Vinyl culture in Ukraine: how it all began and what is happening now

Viktoriia Demchuk

Uniquely Ukrainian vinyl has existed for over 30 years since it became so after the disappearance of censorship, but Ukrainians have been in the listening culture for almost twice as long. Someone searches for something unique for years, collects, resells, someone buys for parties and leisure, and someone pays tribute to the trend.

How the vinyl culture of Ukraine was formed, changed, and what it is today-we tell in the material by experts.

Translator: Tetiana Roshko

During its existence, vinyl was something sacred-a personal contact of the listener with the music, the album, and, at the same time, with the artist. Records are the kind of music you can hold in your hands, care for, wipe off dust, show friends vacation photos, and touch and feel the magic. Such an intimate ceremony took place with the participation of Ukrainian music.

The first record on which the Ukrainian language sounded was recorded in 1899 by the Emil Berliner company in London. The following year, this firm recorded seven more records with Ukrainian singing. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was already a record company, “Ekstrafon,” in Ukraine, which produced records on the spot. This is how the recordings of the choir of M. A. Nadezhdynsky appeared with the songs “Oh, the dove flew”, “Oh, the girl walked”, “Has forged the grey cuckoo”, and in 1914, for the anniversary of Shevchenko, they recorded “Roars and moans of the Dnipro wide”, “And a wide valley”, “If I had shoes”, “Fires are burning, music is playing”, “Water flows into the blue sea”.

With the advent of Soviet power, all means for recording music in Ukraine were destroyed or taken to Moscow, where they were used to record campaign speeches. Then the Soviet period of Ukrainian vinyl began. Although it was accompanied by censorship, it had a significant impact on the formation of Ukrainian music, since much of our music was recorded by the Soviet company “Melodia”, and “music on the bones” practically became the key to the development of Ukrainian funk and pop music.

The beginning of vinyl in Soviet Ukraine
Ukrainian musical culture, particularly vinyl culture, was formed in the 1960s. “Mriya”, “Eney”, “Second breath”, “Smerichka”, “Opryshky”, “Kobza”, “Arnica”, “Magic Guitars”, “Vatra”, “Patterns of Paths”-an incomplete list of groups that created music in Soviet reality. Their work became a landmark for the modern musical culture of independent Ukraine.

Although the totalitarian system relaxed the pressure a little, the musicians understood that they were walking on thin ice, playing “bourgeois music,” as it was called at the time. There was a certain censorship and a monopoly on publishing and promoting music. For example, one of the records “Patterns of Paths” begins with a communist song; “Magic Guitars” was recorded in Moscow, and the name of the band was written in Ukrainian, but with Russian transliteration; records, for example, by Sofia Rotaru, were bilingual-from different sides of the record.
As for the process of publishing records, it was quite difficult in the Union—at that time, there was only one firm, “Melodia”. During their existence, they released more than 500 records, 20 of which contained specifically Ukrainian material. These twenty records, roughly speaking, existed thanks to Vasyl Zinkevych, Nazariy Yaremchuk, Taras Petrynenko, Viktor Morozov, Kyryl Stetsenko, and Volodymyr Ivasyuk.

“Of course, most of Melody’s records have outlived themselves. But there are exceptions; for example, the same Ukrainian artists of the 70s and 80s. If vinyl lovers knew about VIA “Vodogray” or “Smerichka” for a long time, then these bands became known to the general public after the Bard [Vitaly Bardetskyi] film “Mustachio Funk”. And there are quite a lot of such musical treasures on “Melodia”,
Hryhoriy Ivantsiv, Gram Record Store (Kyiv).
“Bone Music” also had a significant influence on the formation of Ukrainian music. The concept appeared in the rock and roll of the 60s and was one of the first manifestations of music piracy. X-ray archives stored in Soviet hospitals became the most accessible material on which a real record could be re-recorded. 
When a foreign record arrived, they bought a cutter at the nearest border, put it on, and cut it on an X-ray. Only the upper frequencies could be heard, but people listened because they wanted to.

At the same time, thanks to this “X-ray music”, the Ukrainian musicians of that time were able to follow world trends since it was almost the only opportunity to listen to the conventional “Beatles”, which, according to the testimony of the performers themselves, started everything.

“I am personally acquainted with the bassist of “Smerichka”. He once collaborated with Ivasyuk. He told me that all the musicians in Ukrainian pop music at that time drew their inspiration from The Beatles. Sometimes I have the impression that there would be no Ukrainian pop music if it weren’t for them.”
 — Pavlo Gots, record collector from Lviv.

