Posting the final draft of another story I submitted to PDI in November 2013. This was eventually cut into three parts and trimmed down to fit the character parameters assigned to me. The first part was published as “Back in Black” and appeared in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine. The second and third parts were published in the Entertainment section of PDI in January 2014 under the title of “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
WALK ON THE VINYL SIDE
(A Report on the Vinyl Resurgence Phenomenon in the Philippines)
By Von Katindoy
Back in Black – The Return of the Vinyl
“Forget the hearse ‘cause I’ll never die, I got nine lives, Cats eyes…Cause I’m back, Yes, I’m back…I’m back in black.”
-Angus Young, Malcomn Young and Brian Johnson
745% growth! That is the figure being bandied about in a recent news item circulating in several audiophile online fora regarding the growth of vinyl sales at Amazon since 2008. Time was when vinyl was dismissed as an obsolete format, a relic of the previous century, if you will. Not anymore. In a nod to its viability as yet another income stream for the world’s largest online store, Amazon created a distinct and separate section for vinyl reissues in 2007. All hail the vinyl? Or should we say, vinyl is back in black with AC/DC banging away in the background about forgetting the hearse, nine lives and cats eyes. Faster than you can say Awesome!, however, Stereophile and Analog Planet editor Michael Fremer corrected the misinformation. The correct figure is 12% year on year increase since 2008 and not just at Amazon. In 2013, it is projected to increase by 30%. “It’s definitely growing” writes Fremer, when asked if indeed there is such a trend and whether it is, in fact, holding.
He sent this writer the graph below ironically from Digital Music News to reinforce his point. He further points out that “used is not included in these figures” and that “GZ (Pressing Plant, one of the oldest and best in the world) in the Czech Republic pressed 7 million records this year…” It is difficult to track used records as the selling and buying of such are part of the so-called underground economy. To quote Fremer: “Nielsen SoundScan only gets the tip of the iceberg…”
To the uninitiated, vinyl records or “plaka” as they were referred to in the vernacular traditionally refer to three variants of vinyl records: the 78rpm (i.e., revolutions per minute for the recording to be heard as it was originally recorded), the 45 rpm single and the 33 1/3 rpm long play album. Of the 3, what is most associated with the current global vinyl resurgence is the 33 1/3 rpm otherwise known as the LP (i.e., Long Play.) Columbia Records is credited for releasing the first commercial vinyl record in 1948. For the next 4 decades it was the dominant storage medium of recorded music despite the invention of the cassette tape and its numerous incarnations. Until the CD entered the picture that is. Sony and Philips introduced the digital music format in 1982. By the early 90’s the vinyl format lost the critical mass it used to command and was eventually considered by many as an obsolete and inferior format compared to the CD. The operative word to differentiate the vinyl from the CD, the MP3 and other contemporary formats is analog. By analog, we mean the sound recording is literally etched into the physical grooves of the record which are then read by the stylus or “needle” of the turntable and converted into soundwaves by an amplifier working in harmoniuous synergy with the speakers. In contrast, with CDs numerical information in zeroes and ones is what is used to encode the recording on the disc which is then read by the laser eye of the CD player and amplified by the digital component system.
Just in case you missed it, mainstream media have been steadily documenting the recent global resurgence of the vinyl format in recent years. Here is a quick sampling.
In the October 2007 edition of Wired Magazine, Eliot Van Buskirk wrote that “as counterintuitive as it may seem in this age of iPods and digital downloads, vinyl — the favorite physical format of indie music collectors and audiophiles — is poised to re-enter the mainstream, or at least become a major tributary…Talk to almost anyone in the music business’ vital indie and DJ scenes and you’ll encounter a uniformly optimistic picture of the vinyl market…Pressing plants are ramping up production.”
On January 10, 2008, Kristina Dell of Time Magazine reported that: “from college dorm rooms to high school sleepovers, an all-but-extinct music medium has been showing up lately. And we don’t mean CDs. Vinyl records, especially the full-length LPs that helped define the golden era of rock in the 1960s and ’70s, are suddenly cool again.”
Rolling Stone Magazine’s Matthew Perpetua observed on January 6, 2011 that “sales of vinyl increased by 14 percent over the previous year, with around 2.8 million units sold. This is a new record for vinyl sales since 1991, when the format had all but disappeared in the wake of the CD boom, according to a report released yesterday by Nielsen SoundScan.”
Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post noted last April 11, 2013 that “the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, tallies $171 million in global vinyl sales in 2012, up 52 percent from the year before. That echoes other reports, including Nielsen’s most recent Soundscan, which have found strong growth in vinyl sales over the past five years — not to mention a steady uptick in vinyl-related Kickstarters and analog fan blogs.”
