Joe Rozario

On weekends, the basement floor of Amcorp Mall moves at a tight shuffle. Unpacked with rows of tables, the flea market offers objects ranging from antique telephones to leather shoes and vintage stamps. Like a pocket that’s been turned inside out, you never know quite what you’ll find here.

But there’s one thing that several of the stalls have in common: vinyl records. Here and there, a box of 12” LPs waits to be sifted, their sleeves showing the faded faces of pop stars our parents loved before us. There’s an art form to finding gems among these pre-loved records: it’s known as “crate digging”.

Once the domain of music geeks and collectors, “crate digging” is becoming noticeably popular among young people in the Klang Valley. It’s not just vintage vinyl that’s in demand, either: brand new records have also found a Malaysian market. Whether it’s part of the tidal desire for all things retro, or a backlash to our modern monopoly of MP3s, vinyl is on the rise.

“Before, it was people in their fifties to eighties who wanted to buy. But now there are more young people. Those in their twenties, thirties, forties are high buyers,” says Joe Rozario, the owner of music shop Joe’s MAC. The shop, which is also on the basement floor of AmCorp mall, has become the go-to place for vinyl hunters, both during the weekend market and on week days.

Joe’s MAC started out life as a flea market stall in Amcorp, before upgrading to a shop lot a few years ago. MAC stands for “music, art and collectibles”, and indeed it stocks everything from antique clocks to guitar strings, ukeleles and framed posters. The main attraction, however, is the huge collection of vinyl records, labeled according to genre and language.

Joe himself, a former guitar teacher, has earned the affectionate nickname of ‘The Vinyl Guru’. “I was part of the 60s generation: hippies, Woodstock and all that. We only had records!” he laughs. “What you heard on the radio was records. When FM first started, the quality of the sound was so good! The analogue sound was so life-like.”

Like any self-respecting vinyl devotee, Joe insists that listening to a CD or MP3 does not even come close. That’s why he thinks young people are so attracted to vinyl now. “They found out the industry was tricking them. The quality on vinyls is so much superior!” Now, Joe’s shop is seeing growing demand from young customers. “Now I’m even buying new records! The Top 40 albums!”

The most expensive record Joe has ever sold was a P Ramlee record which went for around RM500 – “it was near mint.” But early pressings of the Beatles are also consistently popular with collectors, and their value keeps going up. “I used to sell a Beatles LP for about RM20 in 2003. Now it’s RM150-200,” Joe explains. “Investing in records is better than putting my money in the bank.”

Of course, with increased appetite for vinyl, the risk is that prices will inflate and only be affordable to the affluent. Boon K.H. Tan is the founder of Judo Chop Records, a small company that imports vinyl records to Malaysia. “The big issue is to make LPs affordable to the everyday music fan,” he says. Boon warns that newcomers must learn to avoid scalpers and pick up the skills to identify gems. “The veteran vinyl lovers and serious collectors can differentiate from pricing and pressings.”

Less than one year old, Judo Chop Records has been operating on word of mouth so far. They now bring in quarterly shipments of vinyl records, with a vision for catering to niche genres and limited editions. “In Malaysia, the passion and demographic for vinyl has definitely changed,” says Boon. “The buzz is strong.” As well as selling to shops like Joe’s MAC and Rock Corner in Bangsar Village, Judo Chop Records are also available at the new Sunday Wax Market at Grafa.

Boon hopes that a wider audience will lead to greater variety of records for Malaysians: “For every Metallica LP at a retail store, maybe [we] can have some Southern Lord releases too. More experimental jazz, funk and soul and slowly more avant-garde LPs and non-mainstream hip hop. That’s the dream.”

Smek, a copywriter and local musician, organised the first Sunday Wax Market with some friends in February this year. Set up exclusively for buying, selling and trading vinyl, the market is a casual gathering with music, food and drinks. Smek dates his own love for records back to a visit to Europe. “I saw my other friends were buying so I started.” Soon, he was hooked, and even brought his first record back to Malaysia – though sadly, it warped on the way.

“With really good records on really good sound systems, it feels like you’re there,” says Smek. “The crackle – when you put the needle on the record – it’s sexy!” It seems there’s just something about vinyl which we haven’t managed to improve yet, as a species – not with the cassette, or the CD, or the short-lived mini-disc, or the ubiquitous MP3. Much like books, vinyl has stood the test of time.

Despite physical weaknesses like warping and scratching, vinyl records are becoming a musical “currency” akin to gold bars. We invest them with faith in their future power, perhaps because they speak to the past. They are also the only medium for music that we don’t seem to expect for free anymore. In an age where music is so easily downloaded or streamed, vinyl records remind us why we used to pay for music. Why we fell in love with it in the first place.

Photos by Ling Low. All photos taken at Joe’s MAC.

Shopping List

Joe’s MAC, LG, Amcorp Mall, Jalan Persiaran Barat, 46050 PJ

Hard Graft Records, No. 25A, 1st Floor, Jalan 52/1, 46200 PJ

Judo Chop Records (online)

Tandang Store, 178, Jalan Ampang, Kg. Baru Ampang, Pekan Ampang, 68000 KL

Teenage Head Records, 20 Jalan SS 14/1 Subang Jaya Selangor, 47500