Sonic boom

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 June, 2009, 12:00am

At a time when free downloads are cutting deeply into music sales, second-hand CD shops seem to be bucking the trend with more opening across the city. One experienced vendor even goes so far as to call it a thriving market.

And that vendor, Sam Ng Kam-chuen, should know: the 48-year-old runs two used CD shops in Mong Kok that have become popular among music buffs.

The boom is fuelled not only by young people looking for affordable music, but by a revived interest in Canto-pop singers from the 80s and early 90s, says Ng.

'More people are collecting CDs now and prices have been rising sharply. I am now looking to open my third shop to showcase my collection of classical albums.'

Ng, who used to be in a band with Tats Lau Yee-tat of the Tat Ming Pair, has amassed more than 10,000 LPs and 40,000 CDs over the past three decades from record fairs in Europe and Japan and international collectors.

More recently, lower rents and a steady supply of used CDs from people trimming their collections to store music on computers have encouraged many music lovers to venture into the business.

At the basement of Sino Centre, Ng's Music Life outlets now have to compete for customers with several second-hand CD stores. There's a similar situation at Oriental 188 Centre in Wan Chai, which hosts half a dozen shops on two floors.

'This is in fact a very vibrant market,' says Ng. 'Let's say each shop can make HK$5,000 to HK$6,000 a day. If you add up the business of all second-hand music shops in just Sino Centre and Oriental 188, we're talking about a turnover of hundreds of thousands of dollars a day.'

It's a far cry from the scene in the 80s, when Ng used his savings to open three used CD stores in Mong Kok. Profit was so slim that he closed the venture after a few years.

'Trading second-hand CDs had yet to catch on here then, unlike in the west,' says Ng, who quit his real estate job in 1997 to focus on collecting rare recordings and organising Asian tours for indie bands from abroad.

He opened another used CD shop eight years ago as a 'hobby' and, as sales took off thanks to renewed interest in late Canto-pop singers from local and mainland customers, he launched a second store last year.

'Today a re-released [Anita] Mui Yim-fong album from Capital Artists costs about HK$40 or HK$50. Yet people prefer to pay HK$1,600 for the original issue,' says Ng.

Other sought-after items include original releases by Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, Roman Tam Pak-sin and Danny Chan Pak-keung, whose early releases can fetch HK$10,000. Ng even sold a CD of the soundtrack to John Woo's gangland movie A Better Tomorrow last year for HK$15,000. 'Prices are rising 20 to 30 per cent a year because for every album sold there will be one less in the market,' he says.

Many used CD ventures fail, but survivors tend to be those that offer special expertise and a personalised touch as Ng does. Indeed, many customers at Music Life rely on his almost encyclopedic knowledge of music. Ask him about anything from the Canto-pop of Leslie Cheung to scores from John Carpenter movies or Pink Floyd's space rock, and Ng will have an answer for you.

Brenda Chiu Pui-yue, 36, is among the music lovers who have seized the opportunity to go into the second-hand CD business. The classical music buff quit her job as a translator five years ago to set up Trinity Records in Wan Chai, first stocking her store with part of her personal collection of 1,000 CDs before replenishing her stock.

Chiu's enthusiasm and knowledge of the genre quickly attracted customers seeking memorable classical recordings.

She makes a point of listening to every CD before putting it up for sale and keeps several notebooks, in which she records the musical tastes and contacts of regulars.

Such personal touches help distinguish her shop from chain stores, says Chiu, who reckons her role is to 'connect people with the music they love and help them to find the missing pieces of their [music-collecting] puzzle'.

'It is very important for me to find the album [customers seek], listen to it first and then have my own appreciation of it,' she says. Recalling a customer's request for a recording of Ravel's Bolero, Chiu says she found 15 different renditions and listened to and enjoyed all of them. 'People are touched because they know I am sharing with them my search and appreciation of that music.'

And despite the widespread belief that fewer people are listening to CDs, Chiu says her business has grown steadily.

'I find more people are buying and listening to CDs again because they know top quality albums always have value in the second-hand market.'

Anthony Chiu Shung-zing, the owner of Music-Shop, also says he has many customers. His Wan Chai store specialises in CDs by lesser-known Canto-pop singers of the 90s, such as TVB actors Raymond Cho Wing-Lim and Wun Siu-lun, and his clientele ranges from people in their 20s and 30s, who are discovering the appeal of Canto-pop oldies, to nostalgic older buyers.

'Most of my customers aren't collectors or audiophiles. They're just looking for an old song, some B-side tracks of a not-so-famous singer,' says Chiu, whose CDs usually go for about HK$50, although rarer recordings may cost HK$100.

'These tunes aren't usually available for download but carry a special meaning for them - maybe it's the favourite song of an ex-lover or they want to show off in karaoke.'

A self-professed fan of 'old-school' Canto-pop, Chiu says: 'These old Canto-pop songs are really great. In terms of melody, the new tunes can't compare with the old ones, so people keep coming back for them.'

Some customers enjoy the thrill of digging for hidden gems in second-hand CD shops. 'It's a bit like travelling - you never know what you will come across,' says Ralph Tang Hang-shu, 41, who collects recordings by Madonna. 'You have to check it out in person. Buying second-hand CDs is about serendipity.'

However, others such as Kenson Lau Kwok-kin, 26, are more focused in their rummaging - he's on the lookout for Mando-pop albums and recordings by 1990s Canto-pop stars such as Chan Kit-yee.

It's a way 'to make up for lost time', he says. '[In the 90s] I didn't have much pocket money to buy CDs and a lot of old songs can't be found on the internet.'

Alternative music and experimental rock also have their niche in the second-hand market. Goodstuff Records in Yau Ma Tei, for instance, has cultivated a clientele for its eclectic range of music.

Owner Michael So Chi-chiu says he gets a lot of satisfaction from putting Hongkongers in touch with worldwide music trends that are reflected in his stock. 'You can see what the latest alternative music is in the used CD market,' he says.

So sources his CDs from a network of local aficionados who keep close tabs on new music and buy material not available in local stores through the internet.

'A few years ago it was trip hop, chill-out and party music that ruled. But now my customers are into post-rock and some post-punk bands,' he says.

'I want to help promote alternative music in Hong Kong. Some customers discover post-rock at my shop and then learn about all sorts of other genres.'

At Music Life, Ng ferrets out a stack of CDs and introduces them to one of his regulars, architect Simon Chiu Yat-ping. It's not unlike a lesson in music appreciation as Ng explains the different genres and background to each production, from Al Stewart's Year of the Cat to a Vangelis recording.

'Sam is very knowledgeable and introduces to me all sorts of music,' says Chiu, who apparently so enjoyed Ng's choices he bought the entire set for several thousand dollars. 'A third of my albums come from him,' he says.

As Ng jots down the purchases in a notebook, his expression is like that of a satisfied teacher.

'I'm not just buying and selling used CDs. What I'm offering is knowledge and experience, my understanding of music and recording,' he says.

'Every second-hand album has a customer, and my job is to identify that person.'