End of CD era

It seems to be the season for saying goodbye.

Two weeks ago, we said goodbye to Nokia mobile phones after the Finnish telecoms giant sold the business to Microsoft.

This week, a different sort of player made its exit - one much closer to home but, for me at least, no less loved.

After struggling the past few years with huge changes to the music industry that have decimated its business, local music retailer Gramophone finally pulled down its shutters for the last time last Wednesday.

I remember visiting its store in the basement mall of Raffles Place MRT station nearly every weekend at one point, on Saturday afternoons, when it would be the only shop open in the mall, pumping out music that echoed around in the relative stillness.

The store had unique sliding CD shelves three or four layers deep that could be pulled aside, revealing further hidden gems behind them. It was also, I believe, the first serious marketplace for second-hand CDs and DVDs.

But Gramophone also had a special place in my heart because its owner and founder, Edmund Loh, married one of my close friends from junior college and university.

Success eventually brought new shareholders and a fresh infusion of capital. The company expanded and, at one point, had as many as nine stores, making it one of the largest music retailers in Singapore.

So many Singaporeans took home the store's orange bags with a slogan that reminded people: "Without music life would be a mistake."

Yet the industry was starting to change. Prompt and fuss-free deliveries from overseas retailers such as Amazon meant that savvy customers could get cheaper prices and a much broader range of titles.

Then, in the last few years, what started as a gradual decline in the industry suddenly turned into a freefall.

Music and movies became available online, and as broadband Internet connections became faster and faster, films and television programmes could be downloaded in minutes and music albums even quicker - in seconds.

Gramophone started cutting back its operations, closing stores until it was eventually left with just one - a sprawling music wonderland it had opened in The Cathay Mall.

In its final weeks and months, walking occasionally through the store - usually while waiting for a movie to begin - was a depressing experience.

Loud music would be playing as usual and the space near the entrance would be lined with the latest releases from the trendiest singers and bands of the moment.

But walk a little deeper into the store and you would see long aisles stacked with racks and racks of unsold cut-price CDs.

If local names such as Valentine, Supreme and Da Da ruled the era of vinyl records in Singapore, then Gramophone - together with Chua Joo Huat, Sembawang and That CD Shop - were their local counterparts in the compact disc era that followed.

To me, Gramophone's closure now is the clearest sign yet that the CD era is well and truly over. And sadly, this is a goodbye that will be somewhat final.

The CD format will probably never be revived, ironically because of its relative perfection.

For the vinyl record is now enjoying a comeback among audiophiles and purists who love its "warmer" analogue sound that is partly a result of distortions created by scratches on the plastic and vibrations produced by turntables.

Meanwhile, a smaller but growing group of enthusiasts is reviving the humble cassette, attracted to the "flat" sound it produced and the charming imperfections in the hissing and warping of magnetic tape.

The CD, on the other hand, was just a piece of plastic to contain the digital bits and bytes that were the true innovation. These bytes allowed for an almost 100 per cent accurate reproduction of any sound that was digitally recorded.

Once technology allowed for the direct transfer of those bytes quickly and efficiently to whatever device was being used to listen to them, the "middleman" - CDs - would technically become irrelevant forever.

That day has now come. Now, even the most expensive audio systems to be used at home are being sold without CD players.

I have a six-disc CD changer in the car but I haven't used it much in the three years I have had it, because I can plug my iPod with its library of 10,000 songs into the stereo. In fact, I have completely stopped buying CDs altogether.

As a result, my collection of about 4,000 CDs, still lovingly displayed in shelves in my front hall, has turned into a museum of sorts - an exhibit that chronicles my obsession with music for 25 years, from late 1987 when I bought my first CD (Sting's Nothing Like The Sun) to last year when I bought my last (probably The xx's Coexist).

I don't know if I will miss CDs.

The artwork and sleeve notes on their tiny booklets were a let-down from that which adorned the beautiful large-format vinyl records that preceded them.

And, at least initially, the cold hard and impersonal plastic jewel cases that contained the discs also limited options for creative packaging.

And they didn't smell of anything. In contrast, walking into a vinyl record store was always a slightly giddying olfactory experience that sent your pulse racing with excitement.

Yet CDs revolutionised music buying in their own quiet way.

Thanks to CDs, for instance, more music buyers could sample more music at listening posts, instead of asking shop assistants to play them on the store turntable.

Twisting my neck for hours to look through racks of horizontally-arranged CD spines, and the temporary blindness from looking at such small font are health hazards that I will no doubt fondly reminisce about in time to come.

The day the news of Gramophone's closure was carried in the papers, there was another story about a special feature that will mark the coming Deepavali light-up in Little India.

The streets, it seems, will be adorned with thousands of shiny CDs - a chilling testament to how things have changed.

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