Listening #160 Page 2

And there was a total lack of knowledge: I knew nothing about what was collectible. All I'd got was the love of the sound of vinyl, and the love of classical music. So it was a learning curve of about two years. And I still remember, with gratitude, the immense amount of information people shared with me.

I used to get record companies' catalogs all the time and study them, to try to learn as much as I could. And otherwise, it was customers: Over the years, so many wonderful customers have shared information with me—things that I could then pass on to other people. I'm a great believer in sharing things with people: I think there are many dealers who like to play things close to the vest: They learn things and then they hang on to what they know. But I definitely believe in sharing knowledge.

Dudley: Twenty-three years later, knowing what you know now, do you sometimes look back and say, "Wow, such-and-such a record crossed my desk back then . . ."

Singer: [laughs] Oh! A few times! I mean, if it crossed my hands, I'd feel concern for the person who sold it to me—because obviously I won't have paid very much, because I won't have realized. But sometimes I'll have sold something, and someone will e-mail me and say, "Do you realize you could have asked a lot more for that?"

I'm quite an unusual dealer, because all the other dealers I know have record codes at their fingertips—they know exactly what every record code is—and they have values at their fingertips. Now I don't have values at my fingertips, because I don't buy: I sell on commission. So people bring me records, then I can check them really carefully, and I can do lots of research as to their value, and put them on my website when I have a clear idea what their values might be. Then I pay them a proportion of what I sell for. And this gets me lots of very, very nice records, because people know that they're getting a fair deal.

And I used to agonize. I used to think, "Well, have I paid too much for that collection? Will I end up out of pocket?" Or "Have I underpaid for it, and been dishonest about it?" You know, I really used to agonize about it—and this is why selling on commission is very much . . . well, it's peace of mind!

Dudley: I suppose it removes a temptation: "I can't keep this, because it isn't mine . . ."

Singer: Yes, if I keep it, I've got to pay half of it!

I think most of the best things I've had have come from people who've inherited collections. And sometimes, you know, it's really sad: They're the collections of someone that I'd been selling to. Suddenly, here's an enormous lot . . .

When you get a collection from someone who's gotten everything from new, you can look at a few of them and you'll know what the condition's going to be like. In classical LP dealing, more and more now, I think collections are coming onto the market that are ones people have collected from buying from people like me. And that can be quite tricky . . .

Dudley: You told me that you didn't come to this business from the point of view of the collector; do you now have a collection that is yours?

Singer: I have a collection that is in sync, exactly, with my own interests. I am an enormous believer that there's a tremendous lot of records out there that have splendid sound, and nobody collects them!

I'm particularly interested in early music, and baroque, and original-instrument stuff. So I'm playing records my customers don't want—including a lot of '80s digital. And some of them are splendid. Some of them are dreadful, but some of them are splendid! I'm not someone who says, "No, no, I won't touch digital." A lot of my customers won't, but for myself, I've got some lovely [digital] records that, I think, have splendid sound.

I do buy CDs. I especially buy CDs when I've been to a concert and I really love the performers—and, of course, all you can get these days is the CD. So often, they've been involved in the recording process, these musical groups: They've paid attention to the sound. And they can sound . . . pretty good. But in general, I think there's an enormous—well, this will probably get you shot—but there are a lot of recording engineers with clothy ears.

Dudley: That's certainly very true.

Singer: I think it's really sad, because—never mind the difference between CDs and LPs—the skill of the ear should have been passed on [from the engineers of the '50s and '60s]. It doesn't seem to have been.

Dudley: In my experience, many engineers think they don't have to listen, because they know their new technology is better than the old.

Singer: I think that's the problem, yes. And it's really, really sad, because it means that the fine musicians of today aren't getting to make fine recordings.

Dudley: Especially with respect to the holy-grail records—the Decca SXL wide-bands, the British Columbia SAXes—are they still out there, or is the well drying up?

Singer: They are still out there. But a lot of dealers are struggling, because they're not getting them: They're being sold on eBay. And I don't touch eBay with a barge pole. I know a lot of my customers have been burned—a lot—buying off eBay, 'cause it's such a lottery: You might get a beautiful-condition record, but the person selling it very often doesn't have a clue as to how to assess whether a record's in good condition.

This is what I've based my business on. I think I take far more care, checking conditions, than any other dealer who's dealing now. And I've learned to check conditions from [longtime UK record dealer] Phil Rees, which is part of the reason why I've got a Garrard 401 as my office turntable: because it isn't suspended. And if you want to move the arm to different points of the record where you know there's a mark, and you want to check if the mark sounds or not, you do need a completely rigid turntable—you can't do it as easily with a suspended chassis. It was Phil who taught me that. And I took it very many steps further, because I actually describe what I find—and I say if the record's got six ticks or whatever . . .

Dudley: I'm in awe of your listings because you count the ticks. I don't think I've seen anyone else do that.

