The end of music retailers?

September 22, 2013

This week was a sad week. 

Not just for me but those who grew up in Singapore loving music.

Gramophone, one of the few music retailers left in Singapore, shut its doors for good. 

While not unexpected, this definitely was a disappointment to me. I'm sure there are many who had frequented their flagship Raffles Place store within the MRT station. I was one of those. Heading here straight after school was quite the norm for me. Gramophone would be a place where you could get discs at a great price.Of the top of my head, Portishead's 'Dummy' and Texas' 'The Hush' spring to mind. What was better was that 2nd hand discs were available and there were pretty good titles such as Oasis' 'Be Here Now' for a cut throat price of 8 bucks. 

They had set up other branches across the island. My favourite was Capitol Centre. The location next to City Hall MRT was great. I think there would have been more than a few who would have remembered its musty smell which smacks you in the face the moment you step through the glass doors. I have never figured out why they couldn't get rid of it but somehow, it became somewhat of a signature of this outlet. Anyway, did I mention the location? Whichever the case, this closed down in 2010. And so did all of their outlets culminating in their last and only store at The Cathay just this week. 

Taking stock of the music retailers in Singapore, Tower Records folded in 2006, Sembawang Music Store in 2009 and now Gramophone in 2013. The future looks pretty bleak for music retailers, not just in Singapore but worldwide. The only ones left appear to be HMV at Marina Square and That CD Shop with few branches around. 

The death knell for music retailers has sounded. 

But if most people had noticed, it had already started ringing slightly over 10 years ago. 

In the early 2000s, the big record labels probably thought the compact disc medium would last forever. Why change it? The profits per disc were massive. Some money for making the disc, some for the sleeve, some for the making of plastic casing, some money for manufacturing, distribution, retailers. A teeny bit to the artistes and oh yes, a sizeable chunk to the record labels. Indeed, why change it? Why change a format that was a sure money generator?

Clearly, mp3s were a medium that the record labels and music retailers did not take seriously enough. That merits an entire discussion in itself but the point is, mp3s are now the dominant music format in Singapore that consumers use. 

Would the future for the music retailers have changed had they understood and took steps to address this concern? Most likely yes. Steve Jobs didn't come from the music retail scene but to allow Apple's iPod to take off, iTunes was instrumental in creating a symbiotic relationship. iTunes, the eCommerce portal for music and iPod, the listening device for the music you purchased. You shop. You listen. It was something ahead of its time. 

Right now, what seems to be the model for success for music distribution? From the looks of it, it appears to be subscription services. Apples iTunes has diversified to iTunes Match which provides the music you purchase on all compatible hardware at US$24.99 a year. Singapore's Starhub has come up with a streaming model for millions of songs at S$9.90 a month. Spotify also is a streaming service which allows you to opt for either the ad-supported free version or the Premium version at S$9.90 a month.

Do all these online services spell doom for traditional retailers with physical stores? I'll hold my tongue for now. Let's leave that as a point to ponder over, shall we?

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