Why a Madisonian is pressing small amounts of vinyl in India

Ankur Malhotra explains the business behind Amarrass Records' small-scale record-pressing operation.

Grooves under a microscope, literally, in Amarrass Records' small-batch vinyl production facility near New Delhi.

Grooves under a microscope, literally, in Amarrass Records' small-batch vinyl production facility near New Delhi.

The revival of vinyl records has become an almost unremarkable fact for Americans, unless we're remarking upon backed-up pressing plants or rising prices. But if we're saturated going on jaded, then listeners in Asia are stunningly underserved.

In India, listening habits are perhaps even more digital-centric than they are in the United States, says Ankur Malhotra, a Madison resident who grew up in New Delhi and co-founded the Amarrass Records label. Malhotra recently told me that there are perhaps a dozen retailers selling vinyl records in all of India—a country with 1.3 billion residents and six of the world's 50 most populous cities. A Times Of India story from January identifies just nine stores for records—three in Mumbai, two in Delhi, two in Bengalaru, one in Kolkata, one in Chennai. The nearest record-pressing plants are in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, and together they don't represent a lot of capacity relative to two whole continents. It's safe to call this an untapped opportunity.

"For a country the size of India, there are a fair number of vinyl heads out there," Malhotra says. "Yet nothing is being produced in the country—nothing has been for 30-plus years."

Since he came to Madison in the late 1990s to earn his MBA, Malhotra has been active in Madison's music community as a DJ, blogger, photographer, and co-organizer of the Fete De Marquette's Musique Electronique stage. Amarrass is mostly run out of Malhotra's east-side home and his business partner Ashutosh Sharma's travel agency in New Delhi. The label's offerings have ranged from wizened traditional folk artists—sometimes recorded on arduous trips to remote regions of India—to young groups like Milwaukee's Painted Caves, who hybridize Indian and Middle Eastern sounds with Western psych-rock.

Though he's got a business and engineering background, Malhotra isn't interested in mass-produced offerings. Instead, he's hoping to serve a bunch of small markets, some international and some in India. He's using a machine that tediously produces a few dozen LPs a week. Amarrass recently began selling four of its releases on LP, all in runs of 35 to 50 copies each. They include a self-titled album by Lakha Khan (a master of a stringed instrument called the sindhi sarangi), a reissue of Painted Caves' 2012 debut album, and Kesariya Balm, a new album from Rajahsthan, India's Barmer Boys, who bridge Amarrass' traditional and youthful sides and in that sense serve as the label's flagship group.

About five years ago, Malhotra and Sharma found out about a small company in southern Germany that makes vinyl-cutting equipment. It took several years of correspondence before the company would even agree to sell them a machine—they only wanted buyers who were serious about making quality records and handling the equipment properly. Finally, in January of this year, Malhotra and Sharma traveled to a small Bavarian town for a 16-hour training session. "It is a fickle machine," Malhotra says, "It's not by any means a plug-and-play device. It involves a lot of patience." The training ended around 1 a.m., when the two learned how to disassemble the machine so they could ship it to New Delhi. 

Around the same time, India was embarking on an experiment called de-monetization. Essentially, the Indian government recalled most of the nation's cash currency. "86 percent of the Indian currency in circulation became worthless in a weekend. And businesses, especially small businesses like ours, got massively hit," Malhotra says. "The entertainment industry got hugely hit. We typically get paid in cash—if people don't have liquid cash, entertainment is the first thing that gets chopped from the budget."

Amarrass forged on, installing the newly acquired vinyl lathe in an office complex southwest of Delhi proper. The space neighbors a spa on one side and a consulting business on the other, so it had to be soundproofed to accommodate the machine's extremely loud vacuum pump. Malhotra spent most of March on the road with the label's touring artists, and didn't get down to cutting actual records until April. As he made a small run of the Barmer Boys album, he discovered the advantage of small-batch vinyl is a quick turnaround that a traditional plant can't offer, even if making the records themselves takes longer.

Malhotra uses a microscope to inspect a newly cut record. Photo by Ashutosh Sharma.

Malhotra uses a microscope to inspect a newly cut record. Photo by Ashutosh Sharma.

