SINGAPORE (Aug 20): When Sulian Tan-Wijaya used to deejay back in the late 1980s, songs blasted out from cassette players or turntables that played vinyl records. She had to manually cue tracks, painstakingly match beats or scratch a stylus against a spinning analogue disc. There were no laptops in DJ consoles. No digital audio files. No fancy controllers with volume faders. “Deejaying with vinyls is an art and skill, requiring quick reflexes to beat mix,” says Tan-Wijaya, who worked the crowd at Rumours disco on Orchard Road on weekends during her university days. Vinyl was the main artery for delivering music from the 1950s until the 1990s, after which it was swiftly replaced by digital compact discs.

CDs, in turn, are being relegated to dusty shelves, eclipsed by music streaming services such as Spotify, which let you tap a global library of songs for less than the price of a CD per month. Music lovers, from teenagers to seniors, are also tapping music freely available in cyberspace through internet radio stations and channels such as YouTube.

Yet, in this age of touchscreen music, a wistfulness for the crackle and pop of analogue sound has crept back. CD sales, particularly of limited-edition releases and collectibles, are also coming back, giving a lift to brick-and-mortar music retailers such as That CD Shop, which were almost obliterated by the internet’s invasion of the music business. That CD Shop, founded by Herry Lee in 1994, was one of Singapore’s most successful music retailers, with eight stores at its peak and its own record label named High Society.

Turntables are the first things customers encounter as they enter That CD Shop

“Vinyls and CDs are now selling faster than we are able to stock them,” says Tan-Wijaya, an executive director at real estate services provider Savills, who helps Lee with marketing initiatives in a personal capacity. “Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars….we can’t bring in enough,” she says. However, it is not just chart-topping artists that are selling. Today’s crop of music consumers is also snapping up stuff from a generation ago. She has seen customers in their late 20s, early 30s browsing through the stacks and picking up albums by The Beatles, Abba, Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan.

“Millennials have fallen in love with vintage and nostalgia,” she says. Having grown up with music that reached their ears through packets of data from a server, younger music lovers are relishing the feel of shiny vinyls as well as the authenticity of analogue recordings and even the retro artwork on covers. The hip-again quotient of carefully putting needle to groove is also drawing baby boomers and Gen Xers who discarded their turntables for playlists. “Our customers range from 16 to 66 years old,” notes Tan-Wijaya.

Last year, the vinyl market in Singapore grew 9.7%, according to numbers tallied by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. For That CD Shop, vinyl sales were up 40%. Only the year before did it decide to start selling vinyls, picking up on the worldwide resurgence of interest in vinyl audio as well as the rise of independent specialist vinyl shops that have sprung up across the island. ‘It just went crazy,” Tan-Wijaya recalls. The store also brought in turntables, as it figured newcomers to the medium would need hardware. “Initially, we thought we could use them as props for the store but they started selling fast too.”

Turntables from brands such as Teac and Audio Technica are the first things customers encounter as they enter That CD Shop at Marina Bay Sands as well as its brand new second outlet at Wisma Atria. In what has become its signature style, music reverberates at lusty decibels from hi-fidelity speakers, spilling out into the shopping mall. Called Wonderland, the latest F&B and music concept takes inspiration from Lewis Caroll’s fantasy novel Alice in Wonderland. “We chose the theme because it has something for everybody, from kids indulging in macarons to women meeting for high tea to families sitting down for a meal and then going next door to browse through the music titles,” says Tan-Wijaya.

Given the smorgasbord of premium gelato, artisanal cupcakes and macarons displayed upfront, all of which comes in a kaleidoscope of colours and flavours, there appears to be something for every sweet lover. The menu is European-centric with a touch of Asian. Pasta dishes such as its linguini chili crab are priced at $14 to $16, while mains such as its pork belly confit range from $16 to $18. “Although [the food is] prepared by fine-dining chefs, we have kept the prices low to appeal to regulars like the office lunch crowd and residents,” Tan-Wijaya says.

Wonderland's linguini chilli crab

Pork belly confit

Knack for selling music
Ambience-wise, Wonderland certainly plays up the whimsical, with arresting artwork of The Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit taking centrestage. But above all, it bears the stamp of owner and CEO Lee, who infused his CD shops with his own brand of polish. That aesthetic, which melds old-world glamour with daring, has extended to the eye-catching covers of his High Society CDs and later to his first all-day dining café, High Society at Marina Bay Sands.

