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Self-Improvement & Hobbies

Disc is it

Record companies are trying to beat declining CD sales with novel packaging and by giving away collectibles
The Straits Times - November 4, 2011
By: Boon Chan
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Disc is it Taiwan's Won Fu Jr's Flying To You, Flying To Me album comes with stickers depicting band members as cartoon characters, offering fans that extra something that online music downloads cannot.

In January 2009, Taiwanese rock band Mayday delivered a high-octane gig that was more than two hours long. The cost of a ticket? Free - but admission was only for those who purchased their 2008 album, Poetry Of The Day After.

It was an offer Ms Jenny Yeo could not refuse. The 30something online entrepreneur buys only about 20 CDs a year and they tend to be the works of singer-songwriters she likes.

She would also look out for albums which are re-released with additional material or have unusual packaging. One of her most treasured albums is Mayday's 2002 movie soundtrack, The Wings Of Dreams, which comes in a movie reel metal case.

Still, she declares: 'The best thing is of course a free concert by Mayday.'

The battle to keep CD sales alive might seem at first to be a losing proposition.

Artist and repertoire and marketing director of Warner Music, Mr James Kang, reckons that physical CD sales have dropped about 60 per cent compared to 10 years ago.

'A decade ago, 6,000 copies would be a good seller. Now, 3,000 copies is considered a hit,' he says.

Universal Music Singapore's marketing director Lim Teck Kheng notes that an album now needs 5,000 copies in sales to hit gold status, down from 7,500 10 years ago.

Rock Records' Singapore managing director Ngiam Kwang Hwa estimates that CD sales make up only 20 per cent of its business with the remaining 80 per cent coming from concerts, licensing rights and ringtone and digital sales.

But record companies are not throwing in the towel just yet.

Managing director for Ocean Butterflies Music, Mr Colin Goh, points out that there is still a place for CDs. He says: 'Diehard fans still want that physical keepsake of their idols.'

Besides, 'if there were no CDs and you simply listened to music online, you would know the song but not the singer. A well-made CD can clearly convey an artist's personality and style'.

What he is pointing out here is one of the ways record labels are adopting to increase sales: give fans more reason to buy an album than just for the music.

It is the opposite of the keep-it- simple-and-cheap strategy, such as Universal Music offering $11.90 bare-bones local-edition presses of hit records. It has been doing this for three years and has drawn a 'positive' response so far.

Also, the New York Times reported in August on the trend of more simply designed album covers in an age of digital music given the small size of the image in portable music players and in online stores.

For some record companies, less is not more. Instead, more is more.

Mayday's free gig offer propelled Poetry Of The Day After to sales of 15,000 within two weeks of its launch here.

More care is also going into packaging for some releases.

Music division promotion assistant manager Xin Hui at HIM Music says: 'Nowadays, I feel that CD packaging has become an art, so some people want to collect them. Some albums, such as Yoga Lin's Perfect Life, which comes in a pizza box-like package, have even won awards.' It was the winner for red dot award: communication design 2011.

Another example would be the fold-out paper-sleeve design of Flying To You, Flying To Me (2010) which also comes with a DVD and stickers of Taiwan's Won Fu Jr's members as cartoon characters.

The two releases retail for about $22 each but prices do vary, given the great variety in packaging.

Some fans appreciate the extra effort that goes into a CD package, be it visual flair or added goodies.

Mr Thyetus Lee, who does online marketing for hotel chains, would source for limited-edition Mandopop titles from websites such as

The 36-year-old says: 'Releases from Taiwan may have pre-order gifts such as cameras and the packaging may be slightly better compared to that in Singapore. It makes you feel special to get them and the price is not that much different.'

His stash of collectibles include the pre-order versions of Malaysian singer Nicholas Teo's Let's Not Fall In Love Again (2011), which comes with a disposable camera, and indie singer-songwriter Europa Huang's Another Journey (2011), which includes a guitar pick.

Mr Lee usually pays between $20 and $30 for a CD and splits the shipping charge by combining orders with friends.

The practice of issuing luxe editions and box sets is certainly not a new concept but perhaps one that is becoming more important in the face of declining CD sales.

HMV commercial manager Michele Tan believes that packaging and deluxe versions are the most effective methods of boosting sales. She says: 'Additional material gives you more bang for your buck, and super unusual and deluxe packaging is something digital formats cannot offer.'

It is not just Asian pop that is going maximalist in its packaging.

Influential British band Radiohead's 2001 Amnesiac album came in a slim red hardcover book of original artwork, complete with the conceit of it being a library book that had been previously loaned out.

It might well have inspired Hong Kong singer Eason Chan's comic book packaging for Don't Want To Let Go (2008) and local band Concave Scream's used books idea for Soundtrack For A Book (2009).

While some are taken by eye-catching packaging and tacked-on goodies, others are more concerned with the content of the CD.

Mr Vestan Low, who does retail merchandising for the fashion industry, homes in on the alternative and indie artists that he likes, such as American rock bands Sonic Youth and The Ramones.

The 32-year-old sees it as something of a badge of honour to get the 2006 deluxe edition of an album such as The Cure's The Head On The Door (1985). It came with an additional disc of demos and live tracks and he says: 'I suppose it's worth it because you get to listen to something new and more obscure.'

A dedicated Asian music fan such as freelance writer Louis Teo, 26, would even buy multiple versions of an album as they could offer different content. For example, the Hong Kong release of pop diva Faye Wong's 2001 self-titled album came with a bonus EP of five Cantonese tracks. He recalls: 'I was still a student then so I had to save up to buy her albums.'

For him, a CD offers 'an audio as well as a visual experience'. He points out that the total experience of listening to, say, Japanese singer Shiina Ringo while reading her lyric booklet cannot be replicated with music downloads.

Licensing manager Timothy Tan would agree that CDs provide a more satisfying experience. The 43-year-old says: 'I love music and audio quality is important to me. I sometimes buy audiophile jazz CDs but I don't need audio quality to always be superlative through enhancements. It should however, for me, at least sound how the artist, producer and engineer intended it to be heard.

'Data loss is inherent in compressed audio formats such as MP3, thus, if I like an album, I will want to hear it on CD.'

This would be music to the ears of retailers such as That CD Shop, which in 2006 founded High Society, their in-house label offering themed compilation albums (such as jazz or Shanghai chanteuses) in different audiophile formats including HDCD or high-definition CD.

The importance of good sound quality has led to finance manager Victor Leong, 41, owning more than one copy of the same album. He bought the 2011 remastered version of American indie band Sebadoh's Bakesale (1994) as he notes that some records in the late 1980s and early 1990s were 'badly mastered for CD and sounded a bit thin'.

There is also a key demographic which continues to be loyal to the compact disc. Warner's Mr Kang says: 'CD sales are also important for our more mature target audience who prefer traditional ways of music consumption.'

Scaffolding contractor Warren See, 38, describes himself as 'part of a dying breed' who still buys CDs regularly - in his case, about eight a month. He bought his first cassette when he was 13 as he was 'very impressed with Cyndi Lauper's orange hair' and his first CD when he was 17 - British band Spandau Ballet's Through The Barricades (1986).

He does not care for fancy packaging or giveaways: 'The humongous packaging can be such an annoyance. Why don't they just put it in the normal CD case?

'A good album is a good album, no matter how you package it.'



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