musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Tower Records’

Vinyl Fever or Buyer Beware?


There have been many articles in the media in the past year or so, heralding the return of the vinyl record album, a format that many people had long-thought dead, consigned to the dustbin of history, after the heralded arrival of the compact disc in the mid 1980s. But lo and behold, old record pressing machines are being salvaged and refurbished, cranked up and humming again, spitting out hot slabs of wax, and the sales of vinyl records are surging. Who woulda thunk it?

Legions of music lovers, especially those who consider themselves to be audiophiles, will proclaim passionately about how much more superior the sound of vinyl records is compared to that of CDs, or those lowly but prolific MP3 files. I don’t doubt that vinyl records sound better — or at least have more “warmth” and more dynamic range — than the other formats, but my ageing ears certainly can’t detect much difference, at least not enough to give a hoot. Then again, I never was one of those picky audiophile types that paid much attention to stereo separation and EQ levels, or whatever criteria is used to measure sound quality. Stereo or mono, vinyl or CD, boom box or high-end sound system, what matters to me is the quality of the music itself; the melody, the beat, the singer, the musicians, the lyrics, the whole package.


Back in the United States, I worked in music stores (selling vinyl, cassettes, and CDs) — either as a clerk, manager, or eventually a store owner — for nearly twenty years, and then spent another two years working for Tower Records in Bangkok. I have great memories of the old vinyl era, both as a consumer and as a merchant. But personally, I don’t miss vinyl records one iota. Sound quality aside, with vinyl you always had to deal with a variety of nuisances, ranging from the possibility of warped records to defects such as pops, skips, and scratches. Records are fragile and they can break. Then are the issues of storage and mobility: records take up more space and they are heavier to haul around.


Yes another factor that many people caught up in the current wave of vinyl fever forget is perhaps the most important one: the cost and availability of the record needle. Hey, you can’t play records without a working needle, right? And if you play those records with any sort of frequency you are eventually going to wear out your needle — depending on usage this can necessitate a replacement in a matter of months versus a year or longer — and will need to buy another one.

Okay, that brings up the cost of the needle. Obviously, the better quality of the turntable you have, the more the needle will cost. But wait a minute; can you even find the damn needle that you need? Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, we used have these reference books that would help us find the correct needle that customers needed. There were literally hundreds of different needles listed, and most were not compatible with other turntables. Finding the correct needle was sometimes a difficult task. Sometimes you had to wait until the replacement that you had to order would arrive. I can’t imagine the availability and compatibility of needles has suddenly gotten better. So what are these happy new turntable users doing? Are they playing their records sparingly or causing further damage to their precious vinyl by playing the records with a worn stylus?


An additional twist to this vinyl renaissance is the cost of the records themselves. Man, they ain’t cheap! In a tactic that is typical of a greedy, clueless industry that grossly over-charged consumers for CDs for far too many years, the cost of vinyl records is now more than that of CDs. Colored vinyl! Limited Edition! More money! Honestly, it’s like these record companies have schemed up another new scam in a desperate attempt to rake in profits.

So no, I have no desire to return to those “glory days” of vinyl records. I’m quite satisfied with my burgeoning collection of compact discs, even if those too are becoming an endangered species in this era of file sharing and digitized downloads.

Here is an article on the subject of the vinyl resurgence that appeared in the New York Times this week:


KL Update: February

I’ll post more about my trip to Kuala Lumpur next week, but I thought I’d update you on a few things right now while I’m thinking about … and have nothing else to do on this last night in town. I have another early morning flight back to Bangkok, so I’ll attempt to get to bed early and wake up at the unnatural hour of 4:00 am.