From Allan Kozinn of The New York Times dated June 9, 2013: “These days, every major label and many smaller ones are releasing vinyl, and most major new releases have a vinyl version, leading to a spate of new pressing plants…When the French electronica duo Daft Punk released “Random Access Memories” in mid-May, 6 percent of its first-week sales — 19,000 out of 339,000 — were on vinyl, according to Nielsen SoundScan, which measures music sales. A growing number of classic albums — including the complete Beatles and early Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan catalogs — have had vinyl reissues in recent years as well.”
Not very far behind is Hollywood which has been enthusiastically celebrating both the turntable and the vinyl format in both the movies and in the TV series genre.
To name a few, there is Jack Harper, the character of Tom Cruise in Oblivion (2013) where he plays a vinyl copy of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procul Harum to reminisce the way life on earth used to be circa 2017. In Warm Bodies (2013) the zombie “R” portrayed by Nicholas Hoult plays “Missing You” by John Waite not because he is a purist but because “they sound warm and more alive.” Iron Man 3 (2013) featured a high-end turntable playing Joe Williams’ “Jingle Bells” on Tony Stark’s command to Travis to “drop the needle” as he suits up in his state-of-the art laboratory.
Not to be outdone is the TV series genre. Top of mind is the character of Walter Bishop portrayed by John Noble in Fringe who has a vintage turntable in his lab. And then there is the Suits’ Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht) whose wall of vinyl records testifies to his encyclopedic knowledge of various music genre. House, M.D. features the lead character portrayed by Hugh Laurie as an audiophile at heart who is comfortable both with an Ipod and a high-end turntable.
Notwithstanding the preceding, does this resurgence of sorts apply to the Philippine music scene where piracy continues to persist? More to the point, why the interest in vinyl in this age of Ipod, streaming, filesharing and downloading both legal and illegal. Equally important, where exactly is this going? Are we coming full circle with the realization that despite the dizzying pace of technological advances, in the end, nothing can really beat the sound of vinyls playing on turntables? Or does the “plaka” belong to a bygone era as celebrated in “Sirang Plaka” by Anak Bayan, “Huling El Bimbo” by the Eraserheads and “Betamax” by Sandwich never to go back again.
Spin the Black Circle – Why Vinyl?
“See this needle…dropping it down…well here it comes…I touch the plane…Turn me up…won’t turn you away…Spin, spin…spin the black circle…You’re so warm…oh, the ritual…when I lay down your crooked arm…Spin, spin…spin the black circle…”
Long before the vinyl resurgence, Pearl Jam were true-blue believers in vinyl. “Spin the Black Circle” is the band’s tribute to vinyl records. No wonder then that Vitalogy which featured “Spin the Black Circle” as its carrier single, was first released on vinyl two weeks before the CD release in 1994. Drawing inspiration from this song, we sought out those who like Vedder literally live out the excitement associated with the unabashed homage of the band to vinyl to ask them the question, why did they get into vinyl records? Their answers will most likely make you take a long, hard look at the “plaka.”
1. THE RITUAL
Listening to vinyl recording involves a ritual which engages virtually all five senses. Robert Crespo, former corporate communications manager of Crossover 105.1, vividly remembers his surreal analog bliss experience dining with the jazz pianist great David Benoit. Towards the end of the dinner, Crespo brought out his prized sealed copy of Urban Daydreams to ask Benoit to sign it. Instead of signing the record right away, Benoit did a curious thing. He held the copy in his hands and took the time to gaze at the album cover. Next, he perused the details on the back cover from the track listing down to the team that made the album happen. Then, like a seasoned vinyl collector, Benoit used his thumbnail to make the proverbial incision through the upper edge of the album jacket to unseal the record. Before carefully pulling out the record from the jacket though Benoit took a long, slow whiff of the vinyl record with his eyes closed the way a wine connoisseur does before enjoying a newly-opened bottle of wine. That, of course, is just half of the ritual. Next, you use a microfiber cloth to clean the surface of the vinyl carefully wiping the disc clockwise. You then set it on the platter of the turntable and push the start button. Before lifting the tone arm and setting the stylus on the first track, you pull out your anti-static brush and ever so gently let its thousands of micro fibre brush against the vinyl surface. “Well, here it comes…” Eddie Vedder sings. You’re ready to enjoy recorded music on vinyl format.
This is exactly what indie film and music video director Marie Jamora meant when she says that listening to vinyls is more “organic compared to listening to CDs” and other formats. The tactile element of the LP engages the listener in a way that the MP3 or even the CD cannot. Which augurs well with how rock icon Ely Buendia regards vinyl. Writes Ely, “ Vinyl still retains that mystique of the record buying lifestyle. It makes me appreciate the music more.”
There is a downside to this ritual though which accomplished classical violinist and lifelong vinyl enthusiast Joseph Esmilla warns about: “… listening to LPs is not for everyone, especially not for people who want instant gratification. It’s technology from a bygone era for those (masochists perhaps?) who choose to go through the ritual of vacuum cleaning both sides of an LP, turning on vacuum tube electronics, waiting for the filaments to glow, and queuing the tone arm on the first track, before sitting back on an Eames lounge chair and lighting a pipe.”
