Lately I’ve been picking up a lot of used CDs.
I think I have blogged about CDs recently so there’s no need to overly repeat myself. One of the great things about the US is that the second hand market there is so good – there are really a lot of people who buy too many CDs, and a lot of them have buyers’ remorse and an internet connection, and – given the jobless rate there now – plenty of free time to list all their stuff on the internet.
I still remember that when I first purged most of my stuff on the internet 10 years ago, I could sell used CDs for US$7-8. That was much lower than what I had bought the CD for in the first place, but at that time – it’s amazing when you think of it now, but I listed stuff on eBay, and 80% got sold within the first week. And those were the days when auctions still made sense: that there are actually more sellers than buyers.
Within a few short years, the market collapsed. People are always talking about illegal downloading, but why would I want to buy a CD new from the shops when a few years later that same CD would be available very cheaply? Same packaging, and at the most a few scratches. And perfectly legal.
Well you know that sometimes my practice is just to buy, rip and sell. It’s not really legal, is it? But you can never get caught doing that, so I don’t care. And the idea that you can never get rid of your physical copy and hold on to your MP3s at the same time is patently absurd: what if you run out of living space and need to throw your CDs away?
The second hand CD market in Singapore is still nowhere as wonderful as the US’s. But the stuff you can find is pretty amazing. I trawl through the whole shop at a time, and sometimes can flip through a few hundred titles without finding anything remotely interesting. Then suddenly, somebody’s offering you a Rufus Wainwright, or an almost brand new album that was hailed 1 year ago as a classic (Embryonic by the Flaming Lips). Or some great but obscure musician whose albums you didn’t know were actually owned by Singaporeans (Marshall Crenshaw). Or some album you know is an indie classic “Viva Last Blues” by Palace Music.
Sometimes you find something that’s too good to be true, like U2’s Joshua Tree. There was this time, I bought a big pile, and neglected to open up and check every CD. The result was that there was the wrong CD in it. But I thought it’s OK, I now have the artwork, the packaging, and (cough) a digital copy of the thing, it’s almost like owning that CD. (Except that I can’t sell it). There were other boo boos that I made – the wrong CD, a CD so badly scratched it doesn’t work, an album that I thought was worth getting but ended up not.
One serious criticism of this approach is that most of the time, people will hang on to the really good albums, and only the really lousy ones are available for cheap. That is to some degree true of online second hand stores. But most of the time, the supply will exceed demand, and when that happens, the album goes for a low price, no matter how good the album is. What is one of the best albums ever made? “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys. How much is it? You can get it in the States for US$3.
There’s a lot of good music out there made by people who are either half-remembered or forgotten. A lot of that is freely available. A lot of great soul bands of yesteryear are not really famous: Rick James. O’Jays, Anita Baker, Keith Sweat, Martha Reeves. Bet you that you’ve never heard of them but if their stuff is going at S$5 it’s definitely worth it. There are good indie bands which don’t get remembered well. Ultimately only 25% of good material can’t be bought at very reasonable prices. Sticking to the other 75% can’t be that difficult, can it?
I think the 70s to the 90s were an abnormal time for music. Those were the days of the rock stars, where a few people could control the production and distribution of music. And those were the good old days where people could force you to shell out $20 for a CD’s worth of music. Now, we’re back to the days where music is cheap, and you remember why the phrase “going for a song” means that something is cheap.
A problem is that a lot of the CDs that I find were bought before 1998. After that there was a sharp drop in the CDs purchased. You know Singaporeans – once MP3s come along, nobody will buy CDs any more. So it’s always easier to get stuff before 1998 than after. Which is still alright with me since I don’t have a lot of music after 1995. But after I’ve owned the few major releases post 1998, there aren’t that many titles left.
Anyway, it’s true that for some reason, black music (used to be called R+B, now it’s called urban in HMV. Why not call it by its proper name) is more easily available. One reason is that I don’t really watch out for a lot of white boy bands because white people don’t make as good music as the black guys these days. Sad but true, even though there are plenty of worthy exceptions. Another reason is that black acts tend to make 2 or 3 albums of really good stuff, and then burn out soon, and people don’t remember them very much afterwards.
Now one last thing that needs to be mentioned is that you need to have working knowledge of around a few hundred CDs, in order to know how to strike bingo. It won’t do for any amateur who doesn’t know his music to comb through these stacks, he won’t find anything and it will be a waste of time. So in a way I suppose this is true of shopping: shopping is an art.
Anyway, here are the second hand CD markets in Singapore (not an exhaustive list, and if there are others I’ve missed, then let me know.)
1. Cash Converter
There are 5 branches, in Toa Payoh, Ang Mo Kio, Jurong East, Bedok and Admiralty MRT. The last one is a crowded shithouse and I wouldn’t recommend anybody to go there. But that leaves the other 4. Usually the English CDs are $5, which are more pricey than the Mandarin / Cantonese / Korean / Japanese ones. But English CDs, especially the good ones, usually have better resale value. For 1 month in 2010, the CDs were marked down to $2.
2. 2nd floor Excelsior shopping centre.
An article in the I-S magazine alerted me to this shop, which is only open for a few hours every day. It’s just an incredibly big pile of used CDs. Everything goes for $3. It’s dusty and musty, even though the shop keepers are friendly. The whole place is so full of old CDs and vinyls that there’s no room for the shopkeepers to sit, they usually sit on the corridor outside, keeping guard on a few boxes of garang guni stuff that they need to move out of the shop just so that people have room to move inside.
There were 3 or 4 guys in there the entire time that I was there. Some guy with a PRC accent was sifting around for English CDs, and talking to his friend about which Information Society album to buy, that was funny at first until I realised that he was a Hongkonger and they’re equally familiar with western music as we are here. He did know a few things about Madonna and Shep Pettibone. Talked about Pet Shop Boys and stuff.
The old fogeys who run the shop listen to weird oldie cha cha / mambo stuff. There’s even a stereo near the door to let you try out the stuff, but I think when I was about to leave the old guy was not really taking a hint, and he was playing more of his CDs first.
I think this is the charm of an old record shop, where everything is a little run down, but everything is cheap and homely. This is the polar opposite of That CD shop where everything is designer, exquisitely packaged, and really expensive. I even think that they make all the shop assistants look physically attractive before hiring.
Whereas an old run-down place is like, “I was here a long time ago, before you. I took a big risk on this thing because I was the first to do it. Everything’s a mess and you won’t find anything specific you’re looking for but there’s treasure hidden everywhere and serendipidity is the name of the game.”
3. Gramophone records
People do let go of their CDs all the time. And sometimes a lot of them surface on Gramophone records. Not all their branches have used CD bins or bargain bins, because I think they know this is bad for business. It’s harder to sell the new and expensive stuff when the cheapo stuff is right beside it. But there’s a small used section in the branch at North Bridge Rd. Another small one in the Taka branch. And the whole Cathay Cinema branch near Handy Rd has a huge bargain bin section, although that bargain bin section has relatively slim pickings: a shop does not let go of the good stuff for cheap, as opposed to 2nd hand stuff.
4. Online retailers: www.ebay.com.sg
There used to be Yahoo auctions a few years ago but it folded. The ebay section used to be small enough that you could spend a few hours browsing through the CD section, and you’d have seen everything. Not any more. It’s growing bigger and bigger. You might find a lot of unusual stuff there now. There is a more than 99% chance of getting your goods, so don’t worry too much about ebay.
There’s also Craig’s list. The Singapore version is singapore.craigslist.com.sg. It is mostly populated with ang moh expats who have CD collections that are too big. There was this person, she posted a list of 600+ CDs, many of whom were notable indie music releases of the last 10 years. But by the time I did my research on which ones were worth getting, most of the good ones were gone. Sigh.
Ultimately, though I did notice that not a few of my purchases were “revenge” for the days when I spent a lot of time gawking at record shops, when I fancied getting 10 CDs, and only had money for 2 or 3. Of course there were a few that I now know would be outright mistakes. But it’s great to hear a few of those “the ones that got away”.