History, Identity & Collective Memory: The Human Need For Tangible Music

Image: pcrc album art for ‘Portrait Of A Time’

Concealed in the sound waves of a record are traces of its past, an impression of a forgotten emotion or moments that couldn’t last. In his book ‘Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Friedrich A Kittler wrote if the phonographic disk had self-consciousness, it could point out while replaying a song that it remembers this particular song. And, what appears to us as the effect of a rather simple mechanism would, quite probably, strike the disk as a miraculous ability: memory.

“Vinyl tend to sound different in the sense that the sound coming out of a turntable means there’s some amount of surface noise that isn’t present in a sparkly-clean digital recording.” says Abhi Meer, Chief Content Officer at Boxout.Fm – a community-run online radio station focusing on alternative music and culture in India. “A very famous and over-used quote about this was attributed to BBC Radio legend John Peel. He said: somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said ‘Listen, mate, life has surface noise.’”

On April 21, as independent record stores and vinyl enthusiasts observed ‘Record Store Day’ across the world, in India music connoisseurs pondered over the cultural significance of the day, the rising fraternity of audiophiles and collectors curating nostalgic musical artefacts and the resurgent popularity of vinyl as a piece of history, identity and collective memory.

Image: Mahatobar Distribution

“Humans need artefacts,” says Suryakant Sawhney, frontman of Peter Cat Recording Co, a psychedelic gypsy jazz ensemble who recently released ‘Portrait of a Time (2010-2016)’ on vinyl. “You hold a piece of tangible history in your hands and that in itself makes the whole process of ownership and listening to it special. Besides survival through a nuclear event as an EMP pulse can’t wipe a vinyl out. I think once your music is published on vinyl, it has received a stamp of legality proclaiming that it exists and that it was made in so and so time period. Digital media makes time almost inconsequential.”

While the patina of records may bring forth a surging wave of memories to some, to others it may merely reflect a lost legacy. Musical purists and theorists claim that with a collection there’s often an association to oneself and the past, a coherent relationship signifying the existence of a being, a repository of social and cultural memories. “Vinyl are unique limited objects. They aren’t like digital records where files can be multiplied endlessly,” says Taru Dalmia also known as Delhi Sultanate who is the lead singer of The Ska Vengers and the mastermind behind Bass Foundation Roots Sound System, “Some of them are first pressings. I have some King Tubby first pressings from the 70s which means they’ve changed hands multiple times. The sound wave somehow reached here and now they are being played in India. With vinyl, there’s always been a history of objects changing hands.”

Image: Taru Dalmia

In 2005, while studying in the USA, Jude D’Souza, CEO and founder of The Revolver Club stumbled upon an old turntable that was gathering dust in his library. He befriended the librarian and convinced him to let him take it home and restore it. “Back in Bombay, I spent months researching turntables and other vinyl-associated audio tech, and got it working like new.”

This year, the Revolver Club had more than 3000 records curated from across the world along with exclusive Record Store Day releases. Vinyl enthusiasts were offered specially imported records, latest albums and reissues apart from a huge vault of pre-owned vinyl ranging from Guru Dutt OSTs to the even the latest Khruangbin album.

On April 21, the store opened with an Indian classical baithak style performance by Harsh Narayan and Nisarg Dehukkar. This was followed by live performances and workshops. Shutter Down: a private after-hours show by Tajdar Junaid ensued later for which tickets were given away to the first 30 people who bought a record at the store. “No bags, no phones, no press list, no guest list. Live and intimate with the shutters down,” says Jude.

Image: The Revolver Club 2018 Record Store Day

Boxout.fm, on the other hand, held a 12-hour live broadcast across four cities. One of the broadcasts was from Pagal Records, an independent store in Hauz Khas Village. The segment at the Wild City headquarters saw scores of keen vinyl lovers in attendance too. The day ended with a broadcast from the Levi’s Lounge in Mumbai where collectors Vitek Goyel and Imaad Shah spoke about their favourite records and had newer enthusiasts like Roycin D’Souza aka Makin Bacon and Zokhuma play their latest acquisitions. “People attended and tuned in either out of love for vinyl or mere curiosity. Both these things are great because it means more people are paying attention to the culture,” says Abhi.

No longer a broken record
Despite the industry proclaiming their death with the digital age, many record stores worth their salt ascertain they never gave up on vinyl. “There has been a huge turn around in the last few years,” says Bangalore-based Vachan Chinnappa, “Music giants like Sony/Universal/Warner/EMI have announced that they will re-enter vinyl record production to meet increasing demands especially with young listeners. It seems the format that many had written off as dead will be sticking around for a while, after all. In 2014, the sales of new LPs jumped 52 percent from the year before, and the sales in the first quarter of 2015 spiked 53 percent from the same period and continues to this date. Technics, the largest producers of turntables, who had stopped production due to the MP3 boom have now ramped up the production of the classic Technics SL-1200 due to the resurgence of vinyl.”

Vikram Bhat, the lead singer of Dying Embrace, one of the oldest metal bands in the country, who also runs Mahatobar Distribution (a record store that sells classic, hard rock and heavy metal) feels that smaller independent labels have managed to keep vinyl alive by producing records in smaller numbers. “A vinyl record means different things to different people. For some, it is one of the greatest formats to listen to music on, to others it brings back memories from their younger days,” he explains.