2. THE SOUND QUALITY
Vinyl enthusiasts swear by the sound quality of vinyl records. Indeed, broadcast journalist Julius Babao cites it as a critical factor for his passion for vinyl. “I guess it’s the clarity of the recording. I find the sound of CD or MP3 recordings too sharp and hard. Music recorded on vinyl sounds as if it has a life. The bass and treble sounds fuller or more natural.”
Much though depends on the quality of the gear or hardware that you’re playing the record on as Buendia discovered: “ I was finally able to find a turntable that I really liked… It was only recently that I found for myself that the sound quality really was a far cry from all the other formats.”
Marie recalls how the sound produced by a live band in some settings could actually pale in comparison to the sound of vinyl. One such experience involved The Diegos playing a 29-year old vinyl pressing of “Thieves Like Us” by New Order off their Substance album right after a band performance at Route 196 along Katipunan. For some unexplained reason, the sound quality of the vinyl recording proved to be worlds ahead of the sound quality of the live music that was just performed. It was an incredible experience that literally blew her away and that she remembers to this day.
Film director Robert Quebral points to the unique sound quality of vinyl as “a natural progression from the usual cd/digital format. As a hi-fi enthusiast, you seek for better sources and the analogue/ vinyl format is the next step…in my opinion vinyl playback has better soundstage (i.e., placement of musical instruments and vocalists in a recording) and is more dynamic in terms of pace and rhythm.”
3. THE ARTWORK
And then there is the artwork which cannot be appreciated on CD format as much as it can be relished on vinyl albums given the significant difference in dimensions of scale. Boy Bustamante, a 30-year graphics arts industry veteran remembers buying vinyl records on the strength of the artwork. He cites the titles of the albums like they were his kids. There is Abraxas by Santana where the artwork is by Mati Klarwein, Velvet Underground with the now-famous banana artwork by Andy Warhol, Beggars’ Banquet by the Rolling Stones with its 3D design cover, the Led Zep covers with die cuts and Live at Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers Band. To quote Boy: “even the simple black and white photo by Jim Marshall says a thousand words…analogue is an art environment – from the artists to the recording process to the packaging all the way to the listener.”
World-renowned painter Elmer Borlongan who specializes in social realism agrees. In fact, part of the attraction of the hobby is its affinity to his vocation. Case in point: he remembers buying Brain Salad Surgery of Emerson, Lake and Palmer without even bothering to check if the album is a superb sonic experience. The sheer artwork was more than enough for him.
I-Witness anchor and Motorcyle Diaries host Jay Taruc shares how: “ unang-una, yung vinyls, for me, they have better packaging. That 12″ X 12″ album sleeve with the cover art, pictures, graphics, information sheet-liner notes, and other physical and visual element is a very big plus over Compact Discs or MP3s. The experience from playing vinyl is just not comparable with ANY digital format. That big vinyl allows you to experience and physically hold the end product of an artist or a band: the creative process that goes through to actually produce it, the vinyl record somehow represents all that… for some reason CDs cannot give that and I also collect CDs.”
Long before he put up Terno Records, DJ Toti Dalmacion was already into vinyls partly because of “the album art, the one that grabs your attention, the details, the inserts, the lyric sheet. More often than not, this is what attracts you into picking up a record you have no knowledge of and discover gems because of it.”
4. THE THRILL OF THE HUNT
“Life’s a journey not a destination,” Aerosmith sings in the song “Amazing.” So is the enjoyment of this hobby. What vinyl enthusiasts refer to as the thrill of the hunt is yet another reward that vinyls provide that other formats cannot. It’s so easy to just download songs. The same applies to CDs which you can order online or buy from the nearest record store of your choice. But vinyl albums are something else. Sure there are reissues that are starting to flood the market online and fairly recently, the physical record stores. But there are numerous sought-after albums that are out of print and albums that are every collector’s dream for being first pressings or for being made in Japan, Europe or the U.S.
Borlongan still remembers how he found John Lennon’s Double Fantasy in Shibuya, Japan. It gave him a different kind of high that never quite goes away. Thus, his advice to those who are in hurry to complete their wishlist. To wit: “the thrill is in the hunt. Collecting and listening to vinyl is a whole different experience.”
DJ and musician Diego Mapa of Tarsius, Pedicab and Cambio fame tends to agree: “when digging a record at thrift, discovering old music that is new to you has a good feeling to it. And not all old music or 45s are on the net. So you still get something surely only some have.”
The setting for selling and buying records makes the thrill inevitable. As Julius Babao notes: “there are a lot of record stores worldwide that sell cheap records. I just got back from Tokyo, Japan and I was able to purchase rare LPs at reasonable prices.” Toti Dalmacion’s over 30,000 records which are comprised mostly by first pressings and out of print records of both pop and cult favorites took years and in some cases, decades to find and acquire through his viny-hunting expeditions around the globe.
