BLOOD ON THE TRACKS. Riga's vinyl culture then and now.

Last ten years have been a significant time for vinyl. Because of the hipster culture and its following retro-impact on our lifestyle and digitalisation, or, eventually, a growing ability to actually purchase records - the sales and number of stores have been sky-rocketing all over the Western hemisphere.
To celebrate the World Record Store Day on 13 April here is a very compact article on the rich Latvian vinyl history and its renaissance, as well as good locations for your purchases. Finally - we also created a superb PODCAST dedicated to albums you can probably only buy in Riga!
vinyl, riga, drawing, capital r, mārtiņš eņģelis, 2019
In 1931 the only shellac manufacturer in the Baltics, the legendary Bellacord Electro sound record factory, was founded in Riga. Through the first Soviet decades it got renamed as "Rīga sound record factory", "Baltija" and "Līgo", but then adapted its final, renown "Melodija" title in 1961. Bellacord was a vantage point to Latvian musicians and shined with producing on devices from the now famous Neumann.1 Then "Rīga sound record factory" tried keeping national socialism alive by adding a city panorama on the label and folkloric elements on the cover. Meanwhile "Melodija" united all record factories from the USSR to Riga in 1964 and became the largest long-playing record producers in the world then by fabricating whooping 135 000 000 vinyl per year.

An example of production by from "Rīga sound record factory". Circa 1945 - 55.

Let's be frank here - we can only talk about "regulated" music being pressed, published or aired during these years. Actually everything that was unsanctioned by the civil servants of party and responsible ministries, was considered illegal, blasphemous and confrontational to the Soviet rule. In many cases musicians were performing Elvis Presley or James Brown by faking it as original music or creating a fake story of why the bands matter to Soviet people. There is a possibly true urban legend about The Beatles - when they were aired on the radio, the band was introduced as the "young communist band from communist Liverpool named De Bea Ah Tles". Of course, habits of enjoying forbidden music was a different opera, and listening to pirate stations on boats or bootlegging music for reel-to-reel bears a different story.

Now, when returning to vinyl culture, it is important to mention that many of the forbidden albums were illegally transported to the city by mainly sailors, also speculators and even Jewish doctors. Many taxi drivers worked as couriers, and their work particularity allowed to travel undetected around the city and deliver. Meanwhile, many from Jewish community worked in the field of medicine an had access to X-Ray plates. The plates were then used to re-press records to anyone, who had the need. No doubt, the quality was poor, but, hey, - it still was Bob Dylan.2

A still from "Roentgenizdat". Directed by Stephen Coates & Paul Heartfield. 2016

Alas, everything comes to an end, and every end is a new start. The official date of "Melodija" ceasing to exist was 1999, when it struggled as a private company for a couple of years after denationalisation, when Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Now the factory is capitalized completely and turned into a grey, unappealing multi-purpose office area. On the contrary, Latvians and many other Post-Soviet nations could finally dig into any musical style and try reaching some career results in continental and even global charts.

But the vinyl lives on. Its sales struggled as well, when there were almost no record stores able to sell them some decade ago. Only one or two in the whole city (even maybe a country) were selling new pressings, including the legendary Upe music space, and one or two more were selling second-hand. Actually, the advent of charity stores (starting with "Otrā Elpa" in 2009/10), brought used vinyl back to business, when many, not knowing its true value, just donated loads of potentially good material to be sold for peanuts. Very soon the hipster movement with its retro-spectro revival mood took over, turntables got their market again, and now Riga has a handful of specialized vinyl stores with several others, including thrift stores, offering second-hand gems.