Singer: No, I don't think anybody else does that! [laughs] It's mad enough!

Dudley: It's honest enough.

Singer: In my own collection, I'm not that much of a perfectionist. But I know that some of my customers are. I know some of my customers will count the ticks themselves and say, "You said there were nine, and I found ten!" [laughs]

Dudley: Beyond the Deccas and the EMIs, what do you see as candidates for the next waves of collectible classical LPs?

Singer: I don't know what the collectors will pursue, but I have plenty of ideas about record labels that are unjustly neglected. Yes, Argo and Lyrita, certainly. But also the less-well-known EMI labels, which I think were sold at mid-price. SXLPs are well worth hearing: Many of them are recordings that were never issued on SAX or ASD, and the originals, with silver and blue chevron labels, sound just as good as those.

As for other EMI labels, World Record Club is a very unjustly neglected label, for record lovers interested in sound quality. A few are relabeled ASD or SAX pressings. Many are issues of US recordings—Everest recordings, in particular. Some are issues of French recordings, many of which are fine.

Dudley: Has the LP-reissue industry had any effect on what you're doing?

Singer: Not particularly, 'cause I think quite often, somebody with deep enough pockets will buy the reissue and then they'll think, "Well, I wonder how this compares . . . ?"—and then they'll buy the original!

Dudley: Could you describe a typical Spiral Classics customer?

Singer: Goodness, no! It depends on what country we're talking about. In Britain, I do still have a few what I would call music-lover customers. But, over the years, I've seen those kinds of customers grow old, and then . . . they sell their collections to me!

But, no, I don't think I've got a typical customer. Now, remember, an awful lot of my stock is going out to China, where I have a few knowledgeable customers and a few dealers who buy from me. There's an enormous thirst for the records, and for some knowledge about them, over in China. But, of course, they weren't able to buy them when they were originally sold.

Dudley: According to Nielsen Soundscan, as quoted by editor John Atkinson in the March issue of Stereophile, in 2013, classical music sales in the US were just 2.8% of all media. I gather your business is doing okay?

Singer: Well, I've always felt that this is a small niche business—very much a minority of people are customers for a business such as mine. Yes, it worries me when I go to concerts, and I look around at the age of the people around me—they're all my age! And I think that's really sad. There's commercial classical radio in Britain, but it's all just bleeding chunks, if you know what I mean: You get a movement of this, and a movement of that.

Dudley: You mentioned an uptick in interest in your wares from the Chinese. Has your business increased, in recent years, in all markets?

Singer: Yes, over the last two or three years, I have probably sold more than I've ever sold before—it's so much I can't keep up with it! I'm 70 now, so I'm slowing down. But I do it because I love it. I never had the illusion that I'd make a lot of money. I'm rather surprised at how well I have done. And in some ways, I think I can brag and say, in my small niche market, I'm one of the few well-known British dealers.

monetschemist's picture

for this fine article. I hope that the used record trade can continue to "prosper" albeit in this new form.

volvic's picture

A few years ago I went for the very first time to Paris on my honeymoon. I was hoping by some miracle I would stumble on lots of record stores but only managed to fall on one CD only store. I didn't want to make my honeymoon a record hunting trip but I so wished I had known about La Dame Blanche and Crocojazz. If I can overcome my fear of flying I would love to go again. So enjoyed this article, fact this issue has been quite enjoyable and informative.

adrianwu's picture

I have been a customer of Ms. Singer for many years, and she is indeed an outstanding person. She is always honest and prompt, and many of my Decca and EMI LPs were bought from her.
There is another lady here in Hong Kong who owns a brick and mortar shop right in the Central Business district called Perceval Records. I started buying from her when I was a student back in the late 70s. I remember her holding her baby daughter in her arms, and the daughter now runs the shop. Like most Hong Kongers, they emigrated to Canada during the 90s and I remember feeling a great sense of sadness when I went past the shop, which became a noodle shop. And then one day, as if by magic, the shop reappeared in the same place ! They returned to Hong Kong and started selling records again. Mrs. Siu is a walking database of classical records. You can ask her about any classical record, and she will tell you the artists, the year, and sometimes even the tracks ! Absolutely amazing.
Another amazing place that is still in business is The Record Collector on Melrose in Los Angeles. Sandy Chase was a violinist with the LA Phil, I think, before his retirement. The shop is absolutely stacked top to bottom with LPs. There is no catalogue, as far as I could tell, but you can ask Mr. Chase anything, and he will go straight to a shelf and pull it out. It is like magic. I had heard he was rather haughty, and so I went to the shop in trepidation. A JBL Paragon was playing at the front. I approached Mr. Chase and asked him some questions. After some back and forth, he decided perhaps that I was worth his time, and we started chatting about music, violinists and conductors from the golden age (with anecdotes), sound recording etc. Towards the end, he would not let me leave ! It was quite an experience.