staying in touch with the most cutting-edge sounds out there. I always find random artists and that’s the beauty of underground music.”
The whole act of taking a vinyl record out of its cover, placing it on the turntable and then letting the needle down on it is an experience in itself. As Hamza puts it, “You play a digital track, and then you listen to a vinyl record. You will know the difference for yourself.”