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HMV: Is it time to put the top dog down?

By ; January 21, 2013 at 11:00 AM 

His Master's Voice

The news last week that British retailer HMV has gone into administration was a punch in the gut for over 4000 employees who work for the company. Across the UK, 239 stores are at risk of shutting their doors and calling it day. Stores in the Republic of Ireland have already closed, and, in two outlets in Limerick, staff have staged a sit-in demanding they be paid wages they are entitled to.

This news, however, isn’t a huge surprise. For the past months there have been rumblings of deep troubles within the company, and for years the brand has gone into decline being forced to sell off live music venues and bookstore chain Waterstones which it bought up in 1998 under the EMI umbrella. Founded back in 1921, the shop found its place in the market selling gramophones and 78’s (which to this day are still part of the HMV’s iconic logo – along with Nipper the dog) and nowadays focuses on entertainment media of all kinds from video games to Blu-Rays to Android tablets. In some shops they even sell clothes. Arguably HMV’s time has been and gone, but it’s still an important brand that for many will hold memories of their first music-shopping experience.

It will be a great shame if all those people are put out of work and the high streets and shopping centres across the country made to look moreso like an abandoned, empty Soviet city if they’re turned into empty vacant lots – but it potentially spells disaster for the music market, too. For many record labels and distribution companies, HMV is one of the main outlets for its stock, and with it gone there’s increasing worry not only that the market will shrink considerably, but also that the money owed to them will never see the light of day. Suppliers themselves have been bending over to try help HMV out, also, by extending the payment date for stock from one month to two, and handing over stock on a “sale-or-return basis” where payment is dependent on the CD or DVD or whatnot actually being bought before money has to go back into the hands of the supplier.

Some of my fondest memories of HMV are those where I spent an hour or two flicking through CD singles and albums, overwhelmed by so many bands and artists I’d never heard of before. I’ve reminisced over this before and I’m well aware that those days are pretty much gone, but I’d still much rather HMV stuck around. In my lifetime, at least, the shop has become a staple part of what a high street should include and if it were to go, I dare say there would be little reason for me ever to walk along Edinburgh’s Princes Street.

This isn’t brand-hugging, though. As much as I like looking through CDs and DVDs, I can admit it’s much more exciting when doing so in an independent record shop which is more likely to hold unexpected surprises from past and present releases from indie artists and labels. And I got that kind of kick from spending many a definitely-not-wasted day in Edinburgh’s Avalanche Records. If I had a house big enough, it would be full of posters bought from the shop while numerous record players spun the new and used treasures I’d found in the racks. If forced to choose, then yes, Avalanche would definitely be one saved.

And, in an ideal world, this fantasy could continue to manifest in my head, as I mourn the loss of HMV by picking up a new vinyl LP at Avalanche. However, even the much loved Avalanche has fallen under hard times lately and recently shut its doors, continuing in the meantime as an online business and opening only occasionally. Thus, with the independent record store gone and HMV at the risk of disappearing, I fear soon there will be nowhere to go to buy music (thankfully there are a few other independent stores in Edinburgh still holding their heads above the water, such as the great Underground Solu’shn and The Record Shak, which I wish I lived closer to).

There’ll always be an online market, of course, and I do find myself buying more music straight from artists and bands themselves, or from record labels as they tend to offer package deals at a good price, and you can transfer the money with that sort of warm glow you get when you buy merchandise from a band at their gig. But what about those who still get that joy from perusing through racks of CDs and LPs? What of those who still like to take a chance on a new album simply because they like the packaging or a song they heard in the shop? What of those who want to be able to go out and buy an album and have it in their hands that very day? What of those who just simply like record stores? CDs are a dying breed, but to say they are dead would be too strong a diagnosis; they’re still the main release format for bands and artists, and people do still buy them (even if it is an annual purchase of an Adele CD for their relative or a Now That’s What I Call Music compilation). The only worry is that with no outlets for CDs, though, their demise way well come about a lot quicker than it should.

