Walking down Abbey Road on March 11 earlier this year was the completion of an unfulfilled dream. After all, I was building a stronger connection with a band that I grew up to, the Beatles. It is not that I had not visited London previously; the first of them being during school days in 1971 and several visits thereafter, recommencing in the ‘90s as a representative of the Beatles’ record label in India [initially through exclusive licensee GRAMCO/HMV and, thereafter, as part of EMI India] but, for some intriguing reason during these latter business trips, I could never obtain time to visit the hallowed site.
Nevertheless, the relevance of Abbey Road became more pronounced as I began writing this article and learnt that the Beatles album of the same name, originally released in 1969, was the best-selling vinyl album of the decade [2010-2019], with sales in excess of 558,000 units [note: a complete list of the ‘Top 10’ is provided elsewhere in this article].
However, new releases made up only 33 percent of total vinyl sales in the aforementioned ‘Top 10’, with catalogue albums on vinyl accounting for the rest, including classic vinyls from Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, and Miles Davis.
The Beatles bested Floyd’s second-place finisher, ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’, by nearly 200,000 units. Only one original album from the ’10s appears in the decade-ending tally: Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born To Die’. Meanwhile, another “new” album, ‘The Guardians Of The Galaxy’ soundtrack, though issued in 2014, comprised mainly of songs from the ’60s and ’70s.
‘Abbey Road’ returned as an expanded box-set reissue last year in commemoration of its 50th year of release anniversary. That helped the Beatles to the No. 1 spot in U.S. vinyl sales for 2019 too; whereas, Billie Eilish’s ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?‘ was runner up. Meanwhile, Queen, riding on the interest generated through the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ biopic, held two spots on the 2019 year-end sales list: ‘Greatest Hits [I]’ finished third, and the film’s soundtrack ended up at No. 5.
Overall, physical sales accounted for a healthy 21.6% of global recorded music revenues in 2019 [as against 7.2% towards downloads, and 56.1% in terms of streams]. Revenues from vinyl rose by 5.3% last year, making up 16.4% of overall physical revenues, with the U.S. – the world’s largest music market – showing a 3.2% increase in physical revenues. In Japan, the no.2 global market, physical sales still remain the dominant market. On a micro level, rock albums led the genres in vinyl sales, making about 40%, with sales having continued to rise since the 2010s, with about 2.8 million sold in 2010 to 18.8 million in 2019, nearly 15% above the previous year sales.
Officially founded in 2007, ‘Record Store Day’ [RSD] celebrates the once-popular brick-and-mortar stores that still exist, is supported not only by consumers but, more importantly in a pre-pandemic environment, artistes themselves as they embarked on releasing products exclusively on this memorable day, as well as making special appearances, holding live gigs at pubs/clubs, and initiating meet-and-greets with fans but, alas, all 2020 initiatives are online now.
Record Store Day 2020 was originally scheduled to be celebrated on April 18 but was postponed to June 20 due to the pandemic. Unfortunately, on April 29, it was announced that Record Store Day would be postponed again and, since then, has been spread across three dates: August 29, September 26, and October 24. One good date deserves another and now, for another record cause, a fourth date has been added: November 27, more importantly, known as ‘Black Friday’. Planned releases for Record Store Day included the special 50th-anniversary release of Paul McCartney’s debut solo album, ‘McCartney’, in a limited edition vinyl pressing. A complete list of other limited-edition releases to be sold online, by more than 130 independent record stores primarily located in Europe and in the U.K., can be viewed here: https://recordstoreday.com/PromotionalEvent/572.
India is chipping in too, with several vinyl vendors also focusing on Record Store Day 2020. Mumbai-based The Revolver Club, an outlet where you can buy everything from vinyls to turntables, and Pilakbhai Bhatt’s The Music Circle, are both making available special offers of their respective wares on that day, with some of the offers likely to be extended. Adagio, also based in Mumbai, which has been doing its bit in supporting vinyl through weekly listening sessions pre-March 2020, alternating between their outlets in Bandra and in Chembur, is lending its support too by organising virtual special events to support Record Store Day.
Last year, Mumbai’s [coincidentally titled] Corona Gardens (located in Mumbai’s Bandra) turned into a one-stop-shop for vinyl enthusiasts on Record Store Day with the sale being dubbed as ‘The Vinyl Pop Up’. Hosted by Sony Music, the sale offered over 2,000 vinyl limited edition and exclusive Record Store Day releases. Further, no event like this would ever be complete without live performances, and so it was then with Sony Music ensuring the presence of indie singers such as Nikhil D’Souza, Mali, Tejas Menon, Aarifa, and Ramya Pothuri. However, due to restrictions placed by their New York office in conversing with the media, Sony Music was unable to share their plans for this year.
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 on 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 his driving force, “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, 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 the limited requirements. “Indian labels hardly produce [and distribute] any vinyl now,” validates Curmally, “and, hence, it has to be imported. Universal [Music Group] is now our largest vendor. We also do some direct import, but prices abroad tend to be too high.” Inspite of attempts to directly connect with Universal Music India for this article – both through email and through WhatsApp – elicited no response.
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 been bitten out of business with 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 LPs. 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 displaying his disappointment that the company 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 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 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 in 2020 has certainly fallen compared to last year due to the pandemic. We have lowered our pricing due to lesser sales, and added some goodies along [as a sales incentive].” Adagio remains the “baby” of the vinyl business, with its operations being in existence for just five years.
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.1,386/= to Rs.4,995/=.
Adagio’s Gujral too reiterates pricing as a limiting factor towards growth. “Here at Adagio,” he explains, “most of the audience is young and lives 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.”
For ‘Record Store Day’ [RSD] this year, Curmally admits that he has no specific plans “because it is very difficult to keep up with this event, especially since stocks are never geared to arrive on time, and the awareness [due to the pandemic environment] is also very little.” However, Curmally may consider offering one-off deals for LPs. Nevertheless, Bhatt of Music Circle is a little more receptive to RSD, offering “discount schemes, and freebies” to vinyl loyalists.
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/growth 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 the 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, if you have not done so already, be sure to mark October 24 on your calendar. That is the date for this year’s third installment of ‘Record Store Day’, the annual event that celebrates the once rare to find, but still existing, vinyl records.
U.S. Top 10 Best-Selling Vinyl Albums of the ’10s (in units) –
1. The Beatles – Abbey Road (558,000)
2. Pink Floyd – Dark Side Of The Moon (376,00)
3. Soundtrack – Guardians Of The Galaxy Awesome Mix Vol. 1 (367,000)
4. Bob Marley and the Wailers – Legend (364,000)
5. Amy Winehouse – Back To Black (351,000)
6. Michael Jackson – Thriller (334,000)
7. The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (313,000)
8. Fleetwood Mac – Rumours (304,000)
9. Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue (286,000)
10. Lana Del Rey – Born To Die (283,000)
U.S. TOP 10 VINYL ALBUM SALES OF 2019 [in units] –
1. The Beatles – Abbey Road – 246,000
2. Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? – 176,000
3. Queen – Greatest Hits 1 – 139,000
4. Soundtrack – Guardians Of The Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 – 123,000
5. Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody (The Original Soundtrack) – 108,000
6. The Beach Boys – Sounds Of Summer: Very Best Of – 107,000
7. Pink Floyd – Dark Side Of The Moon – 92,000
8. Michael Jackson – Thriller – 88,000
9. Bob Marley & The Wailers – Legend – 84,000
10. Fleetwood Mac – Rumours – 78,000