Go with a smile!

Sunday, May 30, 2010


They invented the CD in 1982, and at that time they said that it was going to be the gold standard for audio fidelity. The CD was a joint invention with Sony and Philips. When determining the length of a CD, the chairman of Sony decided: make it long enough for the entirety of Beethoven’s ninth to be fitted onto it. Beethoven’s 9th is 60+ minutes, so they made the length 73 minutes.

Since then, there had been a few other attempts to replace the CD. There had been the digital compact cassette and the minidisk in the 90s. I think they had super audio CDs and DVDs and stuff like that.

The CD had proven to be a durable medium. There were concerns that CDs, being an optical medium, could only be played a few thousand times before it expired. That did not happen to any of my CDs so far, but I better play some of my older CDs to double check. What is not durable are CD players. Because the CD revolves a few hundred times a minute, it is inevitable that the motor wears out quickly.

There were some people upset about the CD when it came out. There was a nostalgia for vinyl records, and then cassettes. I bought a lot of cassettes as a kid, and I could not afford CDs on a schoolboy’s pocket money. I think CDs cost almost 3 times as much as a cassette. That’s why sieteocho does not really understand it when people tell him he’s a rich kid – he understands poverty, really.

CDs were seen as the ultimate end point for all music technology. In a way this was true. It was the first form of music storage that was digital in nature. It was also possible, in that way, to jack up the prices of CDs to be extremely expensive. I think they cost twice as much as vinyls. The record industry probably saw the CD as their ticket to even greater profits. The earliest CDs were sold as $33. When you considered that cassettes were going at around $6 or $7, that was extortionate.

We moved to my present home around 1990, and we bought a hi fi set. It was also around the time that I started listening to pop music. They asked us which CDs we wanted to buy. I decided on Phil Collins’ “But Seriously”. (My sister was a fan of “Another Day in Paradise”, which she considered a “meaningful song”.) And we also bought “Milli Vanilli”. Eventually we saw Phil Collins for what he really was – a balding nerd – and I sold off that CD. I hope we kept that Milli Vanilli CD as a souvenir – it wasn’t even the actual CD, but a remix – but I don’t seem to be able to find it.

It was also the beginning of my being a music freak. The next 5 years were the high point of my love affair with music. But as said, I bought cassettes. Unfortunately, cassettes wear out eventually, no matter how well you keep them. And the tropical weather in Singapore is singularly unsuitable for cassettes, because the damp damages the oxide layer.

Around the time when I was in JC, cassettes became less and less common. As my tastes were somewhat different from mass produced commercial music, the music I wanted to obtain was to a large extent not available on cassettes. (They only manufactures cassettes of the bestsellers in Singapore, which means atrocities like Ace of Bace and Michael Learns to Rock.) I bought BIGO magazine on a regular basis, because they opened to me a world of music that wasn’t available to myself just by looking at your typical HDB retail outlets.

At the same time, this was around the time of Nirvana, who was at the vanguard of a revolution in a music industry – the “Alternative” music revolution. Consumers want choice. They don’t want to listen to your Bon Jovis and your Cunts and Roses because everybody wants to listen to them. I differentiated myself from my peers through my music.

I also got a lot of my music from mainstream magazines. By reading through them in a lot of bookstores without every buying them. (I repeat – I understand the meaning of poverty very well). You may wonder how this is possible. Well, in the good old days, when Times the Bookshop was king, they used to have more standing room around the magazine racks than they do today. Nowadays reading print magazines is not possible, nor is it necessary because you have the internet. Through them, I was able to learn about all the major bands in classic rock and all that stuff.

Another reason for me to buy CDs, therefore, were the classic rock albums. To be sure, there were plenty of stuff available on tape. But the rest, I had to go and look for the CDs. This meant the Smiths albums, 1 or 2 Bob Dylans, almost all the Joni Mitchells and all the David Bowies (except for the greatest hits).