One need not actually go abroad to experience this so-called thrill of the hunt. There are several vinyl record stores in Manila which can help you afford such experience. There is Vinyl Dump in Cubao, the Grey Market at White Plains, Tres Kuletos in Mandaluyong, Vinylhead Wreckords near Cash and Carry and the long-running Bebop Records in Makati Square.
5. BACK TO THE MUSIC AND THE MUSICIAN
Borlongan believes part of the fascination for vinyl bears some anti-technology themes. “Dulled na yung senses ng maraming tao ngayon due to the sheer volume and variants of media.” Vinyl for him is like a back-to-basics kind of experience for our time, an apt response to the common tao’s overload from too much technology. You can have thousands of records downloaded but what do all those songs mean to you when you don’t even know who is playing what and what the song is about. Bruce Springsteen’s “57 Channels With Nothing On” comes to mind. “We switched ‘round and ‘round till half-past dawn, there was fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on.” Or for that matter, Joey Ayala’s “Machine Answering” and its lament over technology’s invasion of the personal.
Marie Jamora complains how some Ipod or MP3 users couldn’t care less anymore what they have in their Ipod or MP3 players. The indifference to music is what vinyl ostensibly addresses. It makes especially the youth who were born and raised on digital formats care about music. Which aligns with what Diego calls “the personal relationship.” A vinyl makes you understand that the musician took great pains to sequence the songs in the album into two groups: side a and side b. Furthermore, these songs were not just placed in the album haphazardly. There is a reason why some tracks are considered opening or closing tracks. Sting’s Ten Summoners’ Tales which opens with a Prologue: “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You” and concludes with an Epilogue:“Nothing ‘Bout Me” is a fine example. So is the Apo’s “Mga Kwento ng Apo” which presents 10 different stories ranging from loving across social divides to assuring a barkada of unconditional bromantic love. It’s good to remember that before the Ipod empowered the listener to create his/her own playlists as he/she sees fit or feels, the vinyl format gave the musician the wherewithal to create an “album” of how he/she thinks and feels his/her opus ought to be enjoyed by the listener. In the words of Jay Taruc: “Playing a vinyl record gets more into the artist and the music. I put on a record and I focus more intently on the album.” Triathlete and food blogger Erwan Heusaff’s seemingly simple answer of vinyl giving “a better sense of appreciation for the music” locates itself both here as well as the ritual aspect of vinyl listening.
6. HISTORY AND FAMILY
Interestingly, apart from the sound quality and the art work, the one thing that most influenced those featured in this report was their history by way of their their family and friends.
We are ultimately a product of our times according to social scientists. Joseph Esmilla notes that “I was born and raised during the era when the LP was the standard storage medium for recorded music.” It was not a matter of choice, writes advertising executive and composeer Nonoy Gallardo: “yun ang meron noong panahon ko. Noong 70s wala namang digital. Mayroon nang open reel at cassette tape players. I also had those, pero parang mas masarap makinig ng plaka noong panahon ng analog.”
If you are looking for evidence about the power of family and peer influence, look no further.
Diego Mapa shares that “I was turned on with my Dad’s vinyl collection at first. And he also bought me my first record. A best of Jimmy Hendrix album. Then in high school I would sometimes see a thrift or ukay, buy 1 or 2 and that’s it. Finally, I met music nuts same as my age who were already buying a lot.”
Marie Jamora knew the basics of cleaning records at the age of 5. She credits her dad and her elder siblings for her love of vinyl. She fondly remembers how her dad at that time would often go home from his frequent travels abroad with records from U.K. as “pasalubong.”
Julius Babao remembers getting his first record at 5 years old. “I grew up listening to vinyl records. I remember my very first vinyl record. It was Help by the Beatles which my mother bought for me when I was 5 years old.”
Jay Taruc has his generous barkada to thank for introducing him to vinyl: “Sometime between 1983 to 1989 another neighbor (i.e., we had extremely generous neighbors, by the way) introduced me to some vinyls available at the time. Aztec Camera’s Knife, Billy Joel’s Glasshouse album, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. I was hooked!”
Toti Dalmacion recalls growing up in a very musical family. “My grandparents, parents, uncles and aunties were really into music. In fact, my uncles are Dennis and Rene Garcia of Hotdog so it was inevitable for me to eventually get into music and at that time, the dominant format was vinyl. My first exposure to it was via 45’s also referred to as the 7-inch.”
7. THE MEDIA AND POP CULTURE
Borlongan remembers the year he revived his vinyl interest after an almost 20-year hiatus. The year was 2004. The place was New York City. As he was leafing through a magazine, he chanced upon a picture of a Vestax portable turntable. “Meron pa pala nito,” he muttered to himself. The next thing he knew, he was buying one for himself and, subsequently, buying used records and reissues like it was the 70s. And then came the upgrades every couple of years before he finally settled for a vintage Technics SL-1200DMark2. Borlongan credits media for the renewed interest in the format. The youth, he says, “see it in movies like Empire Records or High Fidelity and they are drawn to it out of curiosity.”
