When India Made Vinyl – The Pressing Plants of HMV and Polydor - Indian Audio Heritage
By the beginning of the 1930s, there had been great development in recording technology. Crude mechanical processes gave way to new high-fidelity electrical recordings facilitated by vacuum tubes and magnetic tape.
The 78 rpm shellac record however, had serious limitations both in terms of the fidelity and length of recordings.
Less than 5 minutes playtime per side of a 78 proved to be problematic both for Indian and Western classical music, and the record companies found themselves under pressure for longer uninterrupted playback.
By the mid ‘30s, the American record bigwigs RCA Victor and Columbia Records were both independently developing an upgraded record format.
However, the coming of World War II put work on hold. Ultimately, it was Columbia (By now a part of the EMI group which included the Gramophone Company and HMV) who launched the first modern vinyl records in 1948 with the 12” “micro-groove” LP format.
Playing at 33 1/3rd rpm, the LP could hold over 18 minutes of excellent quality audio per side and was considerably more durable than the old shellac records. RCA followed a year later with the 45 rpm 7” EP.
In India, the introduction of the LP format saw a complete change in the outlook towards recorded music. Conservative classical performers that were earlier apprehensive about condensing their work for a 78 were now much more willing to be recorded.
A great cultural exchange between India and the west could thus occur during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s 1955 LP “Music of India - Morning and Evening Ragas” became the first Indian record to become a mainstream international success, and India too was flooded with releases of western pop and rock.
This set the stage for the unequivocal link between India and the hippy counter-culture of the ‘60s.
The Gramophone Company of India began local LP production in 1958, and in the mid ‘60s had a monopoly that was even investigated by the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices Commission.
Things changed in 1968 when Germany’s Polydor launched an Indian subsidiary with a pressing plant in Bombay.
Polydor collaborated with Bombay’s Patel Group, who were involved in processing of cine-film and had great access to the film industry.
Polydor was thus able to secure exclusive contracts for releases of new film soundtracks and attained immediate success. This led to a bitter joust with the Gramophone Company as the two firms fought to secure exclusive film music contracts.
The record market was going strong in the mid ‘70s, with film soundtracks being the top sellers. The Gramophone Company scored gold certified sales with the soundtrack for Raj Kapoor’s Bobby (1973), and a major win for Polydor followed with their release of the Sholay soundtrack and dialogues in 1975 becoming the first platinum certified record in India.
Things would change by the start of the ‘80s though, with the cheaper and more practical cassette tape format drastically eating into record sales.
Although both the Gramophone Company and Polydor entered the tape market as well, they would both descend into shells of their former selves against fierce competition from new entrants such as T-Series, who lacked the burden of heavy prior investment in record manufacturing facilities that had now unfortunately become white elephants.