Vinyl’s usefulness has waned, but not completely 

Over time, the number and types of players changed. After 1991, the “Melodia” record factory in Aprelivka near Moscow tried to exist independently, but it did not last long. Sales plummeted: 33 million records in 1991 and only 10 million in 1992. In 1995, they had to completely stop producing records and switch to tapes. The advent of CDs and cassettes largely caused the demise of vinyl. However, it did not take away sacredness.

“Digital sound technologies were another blow to vinyl. There is no need to get up, transfer the record to the other side, and wipe it. This gives some convenience but takes away from the quality of the music, in my opinion. On vinyl, which is about the sacredness and great respect for music, you can hear exclusives that are not available digitally. For example, collections of classics that were recorded, or Ukrainian artists recorded in Soviet times.
Vinyl is more than a music carrier because it is also a printed product. You can glean a lot more information from a vinyl cover than, say, from a cassette tape. “
Yulian Chaplynsky, co-owner of Vinyl Club Lviv on Kryva Lypa street.

The death of records was logical in countries where piracy had taken root. Specifically, in Ukraine, this mechanism was almost perfectly established due to the historical past—lack of free access to world music and financial inaccessibility.

“In Soviet times, there were so-called beams and steps. There was fresh vinyl. It was brought by those who could leave: diplomats, soldiers serving abroad, sailors, and truck drivers. There was also an opportunity to transcribe onto a cassette. It was, of course, easier in the world because it was published and sold there. It was not available here, rather because of the prices”.
Andriy Smirnov, founder of the Aby Sho Music vinyl label.

Photo — Olya Zakrevska

The Second Coming
In Lviv, the Melodia vinyl store operated until 2011 and closed due to a lack of demand. Chronologically, this year is intertwined with the wider use of Internet resources. At that time, already popular piracy continued to grow through zaycev.net and similar portals. The process, lasting no more than five minutes, allowed users to download music from all over the world for free (well, except for paying for the Internet). And this is at a time when in neighboring Poland, even today, people have a separate player for discs in their cars—there they simply did not go out of use.

“It was a celebration in Poland when Spotify and iTunes appeared. You pay 10 dollars, and you have access to all the music in the world. In our country, for some people, it is still: “Fuck, 10 more bucks to pay for me to just listen?”
 — Pavlo Gots, record collector from Lviv.
The culture of using records in a way that negates piracy is because in all countries and in almost all times, music has cost money. The better the sound, the higher the price. That is why, in regions where piracy was not entrenched, the vinyl did not have a big break in use. The industry received a second wind at the beginning of the XXI century. 
To a degree, listening and consumer culture prioritises sound over value.
According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIIA), vinyl sales grew 37% in 2007, despite a 20% decline in CD sales that same year. According to research company Nielsen SoundScan, 2 million vinyl records were sold in the US alone in 2009; in 2012, it was already 4.6 million gramophone records. In 2013, sales in the US amounted to 6.1 million records. In addition to the US, progress was also noticeable in Great Britain and Australia. So in 2014, the British Phonographic Institute said that vinyl sales were approaching the million mark—and this last happened in 1996.

In Ukraine, you can’t call this break a big one in the history of Ukrainian music either. Back in the early 90s, records were released by the Audio Ukraine label, and in the 2000s by Moon Records and Oleh Skrypka’s Kraina Mriy publishing house. In 2011, the “Melodia” store completed its work in Lviv, and in 2013, the AbySho Music publishing house began work in Kyiv. 
The connoisseurs of the alternative sound, who did not stop their activities, the mainstream wave, and several subcultures that harmoniously combine the old and the new, are the ones who caused the revival of the record culture. In Ukraine, there is an establishment with an audiophile GRAM system, events where you can listen to records, such as “Vinyl and Wine,” as well as shops. One of them is Vinyl Club Lviv.
Born into a family of musicians, the architect Yulian Chaplynsky knew from childhood that a record gives a qualitatively different sound and effect of presence. For a long time, he was a visitor to the Vinyl Club Lviv store. At that time, there was only one store in the whole city, and the greatest demand was for cheap folding Crosley players. Over the years, communication with the owner of the store, Oleh Matseh, grew into close cooperation and, later the birth of another store.

“Crosley was more of a tribute to fashion, but over time, when listening to vinyl, people needed better sound and bought inexpensive sets with speakers. They were ideal for small apartments, cabinets, and offices. Later, buyers appeared who selected players for the interior, had estates or large apartments. They were already ready to spend more money on it, selected speakers, and thought out the location. “
 Yulian Chaplynsky, Vinyl Club co-owner on Kryva Lypa street.
With the war, the demand for both record players and records increased in the Lviv Vinyl Club. For example, in January-February, they sold out of all available collections of “Skryabin” and sold a huge batch of the album by the band KALUSH.
 Today, a significant part of Ukrainian pop music is released on vinyl records. Pianoboy, “Boombox”, Dakh Daughters, “Antytila”, and Khrystyna Soloviy—all are available on vinyl. And individual records of “Ocean Elsy”, “DakhaBrakha”, and “ONUKA” are considered very rare.