Of course, we are only talking about the average user. All the vinyl-heads, who never dropped plastic polymers from their lives, will disagree, saying - physical copies of music, more particularly, electronic, experimental or collectible never went out of style. Ivars Zaļkalns, a prominent electronic music and a former radio DJ is one of still many, who never dropped the vinyl routine:
It's like bread to me. I can feel it, touch it and smell it. Every vinyl carries a message engraved by artist or sound engineer. Besides there is a lot of interesting music in vinyl not been found in any other format. Maybe it isn't the most convenient format of today, but vinyl's the most haptic and the most delightful one. It does not lag or crash (like digital files), one can't erase it accidentally or lose its content in some virtual folder. Such records give a feeling of the music piece being truly mine. I can give it as a present or sell it. Finally, on the contrary to other formats, the value and price of vinyl records has a tendency to grow in years.
Touché. Still, for others, vinyl is either an absent, new or recurring hobby. Many will admit records are bought as presents or as souvenirs - put into cupboards for proud display and most likely never to be played. But there is nothing bad about it - this way music never disappears (if only on a house fire), a physical copy comes with true memories triggered any time, as well as there is a clear, little, but direct contribution to artists.

Many in Riga have revoked their listening habits because of a simple reason - lack, loss or disability to have a turntable. It's only obvious - for those, who value vinyl enough, high expectations toward their sound system are very much present. After all, one needs to be a real melomaniac to invest into record players, when there is so much of "free" or almost-like-free digital music around. On the other hand, vinyl is quite kitschy for young adults - the ones, who move often, live in communal flats and, in many cases, don't have their own landing space. Having a record player means an extra weight.

After all, we still believe there is this haptic urge in you for touching the real deal. So - we collected a little shortlist (in alphabetical order) of several good places where to buy new or used records for all tastes. Let them serve as a starter for a larger crusade to your perfect purchase:
  • Centrāltirgus/Latgalīte. Although Latgalīte, the famous flea market of Moscow suburbs, is still somehow alive, most of thrift kings selling all kinds of gems have moved to the Central Market territory behind the Meat Pavilion. We suggest beginning your scavenge there for some real antiques and shellacs, and then, if feeling any extra hunger, moving to Latgalīte few blocks down the Gogoļa street.
  • Foto 56. Don't let the name fool you - this place really is a photo shop selling used Soviet and Western (+Japanese) retro reflex cameras and their accessories. But then they sell all kinds of retro vinyl. From Soviet countries, from Soviet-friendly and satellite countries, as well as for all possible Post-Soviet tastes. This definitely is also a-must to all lomo geeks and Soviet nostalgia lovers.
  • LP. Although being cited quite seldom, this record shop has struggled trough crisis and is still selling a very reasonable set of records.To be honest, it might have limited number of vinyl, yet they have top notch albums from well tempered artists.
  • Otrā Elpa - Stabu. Although today this first charity store in the country (and its several stations scattered around the centre) has lost its uniqueness as a source of records, some good gems pop up anyways. Also it tells a very good story of what people have in their homes, what they think has no value, and what mutual history albums represent. Actually, the variety of Otrā Elpa shops provides visitors with an anthropological layer for record culture. Plus, the prices are a burner!
  • Plates.lv. This store has the largest online record selection as well as a very eclectic offer on spot. If you live in Latvia or come with a massive checked luggage - players and other equipment is also for sale in this old school stylized store!
  • Upe. A music record stronghold being around for a couple of decades already. Located in the heart of Old Town (this one - on Vaļņu street), it has become a mining cave for both freshly released, newly pressed, or retro albums and collectibles for reasonable prices. Also the interiour feels like one of those retro motion pictures - minimalistic and packed with stalls and stands.
Finally, CAPITAL R also wanted to celebrate this extremely musical article by having its first podcast - the CAPITAL R Record Store day Special! Accompanied by Michael Holland, a highly active English/Irish record collector and scavenger residing in Riga now, this 2-hour podcast strives to paint the extraordinary picture of record offer in the capital city. It contains some 20 songs from various periods and styles, but one can observe a strong influence of 1970's music to Latvian album scene and second-hand market.


Have a listen to the podcast here (tracklist will be updated soon!), ignore Marie Kondo for a while, and go find your own perfect record this weekend or any other day!


1 Bellacord Electro
2Kad cilvēks ir laikmets. Intervija ar Jāni. Blūza leģendu Jāni Vanadziņu.

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