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In the Age of Spotify, Records Remind Us What Music is Really About

In the Age of Spotify, Records Remind Us What Music is Really About

  • Culture
  • Life
My vinyl journey started late last year, after a friend bought me a copy of Queen’s Greatest Hits following the release of Bohemian Rhapsody (not to be confused with the song).

I had always wanted to collect vinyl. Not just because of the better sound quality, but because it can feel almost ritualistic—as though giving the music the respect it deserves—having to physically lay the record and flip it onto its B-Side after its coverside gets reduced to an insignificant crackle. Plus, it would give the shopaholic in me something to constantly look forward to, seeing as it is impossible to own every single record ever made.

Since then, my vinyl collection has increased at a faster rate than my bank account (not sure if there’s a correlation there), and I even have a special edition Queen turntable to play my records on.

As a millennial who often only leaves the house for work and special occasions, I get most of my vinyl through Amazon, which means that I very rarely visit the numerous records shops in Singapore. Besides, records usually cost more in shops—it’s not uncommon for me to spot a record in a store that’s 30% more expensive than the same one on Amazon.

That was until I chanced across Facebook advertisements for Record Store Day (RSD). On RSD, exclusive limited edition records are released as record stores all around the world celebrate their love for music in wax form. Performances by local artists also take place to draw in bigger crowds than usual. But where others saw a celebration, all I saw was a gigantic marketing campaign looking to emulate the commercialisation of Christmas.

Nevertheless, with discounts promised at record shops islandwide, I put my cynicism aside in a bid to grow my collection.

My first destination was Mosta records in Peninsula Shopping Centre, where I was greeted by a small but respectable crowd. Some people would come in with tote bags that were already half-filled, and when I asked, would explain that they came from another shop, and planned on going to others in the vicinity. It was clear that they were crate diggers, people who will spend hours on end scouring through records in the hope of finding that one elusive record that had up to that point evaded them.

RSD X Fred Perry tote bags that were given out to customers on the day.
As for me, I was there to look for music that I was already familiar with.

When it comes to music, I am a serial monogamist. This means that when I find an artiste I really like, I will download their entire discography and listen to it exclusively for an extended period of time.

The first two years after I listened to my first Queen song, each time I plugged in my in-ear monitors, it was Queen. It didn’t matter if they were cult hits like “The Prophet’s Song”, unpopular gems from critically panned albums such as “Cool Cat”, or live covers of country songs like “Hello Mary Lou”, I knew them all by heart.

This translated to my purchasing habits when it came to vinyl as I would only buy records of songs that I knew by heart. Even older records like my 1975 pressing of Pure Gold by Harry Belafonte was from the internet, which I found via Carousell.

Ian with his new Enya record. His favourite record is “Ten” by Pearl Jam.
It was only after speaking to a few patrons that I realised what I had been missing out on. Where I would usually just think of specific records and search for it on Amazon, I was now literally digging through crates with my bare hands, in search of that one elusive LP.

It was a surreal experience sitting on stools in a tight space with complete strangers. As they flipped through record after record, I found my attention drawn to the things they would linger on for that extra second, before I would proceed to make wild assumptions about the kinds of music they enjoy. As I thought this, I would go on to entertain the possibility of making suggestions to them—only to dismiss this idea for fear of getting judged by someone who might “know music” better than I do.

 

Earl with his Pearl Jam record. His favourite album is “Substance” by New Order.
Judgement has a strong presence in music. People shit on hipsters because they think hipsters collect vinyl only because it fits into a certain aesthetic, rather than because they’re music-lovers. But without these hipsters, vinyl wouldn’t have had a second lease of life.

What we need to remember is that it is people who are judging hipsters; music itself does not discriminate. Yet this is something I still grapple with even today.

As someone blessed with an ear for pitch and who has a background in performing music, I’ve always felt that the music that I enjoy is better than what anyone else is listening to. I’ve lost count of the number of times I brushed aside a song suggestion from a friend, all because I thought the music I listened to was “more complex” and “had more intricate layers”. It was only until I met Gilbert (not his real name) at Vinyl Kakis that I realised how having an open mind can truly broaden one’s horizons, and bridge the gap between two seemingly opposite things.