I dropped by the Tower Records branch in the Lot 10 Shopping Center on Monday afternoon and was immediately alarmed by what I saw when I entered the shop. The store sign was gone and a few of the fixtures were bereft of CDs. Employees in some sections of the store were busy boxing up stock. “Are you open?” I asked one of the employees. The guy assured me that yes, the shop was open, but they were in the process of moving. At the end of this week they will be relocating to the ground floor of the nearby Times Square shopping center. I did a quick run-through of the shop and bought six CDs, including a rare Gatemouth Brown title that I neglected to get last trip. I’m just happy that this branch of Tower is staying in business. The US chain filed for bankruptcy and closed a few years back, and all the Bangkok branches (I used to manage two of them) morphed into CD Warehouse locations in the late 90s, but even those are now shuttered. I mentioned to the manager of the KL store that I used to work for Tower in Bangkok back in the mid to late 90s. “The good old days,” he sighed. We talked a bit about the current state of retail and he bemoaned the trend of so many music listeners to illegally download songs and albums nowadays. Needless to say, it’s done irreversible damage to retail shops and chains like Tower.

Speaking of bankrupt retail chains, Borders Books in the US, is also going the way of the dinosaur. I think they have closed most, if not all, of their US stores by now. They used to have a large branch here in KL also., in the same Times Square where Tower is moving, but they closed it and downsized to a smaller Borders Express about 2 years ago. I assumed that branch had also closed, but now I’m not sure. I went to the Curve shopping center in Petaling Jaya (a large suburb of KL) yesterday and was startled to see a very large (two floors) branch of Borders still open there. Even more startling was what I saw in their travel section; books from my friends at Things Asian Press. They had Janet Brown’s wonderful Tone Deaf in Bangkok,  the photo book Lost & Found Bangkok (which has photos of my bookshop on a few pages!), and To Vietnam with Love. I was disappointed that they didn’t have To Myanmar with Love, or Ma Thanegi’s excellent Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy, but it was still cool to see of those Things Asian books in stock. And today when I was in Bangsar Village Shopping Center I saw a Borders Express shop. So, like Tower, some of the Borders are still afloat here in Malaysia.

Malaysia remains a very easy country to visit in regards to visa and immigration. Unlike Cambodia, Myanmar, or Laos, in Malaysia there is no visa fee, they don’t have any of those annoying forms to fill out (for either immigration or customs), and no photos are required either. Plus, you can stay up to 90 days on a tourist visa, as opposed to a limit of only 30 days in the other Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand. What can’t all the ASEAN countries be as easy as Malaysia?

The LRT subway/light train system here remains very convenient and inexpensive (compared to Bangkok). They now have completely automated machines that can sell one-way tickets or used to top-off your multi-trip card. It took me three times to figure out the machine, but now I feel like a seasoned pro.


Retail Brethren

I’m apparently one of the dying breed of people who still enjoy shopping for real CDs in real shops, as opposed to those folks who buy pirated copies on the street or download stuff for free on the Internet. Shopping malls, at least here in Thailand, are as popular as ever, but shops that sell music CDs are sadly becoming hard if not impossible to find. And of course we know the reason for this: many people are downloading music for free on file sharing websites nowadays. Can I call these people thieves? I think that’s accurate. If the music “file” is something that is not commercially available, or offered with the blessing of the artist, that’s one thing, but downloading copyright-protected recordings for free, whether it’s music or movies, is nothing but thievery.


Illegal downloading is one issue, but the increasing shift to online shopping by so many music fans puzzles me even more. Sure, I understand the convenience and “better selection” of online shopping, but I don’t understand why so many consumers have seemingly abandoned “brick & mortar” shops altogether. For me, browsing for music — or books — in a proper shop remains one of life’s great pleasures. Perusing the aisles and the tactile act of picking up the “product” and examining it; the colorful merchandising and displays; the unique smells; actually talking with clerks and getting personal recommendations; nothing about online shopping can duplicate these experiences.

Luckily there are still many shops in Kuala Lumpur that still sell real music CDs, and not the knockoff stuff. In Kuala Lumpur I shopped at Tower Records (yep, they still have a single store here, although I doubt it’s any longer affiliated with the bankrupt US chain) in the Lot 10 Shopping Center, Victoria Music in the Amcorp Mall, and several branches of Rock Corner. Almost every branch of Rock Corner that I visited yielded multiple musical jewels that I’ve never found in Bangkok, or ones that would be more expensive if I had purchased them online (factoring in shipping charges, not to mention those nasty customs and import taxes that the post office sometimes surprises me with). The best stocked branches of Rock Corner that I discovered (and I still haven’t visited them all) are at KLCC, the Mid-Valley Megamall, and Bangsar Village.


