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.


9 Responses to “Singapore’s Unglorious CD Shops”

  1. September 8, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    Dear Dr. Mark,

    I was suprised last time when you wrote about HMV@313. Back then I found it often dissapointed and yet still the best shop for classical recordings in Singapore. As a residence of Singapore, for recent years I purchased >80% of my CD/SACD online, rest 10-20% from HMV. Very often, the online price including shipping is still cheaper or much cheaper (like half price) than the local retail price. Yes, comparing prices online and in retail shops is not fair. But it is a fact.

    I lost count of my collection. It should be around 2000 (I started in 2001 when I was in China). Nowadays, my supply for classical music consists of CD/SACD, legal online streaming and of course live concerts.

    Same as you, I also hate the way of arranging recordings by the performers rather than the composers. But I heard from someone recording label that the best sellers are most of the time those recordings made by the “superstars” and purchased by their followers. Record shops just did what they thought would promote more sales. After all, the most important for a shop is to make more profit to stay alive.

    “I hate to say it, but even Malaysia has better CD retail outlets”
    “The bottom line is, if you are Malaysian and want to buy CDs, you must first buy a passport!”

    I found these two conflicting. It would be grateful if you can share with us some shops in KL or JB for classical recordings. Thanks~

    • September 8, 2010 at 7:12 pm

      Oops, I hope Dr. Marc wouldn’t mind be called Mark: )

    • 3 drmarcrochester
      September 9, 2010 at 6:34 pm

      Hi Vincent,

      Not a contradiction, just a change in light of the passage of time. As for classical CD shops in JB – I have no idea, I get out of the place as quickly as possible if I ever have to go there; I value my property too much to spend any time there! KL, Tower Records in Lot 10 is still the best – but a terrible pale shadow of what it once was. But it does have shelves listed by composers so you can locate non-vocal discs. My argument with the HMV and others in Singapore is that they have vocal almost exclusively in their Classical. It’s not that they are only stocking what they think might be best-sellers – and don’t be fooled, the discs you buy in HMV are selected by someone thousands of miles away with no understanding of the local market and with financial pressures brought to bear by the major labels wanting their product displayed above their competitors – but they are no longer fulfilling the duty of any retailer to provide a service above and beyond mere profit making.

      If you download so much, do you have issues with quality? And please let me know where you can download discs with complete documentation which can then be printed out and added to CD jewel cases?

      And Mark or Marc is pretty well interchangeable!!

      • September 9, 2010 at 8:43 pm

        Oh, I guess I didn’t make myself clear. I don’t download recording, the quality/price is not up to CD/SACD level yet. “Purchasing online” means I purchased from online shops selling physical CD/SACD, if not there shouldn’t be any shipping charge: )
        (www.mdt.co.uk, http://www.jpc.de just to name two of many online shops).
        Thanks for informing the Tower Records in Lot 10. I’ll visit in my next KL trip.

        And I believe streaming would be the future of all music recording pop or classical.

  2. 5 Chang Tou Liang (Singapore)
    September 16, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Singapore is moribund as far as classical CD retail is concerned. There are collectors (you, Vincent and me for starters) but seemingly not enough to justify bringing in big quantities of the entire range to be found.

    I go to HMV @ 313 Somerset to scour for my weekly CD reviews. Scrape the barrel long enough, there is stuff to be found, reasonably priced and good quality. In all fairness, HMV does replenish its stocks of Hyperion, Harmonia Mundi, BIS and Chandos fairly regularly. The first three I can’t get enough of. I chanced upon a boxset “Bach and Beyond” by the Bach Collegium Japan with Masaaki Suzuki. 15 CDs for $59.95 – a great bargain especially for Christmas. Unfortunately, there was only 1 copy (mine!). Marc-André Hamelin’s stupendous Etudes on Hyperion goes for $19.95, ever cheaper than Hong Kong.

    So there, HMV isn’t always completely a dead loss. Its our only choice for classical music lovers in Singapore, so let’s keep it alive!

    • September 21, 2010 at 3:42 pm

      Hi, Dr. Chang,

      Agree with you that, in Singapore, HMV is the best place for classical recording shopping. Most of my recent purchase were with HMV@313. The staffs there are helpful and have knowledge in classical recordings.
      Just realized that most of my recent collection from HMV were BIS and Harmonia Mundi..
      Hope our only choice survive as long as the physical records.

  3. 7 Eunice S.
    December 18, 2010 at 4:41 am

    Indeed, not only classical music, but world music also suffered the same fate. In the past I used to think that HMV is the best CD shop in Singapore (probably because they owned the ‘biggest’ shops, back then when it was still at Heeren). However, as my music tastes got better, I began to understand what a good record store is and what isn’t.

