Under Siege - How the GRAM audiophile bar and record store in Kyiv used the power of music to bring some semblance of normality in dangerous times.
Wednesday, October 19, 2022
Readers of this blog will have no doubt been saddened by the continual news feed showing the shocking events taking place in Ukraine. Despite the terrible footage and stories of misery, it can be too easy to take normal life for granted living elsewhere in Europe. In large parts of Ukraine normal life now means the sound of sirens and accompanying explosions. Despite all of the chaos and uncertainty, things that are core to a modern society try to continue with music and sporting events giving some form of respite from the terrors in the east of the country. It was only the spring of this year when the country’s capital Kyiv was close to being under siege from Russian forces. Large heroic counter offensives have pushed back those forces and some semblance of normal life have returned to the city, but the threat is never far away.
Moving away from the shackles of Communism, passionate music lovers in Kyiv wanted something different, more eclectic and expressive with GRAM as an example of that evolution. Opening as the first audiophile DJ in a bar in Ukraine, it is also home to the GRAM record store. We spoke to Hryhorii Ivantsiv from GRAM to talk about the bar, record store, music scene and life close to the front line.
Tell us the story behind GRAM, how did it come about and who is involved in it?
Vitalii Bardetski came up with the idea four years ago. He’s done a lot in Ukrainian showbiz and was behind most exciting Kyiv parties in the early 90s (Torba, one of our first with vinyl DJs) and 2000s (XLIB Club). Few years ago he did a documentary on Ukrainian 70’s music called Vusatii Funk (Moustache Funk). This movie is responsible for a big spike of interest in our music from that era.
My personal input in GRAM is the record store. I was a professional musician until the 2007-2008 financial crisis, and was a choir singer in State Capella of Bandurists. I’ve done a few international tours with some orchestras and choirs. I visited about 40 US states and can recall mainly every big local concert venue and the curtains. Classical music and some DJ background helped me with a smooth transition from performing to record dealing.
Rustam Babayev, a DJ and producer, well known within Ukrainian DJ scene and an ex-Buddha Bar Kyiv resident, is the guy who usually meets customers in store. When Ukraine did a big fundraiser in Switzerland a few months ago, Rustam performed on stage there.
You are located alongside an audiophile bar in Kyiv, that relationship must work very well?
Well, I have to be realistic - it is not as we expected. Our vinyl culture is very young, basically before the 90s there were only soviet records here.
When I’m digging old local collections, it is mainly soviet cringe stuff. Because the USSR was so strict, people often obtained records just because nothing else in terms of music was available. Very few in that era were able to get records which they really wanted to listen to. Any UK/US/EU records were prohibited by the communists.
So you can not compare our vinyl tradition to countries who had records (with good music) for decades. The biggest soviet best-selling albums from the 1960s to 1980s have now lost 99% of their original feel and value.
So the audiophile bar is something that our people are not getting really used to. Again - we experienced COVID and war, but we still want to run it anyway.
I can see that a lot of thought has gone into the look and feel of GRAM, it looks like a cool place to come and hang out whether you want to buy records or not.
Of course, a design project is behind this with some cool vintage hi-end equipment (Mackintosh amp, Altech speakers etc). It’s cosy, sometimes even a bit like a chamber, it’s not very crowded except for the weekend parties.
Obviously the last year has been incredibly tough. How hard has it been to run GRAM given the last 12 months and ongoing uncertainty?
When war started, the store was unreachable for 40 days. Kyiv was under potential siege and was closed, sometimes there was even a full 24h curfew to fight sleeper Russian agents, all drive-ins were prohibited. Neighbours recalling a few shootouts, but no bombings luckily, though there were air strikes just a few minutes from where GRAM is located.
Late April we decided to run a charity vinyl fair, and it was the most exciting event I can recall from this year. Finally after two months of warzone echo, spending time during air alerts in shelters, the killings of close people and heartbreaking stories, there was good feeling in the air.
In terms of business our cash flow dropped like twice compared to what it was before February. For now, earning is not a goal, but surviving, saving the business and supporting the army and people in need is.
There were donations from friends, buyers and colleagues from all over the world which helped a lot. I never stopped doing Discogs orders, and finally opened an eBay store to get more international sales.
It is tough but not even close to what my friends or colleagues in Kharkiv, Mariupol, Zaporizhia or Chernihiv (cities closer to Russia and Belarus) have experienced. Some of them lost their homes after rocket strikes or occupation, their cities were destroyed, they had to leave everything and became refugees.
