CDs struggle to survive as collectible items

Looking like a hardback from the outside, the book has hollowed-out papers that create a space for a cloth bag with a rope ring and black-and-white photos inside and a brochure of lyrics and fiction. These objects contain stories of a man and woman from their teenage years to their mid-life.

You might think it was a prank because of the hollowed-out papers, or a work of art, but hold on, it is a music album.

The book-look packaged album “The Album Part One,” from the collaboration of Juno Mak and Kay Tse On-kay, was sold out on the launching day, December 12, 2018, at a price of HK$ 228, more expensive, and was resold online for HK$1200.

According to the 2019 International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) Global Music Report, the global music market revenue grew by 9.7% in 2018, which was predominantly driven by a 32.9% rise in paid streaming while the physical format revenue saw continued decline in 2018, dropping by 10.1%.

Screenshot 2019-04-12 at 11.06.55 PM
The IFPI Report shows that in 2018, the global recorded music market grew by 9.7%, which is the fourth consecutive year of global growth and the highest rate of growth since IFPI began tracking the market in 1997. (Chart: IFPI)

However, Hong Kong musicians have not given up physical records, believing that CDs could survive as collectors’ items, even though their market is no longer booming.

The Album award of the 2018 Ultimate Song Chart Awards Presentation, organized by Commercial Radio in Hong Kong, went to “The Album Part One.”

“The Album Part One” is now mostly out of stock in major record stores in Hong Kong. Enor Chan, the manager of 20-year-old Win Win Shop, said on Apr. 26 that the album now accepts pre-order at the original price, but the specific delivery time could not be confirmed. A small amount of the album is available in stores for HK$399. (Photo: Chen Yuyang)

Actually, it was not the first time Mak blazed a trail in the record designs scene. The award-winning album’s producer and singer began experimenting with artistic record designs a decade ago, instead of following the usual format that shows the singer’s face.

“CD would have more possibilities if we go for non-photo designs,” Mak once said in an interview with Southern Metropolis Daily.

Over the past year, besides Mak and Tse, some Hong Kong musicians have also put a lot of effort into the design of records, trying to capture the hearts and minds of their listeners at first glance.

The “Victoria” tells stories that are closely related to Hong Kong, including the severe housing problems and the struggles of Hong Kong’s workers. The attached 36 photos show the singer shuttling among public housing estates, shops, and trams, which are characteristics of Hong Kong. (Photo: Chen Yuyang)

Leo Ku Kui-kei’s album “Victoria” is packaged in a film processing store’s paper bag, along with films printed with lyrics, 36 vintage photographs, and an empty photo album, exuding retro Hong Kong vibes since the word “Victoria” symbolizes the city within the 80s.

The design of Canto-pop band Rubberband’s 10th anniversary CD “Hours” is based on the concept of time. It features an ancient sundial from the outside package by creating a round lyrics paper that can be manually rotated, which is a metaphor for the passage of time.

Wong Ken-ji, the designer of “Hours,” said that the most important thing for a record designer is to present the concept of music, which sounds reasonable, but traditional record companies are always secretive about the music so that designers have no way to understand the singers’ ideas to holistic design.

Designer of the “Hours” Wong Ken-ji was blunt about the high cost of the circular packaging, which ultimately required a Macao-based printing company to produce it. (Photo: Chen Yuyang)

“I’ve tried several times questioning them why they [have the money to] sit in a sea-view office,” Wong said, saying he always receives “we have no budget [for record designs], no one is buying CDs” from record companies.

Taiwanese designer Xiao Qing-yang, a five-time Grammy Award nominee for Best Recording Package, has the same words, saying that NT$50,000 (HK$12,7900) is the entire design cost of an album with a large budget, but it only accounts for one-eighth of the overall production cost.

“It’s unfair that the amount of money spent on record designs is so low,” said Xiao, whose latest Grammy-nominated work took him two years to finish.

CD designers barely survive with the uncomfortable financial situation, yet The Best Recording Package award in Hong Kong that helps to encourage record designers died alongside with the demise of vinyl.

Top Ten Chinese Gold Songs Award Concert, another famous music award presentation in Hong Kong, used to have a specific award for record designs. One of its senior judges recalled that apart from focusing on composers, lyricists, and singers, the Concert also wanted to encourage people behind the scenes, such as producers, arrangers, and record designers.

There were about five judges to appraise The Best Recording Package award, and the core criterion was that the design must fit the music, said Simon Ngai Ping-long.

The criteria were so “elaborate” that the judges even needed to judge the texture of the wrapping paper, he said.

Over time, however, the one-foot-wide vinyl was replaced by 12-cm CDs, and the impact of record designs was suddenly weakened, leading to the cancelation of the award for record designs in 1991.

Opinion| CDs cannot recover like vinyl

About 20 years later in Taiwan, the 21-year-old Golden Melody Awards established The Best Album Design award for the first time.

The Top Ten Chinese Gold Songs Award Concert has no plan for re-establishing the award as far as Ngai knew.

Since Taiwan’s official language is Mandarin, the same as mainland China, while Canto-pop is mostly spread in only one province in the mainland, the music market in Taiwan is much broader than that of Hong Kong.

“It is absolutely true that a record must be collectible before anyone buys it,” said Ngai, adding that the Taiwan music market is worth investing more money so that singers and designers would have more room to be creative, but the Hong Kong music market has no more possibilities for investment.

Another judge of the Top Ten Chinese Gold Songs Award Concert, DJ on Radio Television Hong Kong Meng Fanxu said putting effort into record designs is a good ethos for the Hong Kong music industry, but the significance of re-establishing the award has lost.

Singers could prove their talents and earn royalty by winning awards in the past, but it is no longer an important indicator of a singer’s ability now, he said.

Meng said that singers do not get a cent from attending radio shows but can have their songs played more on the radio by having a good relationship with the DJ, to improve their popularity and finally, earn more money from performances and endorsements, which is the same meaning as showing up in award presentations.

There are no industry insiders that could guarantee that every part of the production and publicity is profitable, but they have a common goal which the overall must make money, so they better not let the CDs to “drag feet” by turning it into promotion, he said.

One of Meng’s guests, singer Fiona Sit, once said in the radio show that the sales strategy for her 2018 album is firstly the sale of the digital album, then to determine the final plan of selling the physical one according to sales data. Fans who bought the digital album could get the physical one with exclusive fans ID freely.

RTHK Putonghua Channel: Chit Chat about CD

(Produced by Chen Yuyang, Gao Xuemei, Wang Xi, Yao Lan)

“It is not just that record companies launching CDs not to sell music, nor fans buy albums to listen to music,” said Ng Lap-ye, marketing director in the Hong Kong office of Rock Records, a Taiwanese record label founded in 1980, adding that launching physical albums is now a promotional method for running the fan groups and developing fans economy.

Ng explained that the current market situation is that only fans will be willing and have the purchasing power to buy physical records to support their idols, then, the more refined and even personalized the album, the happier the fans will feel.

“The commercial nature of CDs has changed,” he said, “as long as the fans are happy, the promotional value of the CDs will be realized, but if you give up pleasing the fans, CDs will absolutely die.”


Chen Yuyang, Apr. 26,  2019

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