China is a fickle thing when it comes to technology; embracing the latest thing today and dumping it for something else tomorrow. So it is therefore coming to pass that the CD is now virtually all but a memory.
What would you choose to use for listening to music today? The majority of people will point to their phones; even the iPod is so, like, yesterday. Last week, when I walked into a branch of “Doremi” in New World Plaza, that which used to be a CD shop is now a toy world for kids; I realised that the time for physical CDs is gone.
From the 1990s, CDs, VCDs and latterly DVDs came on to the Chinese market. There followed 20 years of golden time for CD shops in China. A bucket load of CD shops were scattered everywhere in Nanjing, especially around schools. With the prevalence of Taiwanese and Cantonese songs in mainland China, youngsters bought albums in CD shops as soon as pop songs were released, particularly those hit albums from outside mainland China. Just as with their western counterparts, they put up posters of icons in dorms and while they probably did not know how to recite poems from text books, they for sure could sing all the lyrics of Taiwanese star Jay Chou, meticulously copied down in notebooks.
During that time, young people were not really aware of the concept of CDs that were either real or counterfeit; anything bought in a CD shop was considered genuine. But the realisation soon changed. Avid Nanjing music fan and CD shopaholic, Wang Guo, told The Nanjinger, “I bought an album of Michael Jackson which was a big hit in the late 90s here, but it ended up to be Maria Carey’s CD inside. And that was my first time [to] listen to her songs”.
Herein is the fundamental reason for the CD’s fast decline in China, while sales in western countries continue to be healthy; an awareness of the value of copyright.
For the musicians themselves, the CD is a profitable format. It is cheap to produce; unsigned bands can press 1,000 CDs for about US$1 each, then sell them at their concerts and make US$5-10 per sale.
Few fans in China would spend the money. And with services such as QQ Music free to use, at least in China, no one has ever thought to return to CDs.
The number of brick and mortar CD shops in Nanjing has been in sharp decline over the last 10 years. Two of the more well-known still standing are “Sihai (四海) CD Shop”, on Ninghai Lu, and “Aiyuefang” (爱乐坊), on Xueze Lu. “There used to be long lines waiting to buy albums, but now we barely have customers, only some regular customers from the past”, the owner of Sihai shop told us.
Coming as something of a surprise, in addition to its many CDs, Aiyuefang also sells vinyl records. The old gramophone in the corner attracted my eyes at first glance; with John Lennon coming from within, it was like stepping into the 1960s. Zhai Hong, the owner of Aiyuefang, also a music lover, still keeps a Japanese player for 12-inch video discs, something beyond the comprehension of today’s youngsters.
Zhai reckons the number of people who go to CD shops never changed, and that the demographic is mainly young students. Zhai told us, “I have opened this shop for over 17 years. The shock of mp3 was the first time that I started to hesitate; to question if I should keep on doing this”.
He stresses the significance of the physical CD shop; “When you come in here, we can have this connection in person and I would introduce you to some nice pieces. You can never have this physical touch online”. When he talks about music, Zhai’s vigor and passion are obvious from his smile; no wonder he persists when all around are chasing the next big thing.