A name like The Analog Vault suggests an obscured zone of the rarest records, hidden to many and attainable to few.
In the game of vinyl records, where arbitrary prices of early pressings can limit the access of certain records to a distinct class of collectors (read: ludicrously rich ones), that may not be completely surprising.
However, it would be a supreme misjudgment of The Analog Vault. Since 2015, the store has served as a reliable refuge for a repository of vinyl records — spanning the worlds of jazz, soul, indie rock, hip-hop, electronic music, among other specialized genres.
While the store has had Nick Bong and Leon Wan holding fort as the store’s main faces and store managers — and hosts of our Analog Club podcast (previously AV Club) — the store’s genesis is owed to the ambitions of Sharon Seet, who established the store five years ago at a cozy unit, which now faces its current, much larger location.
Working in the finance industry by day, Seet first forged her love for the format while living in London during her early 20s.
“While I was meant to be focused on studying and working, most of my time was instead spent immersing in the amazing music scene and vinyl collecting culture,” she says, “particularly at the record stores where I learnt so much about different kinds of music.”
Having spent time in London with its particularly rich culture of record stores, steeped in decades of iconic music, Seet carried those memories back home — gradually nursing the idea of opening a store in Singapore that captures that same exuberance she felt flipping through endless racks of records. It was with Eugene Ow Yong, owner of Vinylicious Records, who contacted her about pursuing such a venture together.
A long-standing customer of his store, she seized the opportunity to try her hand at curation, zeroing in on the kind of music she adored. “I agreed to work with Eugene on starting The Analog Vault on the premise that I could forge it to become an establishment championing jazz, hip hop, soul, electronic, and world music,” she says.
As Sharon has continued to run the store without Eugene — “[he’s] no longer part of TAV, but we remain close friends till today!” — the selection offered at The Analog Vault has only grown to include more styles of music, with a substantial section dedicated to obscure Japanese titles.
At the root of the store’s curation, however, is an undying appreciation for jazz music.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to the casual customer entering its confines — boxsets of John Coltrane and Kamasi Washington albums are proudly displayed behind the counters, along with recent arrivals of the long-overdue Black Jazz Records reissues sitting comfortably on nearby shelves.
Sharon Seet, on running The Analog Vault all this while.
“While I enjoy music across a broad range of genres (and languages!), I have forged the deepest connection with the jazz genre particularly,” Seet says. She attributes it to a chance encounter listening to the 1963 self-titled album by Coltrane and Johnny Hartman on vinyl.
“It was a transcendental experience for me — listening to Hartman’s sexy baritone voice set against Coltrane’s poignant saxophone, in pure analog delight. I had stumbled onto one of the greatest albums in the jazz canon,” she recounts. “That experience alone had me hooked onto jazz and vinyl, and it is a love affair that has continued to this day.”
The album continues to be revered as a high point in the saxophonist’s career. But it also served as a gateway for Seet into a vast, almost unceasingly creative world of music that she considers “akin to a complex and engaging piece of intellectual artwork.”
The genre has also blossomed in recent years, thanks to an outpouring of newer musicians from concentrated scenes in the US, UK, Japan and Australia.
The store regularly brings in titles from these artists, including new releases by Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids, Nubya Garcia, Zeitgeist Freedom Energy Exchange, Irreversible Entanglements, and even Jazz Sabbath, a tongue-in-cheek jazz project attempting the cavernous canon of Black Sabbath’s music.
As such, there have been several mainstay record labels that Sharon relies on for the kind of vinyl that belongs in TAV. Legacy names like Blue Note, Impulse!, Verve, Riverside, ECM Records, Columbia, Analogue Productions, along with newer ones like Brownswood Recordings, Mr. Bongo, International Anthem, 22a, Strut Records, !K7 are mainstays in the store’s catalogue.
Sourcing records from Europe, Japan, and the US, Seet makes it a priority to constantly devour new music through “record label websites, music review websites, Instagram pages, online vinyl stores, and Discogs”.
Reviews, sometimes found on Discogs, have been crucial to decide if an album’s vinyl pressing is adequate enough to be stocked in her store. The website maintains a database of over seven million vinyl records listed, each title armed with a comments section for users to pour effusive or critical reviews onto. “Good quality vinyl pressings are key,” she maintains.
Honing her analytical skills from years of collecting vinyl — and subsequently running The Analog Vault — led her, Nick, and Leon to establish TAV Records, an independent record label focusing on local and regional artists.
Beginning with the vinyl pressing of Fauxe’s Ikhlas, a collection of hip-hop beats playfully recontextualizing samples of old Singaporean and Malaysian music, it’s an extension of Seet’s mission to solidify the store as “one of Asia’s leading proponents of analog music culture and fine music.”
Just this year, amidst the perpetual pandemic, the label has put out .gif’s Hail Nothing in April, and are now preparing the release of Intriguant’s third album, Spirits.
While record sales of these titles have been made primarily through the store, Seet has used this outlet with Nick and Leon to build out a network of worldwide distribution, although that has proven to be no easy task. “Increasing our distribution continues to be a focus and challenge for us,” she admits.
The vinyl mock-up for Intriguant’s Spirits, which will be released on vinyl on November 20th.
The pandemic has been a considerable obstacle for the vinyl record industry — the annual Record Store Day holiday, where exclusive titles are pressed in limited quantities for ravenous customers, accommodated social distancing measures by splitting its list of releases into three consecutive monthly release dates.
Record pressing plants have faced temporary shutdowns, and the obfuscation clouding the fate of the US postal service has made future imports uncertain.
The Analog Vault, like many stores, have taken to selling their titles online to feed and nurture demand — their debut podcast episode, which you can stream below, explains further.
All of this, coupled with the uncertainty that comes with any independent business selling a niche product, results in a venture some would consider risky. For Sharon, she has her sights fixed on the long-term.
“Apart from financial sustainability, I also personally measure success for TAV in terms of customer happiness, employee meaningfulness, and how TAV can support, contribute to, and help grow the music ecosystem in Singapore,” she explains.
Like how The Analog Vault was shaped by her vivid memories of London record stores, her plans for TAV beyond 2020 is inspired by another cherished analog destination of hers: Japanese jazz kissaten, enduring old-school hideouts where music lovers congregate for listening sessions and fine alcohol. The ongoing photography project Tokyo Jazz Joints documents this domestic phenomenon in all its classy glory.
Ideally, what would this space look like? She imagines it “flanked by superlative audiophile analog systems, amazing whiskies, and a space for live jazz performances”. It is still a dream — made all the more distant with existing nightlife restrictions — but the lasting work of The Analog Vault makes a convincing case that there’s always room for spaces like these in Singapore.
Even if that New Yorker cartoon can ring true for some, it’s the memories and stories made around these slabs of wax that make the “expense and inconvenience” worth it.
The Analog Vault will be celebrating its 5th anniversary this Saturday, 10th October with live performances by Hanging Up The Moon, Intriguant, and .gif.
The event will be streamed on Singapore Community Radio at 3pm. More information can be found here.