In the beginning, not even Zenzi, the popular lounge and restaurant in Bandra, Mumbai, can quite bestir itself on a white-hot Sunday morning. But once the first couple of people walk in, carrying tote bags full of selections from their record collections, the trickle doesn’t stop. Soon, the needle drops—on R.E.M’s Automatic for the People. And so, last Sunday, the dials turned up on the first meeting of independent music website NH7 and Zenzi’s new vinyl club, Microgroove.
Arjun Ravi, founder, NH7, first floated the idea of a club for record enthusiasts. He began collecting LPs himself about a year ago, drawn to the physicality of the medium in a time when live concerts and digital recordings seem to be crowding out both the business of, and the need for, a physical product from bands.
Spinning jenny:(from left) The sleeve of a vintage LP and a record enthusiast at Microgroove. Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
“You spend time with music when you take an LP in your hands,” he says. “You look at the sleeve, you take out the record, you play it with the intention of listening to it all the way through. That makes it more meaningful to you.”
Ravi’s spleet-new LPs—records put out in the last couple of years by The National and Arcade Fire—make an interesting contrast with the vintage of the records that others bring in. Among them are Neale Murray’s perfectly preserved Isley Brothers (3+3) and Donald Fagen (The Nightfly) albums, a Spirogyra album signed by the band members, and the stunning artwork of a softly crumbling copy of Aqualung, Jethro Tull’s magnum opus.
It is clear that the sentiment associated with the physical form of the LP unites many of Microgroove’s members. Sunil Sampat, jazz critic for Rolling Stone India, has been collecting records “since 1953 or 1954”, he tells the other members during a break in the music. At the time, he says, a box of turntable needles, which needed replacing after every 10 uses, was as expensive as buying an LP itself. “In 1988 and 1989, you could stand under the windows of people all over this city and catch their LP collections, flung out,” he remembers. “People began to give them away for nothing after the tape recorder took over.” Today, you can buy both LPs and vintage turntables from the exhaustible but vast inventories of Chor Bazaar in south Mumbai.
Microgroove’s fledgling roster of members spans the generations. Some younger listeners say they find records in Mumbai’s flea markets. Others, much like older fans, collect on their travels through Europe and North America.
“It’s not actually that hard,” Ravi says. “There’s no formal community of sellers or mechanics, but it is still possible to buy an old turntable for Rs 3,000-4,000.” The other avenue that has been fast gaining ground, he says, is the Internet.
“Many people think it’s prohibitively expensive,” he says. “But a record on Amazon.com might cost you about $20 (around Rs 884), shipping included—and many are even cheaper.” Flipkart.com also ships LPs within India.
The afternoon is one long listening session, an informal queue of requests and musical introductions played from a vast variety of genres—from Barbra Streisand to Black Sabbath, Antonio Carlos Jobim to the soundtrack of Kala Patthar (which comes, in true flea-market style, wrapped in the sleeve of a Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi LP).
The crackle and hum associated with gramophone nostalgia are occasionally audible. The sharp clarity of digitized music, where each instrument played on a recording is often clearly discernible even to the casual listener, is entirely missing.
“Music isn’t meant to be heard in a series of 1s and 0s,” says architect Clement DeSylva. “The human ear can pick up so many more frequencies than you hear on digital sound. That’s why the thud of your iPod or CD player can give you aural fatigue.” That never happens with vinyl, he says, which has a fuller, riper sound.
Ravi says NH7 is planning to take Microgroove to other parts of India. They also want to build an online database of members’ collections, for others to browse—and perhaps to borrow. With vinyl making a minor but visible comeback into the audio replay market, record companies may renew the commitment to the format too. Sony Music, which gave away two 7-inch singles in an informal raffle at the session, says that while international music on vinyl has its small but captive market, they find that Indian film music, like the soundtracks of Lagaan and Jodhaa Akbar, also does well. The company is now evaluating the market for LPs of Indian classical music.
For now, in the quiet of Zenzi in the daytime, liner notes and fans who have read and reread them for years, the penny-weighted stylus and the richness of analogue-recorded music come together to create a sound as warm as the summer afternoon.
Microgroove will meet on one Sunday every month at Zenzi, Bandra. For details, log on to Nh7.in