Marie Jamora has an interesting theory about vinyl in movies. She says the guys behind these movies most likely grew up on vinyl records. They are just acting out what they saw growing up. Which is all good for the format as those who see these movies eventually do one of two things. The youth who never had a direct experience of the format get curious enough to check it out. The young once who grew up on records get intrigued enough to find out if indeed the format is very much around.
8. THE NOSTALGIA BUG
Speaking of the young once, yet another driver of the renewed interest in the vinyl format is the nostalgia bug. That longing to go back to the past as immortalized in John Mayer’s “Stop This Train” and celebrated in the Eraserheads’ “Minsan.”
It is most unmistakable in Jay Taruc’s choice of hardware. Even if he can easily afford an all-new set-up, Taruc “opted for a late 70s to an early 80s set-up to replicate the sound (of my youth.)… The reason behind the choice of speakers was influenced by the music media to be played as well. Dapat tunog 70s to 80s din.”
Marie cites virtually the same reason for opting for a vintage Akai turntable instead of a brand new set-up. “I prefer to tweak the knobs to control the treble and the bass levels just like in the old days,” she says.
Ely Buendia confides that “for a time I was mostly buying vinyl for childhood nostalgia.”
Erwan Heusaff’s vinyl interest is just as steeped in nostalgia as he reminisces that: “when i was a kid, an old record player with a bunch of vinyls came with the house my parents had just bought in Canada. I remember my favourite album was one by The Chordettes and the snap crackle and pop that came from the speakers right before the song “Lollipop” played always made me so happy.”
Before the Deluge – The Prime Movers of Analog Music Then and Now
“Some of them were dreamers, some of them were fools who were making plans and thinking of the future…Some of them knew pleasure, and some of them knew pain, and for some of them it was only the moment that mattered…”
Jackson Browne was said to have written “Before the Deluge” as a wake-up call addressed to the Woodstock generation who lost and eventually found their idealism with the rise of the yuppie in the 70s. He spoke about the myriad of personalities that found their wings and did something that would eventually make a difference. He might as well be referring to the people behind the vinyl resurgence in this regard.
The musician Joseph Esmilla credits Wired State – Friends in Audio for keeping the analog fire burning. The forum was put up by Francis Sogono, a vinyl enthusiast himself in early 2003 to “create a virtual community for all who love music and audio – thus, the friends in audio” tag. Its membership is comprised by “designers, engineers, musicians, hardware and software dealers, DIYers but majority are simply the common lovers of music whether live or recorded. Another Wired State advocacy was to help promote and market Philippine-made and assembled ampllifiers and speakers.” It currently boasts of 6,000 members ranging from newbies to veteran audiophiles of which 20% actively participate in discussions. “Analog discussions dominate the forums over digital with a ratio of 5 to 1,” observes Sogono. It has anything and everything a vinyl hobbyist could possibly ask for and more. From which records to buy next to setting up your first turntable. From vintage gear to state-of-the-art equipment. From DIY gear to hand-me-down stuff. From trivial questions to existential ones. It even welcomes posts to pre-empt analog burnout (i.e., photography, cars, guitars, planes, scale models, etc.) Anyone and everyone is welcome. You can choose to just lurk or you can choose to post. To ensure everyone is on their best behaviour, it has moderators and administrators per topic and section. Best of all, membership is free. To quote Esmilla, “Wired State is the only forum I know in our country that caters to the interest of LP lovers. This is where local dealers and enthusiasts hang out. And every November, we all gather for a weekend of listening and LP hunting at the Hi-Fi show.”
The November Hi Fi Show came into being through the friendships formed in Wired State. Tonyboy De Leon who has been at its helm for the past 10 years refers to Wired State as “the bridge” that made it possible for them to meet up. In fact, the November Hi Fi Show started as an informal record swapping event among friends at the LPL Manor Building in Makati in 2004. That same year, Tonyboy and what would eventually be the Nov Hi Fi Show Team comprised by Boy Bustamante, Robert Crespo, Arnold Cruz and Joseph Esmilla were moved by the analog spirit to formalize the event at the Mandarin Oriental which would become its home until 2011. They moved to Dusit Thani in 2012. Crespo cites the Kevin Costner-starrer Field of Dreams as an early inspiration: “if you build it, they will come.” They put up the show by the balls sans feasibility studies and a proper org chart. Among their objectives at the time in addition to putting up a venue to enjoy music through the vinyl format were to showcase DIY audio to help local builders (who were featured gratis) and provide a physical venue where hobbyists can learn the latest hardware and catch up on their software needs and wants. Over the years, they got more than what they initially signed up for. There is the added psychic income of supporting indie bands like the memorable 2004 concert of the Radioactive Sago Project and indie films like Ang Nawawala and Jingle Lang ang Pahina. In addition, there is the now-famous and highly-anticipated Saturday night fellowships that would rival your most memorable high school reunions and the ever-increasing analog awareness among the youth meant to reverse what Tonyboy calls “the age of (musical) indifference.” Financially, it was a losing proposition on its first two years with Tony Boy bankrolling everything . On its 10th year, however, he looks back with vindicated pride when he remarks that it is the only show in Manila which not only counts on a loyal following. More important, year on year, visitor size has respectably grown. And so despite the fact that it is held in five-star hotels like the Mandarin and Dusit, he has managed to waive entrance fees. Thanks to public support as well as the critical support provided by audio-visual exhibitors both local and foreign. This year boasts of 55 exhibitors capped by his biggest coup, thus far. To wit: bringing in the Analog guru himself, Michael Fremer to Manila to conduct a workshop on setting up a turntable the right way.
