Of vanishing music and bookstores, and the rise of streaming


This file photo shows special-edition vinyl records on display at a music store, which can be considered almost extinct nowadays. — AFP photo

THIS April 30, the Internet would officially be 30 years old – it was on that date in 1993 that the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) had put the web into the public domain – a decision that had fundamentally altered the past three decades!

For a more detailed history of the Internet, I would direct you to do both Google and Wikipedia searches on the word itself; be prepared to burn the midnight oil!

The Internet itself has seen changes in all our lives in ways that we could never imagined.

Not in our wildest dreams could any of us have expected all the myriad changes that it has wrought in every hour and every minute of our waking lives – it even works while we are asleep!

My column today highlights two areas where it has changed the way we read, study and do research, as well as how we entertain ourselves during our free time and waking hours.

The Internet has caused a complete and total upheaval in the way we procure, buy, collect and do our reading, and how we entertain ourselves, by providing and introducing newer, faster and more efficient channels and applications to listen to music, watch movies and to buy goods.

In the past decade and more, we have seen the closure or scaling down of dozens of bookstores, music and disc (CD) shops and virtually, the complete disappearance of most video stores and many news-agents. This has happened not just throughout Sarawak, but also in the mainland and our nearest neighbour, Singapore.

In the 1970s, I used to make regular trips to Singapore mostly to visit my sister Edwina, but also to browse and shop at the many fabulous bookstores and music shops. But it was most noticeable that from around the same time as the advent of the Internet and the arrival of Amazon that the days of the brick-and-mortar retailers were numbered.

True enough, from 2010 onwards, one by one the big name retailers shuttered and closed shop – Borders first in 2011, followed by Books Actually and Harris; others scaled down their operations drastically – Kinokuniya, Popular, Times, MPH (gone online only) and WH Smith (retained airport outlet). Fortunately the ‘niche’ independents – smaller and with less overheads – were able to remain open, at least a dozen or so of them.

The situation back home in Kuching is dire. Popular closed down two outlets; the MPH managed to remain open, but its stocking policy had leaned towards a greater mix of stationery items and children’s toys rather than its old mainstay of books and magazines.
Many others folded.

It would be fair to say that magazines, in general, are in their death throes and I would be surprised if in two or three more years, we would even see a section devoted to them.

Many popular titles, even the top-selling local ones, have bit the dust!

What has happened is that the combination of the invention of Kindle, the rise of Amazon and prevalence of e-books mean that we can now order books (and magazines) at cheaper prices on sites like Amazon and Book Depository from the comfort of our offices and homes; pay online with a click on the button; and receive them at our doorsteps.

You can then read them at your leisure at your own pace on your smartphone, tablet or laptop.

However, it is hard to replace that with the actual paper-bound book or magazine that you can hold in your hand, feel and flip the pages, smell the paper and print.

I can happily report that a recent research done by the National Institute of Education in Singapore shows that print is still the go-to medium for young readers. In fact, it was discovered that most children had underutilised digital reading and preferred printed books – reasons being they were more familiar with them and also it was easier to locate them physically rather than on virtual shelves!

In another study conducted in 2021, print was also preferred by teenagers and adolescents – they had still preferred hardcopy books because they wanted a reminder of the pleasure that they had when reading them and to be able to re-read them anytime at home. It’s the feel and the physicality!

My good friend Larry Siah and his wife Annie are back again this month in Kuching for their annual book fair, which is now well-known and a much anticipated event – the ‘Second Time Around Books Fair’.

It starts today, Feb 18, at The Hills along Jalan Bukit Mata in Kuching, on the Mezzanine Level.

Photo shows the columnist with his grandson Shane at last year’s ‘Second Time Around Books Fair’, with operator Larry Siah (right), at The Hills in Kuching.

Open from 10am to 10pm daily, the event runs until this April 2.

They have on sale more than 100,000 used books from the USA, hardcovers and paperbacks, children’s and adult books, fiction and non-fiction; and the greatest value for money – 90 per cent of the titles are priced at only RM9.90, or less, per copy!

At their previous book fairs over the years, I had spent hours and hours browsing and buying – and had made many repeated visits over the period.

No doubt, you should be able to find many titles that would interest you too.

Other than reading and books, one other hobby has also seen its world turned upside down – that of the music industry.

A quick history of the way we had enjoyed and listened to our music during our lifetime would take us back to the airwaves of the local radio-station, Radio Sarawak.

In the 1950s and 1960s, our ears would be ‘glued’ to the transistor radio by our beds or the big Telefunken set in the living room as we listened to our favourite record requests programmes, the BBC newscast, or the regular late night BBC serials.

Then came the early 33 1/3rpm heavy shellac record in the 1950s, which were superseded by the 45rpm vinyl, and 12-inch long-playing record albums thereafter. That lasted till the invention of the Philips music-cassette which, in turn, was replaced by the CD.

Today, all these formats no longer sell in volumes although in recent years, we have seen the revival of the vinyl records and more recently, the CDs, in niche markets like Japan and England.

But the way we all listen and enjoy music nowadays is by streaming, by downloads and on apps like Spotify, and we ‘keep’ our albums and favourite music on storage devices the size of our thumbs.

The in-word now is streaming, and it has nothing to do with water or going for a swim!

We stream everything – not just music, but also movies and video clips from YouTube, TikTok to the homemade videos of your last birthday bash.

You can do all this on your smartphone, laptop and whatever device so long as you have the connection, the app and can go online.

I can still remember the early days of making a home movie. In the 1970s, you would need to buy a rather heavy and very expensive Sony or Panasonic video camera – they had all used completely different formats of film or tape that were also very costly, and they were mostly of a poor quality and did not last long, especially in our heat with our humidity and dust.

To create a movie, you needed adequate lighting and for better sound, even an external microphone. If you did not have a pair of steady hands, your movie would turn out like you were tripping! In fact, you needed some sort of training or at least some experience with handling a video camera.

What’s changed since then? Everything!

An overview of the ‘Second Time Around Books Fair’ at The Hills in Kuching, back in June 2022.

Today, every Peter, Johan and Siti can point his or her smartphone camera in any direction, under any lightning condition, without checking on the target or even focusing, and shoot a mini-movie. The quality would be pretty excellent too.

Now, everyone’s a potential moviemaker!

Next, he can then decide to share his ‘masterpiece’ with everyone in his WhatsApp chat group or his 356 Facebook friends. Then, if a few of them liked it enough, they could decide to re-share it among their own network of friends and so it would go.

Within a matter of minutes, that video clip (for better, or for worse) would have gone viral!

To me, that’s the scariest thing I know that has been made possible by the Internet of Things!

But the world will continue to change and there’s no way of stopping it.

Some things will not change.

I know that the way I enjoy my reading, the way I buy my books and magazines and listen to music and watch my movies, they all won’t change much in the years to come.

Sure, streaming is now the way to go and I welcome it as it enhances the choices of what I can find to watch, read and listen to. It increases my selection, it introduces me to new music, new writers and of course, new apps and better methods to process and progress further.

I thank God that amidst all the many great changes, the greatest truth is still the same – I have my health and the people I love around me, I have a good family life and great friends, and most of all, I have my faith in my God the Almighty One.

Praise be to Him! Amen.