"That album was recorded on the 16th, 17th, 18th [of April], in Delhi," he says. "Then we spent the next two days mixing tracks, editing tracks...spent a few days while the tracks went to a mastering engineer in Holland, and got the tracks back, and I cut about seven records in one day. So on 28th April we released the album on vinyl. From a turnaround standpoint, especially with the kind of work we've been doing with field recordings and live sessions, it's just easier for us."

That relative speed will be crucial to making Amarrass' vinyl business sustainable. Malhotra estimates the label spent between $15,000 and $20,000 to buy the machine, set up the space, and travel for that training. That's before other costs that will come up, like hiring more people to do the manufacturing—currently only Malhotra and Sharma know how to operate the lathe, and they have to travel a lot and actually run the label. Three of Amarrass' vinyl releases sell for $30 apiece before shipping, and one is $80 before shipping. Some releases planned for the future, with handmade original art, will go for as much as $100. Amarrass will have to sell hundreds of LPs before it even begins to recover its initial investment.

Malhotra admits it's "a long-term play" and expects it'll take about four years to break even. He plans to put out between nine and 12 Amarrass vinyl releases this year, including split records that will feature Barmer Boys on one side and live recordings from west African guitarists Vieux Farka Toure and Bombino on the other. But he also thinks Amarrass' model will attract a variety of other customers looking to put out very small runs of vinyl, like local bands without labels, or electronic producers who want to get their music to DJs quickly but with the deep, fat bass vinyl offers. (Malhotra recently played me his vinyl pressing of a live-recorded DJ set from New Delhi dub producer Ravana, and I can vouch for the bass part.) He even wants to offer vinyl wedding invitations, which he envisions having traditional wedding songs and audio messages from the bride and groom or their parents.

In a traditional vinyl pressing plant, the master recording of an album is cut into a lacquer disc, which is then used to make a metal stamper, which then presses the grooves into raw vinyl to make large quantities of records—each more or less a reliable copy if the steps are carried out properly.

At Amarrass' space near New Delhi, which is about half the size of Malhotra's east-side living room, each individual copy of an LP requires a lot more attention. Start with a raw PVC disc, variously ordered from companies in Germany or Seattle. Pull off its plastic sheeting. It comes with sharp edges, so you have to trim and smooth it. Place it on the spindle. As the diamond cutter stylus forms actual grooves in the record, you're wrangling the audio in real time as it passes through an amplifier, a couple stages of equalization, and a laptop with a spectrum analyzer. Of course, you can't press vinyl without heat, so while you're keeping an eye on all these variables, the room's going to get up to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit or more.

Amarrass' vinyl-cutting setup. Photo by Ankur Malhotra.

Amarrass' vinyl-cutting setup. Photo by Ankur Malhotra.

"If you're one step out of sequence, your record's fucked," Malhotra says. "We didn't destroy as many as we thought we would."

The operation also includes a couple of microscopes so that Malhotra and Sharma can keep an eye on the quality of the grooves themselves as a record is being cut, and analyze them once more after the process is done.  "I can now actually look at grooves and have a sense of what kind of music is encapsulated in those grooves. For a bass-heavy track, the grooves would reflect light differently," Malhotra says.

At first, it took Malhotra several hours to make a single record. Now he's gotten used to the process, and also figured out some ways to make it for efficient, like just focusing on one release at a time rather than skipping around to different ones throughout a work shift. He can make 50 to 75 copies per week of a typical 35- or 40-minute LP. The gear didn't come with an instruction manual, so sometimes he'll email a question to the German gentleman who sold it. "Sometimes he'll send back a one-word answer saying, 'Interesting,'" Malhotra says, laughing. "And then you figure out, OK, I need to do more research into this problem on my own and re-draft my question....it's frustrating when you're three months into the project and you want to start making records."

While offering new vinyl options to Amarrass artists' fans internationally, the label also hopes to help build up demand for a broader vinyl revival in India and other markets in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. (Malhotra really wants to get distribution in Dubai, for instance.) "These folks don't want our CDs, obviously...[the vinyl] opens up doors to certain markets," Malhotra says.

They're also going to be selective about what they take on. Malhotra says he'd had inquiries from Bollywood studios and Sony—and from investors who might want to build actual pressing plants in India—but he wants to focus on music he believes in, whether or not it's on his label.

Because of the manufacturing process Amarrass is using, Malhotra says, "ultimately we have to listen to that music again and again...so it'd better be bloody good!"