Archive for September 6th, 2010


Singapore’s Unglorious CD Shops

My mother used to trot out a little saying; “The more you have, the more you want”. Whether that was an established cliché or just one of her home-spun idioms, I was reminded of it the other day when I had to call the joiner in to extend my CD shelves at home. Since I moved to Singapore last year, the collection has increased – it’s now touching 12500 – and is in danger of taking over the house completely. And it continues to grow; even as I write, there are a dozen discs on my desk awaiting cataloguing, and I’m expecting another 10 through the post this week. There’s no way I can ever hope to listen to every CD I have, and with so many why do I let the collection continue to grow? Well, I readily confess to a certain magpie tendency (an attic room somewhere in the UK contains almost every edition of Buses Illustrated and Private Eye since the mid-1960s), but in the case of my CDs there is a professional reason for their continued presence and expansion. I review them for a living and I use them in my daily work as a writer on music. The majority of those CDs come unsolicited – editors send them to me for commissioned reviews and record labels and distributors send them to me in the hope that I will review them – but I often go out and buy them. Why, I hear you ask, when you’ve surely everything you can possibly want already?

There are three reasons why I still buy, and on a very regular basis. First and foremost, as a writer of concert programmes I always insist on listening to the music first. How can you guide listeners through a work if you don’t actually listen to it yourself? It’s very rare indeed that one of the orchestras for whom I write regularly doesn’t play something which has been previously recorded, and while mostly it’s mainstream stuff which I certainly have already, they occasionally branch out into hidden territories which necessitate a trip to the CD store. My usual modus operandi is to scan the season calendar when it appears and make a list of all the works I don’t have, draw up a shopping list and go to London to buy the necessary discs. London remains the classical CD capital of the world, so far as I am concerned, but excellent specialist shops that I know of in Brisbane, Wellington, Auckland, Tokyo and Hong Kong often come up with the goods too, especially where Australian or Asian composers are concerned.

The second reason is my insatiable appetite for new music. Show me a classical CD shelf and I’ll browse through it at length invariably picking out something I’ve never heard before. Some of my favourite discs have emerged that way.

And the third reason – and a very rare reason for me, I have to confess – is a simple desire to buy a specific CD for no other reason than I may have heard it on the radio, read a review about it or decided, on the spur of the moment, that I want it. And that’s where the problem lies.

I have to say straight off that I don’t buy CDS online; I’ve had my fingers too badly burnt in the past to do that again and, besides, with exorbitant postage rates to Singapore not to mention the familiar mantra to any of us who live in Asia; “Sorry, that item can’t be shipped to your country, choose another address instead” – yeah, thanks Amazon, I’ll just buy a house in New York so that you can deliver me a Naxos cheapie – it’s usually more trouble and costly than it’s worth. Neither do I download. I’ve yet to find a satisfactory download site. Some labels (Chandos and DG spring to mind) are excellent, but only for their own discs. If I want something which necessitates going through a general download site, I call the whole thing off. The quality is usually dire (what is it about downloads that results in you getting only a desiccated sound?) and, most problematic of all, you don’t get the documentation. Some, like Classics Online, boast that they offer it, but you can’t get it for all their downloads – and the ones for which you can are those labels who offer their CD booklets free to download in any case – and a CD without the booklet is, pointless. It’s great to listen to music, but you do need to know about the music, who performed it, who recorded it, where it was recorded, when it was recorded and so on.

Last week I was writing a piece about Shakespeare and music for a festival in Ireland and mentioned Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. I thought I might listen to it, but discovered to my horror that my recording had gone missing – probably when I had foolishly loaned some CDs to an unscrupulous music school in Sarawak. No matter, thought I, I’ll go and buy a new version; after all, the Overture is one of those hugely popular pieces that appears on no end of “Classical Gems” CDs. Out the door, jump on the no.14 bus and in no time at all (45 minutes, to be precise), I am in 313 Orchard and heading up to the 4th floor for HMV. Now HMV Singapore used to be quite good in the classical department. True, the heady days when there was a dedicated floor with knowledgeable staff in the Heeren Centre are long gone, but when I last visited HMV, it still wasn’t bad. It is now. It’s execrable. Classics have gone; Middle of the Road/Crossover is in. Who buys this stuff? Terminally deaf people, those who want a CD to hang on their car’s rear-view mirror, or are there really loonies out there who like this drivel enough to buy the hundreds of CDS which HMV stock? Judging by the non-existent crowd not milling around the shelves, this section is a triumph of aspiration over practicality, but perhaps they were driven off by the incredibly loud rap music the store was playing in the so-called “Classical” department. I persevered, but gave up when it was obvious that, unless Susan Boyle (she’s a “Classical” artist, by the way, if you didn’t know it!), Katherine Jenkins (she’s a brilliant singer, by the way, according to the CD booklet) or any of the vocally-challenged non-entities whose unchallenging CDs adorn HMV’s “Classical” department, had recorded it, it wasn’t going to be there.

To Gramophone – first Cathay then North Bridge Road – only to find the same. No “Classical” CDs but brain-dead singers by the yard and, hidden amongst them, some Lang Lang. The replacement for Tower Records in Suntec City sells, presumably, only to the elevator and shopping mall market (ie, suicide-inducing background music), and although there was a shelf marked “Classical”, I couldn’t quite see how its contents differed from those on the shelves marked “Pop”, “Rock” or, intriguingly, “Audiophile”. Sembawang Music went bankrupt last year, so that’s it. Singapore’s desire to become an arts hub doesn’t extend to classical CDs. In short, if you want to buy a classical CD, treat Singapore as you would Afghanistan, Sierra Leone or Colombia; a total and utter lost cause. I hate to say it, but even Malaysia has better CD retail outlets – and that’s a pretty desperate state of affairs. So, I can tell you categorically that a recording of the Overture to Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor cannot be found in Singapore (in the end I did buy it in KL), nor can just about any other piece of basic classical repertoire. I have no idea what the obsession in Singapore CD stores is with singers, nor why Classical music is now filed under artist rather than composer (do we take it that the Singaporeans are so musically backward that they don’t know that the person who writes music is more important than the person who performs it?), but I do know that the CD market in Singapore is dead. I am told that Classical has “no demand” in Singapore and that CD stores have been badly hit by illegal downloaders (let’s face it, you’ve got to hate music quite a lot to be one of those), but is this really true? Don’t Singaporeans want to buy CDs; do they prefer to steal instead? I find that hard to believe.

I remember giving a talk in the mid 1980s to the Singapore Gramophone Society (or some such name) and being hugely impressed both by the number who came to my talk and by their vast record collections (all LPs in those days). It was also in Singapore that, in 1984, I began my collection of CDs. I had been sent some for review when they first came out in 1983, but it was during an examining tour of Singapore that I came across the first commercial stores selling CDs – if I remember I bought up virtually the whole stock – and bought my first CD player (having had one on loan from a manufacturer up to that point) in a shop in Scott’s Road. How sad that the country which was at the forefront of this revolution in music is now lagging so far behind the rest of the world.