Has vinyl finally found the cure for a slipped disc?

musical PAsSAges

Although there still remain naysayers to the ongoing success of physical sales – especially vinyl – how do you combat hard facts?

In the U.S. itself, in the first six months of 2021, vinyl sales skyrocketed 94% to $467 million over the same period in 2020 although these record sales still remained dramatically skewed by store closures during the pandemic that severely impacted this year’s Record Store Day [RSD]June 12 – which is, traditionally, the biggest sales day of the year.

Revenues from CDs increased 44% to $205 million, accounting for 30% of physical revenues, while vinyl accounted for more than two-thirds of physical format revenues. In comparison, digital download sales revenue continued to drop, down 6% to $319 million, as did digital single track sales revenue (down 12%) and digital album sales revenue (down 4%).

But this trend is not merely restricted to U.S. alone. Let us take a look closer home.

Aveek Chatterjee with Susmit Bose

Music aficionados, Kolkata-based Aveek Chatterjee and Texas-based Rajiv Pandey pursued their passion by setting up Free School Street Records with a clear and present intent to press onto vinyl, albums that were no longer available through the years; actually, make that decades! The label is dedicated to launching high quality reissues of classic albums as limited deluxe vinyls [and CDs].

Rajiv Pandey

The first of labour of love for Free School Street Records is an album recorded by Kolkata musician Susmit Bose (born November 1, 1950) whose songs often deal with social issues. While Susmit participated in the International Folk Song Festival in Havana, Cuba, in 1978, it was also the same year in which he released his classic album, ‘Train To Calcutta’, which finds itself reissued now.

 

The album has been released on deluxe limited edition, hand-numbered vinyl of 200 copies under Free School Street Records. The album packaging features faithfully restored original artwork, an additional album jacket for framing, a “Thank You” card printed on a scaled down replica of the album cover, and a four-page full-colour insert featuring an in-depth interview of Susmit Bose and a montage of rare photos and newspaper clips. The album has been pressed on 180 gm virgin audiophile vinyl in Poland. Further, all copies of the album have been personally autographed by the Susmit Bose himself!

The Orange Album

Free School Street Records are currently working with the Greek record label, Cult Rock Classics, to launch Wanka’s ‘The Orange Album’, a lost 1977 classic release of progressive rock from Canada which boasts the involvement of Terry Brown, legendary producer of Canadian progressive rock legends Rush, as well as disparate albums such as Klaatu’s ‘3:47 EST’ featuring “Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft”, and Cutting Crew’s ‘Broadcast’ featuring “[I Just] Died In Your Arms”.

‘The Orange Album’ has already been released on deluxe limited-edition CD of 500 copies, which includes a six-track bonus live album, ‘Live at The Warehouse 1977’, a slipcase and a 12-page coloured booklet featuring an interview of Wanka lead guitarist Howard Samuel, by Aveek Chatterjee, along with lyrics of the songs plus rare photos. The vinyl edition of the album is scheduled for release in November 2021 as a deluxe limited-edition of 300 copies (100, appropriately orange, and 200 black vinyl) with one bonus live track and a two-page coloured insert with rare photos and an interview. Unfortunately, I could not find the album on Spotify, but managed to stream it on https://www.discogs.com/Wanka-The-Orange-Album/release/9005638. Definitely, this album a must listen for fans of progressive rock, especially Rush, although the pick of the lot for me is the extremely Floydesque “Same Way”!

The Arinjoy Trio

As confirmed by Aveek, Free School Street Records have several much-awaited vinyl albums as part of its forthcoming release schedule, including the eponymous 2019 debut album of The Arinjoy Trio, the blues power trio from Kolkata, who rocked the house at the 2018, 2019, and 2020 editions of the prestigious Mumbai-based Mahindra Blues Festival, the brainchild of Brian Tellis. The album was produced and mixed by Indian guitar legend Amyt Datta, known to me since his days with Skinny Alley.

Meanwhile, support for vinyl is also being provided by Mumbai-based The Revolver Club, an outlet where you can buy everything from vinyls to turntables, and Pilakbhai Bhatt’s The Music Circle, with Adagio, also based in Mumbai, which has been doing its bit in supporting vinyl through weekly listening sessions that recommenced from September 2021 with Dire Straits’ ‘Brothers In Arms’, alternating between their outlets in Bandra and in Chembur.

In all this, one misses Rhythm House, the iconic retail outlet based in Mumbai, which downed its shutters on February 29, 2016. The day prior to that, a Sunday that still remains vivid in my mind, was an opportunity of reliving nostalgia as patrons and musicians alike frequented the outlet in hordes, culminating in an impromptu afternoon jam session that had musicians performing classic rock and rock ‘n’ roll, supported by Rhythm House owner Mehmood Curmally in conjunction with vocalist Mihir Joshi. Indian classical music was supported too, by percussionist Anuradha Pal, with a crescendo of sorts being achieved with a specially composed track by flautist Rajeev Raja, appropriately titled ‘Rhythm House Blues’, which spoke of: “The music never died at this Rhythm House in town / You know it ain’t over as the shutters come down.”

Nevertheless, Mehmood Curmally’s passion for music remains unabated and within months of Rhythm House closing, in May 2016, he floated JnY Entertainment LLP, a family entity focused largely into the import of vinyl. However, Curmally makes it clear that the reason for his doing so was merely his passion. “First and foremost,” Curmally explains, “is my love for music and for a business that I have been in for more than 40 years [through Rhythm House]; it’s hard to let go!”