“My favourite band is Napalm Death,” Gilbert tells me, referring to an English Grindcore band famous for recording the shortest song in history. You Suffer has a runtime of just 1.316 seconds.

“Back then I would go to this music shop at Bedok Interchange to buy cassettes. I bought From Enslavement to Obliteration there, he tells me, referring to the record which he feels has had the biggest influence in his life.

After a long explanation of his journey into musical discovery, he tells me that his musical tastes have expanded so much that it now includes fusion jazz. According to Gilbert, this can all be traced back to his love for grindcore music.

“You would buy cassettes or vinyl, then while listening, you would look at the names in the lining and do more research on them. So for example if I like a certain guy, I would look at the other things he did and try to listen to them,” Gilbert explained, as I imagined a never-ending treemap in my head.

Gilbert’s favourite album, “From Enslavement to Obliteration”, and his avant-garde jazz suggestion to me, “Naked City” by John Zorn.
From Napalm Death, Gilbert eventually discovered John Zorn, a frequent collaborator who found fame as an avant-garde Jazz musician. A million miles away from a song lasting barely 2 seconds, and structurally nowhere near the complexities of a Jazz composition, but it is something that is very unlikely to happen with today’s modern habits of music consumption.

Nowadays, people take the safe option of listening to Top 20 Charts, and playlists curated by the staff at Spotify. Because we have so little time to ourselves every day, we rarely want to take chances on unfamiliar music that might be life-changing.

Sean recommends me “Game Over” by Nuclear Assault.
Cherilyn, owner of Vinyl Kakis, was just like that until she started this business with her husband.

“When we first started our collection, my cousin introduced some post-rock stuff to us, so when I heard it, I thought there was something wrong with the recording,” she laughs.

“I told them, “Eh is there something wrong? Why got no singing one?!” Now, even my children listen to these kinds of music. I don’t know how it gets to them, but it gets to them. But it’s fine because everybody has different tastes.”

Two records by DeepCount, a musician she met in Japan are amongst Cherilyn’s most treasured items.
These days, Cherilyn is much more open-minded, and picks up recommendations from both her husband and her customers.

“Some customers will ask me to bring in certain records, so from there, I also learn. It’s a two-way learning.”

Music, after all, is a journey of discovery. If we learn to stray off the beaten path every now and then, more often than not, we find gems waiting for us. A good song will always sound good. But a good song that you accidentally discover can sound great, purely because it is surprising, strays from convention, and isn’t what you expected.

Whether you go crate digging on RSD or any other day, this is all you will experience: people of all shapes and sizes debunking stereotypes about what music you might think they’re into. A bespectacled Chinese boy in ill-fitting clothes picking up a black metal record, a Malay lady in a tudung browsing through Japanese fusion jazz, and even a Caucasian skater caressing the edges of the latest Beyonce record.

If anyone tells you that Singapore is a sterile environment where cash and material things are king, take them crate digging. For every successful banker in Singapore, there’s someone else who chases their passion on the side. Sometimes, they’re even the same person.

As RSD drew to a close, my new crate digging hobby bore fruit as I found a record which had thus far evaded my grasp: a 10-inch record of Kasabian’s self-titled debut album. In this past year, I’ve graduated from school, clinched an amazing job I’m grateful for every single day, and met my current girlfriend. Even then, all of these personal milestones seemed to mean nothing (sorry, girlfriend) in the moment of that brief dopamine rush as I noticed the unmistakable font Kasabian is known for.

I might have been over 100 dollars poorer after RSD, but I learned that it is okay to sometimes leave things to chance. The best things in life always come unannounced, and at the right times.

For now, I will be counting the days till the next RSD. Also, I will be cancelling my Amazon Prime membership.  

 

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Author

Shaun Tan Staff writer