What kind of issues have you faced in terms of sourcing new records and people travelling to visit the store and bar?
Logistics are not impacted, though now it’s more expensive. I still order from EU distributors but the margin is lower than before. I can’t charge the pre-war rate because vinyl prices are up and less people can afford them plus the Ukrainian currency lost about 25% of its pre-war value, which means people also lost 25% of their incomes.
Hubs like a record store can be an important community place for like minded people, have you found that to be more the case in recent months?
It’s something which I always had on the table but didn’t have the proper amount of time to do. The store is very DIY and I’m not running it as a business venture, more a place I like with music on vinyl which I like to offer. I'm doing a lot of shop work myself - cleaning, listing, ordering, diggin’, speaking with customers etc. In terms of doing business and time, the investment is wrong, but I like it and want to do it.
Of course over time visitors become friends, and we are a community. There are big plans to get involved except selling, it all depends on how quickly and how exactly Russians will end the war.
Music has an incredible power to make people forget about their troubles, being able to operate must have brought some sense of normality to some of your customers?
Oh yeah, especially with such a powerful tool as vinyl record, the most attractive and involving type of music collecting. I know that some people stopped listening to music after full scale war started. Those who still do, however, are viewing vinyl as a substitute for live concerts and something which give rare moments of comfort, harmony and good excitement in these crazy days.
You stock a wide variety of local and international music, how have tastes in Ukraine changed over the past decade?
Always progressing, dream pop, shoegaze, acid / techno or post rock is common and listeners can and want to choose whatever they are in to, they have the ability to make ideal music picks.
A decade or two before, the Ukrainian vinyl market sort of circled around some heavy metal / hard rock classics and German disco with likes of Gilla, Dee D Jackson or Modern Talking and so on - choices from the 1970s or 1980s, without really exploring new artists.
The UK and other parts of Europe have seen a strong resurgence in the popularity of vinyl. Have you noticed a similar pattern in Ukraine and are you seeing local artists pressing vinyl releases?
For sure, though we do not produce enough as for a country with a population of 40 million people. In the 2010s we did 10 times less vinyl records compared to Poland, with about 700 releases only.
It is like it is because we still do not have strict anti-piracy laws plus a lot of people can not afford legal content. Numbers of those who do pay for streaming and buy records are growing though.
And there’s of course Russia, they always tried to run down our culture. We had a huge number of Ukrainian artists that appeared in the 90s right after the USSR collapsed, but since the 2000s, because of Russian money influence, our showbiz industry has gone a bit in the wrong direction. Good thing that Ukrainians are big and historically deep enough to survive cultural invasion again and again.
Trackhunter focuses on dance music among other genres, what is the electronic music scene like in Kyiv?
It’s quite big because of the techno boom which Closer Club headlines. Resident Advisor and those who visited from all over the world praising their Brave! Factory Festival; where in 2021 Kode9, Acid Arab, DMX Crew, Len Faki, Modeselector, Arp Frique and many others appeared.
For the first time two Ukrainian artists are in Beatport’s Top-50 DJs (Nastia, ARTBAT) plus there’s very successful Ukrainian DJs on YouTube (at least) by the names of Korolova and Miss Monique.
We have a bunch of cool niche artists, with a number of DJ formations and interesting parties are growing in number. I mean, before the war of course, whereas now everything is in hiatus. Because of the night curfew from 11pm there’s no nightclubbing and because no one can guarantee safety from Russian rocket strikes, concerts and parties are starting early and located close to air raid shelters, or in already secure underground venues like the subway.
It must be hard to make concrete plans, but what plans do you have going forward?
No plans, only a lengthy wantlist. I want to live. I want to fully experience new music, I want to be at a huge music festival, I want open air night DJ sets, I want to spend and not save money, I want to visit the UK and US with plans to dig some records. I want the GRAM Record Store to be successful enough to move forward with something I have in mind next.
Where do you discover new music?
Rate Your Music or Bandcamp, plus Spotify-Deezer. In a normal year I’m buying from a few record pool subscriptions and getting some 12” for myself from the distributors. I’ve done a few parties but they were a while ago, so to play a legit DJ set is a dream. I’m after some disco edits and stuff like Zouk or Gwo Ka, this is what makes me happy.
https://soundcloud.com/rustam (Rustam's page, he's operating in store)
https://www.instagram.com/gramkyiv/ Discover new digital dance music with Trackhunter