By Azzief Khaliq. Photos courtesy of Teenage Head Records, except #3 by Azzief Khaliq.
The past few years have seen a notable resurgence in the number of music stores in the Klang Valley (and, to some extent, Malaysia as a whole). Subang has Teenage Head Records, PJ has Hard Graft Records and Ampang has Tandang Store, with a few more scattered in other parts of the country. We’re not exactly overflowing with new music stores (it’s not Tokyo), but it’s certainly a welcome uptick.
Even a cursory glance at most of these stores will show you that people are still buying music, old and new, on physical formats. And it’s not just “old-fashioned” middle-aged buyers, either; granted, a decent number of regular music buyers are most likely on the other side of 40 (or rapidly approaching that age), but there are lot of younger buyers still buying music on CD, vinyl and even tape. it’s obviously impossible to discount the influence of vinyl hype on the purchasing habits of younger music lovers, that alone doesn’t explain things.
If it were all just based on vinyl hype, then we’d likely be seeing vinyl as the only format that’s being purchased at these stores, but based on our observations at stores such as Teenage Head Records, that’s plainly not the case. People are still buying CDs, after all. While the format certainly isn’t dead, it’s hard to argue against the perspective that it’s currently the least cool, least attractive format to buy music on. Yet people, young and old, are still buying CDs. Local and regional bands still put out music on CDs too, since it’s more convenient than cassette and a lot cheaper than vinyl, and that doesn’t seem to be stopping these releases from doing quite well, and those seem to be selling pretty well.
But we’re not here to offer up an analysis of the music buying habits of Malaysians. So let’s change tack: if we accept the idea that people are still buying CDs, tapes and vinyl, the question then becomes why people are still doing so. In an age when minimalism is fast becoming the new crossfit, when streaming services put a vast library of music at our fingertips, and when the idea of having to drive out to a music store and hand over cash to walk away with some sort of physical trinket seems hopelessly outmoded to some, why is there still a staunch contingent of people who will not accept anything other than the joys (and headaches) of physical copies?
German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote an essay about book collecting titled Unpacking My Library, which offers a remarkable insight into the mind of a collector. For Benjamin, the great pleasure in collecting is not the actual utilitarian function of the product (the actual experience of reading the book), but all of the stories, memories and experiences tied to the object and its history:
Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property. The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership—for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object.
Most of what Benjamin considers to be “remembered and thought” applies just as much to music. The physical object becomes the locus of everything from the collector’s own memories of listening and/or acquisition, to all the stories and rumours associated with the production and recording of the album, to the handwritten notes, receipts, airline ticket stubs and other ephemera stashed into the sleeve by previous owners. Physical collections of music also follow the owner and develop their own stories; they pass through the owner’s hands, spend time on their shelves, are bought and sold off to people. MP3s just get dumped onto externals and chucked into a backpack, and Spotify streams exist nowhere except on Spotify’s own servers.
Most of us don’t need to buy music on physical formats just to listen to music these days: there’s YouTube and Soundcloud for quick fixes, and the gradual expansion of Spotify across the region means that more albums are gradually becoming available on the service. There’s also the age-old option of piracy, which will likely never quite die out no matter what. While certain formats do impart particular characteristics to the music that can make it sound more desirable, only the most deluded collector will try and claim superior sonics as the only reason they buy music on physical formats.
There’s the tactile and visual experience that only physical can provide, for one; be it packaging that’s treated like a work of art in itself, like Efek Rumah Kaca’s Sinestesia, or simply a well-designed booklet or record sleeve, the experience that’s offered up to the other senses is often just as important as the sound. When a band manages to offer up a release that pleases more than just the ears, when the package is not just a treat for the eyes, but also a nice tactile experience, and offers up visuals that complement and even enhance the sonic material, a physical release can seem like the best, if not the only option, for a recording.
It’s probably an outdated notion in general, in all honesty, but curating the tangible seems to us to be so much more pleasurable than cataloguing an intangible list of digital files. It’s also worth noting that despite the fact that we generally don’t need to put an LP on the turntable or pop a CD into the CD player to listen to music, the beauty of collecting music is that it all retains the essential use-value; it’s all still made to be listened to. Sure, it might not a value unique to the product anymore but it’s still probably the biggest part of the whole collecting experience.
All of these pleasures can be had even when buying via mail-order, yes. But there’s something that small, independent music stores can offer that you can’t get from major retail chains like Rock Corner, let alone buying online: a sense of community. While the convenience of digital purchases and mail order can’t be denied, there’s still something special about walking into a record store and getting to know not just the owner, but fellow collectors and enthusiasts. While collecting is often a solitary pursuit, it’s always nice to be able to spend time in a place where everyone shares the same interest, whether it satisfies an emotional need—staving off the loneliness of the long distance record collector—or offers up the much more pragmatic benefit of establishing contacts and sources that can help in the acquisition of even more music.
There are a few other reasons that come to mind that we don’t quite have the space to discuss, but it’s safe to say that at the end of the day, every book, CD, LP and cassette tape in a collection represents some part of the collector’s life. But, more importantly, a collection reminds the collector of who they are; of what they like and what they are like. As Benjamin eloquently put it at the end of his own essay, “ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.”
And hey, if the nights ever get just a little bit too cold and lonely, we can always burn some of our filler for warmth. Try doing that with MP3s.
Azzief Khaliq mostly spends his days thinking about, buying or listening to music. He used to play music too, but finds that it’s something he’s not all that interested in doing anymore. His favourite album of all time might be The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers.
Walter Benjamin’s Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting can be found in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, published by Schocken Books.
The Wknd Store opens September 16th.