Wonderland gleams with mosaic tiles, teardrop chandeliers and plush armchairs that Lee picked out. The menu is a collaboration between the tattooed head chef and Lee, a music store owner who reinvented himself into a restaurateur by watching cooking videos on YouTube. “Herry drives the whole business. He is the brains, the creative guy, the numbers guy,” says Tan-Wijaya, who teamed up with Lee when he approached her to be a partner in The Mansion, a lounge-club at Pacific Plaza about five years ago. The Mansion has since been sold for an “offer we could not refuse”.

Lee is clearly hands-on not just conceptually but operationally too: When Options visited Wonderland, he was behind the bar, shaving a block of white chocolate to create curls for a cake. Lee’s trajectory in Singapore’s music retailing scene is nothing short of amazing. Growing up in the HDB heartlands, he struggled with school and left after Primary 6. Fortunately for him, he found work at his uncle’s shop, Gramophone, where he discovered a knack for knowing what appealed to buyers. A homegrown retailer of music known for its wallet-friendly prices and wide collection, Gramophone was a fixture on the retail scene with nine shops until 2013, when it became another casualty of the slump in music sales.

Lee left Gramophone in 1994 to open up his own shop. From day one, he opted for a more upmarket and differentiated approach, locating his first outlet at Tanglin Mall and leveraging knowledgeable service and off-the-beaten-track genres to stand out. Lee, whose tastes run from old school jazz to opera to classical music, was also one of the earliest to bring in the laid-back lounge sounds of Hotel Costes and Café del Mar, which became wildly popular.

By 2005, when CDs accounted for the overwhelming bulk of physical music sales, he not only had a clutch of profitable stores but had branched out into producing music. In partnership with the big four music labels — Universal Music, Sony BMG, Warner and EMI Music — he curated, rearranged and remastered a dizzying array of music from opera to jazz to samba. In all, over 150 titles were produced under his High Society record label. Those compilations garnered three Double Platinum awards, 11 Platinum awards and 26 Gold awards from the four music companies.

However, downloadable music was catching on and with cheaper and faster online access, the internet became the preferred way to listen to music. Paid subscriptions are now the top-selling music format, double in dollar value compared with CD sales in the US market. Last year in Singapore, digital music sales, on platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music, totalled $15.8 million — just under three quarters of total music sales.

Although interest in vinyl is returning, it remains a sliver of the overall music market. For good reason: It is expensive. Adele’s album 25, for example, sells for $69.90 at That CD Shop, while a throwback such as Michael Jackson’s Thriller will cost $49.90. In contrast, Spotify Premium costs a much more palatable US$9.99 a month. And while CDs are also making a comeback, it is clear streaming will strengthen its stranglehold on the market. Analysis by PwC predicts that streaming will account for about 90% of total recorded music revenue in Singapore by 2022.

The marketplace has been changed forever. Lee knows that only too well, having had to close his stores one by one. His creative outlet turned from music to food and with that came his first music-themed café High Society, which has thrived on the high tourist flow and convention business at Marina Bay Sands. Wonderland, which is on Orchard Road, is designed to cater more for locals and long-time customers.

Lee and Tan-Wijaya are aware that the dynamics of shopping — across the board, and not just in music — have been upended by the internet. “You can pretty much buy anything online now,” says Tan-Wijaya. As a broker between landlords and tenants in the retail and lifestyle segment, she has her finger on the pulse of the shopping and entertainment scene.

“You have to give people a reason to come to the store — an experience that they can’t buy online. Something sensory that they can touch and feel,” she says. A music–themed restaurant with the music store as the heartbeat of the restaurant is the very kind of experience shoppers look for in a mall, she reckons. F&B is indeed the one bright spot in a battered retail environment. Reflecting how offline spending patterns have shifted from retail to lifestyle, the group now gets two-thirds of its revenue from F&B.

Yet for all that, Lee has not given up on the music business. These days, aside from overseeing the day-to-day operations at both restaurants, he spends much of his time sourcing and procuring vinyls. He is hoping that, in a time of instant gratification, more people will discover the joy of taking the time to sit down and listen to records.

He is also hoping to bring back good old-fashioned shopping. “Twenty-five years ago, a trip to the music store was a family outing. You would follow your dad and browse through the records,” says camera-shy Lee, who declined to be photographed for this interview. “We no longer have that after the internet. Everyone is on their iPad or phone, wrapped up in their own world. With our store, we often see families browsing through records together and I want to bring more of that back.”

Sunita Sue Leng, formerly an associate editor at The Edge Singapore, fondly remembers the days of vinyls and cassettes.

This article appeared in Issue 844 (Aug 20) of The Edge Singapore.

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