Long before there was Wired State and the Nov Hi Fi Show though there was Rene Rivo who has been specializing in turntable repair, restoration and set-up for the past 30 years. An engineer by profession, he started buying vinyls in Bislig, Surigao del Sur while he was in high school ran by the Salesian Brothers. Thanks to his dad and his elder brother, he inevitably developed a talent for tinkering with all types of audio visual equipment, from Betamax to laser discs eventually graduating to VHS and DVD players. His first love though was the restoration and set-up of turntables, amplifiers and speakers. Asked how many turntables he has repaired or restored for the past 3 decades, he smiles and just says, “countless bro.” He still remembers his first successful restoration job though – an ST-70 Dynaco. After college in 1983, he jumped from one company to another for 2 years until he realized his bliss was in his passion. He has not looked back since. For the next 30 years , business initially coming from both the suppliers and buyers at Cash and Carry enabled him to raise a family and put his kids through college. Recently, celebrities have been knocking on his door to ask him to either repair their audio gears or set up one. He has no Nielsen Soundscan statistician to measure the vinyl resurgence but get this: these days, he averages a minimum of 1 turntable repair per week.
Noly Dy of The Analog Source only got bitten by the whole idea of restoring turntables in 2007 but he is an interesting mix of Tonyboy and Rene. That’s because complimenting his skill at restoring to-die-for Swiss-made Lenco turntables (i.e., he has restored 50 and counting over the years) is his informal awareness campaign to educate particularly the young about the wonders of the analog sound. He is possibly the only analog enthusiast who would go out of his way to demonstrate gratis what a turntable is and how it works mostly in schools and related social events. The psychic income comes from the young who would tell him about their experience of listening to a better-than-MP3 sonics. And then there is the eureka moment from grown-ups who marvel at the fact that: “meron pa pala nyan ngayon.” It seems to be paying off. He says per month he averages around 10 visitors asking about turntables and set-ups. Most of them surprisingly are not from Wired State. His vision is for more people to discover analog despite the dominance of the digital media.
You may have the right hardware but without the software to play and enjoy, the analog experience is not complete. Bebop Records owned and operated by another De Leon, in no way related to Tonyboy, has been the go-to place over the years. Bob De Leon boasts of a 30,000 record collection which he has amassed over the years starting from high school. Like Rene who tried his hand at different jobs, Bob struggled with day jobs that did not move him after his college studies. He knew early on what he wanted his life to be about – vinyl collecting. And to sustain it, he took to buying and selling what else but records, thousands of them. Bob started out as an avid buyer at Phoenix Records and A2Z both in QC before deciding to go into the same line of business. On top of the income that he uses to sustain his hobby while raising a family, Bob gets a lot of fulfilment when he is able to pass on his passion and his encyclopedic knowledge of vinyl music to start-up hobbyists who wish to grow in the hobby. Since he was himself a buyer cum collector before he became a businessman, his empathy and sympathy for the vinyl buyer complements his pursuit of profit. He will tell you in all honesty whether a used copy is near mint or VG at times even going to the extent of discouraging you from buying what he is supposedly selling you if he thinks you will not be happy with the sound quality.
Bob’s remarkable longevity as the proverbial go-to vinyl “pusher” is matched by the ingenuity of two up and coming vinyl advocates: Heima and Satchmi.
Heima (“hi, ma!”) which is owned and operated by Bong Rojales is strictly speaking not a vinyl store. Rather, it is a home and lifestyle company established in 2009 which “designs quirky furniture and furnishings for one’s home.” Vinyl records and portable Crosley turntables are only two among the many items that they sell. There’s home decors, mint-condition typewriters, scents, lighting, furniture, lithographs and paper art. Writes Bong Rojales: “Lifestyle is part of our brand, the music part is in a way complimentary. We are not a full time record store. We have records and players because it fits the brands’ identity.” Nonetheless, Heima owns the distinction of being part of a group of companies which helped Jamora release a Filipino movie soundtrack on vinyl in the 21st century. Nawawalang Soundtrack which director Marie Jamora describes as the “best music in the world” boasts of vinyl-only tracks by Ebe Dancel (i.e., “Cuida” recorded live), Ely Buendia and Raymund Marasigan (i.e., “Minsan” rearranged for the movie soundtrack) and the Apo ( i.e., “Ano ang Ibig Mong Sabihin”) and some of the best releases by indie bands today.