Image:Vachan Chinnappa

In 2001, Legion of Death Records offered Dying Embrace to record and release their music on vinyl. “Whatever the situation may be, vinyl is here to stay for some time. That’s a given. I don’t believe in the ‘Record Store Day’ gimmick. For a true fan and connoisseur of music, when you come across a record or album you like, you will buy it irrespective of what day it is,” explains Vikram, “The Record Store Day fad is a cash-in by larger labels to push albums mostly at exorbitant prices by labelling them as a special release. I don’t do any events for the day. In my store, every single day is record store day.”

A tangible piece of memory

“This is a labour of love,” says Taru, “One advice I’d give to younger musicians who are interested in vinyl records is you need to be with a label that releases vinyl otherwise be prepared to pay for your own pressing. For instance, we have put out a tune out with V. I.V.E.K’s System Music in London who only releases vinyl. As a result, their tunes always sell out. They are pressed in limited copy. There are no represses.”

The first records that Taru ever bought were Ice-T and NWA. Sometimes, he would travel to record stores or hitchhike to cities where he knew he could find Jamaican Records. Today, he owns thousands of them. Unlike digital memories, records have to be organised periodically. “That becomes a way for you in your mind to know where everything is. It’s not a computer file that is going to organise itself for you. You have to know where every tune is,” he says.

The first cut

In 2010, Ashutosh Sharma and Ankur Malhotra established Amarrass Records – an independent record label, artist management, music production and licensing company – with the aim to perpetuate an inclusive, accessible and sustainable world music experience. Five years ago, they discovered a company in Germany that made vinyl-cutting equipment. Thus, began their journey of rekindling the production and manufacturing of vinyl records in India. It was in 2017 that the vinyl lathe was installed in their office in Delhi.

Image: Barmer Boys

“It was a dream come true to open a vinyl cutting facility in India. We are the first ones in this century to bring back the medium at least the production aspect of it in India albeit at a small cottage industry level. It’s the only way we are going to reach out to a newer audience or to a discerning audience or to folks who would actually appreciate the bluesy folk psychedelic non-commercial music that we have been producing. That’s one of the primary reasons for us to bring back vinyl to India apart from opening up the market in order to enable the younger generation,” says Ankur.

The entire process has been a steep learning curve. It involved travelling to a remote village in Germany to get trained on how to disassemble and reassemble the machine, prepare the PVC for cutting and calibrate the device amongst other things.

“It is a very different environment here. And, of course, we have had some issues. Water leaked into our facility from the neighbouring office in Gurgaon. Moreover, the ambient temperature in the room can go up to 45 degrees. You are literally getting cooked as you are cooking the vinyl,” he says. The vacuum pump, an essential piece of machinery, almost melted within the first week of operations damaging a few diamond styli in the process.

Image: Ankur Malhotra – Amarrass Records

The first record they pressed was the series with Painted Caves, Lakha Khan and Barmer Boys. They were cut within the span of a few weeks in April, last year. “Everything has to be monitored in real time for sound, and quality of cut and groove. We have to manually give the lead-ins to the tracks, the track separation and the lead-out grooves. So, yes there’s a fair amount of manual labour involved in the process. We have a microscope setup and peer through it to look at the groove quality to ensure that they have fine resolution.” he explains.

There’s a movement steadily gaining momentum in India. The number of dealers and distributors for turntables has increased in the last eight years. While it spells a positive indication for the future of vinyl, this merely constitute a small fraction. With several stores closing down, there has been a downward trend with the number of stores providing a high-end audio experience. The few that survive continue to be largely selling second-hand 60s and 80s Bollywood records with a smattering of folk.

Personal identities & collective memories

In his essay ‘Unpacking My Library’, Walter Benjamin ponders over the act of collecting, and the intimate relationship that forms between collectors and their possessions. He wrote: “Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property. This or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of mem­ories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions. Every passion borders on the chaotic but the collec­tor’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.”

Image: BFR Soundsystem Year 2 Anniversary

“There is a renewed interest in fetishisation of vinyl records. Perhaps, that also has to do with the fact that everything has become so impersonal.” says Taru. And, it matters. Perhaps, it’s a reaction to this impersonal nature of how we engage with music, films and media today. People want to own beautiful objects. For, art contains cues of collective memories of individuals who held the records, of moments that led to its creation. “It’s the same reason that books have not died in favour of digital books because people recognise the value of a beautifully produced book,” he says.

While there are a lot more people listening to music and buying records than there were 15 years ago, they are far lesser in number than those who indulged in vinyl 30 years ago. “That’s what makes this whole thing a ‘resurgence’,” says Abhi Meer, “But it’s not just the audiophiles who listen to vinyl. Besides the definition of the word audiophile is open-ended. There are people who plain and simple love buying records or love the artwork. Some are collectors. Some are hoarders. Some people love browsing through the shelves of record stores. Some like the ritual of cleaning records. Some love putting a needle on wax to hear the sound come out. It’s not a consumption-based culture rather one based on a wholesome appreciation of vinyl records.

Vinyl will never die. For, the act of listening holds meaning both to the collector and the collection. Each time we listen, we alter a record by leaving an imprint of who we are on grooves until there exist stories that last a lifetime. We are hoarders of moments and memories. And, a record will always remember…

written by Akshatha Shetty

NEWS - 19. June 2018  

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