Around that time, there were 2 mega stores in Singapore – Tower and HMV, and they made a great variety of music available to Singaporeans. Before they came, the major stores were Da Da at Funan (now closed – thankfully. Thankfully because although that place was a big favourite of magazine writers and bored children of rich kids with plenty of pocket money, the guy was not friendly to schoolkids. However credit must be given in that when most local bands release music, they can count of him to help distribute it.) Also there were other places like Chua Joo Huat, Supreme Music Centre and Sembawang. MPH used to be a music retailer for a while. They turned the Stamford branch into a nice big megastore with a music section called “Music Power House”. But when they tore down the National Library MPH had to close down. Somebody who worked there told me that the whole operation was losing money anyway. For me I liked Sembawang and MPH best because they had some of the lowest prices. So those were the main places I bought CDs from.

I was spending embarrassing amount of time combing my way through CD racks the same way that blue whales comb the ocean for plankton.

There were some rare albums which you could never find. I suppose that all just added to the mystique of those rare albums. It was a let down when you actually found those albums, but never an outright disappointment. There was always something special about those which justified the hype.

When HMV opened in 1997, I found a lot of CDs I had looked for but never found. I think that was a year I spent a few hundred dollars on CDs. I just wanted to grab a lot of stuff before the last copy was gone, and you couldn’t find it again. I didn’t want to order it through the shop because I didn’t want to fork out a few more dollars.

I think that was the last time I was so extravagant on CDs. Because the next year I went to the States. And 1998 was the first year I had heard of MP3s. (It was also the first year I had heard of the Ethernet connection.) And I don’t have to tell you, an obscene amount of music goes through networks of college dorms. Napster was coded in a college dorm, so that does tell you something.

That was the year that the internet changed everything in the music industry. Brian Eno said that there was a certain time when whale blubber was the most precious commodity in the world because it was the main source of fuel before we discovered fossil fuels. Likewise the music industry will realise that it has lived in a unique day and age when it was able to monopolise the production of music, and leverage on the incredible demand for music to make shitloads of money, and it will realise that this era is over and might not start again soon. This was the era when it was possible to become incredibly rich by being a rock star, when it was possible to just quit performing in public, retire to the studio, and concentrate on your recorded output, just like the Beatles and Brian Wilson did. But no more.

Everything changed, and they sowed the seeds of their own destruction when they introduced CDs, because that was the moment when digital copies of music became widely available. The only developments that remained were the means to copy, store and transmit the information. That didn’t happen until 15 years later but it was basically inevitable.

To cut a long story short, records suddenly became very much cheaper for me. Some obscure titles in the US were a few dollars cheaper brand new than they were in Singapore. I built up almost the entirety of my jazz collection while in the States. I used online retailers like Music Boulevard and CDNOW. I think the first is now defunct and the second has been co-opted into amazon.

I think, somewhere in my 2nd or 3rd year, I decided to purge my record collection, because it was going out of control. I listed more than 200 CDs for sale, and managed to sell all of them in a matter of weeks. If you think that my ebay feedback score of 500+ is fantastic, just imagine that at the end of 2 months it was already close to 200.

Those who were lucky enough to have stepped into the Tower records branch when it was still open in mid 90s will know what it’s like to be confronted with the sheer variety of music being presented. I think that was what the music market in the US was like at that time. I don’t really know because I don’t remember seeing more than a small fraction of it at any one time.

I also signed up for a music club. You had to buy CDs from them on a regular basis, and you could get them at US$6 each on average, although the range is rather limited. But I still managed to get quite a few gems from them, like really cheap boxed sets: Velvet Underground, Steely Dan, Galaxie 500.

After a while I just stopped buying CDs new. I will still do so nowadays if the price is right, but most of the time I either get them second hand, or I got them from the music clubs. Shelling out S$20 for a new CD was an old nightmare I wasn’t keen to revisit. And of course there was piracy. I had to put my hand up and declare that I downloaded a lot of stuff.

But a lot of it was more stealthy. Every CD I sold, I ripped it first, and then I shipped it out. So I still kept the music, even though I didn’t have the CD anymore. That’s probably not legal. But the boundary is very grey.