Satchmi, on the other hand, which was inspired by Louis Armstrong’s nickname Satchmo, positions vinyls and turntables as a call to action. Established in 2012 by 3 vinyl enthusiasts, Edric Chua, Ronald Sy and Aislinn Chuahiock all born in the 1980s, its goal is no less than to tear down the walls between vinyl cultists protective of the exclusivity of their hobby and the general public particularly the youth sector and those who once had a love affair with vinyl growing up. Nope, they are not out to pick a fight with vinyl audiophiles. Their call to action is in response to a “very fast-paced culture” with “a 3-second attention span and…a tendency to (write) 140-character status messages before going back to the grind.” Satchmi has its roots in Vancouver where its chief strategist Edric Chua lived after college. While walking In downtown Vancouver, he happened into this old vinyl record store which gave him the inspiration for what his team calls the Satchmi experience – “marvelling at beautiful things, romantic pasts, and uncommon luxuries.” To transport such an experience to the country though, Edric and his team struggled with the question, how will their target clients get past the supposedly 60K entry fee – the estimated amount it takes to purchase an all-new analog set-up? Their answer is the Motorino – a portable turntable which the curious could take home to give vinyl records a try without breaking the bank, as they say. To reach out to the greatest possible market for music, Satchmi employs a two-fold strategy: partnering with Astro Plus and participating in as many bazaars as possible which was how they started.
Despite their varied backgrounds, what cuts across all of these groups and these personalities can be captured by one color – red and one word – passion that knows no bounds. Nothing more, nothing less. Interestingly, both the veteran Hi Fi Show organizer Tonyboy De Leon and start-up Satchmi’s Edric Chua did not commission any feasibility studies for their respective passion projects. They literally flew by the seat of their pants.
The Future – Where Is the Vinyl Format Really Going?
“Things are going to slide, slide in all directions. Won’t be nothing, nothing you can measure anymore. I’ve seen the nations rise and fall, I’ve heard their stories, heard them all but love’s the only engine of survival.”
The mind reels from these kaleidoscopic insights shared by vinyl devotees and prime movers of the black circle. If such is the power of the vinyl format and such is the passion of its advocates, collectors and consumers, could it eventually retake its place as the dominant format given that the CD is reportedly dying as a format?
Leonard Cohen’s “The Future” drops some clues to help the reader navigate through the future of vinyl albeit by metaphor. In this pre-apocalyptic song , Cohen admits that despite the signs of the times that the end is near, there is still enough reason to hold out for hope and survival by way of what else? but love, love, love. True, it looks like the end is near but wait just yet. It looks like the vinyl format is ready to make a comeback and achieve critical mass but wait just yet.
It could still go either way. The jury is still out if this vinyl resurgence will eventually hold out even if it seems that way.
Forever a Niche Market?
Crespo reminds us that, “you must remember that during our time, vinyl was the only format to enjoy major record releases.” “Wala pa nong internet o CD o DVD o MP3” as the band Sandwich would put it in their song “Betamax.” That is no longer true today. Which explains why none of the major players we interviewed consider themselves purists when it comes to vinyl music. They could easily shift from one format to the next depending on the circumstances or their moods. Gallardo offers: “pag pang background lang yung music, saksak ko yung Ipod. When I have the time to sit down and listen at gusto kong namnamin ang areglo, ang bawat nota – LPs.” Which reminds me of rock and roll hall of famer Neil Young’s observation that Steve Jobs who gave us the Ipod may have made it easier to carry your music library in your pocket, but “when he goes home, he listens to vinyl.” Granted that digital is here to stay, the question persists: will this grow? Most of the people we interviewed agree it will grow but it will not achieve the kind of critical mass it used to enjoy.
Bong Rojales notes that “the vinyl market is definitely growing worldwide, but so is iTunes and other modes of music listening (i.e., Spotify, Soundcloud, 8tracks, etc ). People have more choices in the 21st century. I for one move from one format to another, in various modes at any given day. I may listen to vinyl for breakfast, move to my desk and play FLAC files on my desktop then listen to 8tracks while mobile, put on a CD in the car, then cap the night streaming music on an AppleTV. The main difference at this time is that because of people and the indie community who helped revive the interest in vinyl, the market is going mainstream.” Rojales’ Heima released Nawawalang Soundtrack and supported Number Line Records’ Primate by Diego Mapa’s Tarsius. It is also retailing The Number Line Anthology which features the best tracks of Number Line Records’ stable of indie bands. “All are doing or did well by our standards,” says Rojales.