“I felt like I was in the 70s a month ago. We were standing near the Vinyl Club listening to the record “Dakha Brakha” by Alambari from the AbySho label. Then it was already the second edition. And there was a real queue, like 50 years ago, everyone culturally waited for their records. Well, how culturally there was a quarrel in front of us. A woman said, “How is it that you brought your relatives? Now you can buy all the vinyl, but people won’t get it. “
 — Pavlo Gots, record collector from Lviv.
The popularisation of vinyl is due both to the requests of music lovers who have been listening to these players since childhood and to the possibility of earning money for performers. With the change in the status of vinyl in society and the emergence of new generations, tastes have also changed significantly. 
Before starting to take care of Gram Record Store in Kyiv, collector Hryhoriy Ivantsiv was a professional musician, sang in the National Bandurists’ Chapel, and was strongly drawn to vinyl. He wanted to buy records without even having a player and only on recommendations since the slow Internet did not allow me to listen to the tracks. Subsequently, Hryhoriy began cooperation with Vitaly Bardetsky, the owner of the Gram bar, which contains an audiophile acoustic system.

“20 years ago, sales records in Ukraine were set by Modern Talking and Metallica, i.e., conventional “80s disco” and classic rock and heavy metal. The average age of a record listener has also changed. I missed the story of the so-called “father of rock”—classic bands like Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple—and I always formed the assortment in my store based on modern music, which impresses and is more understandable to a young collector.
Today’s listeners have become more receptive and erudite. Today’s youth are more knowledgeable about music than the music lovers of the 90s or 2000s. Some albums, like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, have retained their commercial potential, but most classics today lose out badly to Arctic Monkeys or Bon Iver.
For a record store, it’s ideal to find a balance between price and demand for a new release and to guess how long demand will last for the classic albums that dominate the vinyl charts. For example, the Beatles’ Abbey Road or Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black are always missing.”
Hryhoriy Ivantsiv, Gram Record Store (Kyiv).
With the revival and later spread of vinyl culture in recent years, prices for records have also changed. Albums by the same artist can have different prices at the flea market and in the store, and the flea market is not always cheaper. Old “Melodia” records are in demand, as they mostly remain a cheap segment.

“I have an understanding of why vinyl prices are becoming “adult”. The band “Nazva” and I are currently releasing the vinyl of our first album and experiencing all the processes for ourselves. The design of the cover, the layout of the tracks, the characters, the elements—there is a lot of work and a kind of sacred history behind it. It’s cool that the number of people listening to vinyl is increasing. Vinyl is about the culture of listening, about the ability to listen to music from beginning to end, feeling all the processes that occur throughout the track. It’s like reading a book: you don’t start it from the middle or the end. Of course, not everyone will buy into this listening culture. Not everyone leaves school smart either, but the more schools there are, the more smart people there are in the world. “
 — Pavlo Gots, record collector from Lviv.

(At Kyiv’s Vinyla store, Stas Koroliov signs copies of his debut album.)

Still sacred or already hipster?

It is believed that the resurgence of the vinyl record trend was largely due to the zoomer wave of hipsters. Combining the old with the new is almost the main concept of this generation. For some people, buying records and turntables is nothing more than a tribute to fashion, and many Ukrainian DJs mix the use of records from the 60s and 70s with modern music at parties. Convinced music lovers believe that vinyl culture never disappeared.

“Undoubtedly, there is some zoomer wave in this now. But for me, vinyl has always been and is more of a listening culture than some kind of mainstream wave. “
Pavlo Gots, record collector.

Whatever vinyl feels like to you—an intimate process or a tribute to fashion—listen. It doesn’t matter to society or the salespeople in vinyl shops what you buy a record player or albums for: dance with a glass in the kitchen to Arctic Monkeys, cry to the Boombox, or heat the wires with a hair dryer like a die-hard audiophile to make Nina Simone sound warmer. Listening to vinyl has the right to live in any form as it is also a part of Ukrainian musical culture. All manifestations of culture should be preserved in times like now.

“Now it’s all together. But as a separate culture, it was and will remain in the future. There are always collectors and connoisseurs of the sound that a record gives. They say that this sound is better than digital. But I don’t think so. He is, so to speak, more honest, more magical, and sensual.
I concluded that despite everything, a person needs a piece of something personal and intimate, which gives a certain relief from the horrors of reality. Vinyl is just that. “
Andriy Smirnov, founder of the Aby Sho Music vinyl label.

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