Vinyl records back in the groove
Global vinyl sales may be on the rise, but most local dealers are struggling to stay in the game.
Most Hongkongers will be surprised to learn that tomorrow is Record Store Day. This is the time to register appreciation for our city's record dealers who toil in relative obscurity and, more often than not, poverty, to keep Hong Kong's vinyl obsessives happy.
Chris Brown, an independent music store employee in the United States, came up with the idea in 2007, and Record Store Day has since grown into an international event. Vinyl aficionados around the world now organise concerts, sales, special vinyl pressings and other promotions each year, and appoint an official ambassador. This year it's Jack White, a founding member of The White Stripes.
Those who assume vinyl records were killed off by the CD revolution and went out of fashion in the '80s couldn't be more wrong. In fact, worldwide vinyl sales grew 19 per cent last year, 10 per cent more than MP3 sales, and sales of turntables are predicted by the US Consumer Electronics Association to rise a remarkable 40 per cent this year. These numbers are even more staggering when you consider that the music industry as a whole is doing dismally; vinyl is one of the sector's only recent success stories.
Yet vinyl records and the stores that sell them remain unknown to many Hongkongers, who are content to listen to music on their smartphones or assume that independent record stores survive mainly in the hippy enclaves of New York, London and Tokyo. The truth is our city, too often derided as a cultural wasteland, is home to many record stores catering to every taste and budget - it's just that you have to be willing to dig a bit beneath the surface.
One stockist is Paul Au Tak-shing, whose tiny Sham Shui Po flat also serves as premises for Paul's Used Records. "I sleep with my records. I live with my records 24 hours a day. They are my girlfriend, they're my wife. The records are my family," he says, standing on an island of floor, the only space not given over to records.
Pale and wiry, Au grew up in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam war where he hung around American GIs and became a self-described fanatic of biker culture, "heavy metal, psychedelic music and hippy stuff". He bought his first LP when he was a child, a bootleg of the Creedence Clearwater Revival album, Cosmo's Factory.
His collection has since exploded to more than 300,000 records. There are 35,000 records in his tiny flat and nearly 10 times more in an off-site warehouse. Still, business has never been easy and Au has rarely made a profit. On the wall of his shop is a picture of him on a Harley, a bike he had to sell to buy his warehouse.
Often it seemed Au was on the wrong side of history. In the '90s, when CDs looked poised to take over the market, most people threw away their old vinyl and turntables.
"Records were treated as rubbish. Tons of them were out in the street," he recalls. "Truckloads of them, even the record libraries of radio stations."
Where others saw trash, Au saw opportunity: "They weren't as passionate as I was. So I collected everything. I wanted to save each and every one of them, even the Chinese ones and the ones I didn't like."
It looks like now, finally, Au's passion is starting to pay off: "Business is better now ... It's like records have had a comeback. For the past 30 years in this business all I could make was enough money to store my thousands of records. Now it's a bit better."
Au's story of recent unexpected success is one you hear time and time again in independent record shops around the world, but it is not as typical in Hong Kong. He represents one extreme on the spectrum of vinyl fanatics, a type more common in the West. There, independent record stores' biggest customers are young people and music lovers who, driven by trend, a desire to rebel against the digital world, an interest in DJ'ing or simply a love of the warm analogue sound tend to gravitate to vinyl. They mostly buy records for the music on them.
Another name familiar to vinyl lovers in Hong Kong is White Noise Records. More than a simple neighbourhood record shop, White Noise is a full-blown record company and distributor founded by three friends and music lovers in 2004. It has become a familiar name to many live music fans for the events it promotes. For Record Store Day it will be selling a special 7-inch single from Beijing.
But the vinyl market in Hong Kong is, for the most part, kept afloat by audiophiles. Mostly affluent and older, these collectors spend their lives chasing the perfect sound and are prepared to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on high-end hi-fi equipment. For them, vinyl is the undisputed king - less for the music than for the perfection of the sound itself. The owner of Collectables, a record shop in Central, who preferred not to be named, said: "I think most of the vinyl buyers in Hong Kong are high-end and that's why vinyl still survives in Hong Kong today. There's no argument in the hi-fi community: vinyl sounds much better than CDs."
Raymond Chan, who owns the Sonata Club in Mong Kok, a member-based record store that caters to audiophiles, agrees: "Business is going well because every system in an audiophile's room is for analogue vinyl. It's a very niche market."
