A metal musician’s quest to revive physical formats in India (Column: Let The Music Play)

One of the fondest memories of my early teenage days was scrounging for music CDs at stores. At that time, I was completely oblivious about the internet and didn’t even own a computer. The notion of high-speed online music streaming and searching for music on smartphone apps was still like a dystopian dream.

I may have been 16 when I unknowingly stumbled upon a bootlegged CD compilation featuring hard rock and thrash metal acts like Guns N’ Roses and Metallica. When I slipped the disc in my old stereo system, I had no inkling that the music I was about to hear would change my life forever. Almost a decade later, I am still a proud metalhead and, yes, I am still attached to the physical format of CDs and even vinyls more than ever.

Although in today’s Internet era, where everything is just a click away, devout fanatics of hard rock and heavy metal like myself have a hard time sourcing physical copies of albums. A look at once-popular music store Planet M’s website — where 32 pages worth of listed music items are labelled “out of stock” — is enough to understand the abysmal state of the physical format in the country.

However, defying all odds — and even somewhat succeeding in his effort to keep the scene alive — Bengaluru-based musician and entrepreneur Vikram Bhat is still ensuring that in these dark times, the country’s select few metal fans and rock lovers continue to get their regular supply of music titles through his store Mahatobar Distribution.

Bhat, who is also the frontman of long-running death metal band Dying Embrace, says the idea to create a physical store came through his quest to “get good music out to fellow fans”. A couple of years ago, he took a leap of faith and established a small shop at M.G. Road, Bengaluru, to relive the old memories he grew up with and “also for younger fans to experience how it is to be in a store with physical copies of music on display”.

People thought he was crazy, but the store recently completed its second anniversary, thus dispelling the notion that people don’t want to buy CDs or vinyls any more.

While most youngsters today spend their time streaming music online, checking a song or two before moving on to the next artiste, Bhat proudly imports titles from music giants like Sony Music, EMI, Warner, Universal along with a plethora of underground heavy metal record labels.

“Sourcing stocks is not much of a problem, the companies are surprised that there is a market still and there is a physical store still standing. I am pretty much the only one they are importing rock and metal titles for in the country exclusively. Most bigger stores have given up,” Bhat told IANS.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Bhat was a part of the city’s tape trading scene — the primary way for rock and metal lovers to source the music in the country during those days.

“There was a booming bootleg and tape trading scene back then… Friends would get an album from a friend who had a friend, who got the album from a friend’s friend,” he reminisced.

To one’s surprise, even in the late 80s and 90s, Bengaluru (then Bangalore) had plenty of little music shops that peddled hard rock and heavy metal albums.

“Major labels like HMV, Magnasound, Universal all put out metal albums on cassette tapes adding to the madness. Actually, we were spoilt for choice without the internet, only difference, we had to pay for the music, which kept the industry rolling, the shops running and our passions fuelled,” he said.

“The ’80s and ’90s had so many fans, shows would have nothing less than 200 to 400 fans turning up and everything was spread via word of mouth. The underground music network worked better that way,” Bhat added.

It was during the 1990s when Bhat took his undying passion for heavy metal to newer heights by stepping in as the vocalist of Misanthrope — touted as the first ever death metal band to emerge in the country — in 1996. The band was later re-christened Dying Embrace, and it celebrated its 25th anniversary at a gig called High Voltage in Bengaluru just earlier this month.

However, unlike today, sourcing good equipment to play and record music was a herculean task in the 90s, reveals Bhat.

“Dud amplifiers, sub-standard guitars, tin can drums, we went through it all,” he said, while lamenting that the younger generation is “not appreciating music as much”.

A bunch of self-taught musicians, Dying Embrace went on to release a string of EPs between 1998 to 2002, before going on a decade-long hiatus, only to rise like the triumphant phoenix in 2011. The reformed band went on to release a compilation album, a new EP, a single and a split with Pakistani metal band Dusk.

“I think it was a case of us being there at the right place at the right time! Extreme metal from India was put on the global underground music map unknowingly by us,” says Bhat. And rightly so.

He believes that extreme music is an experience and it’s for a chosen few.

“It’s these fans who have kept the faith alive and helped small stores and distros like mine around the world survive and keep the flag flying high!”

(Ankit Sinha can be contacted at ankit.s@ians.in)

–IANS

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