The Vinyl Guru: A Love Affair With Piring Hitam

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As told by Joe Rosario
Images Sabrina Anuar

Joe Rosario’s love for vintage music, art, and collectibles is evident at Joe’s MAC – his vintage shop that is easily a staple visit for hunters of antiquated pop culture. Don’t mistake him for an anachronism-loving hipster who was never around during the Woodstock era though, at 63 this year, Joe is a walking, talking, living remnant of the hippie generation – the less maligned subculture with the hip prefix.

It shows when you speak to him, he is an affable stubby ball of a man, whose seasoned eyes glistened more with joy than jadedness. You can be just about anyone, stranger or regular customer, and he would still open up to you, ready to share his wisdom and stories. The first thing he told JUICE when asked about his story was that he will be getting married soon. Yes, Joe is one of those people whose friendliness equates to oversharing. We love him for that though. Enough to get him to shed light on vinyl, his love for it, and his story…

I Am Joe…
When I got divorce, I opened up a stall in the flea market, selling piring hitam (vinyl records). Slowly over the years I opened up a shop at the corner of AMCorp Mall before moving to the centre. I don’t just sell them, but nevertheless I am well known for vinyl. In fact, Traxx FM named me the vinyl guru in 2006-2007 because I talk about vinyl and I know about vinyl.

Music was the only constant in my life.

I was a guitar teacher for 17 years – both classical and general guitar. My ex-wife was a certain local diva’s auntie, who was a piano teacher. My brothers all played, my sister sung, my ex-wives were all musicians, my niece’s grandmother was a cabaret singer back then in Chow Kit Road. It might sound like people back then loved music more than now, but it’s not true.

When I was younger, in the ‘60s, I was with a group of music lovers. I was a musician and played in a band and I taught music. My gang was filled with the same kind of people. But there were others who were told by their parents to not listen to music because it’s bad for your studies, just like today.

When I was 5 years old, I went to my grandfather’s house and my aunties would play record batu, shellac records for the old gramophone – she would wind it and put these 78rpm (a speed no one uses anymore) record batu. So as I was listening to it as a child, when I hear the music from the horn, Hindi or Tamil tunes usually, I got so fascinated. I went behind the gramophone set and saw all these valves and tubes, I was convinced to be a singer, you have to be the size of the tubes because the tubes had the singers in them! Ever since then I’ve been obsessed with records.

Rediscovering Vinyl, or How CD Killed Hi-Fi
Fast forward to 1987, I discovered there was such a thing as a CD. I played it and I didn’t like the sound. I told myself that maybe there was something wrong with my ears, that I can’t appreciate music anymore. At the time I actually stopped listening to music altogether because of the CD format. Imagine this, vinyl is 98% high fidelity whereas with CD you’d get about 60% low fidelity! This is why you don’t see the term hi-fi anymore – CD became the dominant format.

Which is funny because I stopped listening to music because of that format. I mean, Bob Dylan is a bad singer but on CD he’s even more terrible!

I always had records, but I didn’t have a turntable with a working stylus. I didn’t know where to find one until I went to a flea market and bought more records along with a stylus, got home, played them, and wow, suddenly all my favourite bands sounded like themselves again.

Vinyl is analogue music while CD is digital. Now while we are talking, we are analogue. Our ears and mouths are analogue – natural sounds. So the ear doesn’t have fatigue. Listening to digital music for a long period, you’d get irritation because it’s analogue processing digital. It’s quite painful in the long run, digital music is a poor quality of audio listening.


The Vinyl Renaissance, or Why CD Sucks
That’s why people still go for vinyl, the sound is life-like. The ear doesn’t tire out, the sound is pleasant. And it picks up details. For instance when I couldn’t get the record to Metallica’s eponymous album, I bought the CD first (for shame). Immediately after I listened to the vinyl version, I will never listen to the CD anymore. The guitarist was playing passages on the record version which I never heard of on the CD, it was just silent there. The CD couldn’t pick up the right sounds.