    Clearly, HMV holds mostly the best-selling records and actually went from average to worse ever since it shifted to 313 Somerset. Every now and then, I will visit the shop at 313 (until about 6 months ago when I completely gave up) just to see that the collection gets more and more pathetic. I once placed an order for an Italian album and the guy told me that the CD is in their catalogue but the album hasn’t arrived yet. I was a little pissed as I just went to Gramaphone and discovered that they already have the album (Spanish version though). Likewise, I placed an order from Gramaphone and was rather optimistic that HMV would contact me first as the cd was already in their catalogue. Guess what? Within the next two weeks, it was Gramaphone who contacted me. And for months I didn’t hear anything from HMV. I dare say that other music stores such as Gramaphone, That CD Shop and even the closed-down Sembawang Music are much better than HMV for their world music collection have a wider variety.

    Sembawang Music stores used to carry good, decent world music cds and by this I mean those that I have not seen in the other record shops. Sadly, they closed down and the rest of the record stores just do not get better. I don’t see how Singapore will improve on enhancing her “cultural hub” status if local CD shops don’t even have carry good cds anymore.

    Even record stores in Hong Kong and Taiwan are far better. The names of prominent, rising new artists just popped up before your eyes under their catalogues. It is just incredible.
    Shopping online, risky yes I know. I have yet to do my first purchase from abroad as I failed to come to an agreement with the ebay sellers. And Amazon is also not helping..I have to agree with Marc that the shipping costs to Singapore aren’t that cheap and sometimes seemed rather ridiculous.

    It is also not surprising to notice why world music artists ‘avoid’ this little island of ours for their performances in Asia and instead flock to countries like Japan and Taiwan. And they tend to revisit these countries to stage their performances and we in Singapore never got the chance to see them live and can only watch them on DVDs..(‘Live from Japan’ and blah blah blah)

    And I find it suffocating to live in a country which still has its title of ‘cultural desert’ attached to it in so many sense.

    All I know is I’m beginning to forget what it feels like when there is a CD for me to unwrap, open, to put the disc into the player and to savour every moment of my newly found music while I flip through the pages of the booklet delightfully. I just lost the anticipation and joy I used to have whenever I go shopping for CDs…

  4. 8 Chris
    January 6, 2011 at 11:56 am

    An interesting and enjoyable article. As someone who has just moved to Singapore I agree with the cultural desert title. Major performers just don’t come here – they go to China, Hong Kong and back to Europe. The only notable exception was the Berlin PHO which came, saw and conquered with a $600 charge.

    Previously I lived in 2 European capitals so enjoyed the luxury of being able to browse through dedicated classical music shops or at least a chain shop that had it’s own room with well-informed staff. To say nothing of having a full classical music season to enjoy live performances from a variety of artists.

    Unfortunately those days have gone. I went to HMV in City Link to look at the classical music section. Imagine my disappointment to find 2 Cecilia Bartoli (sometimes the performer is as important as the composer) CDs and a few letters to the right, several Paul Potts, Catherine Jenkins and Susan Boyle CDs. The latter do not belong in the same shop as Cecilia.

    Strange decisions with the stock puzzle me. I love to listen to Anne-Sophie Mutter and could not find any of her CDs. 3 days later I went back to the same shop and there she was – one copy, which I would not let out of my hands for anything. The sad thing about classical music in shops is that you see a couple of CDs and then 5 or 6 empty cases to give the shelf the illusion of being well stocked.

    Anyway, moan over. You made a comment about people preferring to steal, which I find interesting. I prefer to buy the CD myself as I enjoy opening it and reading the booklet; but in the absence of well-stocked shops, online stores that will deliver or online stores that allow decent downloads – what other option are people presented with?

    • 9 drmarcrochester
      January 6, 2011 at 12:58 pm

      Hi Chris,

      And welcome to Singapore. News from the UK yesterday is that HMV are closing most of their outlets there. I can see it going the same way as Tower Records; individual franchisees keeping the name but changing the style. In Tower’s case it worked well in Malaysia, where (for a time) it did better in Classical than it had done when it was part of the US conglomerate, but in Singapore’s case, it closed down after a few months’ unease with its identity. HMV in Singapore could, if out on its own, become a great Classical retailer again. Let’s hope so.

      Singapore is a great Arts capital today in terms of venues and audiences. But I wish it would improve its attractiveness to visiting orchestras. The Berlin Phil (en route to Australia rather than making a one-off to Singapore) were appallingly patronising in their programming simply because nobody had told them that Singapore audiences are more musically savvy than they once were and would have appreciated more exciting repertoire.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: