Sound returns: Vinyl comes full circle in Singapore
By the time you read this, Choice Cuts Goods + Coffee (Instagram: @ChoiceCutsGoods) will no longer be at Serangoon Road.
The music-lifestyle retail shop - where one could swing by for a late night craft beer or cappuccino while browsing its tightly curated range of soul and funk vinyls, as well as its range of street apparel and more, on top of some turntable jamming - packed up last Monday (Aug 21) after just going full swing this January.
Has the vinyl bubble burst? Not quite. Choice Cuts Goods + Coffee, which is operated by the Matteblacc / Blaccsmith DJ collective, is merely on a hiatus because its lease has expired and the landlord is redeveloping the property.
At the time of writing, a new store in the Joo Chiat area is already in the works and expected to be operational by September. And Choice Cuts Goods + Coffee's new home will be bigger than before with a co-working space for like-minded designers, creatives, makers and craftsmen.
It previously shared the Serangoon Road premise with boutique marketing agencies Bullet PR and The Digital Outfit; and Matteblacc doubles as events promoter and brand strategy consultants.
With sales of vinyls hitting new peaks every year worldwide, the local record store scene has been bucking retail's gloomy downtrend with new players either entering or expanding its market share.
While digital music and streaming services continue to grow strength to strength and dominate, latest statistics from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry also showed vinyl sales here growing fivefold last year to US$150,000 (about S$204,000).
Which explains why Hear Records (hearrecords.com.sg), set up in 2013 at Burlington Square, has been operating a second outlet at Chinatown since last September; while The Analog Vault (theanalogvault.com), founded in 2015, is soft launching a new concept space The Analog Room adjacent to the original store at the Esplanade today.
And just last week, Black Gold Collections welcomed its first customers at The Plaza in Beach Road.
Suffice to say, Singaporeans still love buying music on physical formats - a trend that was most prevalent during the CD-era in the nineties when international chain stores like Tower Records and HMV, as well as homegrown ones like Sembawang Music and Gramophone could be found operating in malls all over the island.
Fast forward to this millennium and music lovers are now getting their fix through the current vinyl revival, which retailers note is being fuelled by both a mature crowd who are dusting off their old 45s, as well as millennials who are discovering the warmth of analogue to digital.
All that has heralded a new wave of retailers who are also savvy enough to identify their niche in the market.
Cherilyn Tan, who has been running Vinyl Kakis (Facebook: @VinylKakis) at Excelsior Shopping Centre with her husband since last December, notes that the current batch of record shops operating now are mainly independents and "the nature of such stores will promote creativity" among the owners to draw its clientele.
Vinyl Kakis, which stocks largely used vinyls across genres including retro pop, metal, experimental and more, prides itself on introducing "uncommonly common" music to its customers (whom Tan refers to as 'kakis', which is Malay for 'friends').
"Over the last six months, the (willingness) of our 'kakis' to open their hearts and ears to Japanese pop, Japanese hip-hop and even Japanese enka, was apparent so we've started increasing those titles in our inventory," says the mother of three who oversees the day-to-day running of the store.
The shop draws a good mixed crowd and has so far more than lived up to its name as Ms Tan notes, "Vinyl Kakis has borne witness to new friendships made."
Black Gold Collections, which is run by the trio of Kevin Tan, Fred Goh and Andrew Yap, also wants to avoid being just another run-of-the-mill music retailer. Both Mr Tan and Mr Goh are veterans in hi-fi equipment retail, while Mr Goh and Mr Yap have been selling used vinyls online under the moniker SlowRockingBro (Facebook: @SlowRockingBro.com.sg).
Their new store holds about 3000 new and used LPs, as well as amps and turntables; and two things stand out when one walks in - the impressive and huge collection of classic rock LPs by the likes of The Who, Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel and more in audiophile pressings, and the sometimes eye-watering prices tags (most hover above S$100 and can go over S$1000) slapped on them.
Mr Tan admits that at the moment, Black Gold Collections is carrying mostly "very high quality stuff" which his partners have amassed for more discerning collectors who want the best ("The hardcore guys are older and more affluent, and are willing to pay a bit more for the nostalgia as they rediscover the hobby.") but will shore up their range of affordable titles in time to come as well so as not to exclude any music lover.
To that end, the shop has marked out a rack of used LPs that start from S$20-something and depending on what you are after, there are copies of Led Zeppelin II that range from S$42 to S$345 on sale - ensuring there is something for every budget.
With his and Mr Goh's experience in hi-fi equipment, Black Gold Collections is also able to keep their hardware prices affordable without compromising on sound quality.
It carries a range of turntables and amps from two well-respected brands, Thorens and Rega, and Mr Tan confidently says, "I can put together a whole system for $7000-8000 instead of the $70-80k that you might have to spend at Adelphi."
Raising the bar
The attention to and pursuit of quality ("LPs bring you closer to the music and actual performance," adds Mr Tan) is also what drove The Analog Vault's co-founder Sharon Seet to embark on her new venture The Analog Room.
The former is a partnership with Eugene Ow Yong of Vinylicious Records (vinyliciousrecords.com) - the indie record store which kicked off the current wave - and in just two years, The Analog Vault has sealed its reputation for carrying the finest selection of jazz, hip hop and electronica titles.
Incidentally, those genres are favoured by music lovers who pay particular attention to the quality of the recordings.
"We not only place an emphasis on the retail of music that represents good artistry, but we also aim to identify good quality vinyl pressings in terms of audio mastering and production," Ms Seet explains.
"For reissued vinyl records in particular, we make sure that we are retailing high-quality reissues by well-regarded record labels."
The Analog Vault's jazz and classical titles can now be found in The Analog Room; and the expanded retail space means a bigger and deeper range can be stocked. The latter also sells turntables.
But more than that, The Analog Room boasts a new concept where customers can "physically experience analogue culture first-hand" when it plays host to audiophile listening parties, DJ sessions, educational workshops as well as tasting sessions at its whisky bar.
For The Analog Room's opening this weekend, dream-pop indie band Sobs will perform a short set of their lo-fi tunes before the Darker Than Wax DJs take over the decks.
"When we first started The Analog Vault, there were intentions to host more listening parties and music events, but due to space constraints, we did not host as many parties as we would have liked," says Ms Seet.
"With The Analog Room, we want to provide our customers with a more interesting retail experience, and to provide a platform for customers to engage with music, the artists, and analog culture at a deeper and more meaningful level."
It's a sure sign the vinyl revival is here to stay and enough for one of Choice Cuts Goods + Coffee's directors Tirso Garcia to remain bullish about taking the shop's concept to a different part of town.
Its new outlet in the East will not only be bigger but also have a better layout: "The F&B area, record shop and retail sections will be visibly clearer - (at our old place) there was a certain charm about everything sort of overlapping each other but we are looking forward to having the luxury of more space," he enthuses.
Mr Garcia adds that having to move after only operating for about a year is "a pity" but acknowledges it's "a constant journey" and looks back at Choice Cuts' "organic growth" - the four directors double up by doing everything from brewing the coffee to spinning tunes, picking the records and even constructing the furniture - with equal parts fondness and sadness.
"This is only the first chapter," he says, "Right now it's about taking everything we have and then working again from a blank canvas to a well-oiled machine."
Ms Seet acknowledges that the record store scene in Singapore may be small but it is definitely showing signs of growth.
"I hope for it to continue to grow and diversify," she says.
"My hope is that Singapore progresses to become a destination for music lovers in the region and that music retailers here can play our part by providing a differentiated and interesting experience for consumers not just in Singapore, but in the region."
This feature was first published in The Business Times Weekend, Saturday, August 26.