I suppose listening to a record is like watching a live band that way. CDs are just very convenient. You can play it in the car, storage is easy, it’s smaller and easier to handle. But once you get hooked on vinyl, it’s very difficult listening to CD unless you’re driving. Records are for real audiophiles. The sound on CDs is so bad it’s embarrassing to the ears.

The sales of vinyl are very high worldwide, compared to CDs, for the past 2 years. In ratio it beat the growth of CDs! What’s happening now is almost all record companies are reproducing vinyl records. If they’re producing 10 million CDs, 10% would be in vinyl. The younger generation downloads, they don’t even buy CDs. In 5-10 years the format would be obsolete like cassettes. People are saving their music into their thumbdrives, who would want to listen to CD? But vinyl would remain, just like the gramophone from your grandfather’s time. The piring hitam will last, it will never go away.

A lot of latest albums are on records now – I have a box of them. 10% of top 40 albums are on vinyl! Franchised stores are stocking them up again in the past 2 years. But of course I’m the original vinyl supplier here at AMCorp Mall.

Vintage Forever, or Why Reissues Will Never Beat Old Pressings
People who buy records are divided into 2; collectors and listeners.

They’re reissuing albums as 180gm record, heavier than before. They claim it sounds better because it’s more stable. Not really true though. Generally records are 100gm. The 180gm is just to give these reissues something special. There might be some truth but there won’t be much of a difference. If you played both side by side you won’t be able to tell the difference, I already tried it.

These 180gm vinyls are recorded from the original tapes. The price is RM100-RM500, basically above RM100. Strangely a reissue of, let’s say Bob Dylan’s album, could go above RM150. Original pressing of that could go anywhere RM150 to RM200 even when it’s really old. It’s hard to say which one is more expensive, reissues or first pressings. The reissues are increasing because the old ones have been picked up – causing lesser circulation amongst vintage records. This doesn’t mean it affected the values of old records though, they are still going up. What I was selling a few years back at RM15-20 is now RM30-40. It doubled.

Reissues don’t have collectible value either, and it’s expensive by itself. And the volume is small, they won’t make 1 million record – they’ll make 10 thousand.

5 years ago, I would never see guys younger than 25 coming to my store. Usually they are in their 30s to 70s. Now teenagers are buying records – even girls! My best customers are in their 20s and 30s, the demographics now is around that age range. It’s becoming a lifestyle. In Japan, teenage kids carry records in their hands when going to parties. In Peru and most South-American countries, the kids are all still playing vinyls – of the latest albums to boot.

All over the world people thought the record is dead and CD is forever. But then slowly people started flocking flea markets, car boot and second hand sales to pick up records, these are the audiophiles. Even in AMCorp Mall today you see a lot of people coming here to buy records. This is the best place to buy vinyl here in this country. I get vinyl collectors from England, America, Japan, France, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Germany, they all come here.

Some of them are travelling all over South East Asia – Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand – looking for records. Which piqued my curiosity, so I asked them; why are you looking for records here? Can’t you find them back home? And they told me they are searching for local records, made in Malaysia. They’re collecting rarer made-in-Asia stuff. They buy Chinese, Malay, Hindi records! One, a DJ, said he mixes all these records together and sell them to discos. I don’t know how they do it, but they’re doing it. Keroncong, Chinese gongs, Hindi beats, all.


Care and Love
Some people like scratchy records, they think all records are scratchy, which is not true. It’s because of negligence.

I keep my records clean, if I hear scratchy sounds I would wash the records. It’s very easy to wash the records you know. It’s like washing plates. Take the record, put it under running water, take the same detergent you use for washing plates, then you just wash it with a soft clothe, clockwise, both sides, then you rinse it, and then wipe it, and put it under a fan. Once it dries, play it. So easy and enjoyable.

It’s not as fragile as you would think it is. Of course you can’t scratch it-lah, even our skin we can’t scratch. Take a knife or any sharp object and scratch yourself with them, you’d bleed.

