Two’s Company with the brothers behind decades-old music store City Music

Music equipment store City Music adapts for future to ensure survival

Moving from acoustic pianos to tech-based music instruments proves a savvy decision that has ensured the survival of music equipment store City Music

Tucked away on the second floor of the Peace Centre mall in Sophia Road is the nondescript music instrument and audio equipment store City Music.

Push through its doors, however, and you might find yourself rubbing shoulders with the who’s who of Singapore’s music scene, including jazz musician-composer Jeremy Monteiro and indie music elder statesman Patrick Chng.

Or, you might come upon a serious music hobbyist playing a catchy riff on the latest guitar model by the iconic American guitar maker Martin.

City Music has for decades been favoured by professional and amateur musicians who are drawn to its friendly, knowledgable service and competitive prices. These hallmarks of the family business, started in 1968, have stood the test of time and helped it outlast many of its early contemporaries.

I told our dad, this is a sunset industry for us, I don’t see us bringing in acoustic pianos anymore. It’s very expensive logistic-wise and the number of expert piano technicians out there is dwindling. ’’

MR HOE YEEGN LOUGN, who decided that City Music should stop selling acoustic pianos and focus on tech-based music instruments

Customer Mathew Tip, 59, a property agent whose first purchase from City Music was a Morris acoustic-electric guitar in 1979, says: “The staff have always been friendly and informative. This has not changed through the years.”

Yet City Music is no longer the same as it was when it first begun.

Now run by founder Willy Hoe’s two children, Yeegn Lougn, 39, and Hsin Loong, 33, the brothers have boldly reshaped the business to keep pace with the swiftly changing beat of retail and technology. Their savvy has won the business new fans and allowed it to expand in Malaysia.

The turning point came in 2005 when Yeegn Lougn, who first joined the company as a marketing executive in 2000, convinced his father to stop selling acoustic pianos and focus instead on techbased music instruments.

For the company – and family – whose raison d’etre was selling acoustic pianos, the proposed change was tantamount to slaying a sacred cow.

The brothers’ grandfather, who migrated to Malaysia from Shanghai before World War II, used to own a piano shop in Ipoh.

Their father, who worked for the Japanese music instrument seller Yamaha in Singapore in the 1960s, was trained in Japan as a piano technician. When he started City Music in a Bras Basah building, the business made its name selling pianos.

But Yeegn Lougn was adamant about breaking with the past.

He says: “I told our dad, this is a sunset industry for us, I don’t see us bringing in acoustic pianos anymore. It’s very expensive logistic wise and the number of expert piano technicians out there is dwindling.”

The senior Mr Hoe, who gradually handed over the reins of the business to his sons after they joined full-time – Hsin Loong joined in 2007–was understanding.

He says: “I don’t stop my sons when they want to try out new things. I tell them that even if their idea doesn’t work out, it’s okay, you take that as a lesson. Nothing is a total loss.”

Brothers working in harmony

The 70-year-old still holds the role of managing director, but he considers himself semi-retired and goes into the office only occasionally to check on the business and advise his sons.

Today, City Music sells and distributes acoustic guitars as well as cutting-edge music and audio technology, including the latest line of work-station keyboards and home recording systems.

It also carries many exclusive products. A recent example is an innovative, Singapore-only keyboard upgrade that features the unique sounds of traditional Chinese, Malay and Indian music instruments. The keyboard is jointly produced by top-end Japanese music instrument-maker Korg, City Music and Republic Polytechnic.

Another major business decision the brothers undertook was to close City Music’s two music schools in Peace Centre and East Coast Road in 2009.

At its peak in the mid-1990s, the schools taught piano, organ, keyboard and guitar to as many as 600 students and when it closed, it was still breaking even.

Yeegn Lougn, the chattier of the two brothers, says: “We decided to put our focus back on what we’re really strong at. We already had many customers which were music schools and we did not want to compete with them. We were not the strongest school either.

“And mindsets have changed. More people are learning music through YouTube instead of going to a school.”

The brothers’ shrewd business acumen has been honed since young by their father. They have no other siblings.

Growing up, they were made to spend their school holidays attending to customers at the store or lugging music equipment at the warehouse in River Valley, which has since moved to Kallang Pudding.

They also took piano lessons from their maternal aunt. Their mother, Mrs Shirley Hoe, 69, was a piano teacher in her younger days too, although she is now an architect.

The brothers say they were not forced to join the company, but chose to take up their father’s offer forthem to work together.

Yeegn Lougn, who has a bachelor’s degree in marketing and public relations from Australia’s Curtin University in Perth, says: “When I came in to City Music, we were in the middle of the Asian financial crisis and business was tough – that’s why dad asked me to join him.”

Hsin Loong, who has a diploma in multimedia design from Raffles Design Institute, had wanted to be a smartphone app designer, but the lack of opportunities led him back to the family business.