One of the main reasons the online markets continues to thrive and overshadow other retailers isn’t the fact that customers can purchase what they want from the comfort of their own home without having to wait in line or deal with crowds of other people. It’s the price factor. Amazon has flourished and continues to do so because it manages to maintain a staggeringly huge customer base by offering them continually low prices on a plethora of items, from CDs to electronics to …breakfast cereal (most likely due to the fact they are gross tax avoiders in the UK, but that’s a protest issue for another time). It’d be sad to see markets and shops of all sorts fade away, only to be left boarded up as Amazon rules with an iron fist, hence why we have to support retail chains like HMV the best we can.

It’s hard to, though, especially when HMV brought on a lot of its own problems. Come the rise of the internet and the downloadable music market, they were tediously slow at making an offering, and by the time they presented themselves with a new online image, it was already too late. Even in terms of music on offer in their stores they’d shot themselves in the foot. BBC 6 DJ Steve Lamacq recently told the BBC about how he recently found himself trailing through the shop just to find the actual music: “[They dedicate] more space to things I can listen to music on, rather than the music itself.” And I can relate there, too. First the singles section was whittled down to a singular display unit before it disappeared completely, and now CD space is given to headphones and other technology while the pathetically few LPs are tucked away in a corner, like a fetishistic section of an adult shop. The day I realized the clothes shop Urban Outfitters had more vinyl on sale than HMV was when I realized something was very wrong with the music market (Philip Beeching’s personal reflections of the shop’s decline is also worth reading, considering he was in charge of the company’s advertising for 25 years).

HMV Oxford Street

But is this so out of character? After all, the first HMV on Oxford Street all those decades ago had neon signs that advertised “Home entertainment and electric housekeeping”; it was never primarily a record store, but instead made it name as one due to being a branded chain that sold music all over the country. Even though brands like Tesco sell the likes of clothes and electronics, many will primarily associate it with selling groceries, or how Boots the Chemist sells more than pharmaceuticals these days. Chains – both big and small – inevitably expand outward, offering more to the customer. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as getting everything in one place. HMV have kind of come full circle, in that they began life selling gramophones and radios before veering off into selling music before now coming back to focus on selling the objects you listen to music on (though you be hard pressed to find a hi-fi on sale in HMV — you’re more likely to get a iPod docking station of some sort). Much like Steve Lamacq lamented, there’s the music player but not the music itself on sale. It’s like selling the new Xbox in your video game shop and not selling any games.

In a way this has been part of the problem for HMV, too. For those who only buy a couple of CDs a year (as presents for others, or just because they have become fond of a song they hear repeatedly on the radio), the supermarket is one of the ideal alternatives — again, there’s great appeal in getting everything in one place, especially for those who don’t have the time to go trawling though racks of CDs in record shops. But there’s those who would accuse HMV of becoming like a supermarket itself by trying to offer so much. In a BBC article, there’s something deprecatingly funny about the story a HMV manager not knowing if they had any Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in stock, let alone what kind of music they would be filed under. Musical know-how is no longer a pre-condition for getting a job in HMV, however. “When I worked at HMV, the most important thing when we employed people was their musical knowledge. But now, you get a job if you worked at [clothes shop] Burtons before,” an anonymous former-HMV employee told the BBC.

Nonetheless, it is pleasing to hear that many people are optimistic about the future of HMV, confident that someone will step in and keep it afloat, even if it’s on a smaller scale. I personally hope it’s well-placed, for all the reasons I’ve gone through above. What I’d hope, though, is that HMV might take advantage of a rescue party that might come their way and perhaps refocus on what they want their priorities to be (I wouldn’t hold out on them reinstating recording studios into their stores, though, like their first Oxford Street store had). The digital music market is more or less lost to iTunes and Amazon, but as long as there’s a market for music (and I believe there is, as does Martin Mills of Beggars Banquet) there’ll always be a place for the record shop where people will want to spend their time and money browsing through new and old releases. And because HMV is still a respectable and recognised brand, it has the chance to revive itself as something music consumers want to associate themselves with. But until we’re given a reliable outlet where we can do this then we’re going to have to take our business elsewhere, wherever that might be.

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