Raj Sarma is a record collector based in Philadelphia. In his COTM application, he writes of his youth, “As a kid I grew up listening to music on vinyl and a lot of this music was Indian film music from the 70s and a lot of Indian Classical music…We listened to all of this huddled around a vintage Philips record player that my grandfather had gifted to us.” Sarma has a collection of 1,500 pieces. We thank him for his time.
Tell me about what you grew up on. In your application for COTM, you reference Indian film music and Indian classical music. Was it more digesting these different genres in mass or were there specific artists you were excited about?
Growing up, Indian classical music was a mainstay in our home due to the fact that most of my family, including my mother, is a trained Carnatic singer. Every morning we woke up to the sound of singers like MS Subbalakshmi, who is revered as one of the greatest Carnatic singers of all time. Similarly, Indian film music also greatly influenced my taste in music simply because there was no escaping it!
Dr. L. Subramaniam, Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, Zakir Hussain, Hariprasad Chaurasia are a few of the many artists whose music I have grown up on. I must admit though, as a youngster I probably never appreciated Indian classical music the way I do now and it leads me to believe that one’s palette for music is ever evolving and matures with age and experience.
What English music did you get into as a kid? I know you had some 7” singles. And was that introduced through your parents or someone else?
Although Indian music was all around me, I personally loved Western pop music. Artists like Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Phil Collins, etc., were my idols growing up.
My exposure to western music was primarily through limited programming that we had on TV and radio at the time. My brother and I used to wait impatiently for a show called “Top of the Pop” on weekends and of course the Grammy Awards used to be aired on TV in India a few days after the actual event. Whenever these were aired, we used to record the songs we wanted on cassette using an old panasonic tape recorder.
My grandfather gave me his old Philips turntable and a whole bunch of 7″ records. I still remember very vividly the excitement we all had when we brought the turntable home. It was beautifully housed in a leather briefcase and had two small speakers built into it. Please don’t mistake this to look or feel anything as cheap as the Crosley players you see these days, this was easily the most elegant piece of audio equipment I had seen at the time.
Now that I think about it, I never really knew how my grandfather collected those records and why he gave them to us!
And what kind of role did it play for your entire family? In your application, you describe this really beautiful scene in which you gathered around the briefcase player and spent evenings together.
The turntable needed some fixing and had to be setup; I recall spending a lot of time with my father and my brother setting it up. Once it was setup, we spent a lot of time listening to the records that my grandfather had given us. TV programming was quite limited those days, so we spent most of our time listening to music. My personal favourite was the single called “Windy” by The Association. That song has stuck with me to date as one of my favourites.
Sadly, the turntable stopped functioning one day due to a burnt out motor. We gave it to a small engineer whom we trusted, sadly he ended up cheating us and never showed up again. We later found out that the turntable itself was actually an antique and was one of the very first all-in-one models manufactured in that era. It was a regrettable loss.
You mention that in your following youth, you went big on cassette tapes and not so much on CDs, given their expense. On that notion, have you noticed the uptick in cassette offerings and have you started to build that collection at all again?
Since I was introduced to vinyl at a time when cassettes had already become popular, I didn’t really understand why anyone would want to buy music on vinyl. LPs were large, fragile and most importantly, not reusable! Also, they had become increasingly difficult to find in India. CDs came in much later and were prohibitively expensive in India and were always considered a luxury, so cassettes were the best medium at the time and they could be carried around and played on a walkman. However, I always understood the limitations of cassettes, they wear out with use and don’t really store well especially in the humid, tropical climate of Bombay.
Knowing what I know now and after being exposed to high quality streaming, I don’t see the point of buying cassettes other than pure nostalgia. As a medium, I don’t really think they have much to offer. They sound alright and as far as I know, they were offered as a portable alternative to vinyl. So in this day and age, with the convenience of streaming and the fidelity of both digital and vinyl, I don’t really see the relevance of cassettes.
So you move to the United States for grad school and pick up records again about 5 or 6 years ago. Tell us the story of those first few records you purchased and how that drew you into the hobby again.