Since they joined the business, the company, which now has 32 staff, has also gone digital, replacing manual cash registers and handwritten inventory cards with computerised point-of-sale systems and a new online store.

The brothers are training their sights on business expansion in Malaysia. They have had a branch in Kuala Lumpur since 1988 and they opened a store in Ipoh in 2011.

The two Malaysian stores, catering to a bigger consumer market, already bring in 50 per cent more business than the one in Singapore. The brothers are confident they can grow the business there threefold in the next few years.

With the push overseas, however, the brothers, who are equal partners in the business, will each oversee operations in a different country.

Yeegn Lougn crosses the border frequently to take care of business in Malaysia, while Hsin Loong tends to business here.

For the time being, the brothers continue to live under one roof with their parents and Yeegn Lougn’s wife at the Pearl Bank Apartments in Outram.

The family, including Hsin Loong’s girlfriend, go out for meals together regularly and occasionally holiday as a group.

With so much time spent around each other, the brothers admit it can be hard to separate business and personal life.

Yeegn Lougn says: “When we’re on holiday and we see a retail concept that we like,we will end up discussing how we can apply it to our stores.

He and his wife, a 39-year-old housewife, however, will move out of the family home when the flat they have bought is ready. They plan to start a family and Yeegn Lougn says he would like to groom his children to take over the family business.

He says: “Of course, at the end of the day, it’s still the choice of the children if they want to get into the business or not.”

The brothers, however, are open to having non-family members steer the business in the future if that is what it takes for City Music to keep growing.

Hsin Loong says: “We learnt from our dad that nobody in this company is indispensable. No matter what happens in our personal lives, the business has to go on, even if it means having to hire outside professionals to come in and take over.”

Yeegn Lougn on Hsin Loong

We are now business equals

Mr Hoe Yeegn Lougn and his brother, Hsin Loong (both above when they were children). PHOTO: CITY MUSIC

Mr Hoe Yeegn Lougn (the unique spelling of his name is courtesy of his father, who wanted his elder son’s name to be memorable) is six years older than his brother, Hsin Loong, and growing up, those years felt like a gap that was hard to bridge.

He says: “I would have my group of friends and do my own thing and he would have his friends and do his ownthing.”

The brothers only began to grow closer after they started working together full-time at City Music, bonding over meals and games of golf ontheir days off.

Says Yeegn Lougn of his brother: “I’ve come to discover that he is very creative and has strong opinions. He is able to see things that Iamnot able to see.”

I've come to discover that he is very creative and has strong opinions. He is able to see things that I am not able to see.

MR HOE YEEGN LOUGN on his brother, Hsin Loong

And as time passed, he also saw Hsin Loong mature as a businessman.

He says: “When he came in, I had to guide him, help him become familiar with the people in the industry.”

Today, however, he regards Hsin Loong as an equal in the music business and relies on his creativity and marketing ideas to help boost the business.

He cites Hsin Loong’s overhaul of City Music’s visual branding – from the company logo to the typeface in its sales catalogue – as crucial to updating the look and feel of the almost five-decade-old business.

“The whole branding and image exercise that he did for us is very important and it’s also something I can’t do,” he says.

As with all partnerships, the brothers have their fair share of differences, but they always manage towork things out, he says.

“With his creavity and my business sense, we usually come to a compromise.

“Sometimes, one of us will give in to the other, but we’ve never had an extreme clash of ideas.”

Hsin Loong on Yeegn Lougn

He is my role model and mentor

(From left) City Music founder Willy Hoe, his wife, Shirley, Mr Hoe's mother and an unidentified woman at their original store at Bras Basah.
(From left) City Music founder Willy Hoe, his wife, Shirley, Mr Hoe's mother and an unidentified woman at their original store at Bras Basah. PHOTO: CITY MUSIC

They might have equal standing as directors of City Music, but Hoe Hsin Loong speaks of his older brother, Yeegn Lougn, in a deferential tone. "He has always been my role model since I started working in the company. He is my mentor, more than our father, because we spend more time with each other," he says.

Of his brother's working style, Hsin Loong says: "I admire the fact that he is firm, but not pushy and he is always reasonable."

While they were not close during their childhood, he ended up following in his big brother's footsteps when it came to education.

Like Yeegn Lougn, he attended Catholic High School and studied business and marketing at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, although he did not finish his degree.

I admire the fact that he is firm, but not pushy and he is always reasonable.

MR HOE HSIN LOONG on Yeegn Lougn

When he first joined City Music full-time, Yeegn Lougn would often give him instructions.

Hsin Loong recalls: "He would always be saying, 'You do this, you do that'."

But as he took on more responsibilities and initiatives, including the overhaul of the company's visual branding, he found his brother consulting him for his views before making any major business decisions.

"Now it's, 'Let's sit down and discuss how we are going do this'," says Hsin Loong. "We both know that neither of us are perfect and when it comes to coming up with ideas or solving problems, having two heads is better than one."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2016, with the headline 'Changing tune'. Print Edition | Subscribe