City Weekend

The vinyl record industry is booming around the world – so why not in Hong Kong?

Sales are going through the roof in the US, UK and Japan, but inflated costs and space restraints are just two reasons why trend is not catching on here

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 December, 2016, 11:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 December, 2016, 11:35pm

“I think vinyl is like a human being; they have a life and even after the artist is long gone, he is still living in the vinyl,” Paul Au Tak-shing, owner of Paul’s Records in Sham Shui Po, said.

“When you listen to them, it’s like you are listening to a live concert. If you kill the vinyl of [an artist’s] songs, then you are killing one of him.”

Au fell in love with vinyl while growing up in Saigon, Vietnam, during the 1960s and 70s as a result of the pervading American hippie influence during the war. He escaped to Hong Kong in 1974 to avoid the South Vietnamese military draft. His passion for vinyl is undeniable, but according to others working in the Hong Kong record industry, he is increasingly in the minority.

Watch: Asia still far away from vinyl renaissance

Vinyl collectors report that the selection of music on offer remains quite limited, with plenty of Canto-pop and film soundtracks, but less rock ‘n’ roll. And vinyl is still relatively expensive here; HMV’s collection, for example, ranges from about HK$180 to HK$450. Added to this, the small flats inhabited by most Hongkongers means they rarely have space for records, let alone a record player.

Au, who said he considered the golden era of records to have been from the 1950s to 80s, admitted he and other audiophiles were ultimately living in the past.

“It is like my lifestyle, I’m still living in the 70s,” he said. “It’s like the food you eat every day. You would not drink very delicious champagne with a paper cup. People who dump records and listen to the same music on CDs, because they think it is space-saving, they have changed their lifestyle. Human ears are quite sensitive; if you listen to the Beatles on your iPhone, the sound is quite cold.”

Meanwhile the United States and parts of Europe have both seen an explosion in vinyl sales during recent years. The US has the world’s biggest vinyl market, valued at about US$11.9 million, while in the UK this month, vinyl sales overtook digital downloads for the first time ever. In 2015, global vinyl record sales reached US$416 million – an increase of 32 per cent from the previous year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. This was the highest level since 1988, although it still only accounted for about 3 per cent of the global music buying market.

There are currently no figures for the value of Hong Kong’s vinyl market, but it remains a niche one. Asia’s biggest vinyl market is Japan, with sales worth US$660,000 last year, according to the Recording Industry Association of Japan. Japanese music consumers are continuing to choose physical music formats, such as CDs and vinyl, over downloadable tracks. Japan’s overall music market is the second largest in the world at US$2.44 billion.

Joshua Chan is founder of PrimeDisc, which has the only vinyl manufacturing plant in Hong Kong and China, and one of two plants in Asia. The other one is in Japan.

He said his company, which was established just before the handover in 1997, hoped to open a second factory to supply the big labels in mainland China, while simultaneously complementing consumer demand in Japan and Korea, and exporting in bulk to the US and Europe.

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But he said the appetite in Hong Kong for vinyl remained limited.

“Hong Kong is still a very difficult market – it is quite backward in that sense,” he said. “I would not say vinyl is a luxury product; people spend tens of thousands of Hong Kong dollars on a phone here, but the perceived value of vinyl is different. We believe in China a lot more because the spending power of the middle classes is growing.”

People spend tens of thousands of Hong Kong dollars on a phone here, but the perceived value of vinyl is different
Joshua Chan, PrimeDisc

PrimeDisc offers customers the opportunity to get their favourite CDs converted into seven-inch or 12-inch vinyl records. It even provides the service for cassette tapes, which Chan said was a growing market.

He was inspired to set up the company when his teenage son asked him to buy him some vinyl.

“I did some research and I realised it was back,” he said. “I thought Asia was lagging behind. But there is a vicious cycle because if you make a record in Japan and have to ship it to China, then you end up with a high retail price. If that cycle can be broken, I think we can catch up.”

The inflated cost of vinyl in Asia remains a major turn-off for consumers, record dealers report.

Gary Ieong, co-owner of White Noise Records in Prince Edward, said very few of his vinyl customers were young people, with most aged at least in their 40s, and he thought people increasingly expected to own music for free.

“The first couple of years, it was a hot market,” he said. “But nowadays, people are more into streaming albums online. There are still a number of people who are into it, but in 10 years, I do not know if that will continue.”

Hong Kong’s vinyl junkies have a reason to rejoice

Ieong added that the small nature of most Hong Kong apartments meant many could not store vinyl players and records.

“Apartments are not big here, so most people listen to CDs,” he said. “We do not have much space.

Raymond Chan formerly owned the Sonata Club in Mong Kok, a member-based record store. But he was forced to close the store because of the high rent.

He now works as a vinyl specialist at HMV’s flagship store in Central and said young foreigners were more likely to buy at his shop than locals. Despite the trend, he said he remained optimistic about the global growth of vinyl.

“The market will still rise up globally because of the quality of the sound,” he said.