There is definite bond that is shared by people that work in any type of retail establishment, especially ones that sell music. Call it a brotherhood — or sisterhood, in some cases — of tunes, but a mutual feeling of camaraderie definitely exists. You’re not going to command a high salary working retail, so you have to love the product you’re selling, and also to be able to share your enthusiasm with like-minded customers. And retail music junkies are able to do just that, and do it gladly. Just ask the guy behind the counter, the one wearing a Ramones t-shirt, what he’s been listening to lately and get ready to be overwhelmed.

I’m not a chatty kind of guy; I don’t automatically walk into a shop and strike up a conversation, nor do I need to pester the staff for recommendations on what to buy. But when I’m browsing the bins in a CD shop I inevitably end up talking to one of the employees working there. I always have interesting conversations with the guy that manages the Mid-Valley Megamall branch (one of these days I’ll remember his name!). Like me, he’s an incorrigible music junky and happy to talk about what he’s been listening to or has on order. This guy’s tastes lean more towards hard rock and blues, but we still found common guitar ground to talk about, in this case Thin Lizzy and UFO. I know baffled him with some of the CDs I bought at his shop. Seeing the titles I had picked (Green on Red, Clive Gregson, Tony Joe White, Freddie Hubbard, Albert Collins, Gene Ammons, Jackie Leven, the Bongos, Ian Matthews, Quincy Jones, Brothers Johnson), he shook his head and said, “I think you must know a lot about music. The things you buy are …” he seemed to be searching for the right words, “… very different.” Well, I’ll take that as high praise!


At Tower in KL a young man named Billy was very helpful. Aside from talking about music and our retail roots (I mentioned that I used to work for Tower in Bangkok), I asked one day him how long it would take to walk to KLCC, and which route would be best. He not only gave me directions, but to make sure I didn’t get lost, he walked me out of the shopping center, across the street and through another shopping center, and up another street until he was able to point out KLCC (and the distinctive Petronas Towers that mark the spot) a few blocks ahead. That was service above and beyond the call of duty! The young woman who manages the Rock Corner branch in Bangsar Plaza was also very friendly, played very good music in-store (and played it at a normal volume: Billy at Tower is one of those dudes who likes things loud and louder) and even offered me a discount when she noticed that I was going to pay cash for a dozen CDs. But even narrowing my pile down to twelve was difficult in this case; the selection at her branch was so good that I passed on a few things I now kick myself for not getting, the latest Joan Armatrading album being one example. Oh well, there’s always next trip!

And amongst the retail brethren, I can’t forget bookshop employees, or booksellers, as they are often called. In KL I stopped by my favorite bookshops and purchased more than a handful of titles. Book Xcess, located in the Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya, stocks an impressive selection of remainder books in a variety of categories. On my previous trip, I signed up for one of their membership cards, and when I returned this time, my discount card was ready for to use. In that same mall, on the floor below Book Xcess, there is a small shop selling secondhand books. Basically, it’s a disorderly mess, but if you patiently browse the shelves (and piles on the floor) you may find something of interest. Back in town, over on Jalan H.S. Lee, the Junk Bookshop, despite its name, has an impressive stock of titles. But once again, things are peculiarly organized and you have to look in every nook and cranny — and negotiate the scary upstairs “shifting floor” — to see what they have. Besides the haphazard way of organizing their books, the prices are a bit steep for secondhand titles, but usually if you buy more than a couple of books the owner will offer you a discount. I also did a sweep through the book offerings at the Red Crescent Society’s RC Shop. Slim pickings this time around, but I found a few goodies. While visiting the Rock Corner branch at the Ampang Point Shopping Center (the only branch where I wasn’t even tempted to make a purchase; their stock was a bit too generic), I was pleasantly surprised to find a special book sale taking place at the exhibit area on the ground floor. They had some interesting titles in both paperback and hardcover, and of course I had to buy a half-dozen of each. Too much is never enough!




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