The Very Value of Vinyl
Malay records are very in demand, they’re more expensive than Chinese and English records. There’s a lot of trading and selling on the internet. Even murai.com’s got a lot of Malay records. Just the other day a customer bought Lefthanded and Search records for RM300 each. Even I didn’t have those, they’re very hard to find. Sudirman and Alleycats’ records would fetch over RM100+.

They’re very expensive because of their scarce number. One thing about the Malays, when they buy, they don’t sell, they keep it. Even if they don’t have a turntable, if they have a P. Ramlee in their hand, they’d say “eh, P. Ramlee tak boleh jual!” Even if they have never played the record in 30 years. Malay records don’t circulate. I have a shop with 11 thousand records, and I don’t even have 1 P. Ramlee. Because every time there’s one, it will be bought immediately. There’s a waiting list for P. Ramlee. Supply and demand, man.

These are serious collectors who only go for first pressings. Second and third pressings have different values. Take The Beatles’ Please Please Me, pressing of 1963, that’s the first pressing and got real collectability. Whereas the second pressing was probably end of the year in 1963, which isn’t as valuable. You must be able to read the pressings to calculate the value of a vinyl. Or you can just find ‘em on the internet.

Then there’s the grading of the records; mint, near mint, very good++, very good+, very good, good, fair, poor. Anything very good and below is bad. You can play it, but it’s going to be noisy from the scratches and negligence. The mint and near mint are very hard to find.

Sometimes it’s not the quality that makes it expensive, it’s the rarity. You can get Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart record with good cover and a very scratched surface, it is poor according to grading. But you can still sell it for at least RM30. But then another record with good cover, bad album and scratched, and easy to find like ABBA, that you can sell it for RM5.


Personal Collection
Funny thing is I always sell, I keep only selected ones. I only keep records by artistes I really like. And even those I might sell. I am an incorrigible salesman. Money attracts me. People come to my house, they look at my Andrés Segovia collection – the greatest classical guitarist ever (Jimmy Hendrix is the patron saint of the electric guitar, Segovia is the god of the classical guitar – and even those I might sell.

My favourite musician is Jimmy Hendrix though, I listen to him until my ears bleed. But then I would immediately play Segovia to cure my ears from the bleeding, he’s really magical.

In all honesty though, the most valuable record I have is by the poet Dylan Thomas. It’s just a narration on record, a dialogue – poetry. He wrote about this village where everyone has gone mad. So the outsiders don’t let them out of the village. They’re so happy anyway; they look at each other giggling and running. Since this village is closed off from the outside world, they can’t trade or anything, all the townsfolk got together and asked themselves “what should we do?” They decided after the meeting that they rather be considered insane than sane. So they all celebrated and did nothing.

I identify with that, the value is so nice. Imagine you see a friend, you giggle at him and just run happily. Like kids! Look at kids playing at the playground, what’s wrong with them? They’re so happy! With all our great knowledge we’re still so sad while these kids, without knowledge after only 5 years on the planet, are filled with joy. That’s my most precious record.

It doesn’t have monetary value though, last time I checked it wasn’t even listed online.

The Vinyl Guru
The most popular medium doesn’t even have a physical release now, they’re just data. That’s another good thing about the vinyl records, it’s so big that you can frame it. Look at the jackets, the sleeves, the art on them. Especially during the psychedelic era – The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly, Pink Floyd – look at the covers, so imaginative, so avant garde. Now CDs have too small of a cover, though they’re doing their best.

I love guitars – electric, acoustic, classical – I’m a guitar player. I’m a reader, I’m a teacher. I also collect collectibles – statues, woodcraft – as you can see all around the shop. CDs, cassettes, guitars, pianos, saxophones, paintings, anything that looks nice I love to see here. Even birdcages. Most importantly though, I love vinyl.

I am Joe Rosario, a patron of the arts.

Joe’s MAC can be found at this address; LG, Lot.11-12, Amcorp Mall. Find more on the shop on Facebook by clicking here.