WITH CD sales steadily declining, and digital streaming and downloads - legal or otherwise - becoming the formats of choice for most music listeners, record shops worldwide are slowly going the way of the dodo.
In Singapore, both Sembawang Music and Tower Records were two high-profile chain stores that fell victim to the changing times as CD shops become a rare sight in malls these days. But there's a silver lining to all this doom and gloom.
Indie stores with their mom-and-pop-style operations have been having their fair share of success stories despite the difficult times. Playing a part in that success is an unlikely saviour - vinyl.
The format was extremely popular for the better part of the 20th century before being all but wiped out by the introduction of CDs in the late 1980s.
But as the digital medium evolved into downloads in the new millennium and eroded CD sales, vinyl staged a quiet but dramatic comeback.
While it's still niche and numbers are nowhere near what CDs were selling during their heyday, the rise is significant enough for independent retailers to note its growing popularity.
Hot wax redux
Ridhwan Abdul Ghany, founder of Straits Records at Bali Lane, says vinyl sales have caught up quickly in the last two to three years.
"Records are selling better than CDs now," claims the 38-year-old. "Plus the demand for vinyl has been increasing whereas CDs have dropped by about 50 per cent."
That growth has also spurred House of Turntables (HOT) - which sells record players for all budgets, accessories as well as new and used vinyls - to strike while the iron is hot as it expanded quickly over the last four years.
From its humble beginning in an industrial estate in Ang Mo Kio, owner Kevin Pang moved his business closer to town by relocating to Bras Basah Complex before opening his latest lifestyle retail shop at Plaza Singapura's new extension in October last year.
Also taking advantage of the revival are new kids on the block Teo Chee Keong and Eugene Ow Yong.
The latter initially sold used records from home, where he got to know Mr Teo as a customer last August. Both 40-year-olds became fast friends and even faster business partners and Vinylicious Records at Parklane Shopping Mall - which sells only new and used LPs - opened about four months later in December.
Mr Teo jokes that the venture was not just "love at first sight" but the number of vinyl lovers he saw Mr Ow Yong attracting week in and week out was good enough to convince him the record trade would be a viable business.
Unsurprisingly, the owners of Straits Records, HOT and Vinylicious are all long-time music lovers and vinyl collectors themselves.
Mr Ghany cites the film High Fidelity (2000) - based on British writer Nick Hornby's music geek-dom novel set in a record shop - as one of the inspirations for opening his own store.
The punk fan initially started Straits Records as a label and distributor of local music in 1995 before it organically grew into a shop in late 2004.
"It's definitely a dream come true for me," he says. "Every city has a local music shop to cater to fans and that's what I wanted to do - to have a permanent space so people can browse through the record collection."
Mr Pang, who worked in the financial industry for 12 years, went as far as to quit his day job in pursuit of his passion for music. His wife followed suit recently, leaving the IT industry, to help with HOT's marketing.
Opening in a busy and popular mall like Plaza Singapura also signals Mr Pang's intention to spread the vinyl gospel to a mass audience after previously being in areas with much less walk-in traffic.
He says HOT's sales increased by three times when he moved to Bras Basah and while it's still early days at his newest branch, things are looking encouraging so far.
He chose Plaza Singapura instead of the hi-fi haven that's The Adelphi not only because of the former's popularity and central location but also because he wants his latest store to have more of a lifestyle element to appeal to a younger crowd that frequents the mall.
"We want to educate them about the format; if not it's in danger of disappearing again, and this time it might be for good," warns Mr Pang.
Mr Teo and Mr Ow Yong - who juggle their time running the shop while still holding on to their jobs in the electronics and interior design industries respectively - also see an increasing number of young people getting bitten by the vinyl collecting bug.
It caught them by surprise because the common misconception is that the format only appeals to a much older demographic and audiophiles. The realisation was what made them choose to open Vinylicious at Parklane because of its proximity to various schools like Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, LaSalle College of the Arts and School of the Arts; as well as the jamming studios and shops selling musical instruments in the shopping centre itself.
Record collecting has become so trendy both Vinylious and HOT have noticed youth buying vinyls even before they own a turntable.
This despite the relatively high prices records command - a brand new LP averages $30-$40, about twice as expensive as CDs. Used records, depending on their condition, average $20-$30, but can go up much higher if they're rare titles that have gone out of print.
But there are also enough factors that make LPs almost-instant collectibles - they're usually pressed in limited amounts and a lot of bands issue special editions such as coloured vinyls.
Mr Pang also notes that there's something alluring about the bigger artwork on an LP that can't be replicated in a digital download. Mr Ghany adds that more and more people are starting to realise the best audio quality can only come from the analogue warmth of vinyl.
Their passion is reflected in the way they run their operations and the highly personalised service each offers to their customers. Mr Pang is more than happy to do a demo to let customers hear the difference and judge for themselves; Mr Teo and Mr Ow Yong chat with their regulars to know their musical tastes better so they can make recommendations.
Vinylicious also hopes to let its selection of records be shaped by music fans who patronise it.
"Our vision is to have a complete shop whereby a family who drops by will be able to find something they like and leave with a record each," says Mr Ow Yong.
But like all businesses, indie record shops have their fair share of challenges and rising rental is the most common.
Straits Records has moved five times and recently gave up its ground-floor shopfront to relocate to the second floor in order to save costs; it also runs an events arm which helps contribute to revenue.
"Both need to exist alongside each other; some months my events might do better than retail but then there are also times when I don't have any events so I need to rely on retail," admits Mr Ghany.
Riches in niches
Mr Pang says even though opening HOT at Plaza Singapura comes at a price, he's willing to take a chance with the premium rental because of the mall's accessibility and the opportunity to reach out to the masses - something which he hasn't been able to do with his previous outlets.
Vinylicious, on the other hand, chose to be located in a more obscure shopping centre on the fringes of town so the savings can be passed on to their customers as they price their LPs affordably.
But more importantly, none of these vinyl players sees one another as a threat - even as newcomers like Vinylicious enter the market or existing ones like HOT expand their business - as they work to carve unique niches.
The eclectic selection at Straits Records curated by Mr Ghany is his way of sharing his taste in obscure music and introducing something new to the public; Mr Pang travels overseas to source the most obscure used titles that previously weren't available here, then meticulously cleans them so they sound as good as new before he puts them on sale at both HOT Plaza Singapura and Bras Basah; Vinylicous's Mr Teo and Mr Ow Yong specialise in their own genres - indie and classic 1980s pop respectively - so between the two, they can answer almost every question posed to them at the shop.
"We don't compete," declares Mr Pang, matter-of-factly. "In fact, with more people opening new record shops, it will just continue to create and spread good vibes in the record collecting circle."
Straits Records is located at 24A Bali Lane (2nd floor); Vinylicious Records at Parklane Shopping Mall #01-26; and House of Turntables at Bras Basah Complex #03-03/Plaza Singapura #04-65