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MUSIC ON RIBS: A Brief History of Soviet X-Ray Records

As reported by USA Today, the Recording Industry Association of America has released a report confirming that in the first half of 2020 vinyl records outsold CD’s for the first time since the 1980s. While this may be surprising to some older folks who tossed their cumbersome record players when CDs became the leading format, it should not be to anyone following physical media trends of the last decade. There will always of course be the argument between audiophiles as to which format truly sounds better, but for many it is about more than just sound quality…

Unlike the old days, the music distribution is now democratized; any band who records a few tracks in their home studio can press a record and market it online through multiple platforms created for indie musicians to sell their wares direct to consumers. For many record buyers, it’s not about the fidelity at all. In fact, there are many who buy vinyl records simply to admire the package or just to have a rare item – and never play them.

Like most collectors of – well – anything, whether they be stamps, record or airline sickness bags, it’s all about chasing that high of snagging that one in a hundred or perhaps even a one of a kind item to be guarded jealously in their collections. For vinyl fanatics, a limited, deluxe, colored vinyl reissue of their favorite 8-bit video game score or a first edition copy of Led Zeppelin II, factory sealed replete with the hype sticker could hit the spot – it’s all about what I have that you do not.

So where does the search for rare vinyl intersect with YPT and “destinations your mother would rather you stay away from” at budget prices? There are plenty of opportunities to snag unique cultural artifacts such as a Chinese-pressed vinyl copy of “Sailing Seas Depends on the Helmsman” or even North Korean film soundtracks on vinyl if you’re lucky enough to spot them at a DPRK roadside souvenir shop. However, after many years of taking tourists to some of the world’s most unique travel destinations and perusing vinyl selections on every corner of the earth, the YPT team has reached a consensus on what we feel is a must for any vinyl-collecting, adventure traveler: Roentgenizdat Recordings or “Bone Music” or “Music on Ribs.”

Most students of 20th century history are aware that the Soviet Union had pretty strict rules on media censorship and any records or music played on the radio had to pass through rigorous censorship. Naturally, rock ‘n’ roll, pop and jazz music from the West were banned, as well as a number of genres and styles, such as gypsy music, the tango and foxtrot, and anything else considered incongruous with the state’s vision of Soviet life.

Despite harsh consequences, Soviet music smugglers and bootleggers were willing to risk life and limb to bring banned music to the working masses. However, one could not just waltz into a state-run record pressing plant and press 500 copies of banned music. The solution? Renegades music lovers used a record lathe to write grooves onto plastic X-rays stolen from hospital rubbish bins. The square X-rays were then trimmed into a circle. Both light, easy to transport and inconspicuous to the untrained eye, “Music on Ribs,” referring to the macabre image of a record needle running over grooves etched upon an image of uncle Sergey’s ribcage, became the primary medium for banned music.

Though the fidelity would give today’s audiophiles an aneurism, these records were available at the affordable price of only one ruble. Naturally, Soviet government was not a fan of this practice and, in 1958, passed a law formally outlawing making and distributing home recordings. Of course, this did not end the practice and Music on the Bone, featuring everything from The Beatles to Soviet musicians who found themselves on the wrong side of Soviet history, can still be found in markets and antique shops across the former USSR.

Given that each of these records were pressed onto a unique, singular X-ray, no two Roentgenizdat recordings are the same. As such, Music on the Bone are YPT’s number one recommendation for vinyl lovers looking to find the most unique record to show off to their friends back home. For a more in-depth look at the history of Bone Music, check out the comprehensive site X-Ray Audio

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