I still remember the trip back in Singapore when I decided to throw away all my cassettes. I think it was a wrenching decision, because I had come to love so much of the music that was on those cassettes. But all that music was replaceable. I got back much of that music through eBay. The rest, I downloaded, which is sorda legal because when you buy the music, you are entitled to own the MP3.

Do I regret buying the cassette first and then the CD? No. Because a lot of my cassettes were not replaced. There were a lot of impulse buys that were just filtered out like that.

Anyway it was incredible for me, because all that music that used to be so expensive for me is now so cheap. Except that the time spent listening to all that music turned out to be the expensive component instead.

When I went back to Singapore, I shipped all my CDs back (except for the few I very charitably left with my sis – after getting a digital copy for myself, I suppose.) In Singapore it’s mostly been the same trick. Buy CDs cheap. If you really like the CD, you keep it. Otherwise, you try to sell it and rip it off first before you let it go.

There were a few sad episodes in Singapore. As you know, land prices in Singapore went up very high from the 90s onwards. So CD shops became less and less viable. Mostly they became more and more concentrated in large megastores. Even a few megastores had to close. I’ve written about the sad fate of some megastores elsewhere.

But fortunately being sad doesn’t mean I can’t capitalise. I did. There were places that were having great sales of CDs for around $10 each. I think they just wanted to empty all the warehouses. I got a lot of good stuff from those places. There was this big space at Shaw Towers (the Beach Road one) where they used to sell a lot of CDs for $10 each. I was mystified as to how they undercut people so much. Anyway I didn’t care, I just decided to load up. Buy, rip sell. Then the MP3s are yours for the difference. Which is less than $10. Within 2 years, that store was gone.

Owing to the growing unfashionable-ness of CDs, I think the used CD markets are quite good now. People actually getting rid of plenty of good stuff at good prices. Whereas it used to be a seller’s market in the first 7 years of eBay’s existence, it’s now a buyer’s market. If you can stand the thought of CDs getting a layer of dust at home, it’s not a bad way to acquire music. Don’t bother looking for something specific. Something good or interesting will turn up.

A great CD retailer passed on last year. I was buying stuff at Sembawang as a teenager when it was really at Sembawang. Yes, as in get on the bus at McRitchie and take the half an hour ride all the way up north. Then after that they started opening branches every where, there had to be one in every other suburban shopping mall. And suddenly they were kaput. I made up for not buying new music for 7 years (during that time I bought mostly oldies) and instead I went on a rampage and plundered their closing down sales. Spent a few hundred on, say 100 CDs. Had a few choices I regret must mostly it was good.

Then lately I found that the Gramophone shop on St Andrew’s Road will usually have a few CDs that I wish I had the money to buy when I was a teenager. Well, I grabbed them. Then there’s cash converter. If you don’t mind the grimy environment, if you don’t mind the fact that it’s mostly patronised by lower class HDB folk, you might find that even people with left field tastes in music either run out of money or run out of space to store their CDs. Plenty of Take That’s, InSyncs, Boyzones. The odd David Gray or Fatboy Slim here and there. Even a few REMs, Chemical Brothers, Trickys, Massive Attacks and U2s.

But you have to be careful there because they accept all sorts of trash. In fact as of now, I am kicking myself because I bought what I thought was a Prodigy album. They even allowed me to inspect the CD before you fork out the money. Usually you overlook a few scratches, a few cracks on the CD case. But the CD inside was a heavy metal CD and I didn’t realise it until I got it back home! No big loss for me, because the CDs there are like $10 for 5. But I’m still unhappy. Well at least being able to buy another 40 CDs is a nice consolation.

If I should find myself being able to get records from the US again, I think it will be incredible. There’s a lot of new music I’ve not kept up with for the last 10 years, and a lot of it will be available to me at ridiculously low prices. A lot of people point the finger at piracy for crippling the music industry. That may be true. But there are more important factors at work, like a fantastic second hand market and the fact that consumers have such a wide choice of music to choose from that nobody really wants to pump money into developing an artist for fear of making mistake.

PS: if ppl are wondering why there aren’t any more ridiculously rich musicians around anymore, I think you should know why after reading all this. There’s no reason to be a musician at all. No reason other than love.



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