As if on cue, Toti Dalmacion’s Terno Records released Capacities by Up Dharma Down also in 2012. Per Dalmacion, “it’s been selling steadily. Market response is positive” even if his company “has a unique and distinct strategy to market it. We only sell it during gigs and at Fully Booked branches. Radioactive Sago Project will most likely be up next but we will have to base it on pre-orders. It is an expensive proposition. Pressing can only be done abroad as there are no pressing plants left in the country.”
The local recording industry has yet to jump into the vinyl bandwagon. Except for Polyeast Records that is. Richard Calderon, the New Media manager of Polyeast is the lone ranger of mainstream recording companies when it comes to checking out the prospects for an OPM vinyl release. The results have not been disappointing, so far. He shares how stunned they were with the fact that almost 50% of Bamboo The Singles vinyl units were sold within the first week of its release. He is hopeful but is at the same time, cautious. In fact, he and his team are so hopeful that a second wave is being readied for release to the market soon. Before the year is over, anthologies from OPM icons FrancisM, The Dawn, Joey Albert, and True Faith will hit the market. Calderon is pinning his hopes on the vinyl resurgence as a protracted way of reversing the damage done by piracy. In his words: “hopefully, it will make people care more about how great our music is as a country.” There was a time¸ shared Calderon, when music was on a 1 is to 1 basis. You wanted the Beatles’ White Album, you get yourself a copy. Digital music and its attendant developments changed all that. Calderon states that: “we were already talking about doing some vinyl release as early as 2012 since we have a vast OPM catalog.” His take on why Polyeast seems to be all by its lonesome is that “we must all realize that all these current companies deal with CD and digital. Vinyl is really a different field for them. Someone within these companies should really take the initiative and re-learn a lot about the vinyl format.”
Or a Brewing Critical Mass?
But will all of these heroic efforts at reviving the format in the country reach critical mass?
If we go by the power of the two distinct groups of vinyl buyers whose numbers are increasing, it might not necessarily be beyond the realm of the possible.
The first group is the youth. Heima’s Bong Rojales notes that most of their vinyl buyers are young, between 20s to 30s. This is the same group which has been purchasing Crosley turntables from them. Observes Toti Dalmacion, “there appears to be renewed interest in the format mostly coming from the youth sector who are getting curious about the phenomenon. It’s perceived as something in, trendy and cool these days.” There is also a certain defiance and quasi-rebelliousness in the youth that Boy Bustamante and Noly Dy detect. The parents of today’s youth listened to CDs growing up. The youth, true to form, want to be different. So they take to vinyls. Those who underestimate the power of the young would do well to brush up on their history. The Katipunan, the NPA and the People Power revolution were powered by the youth. In fact, music is primarily consumed by the youth since time immemorial.
There is another equally significant group though, notes Marie Jamora, whose economic power augurs well with the possibility that the vinyl market will continue to grow in the coming years. To wit: the market segment which grew up on vinyl and who now have the disposable income to invest in it. Think about it. These individuals who were born and raised in households where the vinyl was king are now in their 40s and 50s. They grew up in households where the “plaka” was the dominant storage medium. This phenomenon is not exclusive to the Philippines. In concerts by classic rockers like The Eagles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and U2, it is not an uncommon sight to see 40 and 50 year-olds plucking air guitars and pounding air drums next to audiences in their 20s and 30s.
Which lends credence to Noly Dy’s fearless forecast even as he agrees that objectively as of today, it’s really a case of a growing niche market. In the same breath though, he asks, who knows? A couple of years ago, this whole business of pampering oneself through the spa and the different variants of body massage were considered luxuries. The tablet, it should be recalled, was dismissed as superfluous given that everybody has a laptop already. Smart phones were unheard of as the attendant expense would most likely make it next to impossible to buy them. Look where these are today. For all the objections to the price tag associated with the analog experience, the entire gamut of mindsets grounded in the themes of quality of life, work-life balance, time for oneself, slowing down and going back to the basics may be said to be the same kinds of motifs that might just facilitate the return of the vinyl to the mainstream.
Could it be that this was exactly what visionary director JJ Abrams had in mind in 2013 when he chose to showcase the vinyl and the turntable as still the ultimate way to enjoy music circa 2354 – the year that Star Trek Journey to Darkness is envisioned to have taken place. A future where wonder of wonders, space ships can time warp, humans can be beamed up from one place to another and the dead can come back to life. A future where remarkably music can only truly be enjoyed through vinyls playing on turntables.
Joseph Esmilla’s insight tends to dovetail with JJ Abrams’ reserved place for the vinyl and the turntable: “The first microgroove LP was released in June 1948. The first CD player and audio CDs went into the market in October 1982. It’s November 2013 and we are talking about LPs, which are still available on the top floor of Fully Booked at Bonifacio High Street, along with CDs and DVDs. That in itself is an indicator of its remarkable staying power.”
In the end, regardless of whether it will achieve critical mass or remain a niche market, to the vinyl enthusiast, Dave Matthews’ declaration suffices –
“I am no superman. I have no answers for you.
But I do know one thing is where you are is where I belong.
I do know where you go is where I wanna be.”