“Passion for the physical format has an element of growth in the music business because of vinyl sales,” he adds, “and I want to ride on that boom with my experience and knowledge of this industry and business, where I can give an edge over other vendors.” Hence, for Curmally, it is not only the selection, but also sourcing special editions, boxed sets, coloured vinyls, Record Store Day [RSD] releases and, of course, one-time pressings.

This is all fine, but the crucial aspect of selling vinyl is that they need to be sourced. It was decades ago that the key Indian music industry players had their own record pressing plants but, ever since the resurgent vinyl market mushroomed, the Indian “majors” are having them manufactured at plants across the world due to limited requirements. “Indian labels hardly produce [and distribute] any vinyl now,” validates Curmally, “and, hence, it has to be imports. Universal [Music Group] is now our largest vendor. We also do some direct import, but prices abroad tend to be too high.”

Hence, Curmally’s sale to consumers, besides online, is also occurring in a limited manner at Mumbai’s Bayside Mall, located near Haji Ali, where he has both, dedicated repeat customers and walk-ins, based on his goodwill from the past consisting of – in Curmally’s words – “trust and faith, selection, recommendations, after sales service, and brand recall.” Curmally does not hesitate to suggest that he may consider opening more outlets in the near future as he passionately believes that nothing provides more joy to buyers of the physical format than to be able to inspect the wares prior to purchase.

At the same time, while one also reminisces some of the other outlets that have downed shutters due to the digital bug such as Planet M, and Music World, that does not provide a damper to Curmally’s obvious optimism on vinyl. “I think there is good potential [for growing the market],” he states, “especially since younger kids are now attracted to vinyl and the market is no longer limited to collectors, music enthusiasts, or to sound buffs. It is spread much wider now and has a status value attached to owning a turntable and albums. So the potential is great, but if only Indian labels would make more of an effort to manufacture and press superior quality remastered and repackaged vinyl, especially the Saregama catalogue.” Curmally is emphatic in sharing his disappointment that the music label is ignoring its catalogue in the physical space.

In the meantime, promoter of one of India’s leading vinyl retailers, Pilakbhai Bhatt of Music Circle, who has been in the vinyl trade for over 15 years, reiterates Curmally’s sentiments on the upside of the vinyl trade. “Very encouraging future,” declares Bhatt, “as people are realizing that MP3s, downloads, and streaming is a compromised, inferior quality sound and nothing compares with the pure, natural, and warm sound of a vinyl. Also, more varieties of turntables are available now, catering to different budgets.”

Music Circle’s network of distribution includes, much like JnY Entertainment, both online and a brick-and-mortar outlet. However, until the existing health crisis completely tides over, it remains a constraint for immediate growth. Aman Singh Gujral, promoter of Adagio, which has outlets at Mumbai’s Bandra and at Chembur, who is into his mid-‘20s, observes: “Since Adagio is a physical store, and most of the revenue depends on footfall, we have a bare minimum digital presence. The revenue through vinyl sales has certainly fallen due to the pandemic. We have lowered our pricing due to lesser sales, and added some goodies along [as a sales incentive].”

Meanwhile, the other major lament of Curmally is the lack of availability of rock repertoire which covers about 40% of all global vinyl sales. “Yes, lots of classic rock is being asked for,” validates Curmally, “many of which are represented on the Warner, EMI labels, but they are not really available now.” For Bhatt of Music Circle, the other primary constraint towards growth is pricing, which remains exorbitant due to “the high rate of import duty, which is a big disadvantage” in terms of attracting new customers adding, as a footnote, “that the inclusion of GST makes it worse.” Indian repertoire – as examples, varied soundtracks ranging from ‘Dosti’, ‘Namastey London’ to ‘Kaisam Paida Karne Wale Ki’ – all retail online at Rs. 999, with international repertoire usually priced between Rs. 1,286 to Rs. 3,995.

Adagio’s Gujral too reiterates pricing as a limiting factor towards growth. “Here at Adagio,” he explains, “most of the audience is young, and live on pocket money; hence, they are unable to buy in bulk and most of them buy single records each. Affordability seems to be a constraint for many to get into the vinyl collecting hobby.”

Nevertheless, Mehmood Curmally – through his JnY Entertainment – remains committed to growing the market. He is a man on a mission. “I am spreading the culture of vinyl through making more music available and educating consumers on good handling, and playing music on vinyl,” he announces. “Also promoting turntables and accessories.” Similarly, Music Circle’s Pilakbhai Bhatt’s formula for growing the vinyl market is with the following preaching: “I would request music lovers to listen to vinyls on good sound systems as it makes a substantial difference, and there is a great enhancement in enjoyment. Taking good care of your records by proper cleaning and storage is very necessary because, this way, vinyls can last for a very long time.” Whereas Adagio’s Gujral’s elixir for success is simple: “If the culture is collectively preserved and grown the way it is happening lately, the potential is huge. Mainly because it is easy for the youth to be fascinated by records and get addicted to this collection hobby. We intend to increase the number of listeners (by creating a market) and bringing them together by forming communities to promote an analogue culture.”

So, besides supporting the Free School Street Records initiative, be sure to mark April 16, 2022 on your calendar. That is the date for next year’s ‘Record Store Day’, the annual event that celebrates the once rare to find, but now the future growth of vinyl records!

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