In my many detours through the labyrinth of my hometown Kolkata, I look with certain degree of sadness and desperation at the stack of old vinyl records lumped ignominiously beside trash bins. It has been years since I gave my records a spin, and they now lie inurned, along with my old-fashioned turntable, whose stylus and cartridges have disappeared from the market after the advent of the digital players.
Even a few years ago, sightings of abandoned LP records were commonplace not only in the streets of Kolkata, which has always drawn vinyl addicts, but also in all the major cities and small towns across eastern India. Then, they disappeared, and even the strongest supporters of the warm sound of vintage vinyl gave up all hope of the return of the dear old turntable, as fellow music lovers went for convenience and portability.
However, after a complete drought of well over a decade, Kolkata is seeing a silent revival of vinyl, and this time it is being led by the youth of the city.
Jamalludin, who has been selling second-hand LP records in the heart of the city for more than 30 years, says, “Most of my new customers are young people, who are matured audiophiles.” A few years ago, he used to sell 20 records a month, but these days it goes a beyond few hundred, he adds. “There used to be a large number of shops selling records, but most of them shut shop or have started selling CDs, as there were hardly any buyers. But with this revival, other shop owners are also taking interest,” a visibly delighted Jamalludin says.
The stage for revival of vinyl was set following the central government’s decision around 2006 to allow overseas turntable makers to sell high-end players through Indian dealers. Ever since, the city has been witnessing the launch of fabled turntable brands, at niche stores that stock high-end systems for hardcore audiophiles. From Rega to Clear Sound of UK, Decon to Technics of Japan, Austria’s Pro-Ject to Germany’s Thorens and Dual, these are just some of the dream machines to have hit the town.
Prices range from Rs10,000 to Rs400,000 (Dh664 to Dh26,540). “Even such a high investment would be a secure deal,” assures B. Pathak of SKS Traders, the shop that is leading this resurgence. “All key turntable accessories, including belts, cartridges, stylus, motors and disc-wash record cleaners of international make, are readily available off the shelf.” There has also been substantial technological improvement in these machines. “The biggest complaint about a turntable has been the ‘hissing’ sound, which has been taken care of in these new machines,” Pathak adds. “In these systems, the motor is separate from the table and hence its sound is not captured during reproduction.”
“Today’s turntables are no mean machines — many of them are equipped with USB and other ports and can be easily connected to all kinds of amplifiers to enhance sound. Many of them can also be used as professional DJ tables,” said Chandan Gomes, a music-equipment seller in the city.
“The spiralling levels of excitement are palpable, as music lovers in this part of the country are a demanding lot,” says well-known percussionist Bickram Ghosh. “There are droves of dormant LP fans, who believe that no digital format, be it CD or MP3, could ever beat LP’s analogue-based sonic richness.”
Flautist Rakesh Chaurasia says, “The revival of vinyl in the West has been possible only after top makers of hi-fi equipment realised that the sound from a digital format could really never match a high-end LP source.”
However, all the new LP records have to be imported from foreign countries, particularly from Singapore, making it beyond the reach of the modest music lover. It is unfortunate, that even now, most Indian music companies are not pressing LPs, and it will be interesting to see for how long they can hold back after a strong comeback of vinyl records across markets in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe.
“We are importing a few of these on personal request but we don’t have any specific plans yet. We are aware that the market is setting but it’s still early to mature,” says Sanjay Dixit, head of sales, EMI.
According to the spokesperson for Times Music, “The fault lies with the nature of the market itself. LP records cannot be sold at lower price tags as the cost of manufacturing them is more than double that of the CD and the market is already flooded with pirated versions. Hence companies are not finding it economically viable to launch LP records.”
Music World, the entertainment store in Kolkata’s celebrated Park Street, has recently opened a dedicated section for LPs and is quite stunned by the response it has got. “We are pleasantly surprised by the numbers the section presented us from the first month of its inauguration. Indian record companies are slowly but surely getting into the groove; even Bollywood films are releasing LP records of their music,” the store manager says.
“You don’t need to buy the McIntosh MT10 turntable for Rs400,000 to spin these new records. The Rs12,000 Denon DP-200 USB turntable is more than enough. If you are in the mood to jingle with a Metallica LP, or you want to rip the grooves, the machine comes with an MP3 encoder. Push a pen drive into the USB port and press record to copy and listen to music. Another good option is the three-speed (78, 45 and 33-1/3) Veho USB turntable that allows users to convert standard 7-, 10- and 12-inch records to digital formats. Recording can be done in WAV format, allowing superb quality,” Gomes says.
Sumit Ray, a music buff, finally knows what to do with his Gramophone player, which he inherited from his grandparents. “It would be great if we could get the latest albums in LP format, at moderate prices, as it would give a new lease of life to that fascinating machine, which has become more of a showpiece,” he says.
Actually, the debate is between the analogue and digital format, best explained as a fight between “now and then”, recordist Ashok Ray says. “There is a huge difference in the quality of reproduction between the two formats,” he explains. “Analogue recordings, as with most LPs, are continuous and hence produces a truer sound, which also tends to have a sense of grit and texture to add to the overall feel, and sound more lifelike.”
Indira Seal, who runs a charitable trust in Kolkata for promotion of music among the youth, says, “There is a community experience in listening to an LP that comes closest to attending a live concert.”
Archisman Dinda is a journalist based in Kolkata.