Vinyl lovers enthuse about the nuanced, warm and lifelike sound of records. The main reason for vinyl's superior sound is that it is analogue. When music is digitised for CDs or MP3 the sound goes through a process that Au likens to tearing a picture into a thousand pieces and assembling it again later: "It is not the complete sound. It's thinner, hard, electrical and cold. It's like a puzzle. There are a lot of cracks and you have to use your imagination to make it complete. Your brain gets very tired."
With a record, the sound itself is etched on the vinyl exactly as it is recorded, in analogue. What you hear is the full, complete sound.
Clement C. C. Ng works for Shun Cheong Record Co, his father's company and Hong Kong's largest distributor of records released by independent labels. He says that in the past 20 years, "everything has changed" and he credits that change mainly to the rise of the audiophile. "It's a two-tiered market: the people and the audiophiles."
Still, store operators catering to audiophiles worry that the current revival is unsustainable and is, for the most part, separate from the boom in sales of vinyl records in the rest of the world. Some owners have already started feeling the pinch.
In the West and Japan, sales are booming thanks to a growing population of young consumers who first and foremost love music. But in Hong Kong, store owners say there is no guarantee that a younger generation is emerging to replace the audiophiles they cater to.
Chau Yiu-keung, the founder of Classic Shop in Central, which specialises in high-end classical and jazz records, worries for the future of his business because "the customers are all old - new customers are very few". Owners have dealt with the challenges of the market in a variety of ways. Chan has found success courting customers overseas, while Chau has recently been forced to shrink his shop from two rooms into one.
Why is it that Hong Kong has plenty of wealthy people prepared to spend big on an expensive hobby, but so few true music lovers even when turntables can cost less than HK$1,000?
Chau says the problem starts when children are forced to play instruments and begin associating music with work instead of pleasure. "In Hong Kong, we have many children learning to play instruments, but they don't actually listen to the music."
Record Store Day is the perfect time to start listening. Whether you are a music lover, an audiophile or just like the artwork on record covers, this Saturday take the opportunity to get out and explore a little-known side of Hong Kong. The city's determined vinyl salesmen will be happy for your business.
Well, maybe not Au, who says he's not really concerned about the money. "I'm just after the music. To me, 30 years is just like one day. I'm still living in the '60s. Nothing's changed."
Let's hear it for the spin doctors
As the name suggests, this is not the place to go for the latest Justin Bieber release. For a more cultured crowd looking for classical, jazz and Chinese records, Classic stocks hard-to-find recordings, little-known gems and beloved classics. It caters mainly to the audiophile market.
Room 201, Won Hing Building, 74-78 Stanley Street, Central, tel: 2541 7733
More than a record shop, Collectables offers a variety of used books, records and assorted curiosities. As it says on its card, it is a "marketplace for exchanging and recycling cultural collections". Patient shoppers are sure to find something to please even the most bizarre taste.
2/F, 11 Queen Victoria Street, Central, tel: 2559 9562
This brainchild of music industry veteran Clarence Chang specialises in all things jazz with a collection of more than 2,000 records, mostly from Europe.
Room 604, Wah Ying Cheong Central Building, 158-164 Queen's Road Central, tel: 2523 8292
Paul's Used Records
As much an experience as a record shop, Paul's offers records for all tastes and budgets. But owner Paul Au's heart belongs to American music of the 1960s and '70s. Ask to hear his record postcards from the '20s, but leave the day free: organisation is non-existent and Au loves a chat.
5/F Wai Hong Building, 239 Cheung Sha Wan Road, Sham Shui Po, tel: 9841 7136
This member-based record dealer caters to the most exacting of audiophiles. Through its mailing list, it reaches music buffs all over the world and is a good place to start for the serious listener seeking a rare pressing or hard-to-find recording. Stocks mainly jazz and classical titles.
8/F Hollywood Plaza, 610 Nathan Road, Mong Kok, tel: 2796 6373
Shun Cheong Record Co The city's largest distributor of indie labels, Shun Cheong specialises in small-batch releases from the United States, Europe and Japan. It takes sound seriously and will be able to please the discerning audiophile. There are two stores, and it also stocks high-end CDs.
Showroom: Room 801, Wing Lung Bank Centre, 636 Nathan Rd, Mong Kok, tel: 2332 6397; Shop: Prelude The Music Store, B1/F Miramar Shopping Centre, 132 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2375 8668
White Noise Records
A record label, distributor and event promoter founded by three friends and music fans in 2004. White Noise stocks a variety of titles including up-and-coming local acts and names both big and obscure from Asia and the West.
19/F Workingview Commercial Building, 21 Yiu Wa Street, Causeway Bay, tel: 2591 0499 whitenoiserecords.org