After moving to the US, I sadly stopped buying music as I was a poor student from India and as cliche as that might sound, I really had better things to do with my money. Around that time (2002-2003) is when I discovered Napster and I downloaded copious amounts of music and was just amazed at how quickly I could rebuild my music collection and store it all on my computer. Although it felt great at the time, listening to MP3s on my desktop speakers and even on my iPod never really satisfied me. I missed the experience of rummaging through my collection or showing off my collection to my friends.
So years down the road, my wife and I are walking through Williamsburg, Brooklyn and I see this guy selling records from the back of his van. Struck by sheer nostalgia, I bought Frank Sinatra’s Cycles and ordered an Audio Technica ATLP60 on Amazon and that’s how my journey once again began. Just seeing those few LPs on my shelf below a turntable brought back so many memories and I couldn’t understand, for the life of me, how I managed to get by for so many years while depriving myself of this euphoria of buying music and holding it in my hands and having something to look at! So, once again I started buying music on vinyl. At the time, though, I had no idea that in such a short span of time vinyl would see such a resurgence. When my friends saw me going to thrift stores and buying LPs, they thought I was nuts, but now most of them own record players!
And now, you have 1,500+ records in your collection and a high end audio system. What was it that took it from a casual, reconnecting with your youth style relationship to a more intense, heavy collecting relationship?
I never really anticipated getting so heavily into vinyl, but the thing that triggered it was getting a better turntable. Initially, I was running my ATLP60 through the phono section of my AVR and while that sounded okay, I had no idea what I was missing. One day, on a whim, I decided to upgrade my turntable and bought a Denon DP-300F and a Musical Fidelity phono stage; this was the turning point for me. I was stunned by the improvement in sound and was completely taken by how good these 40 and 50-year-old records sounded! I also started cleaning my records and saw a marked improvement in sound. This took me down a bit of a wormhole with numerous upgrades that followed until I settled on the system that I have today. As of now, I can’t imagine spending money on music in any other format. However, I do have a Spotify premium music account which I use extensively and it also has served me well for discovering new artists.
Tell us about your audio system. And are you the type of listener that subscribes to the “warm” vinyl sound or what do you think vinyl adds to the experience?
My audio system as it stands today has come through many permutations and combinations over the years. As mentioned earlier, I started with an ATLP60 connected to my AVR and today I have a reasonably high end dedicated stereo system that consists of the following:
What are some of your prized possessions? If you had to grab 5 or so records before some sort of a disaster, what would you take and why?
What are some of the white whales you’re still on the search for?
Where are you located and what are some of your favorite record stores?
And kinda taking this back to the beginning, are you still into Indian music and what should those unfamiliar with the music dig into to be introduced to that culture?
To be honest, with age I’ve started to appreciate Indian music, especially Indian Classical a lot more than I did when I was young. Of course, Indian film music is something I grew up listening to as well, in both Hindi & Tamil languages and I have LPs of some really famous films of yesteryear. Strangely enough, these LPs would now qualify as “white whales” for anyone interested in collecting vintage indian film soundtracks as they’re not only difficult to come by, they’re also very expensive. And needless to say, unlike western music, these titles won’t be seeing a repress in the future.
If anyone is keen on getting into Indian music, I would definitely recommend getting into Indian classical and Indian fusion. Artists like Zakir Hussain, Ravi Shankar etc. have been working with American & European artists since the 70s and have produced some of the finest crossover fusion music. “Shakti” is one such band and any lover of jazz would love their music. Other artists to pursue would be the ones I’ve listed earlier.
From our last COTM: What is your favourite album and is it tough to find on vinyl?
Ooh! This is a tough one! I wish I had one such album as I could buy it and be done. But I will say this, growing up, The Doors were my favourite band and I’ve tried to collect every cassette, CD & record that I could. I even have a figurine of Jim Morrison on my office desk!
If you could toss one question in the COTM pool, what would you ask?
As a collector, at what point would you refuse to pay for a collectible record that you really want? And do you think the one you already have is worth the price you paid?
We want to once again thank Raj for this time! You can apply to be our Collector Of The Month, below.