HMV goes into administration: another death knell for the high street or succor for local industry?
As HMV called in the receivers my mind was immediately shunted back to two Christmases worth of working in Liverpool ONE’s flagship store – so haunting an experience that I have seldom visited the place since. The gauntlet ran from the tills to the staff room as you direct 30 different people to the chart wall, or answering questions like ‘where would you find Take That?’, when you’d think it’s obvious to look under T in the main CD section. But this isn’t how I want HMV to be remembered.
The news shocked many people into a nostalgia exercise, of a time when we would happily pass the time flicking through new releases, eyeing up an album for the 17th time before realising you’ve not got enough money for that and the bus home. No doubt I had similar weekends as a teenager, browsing at Korn and Tool one year, Rancid and Bad Religion the next, then Interpol and the Smiths a year after (I felt really sophisticated at the time).
Even arriving in Liverpool, our first year afternoons were spent wandering about the basement of Church Street, picking up new CDs and rifling through magazines for the latest goings on, then onto Probe at Slater Street where you’d await your regular sneer from Bob because you weren’t bothered by their psych-rock catalogue.
By the time operations had moved to Liverpool ONE I had finally grown pretty weary of the fact they didn’t cater for niche audiences; instead you’d find yourself tripping over box sets and overstocks of reissues. It seemed like piracy was getting the better of physical releases, but in truth the music industry had already cut their losses and made decisions crippling the future of HMV before they even knew it.
Not that the store helped themselves. As opposed to diversifying to cater for a wider, more music-immersed audience and stocking up on more esoteric releases they decided to invest more into the top 40 surefire sellers, driving out those maybe willing to spend the extra couple of quid on a CD or record that they desperately wanted in their collection. Christmas periods in HMV became vital for their survival, as for 10 months of the year only people with a bit of spare money or little understanding of buying digital would buy on a regular basis, whilst over November and December customers were mostly looking for stocking filler CDs rather than music from an artist obsessed over.
The bad decisions confounded the greed before the average Internet user found out about Napster. Remember the times when chart album CDs would cost £15 upwards? Or a single with a low definition .avi file would be a fiver? I sincerely doubt any record store could get anywhere near those prices today, and rightly so. As a musician, above being a journalist, I fully empathise with the need to be paid for your work, but when you factor in that an album like Oasis’ Be Here Now went 6x platinum and would have cost around double the RRP of a typical new release, that’s a lot of money for, according to Noel Gallagher, “the sound of … a bunch of guys, on coke, in the studio, not giving a fuck” (although that is the reason why I love that album, as an aside).
The administration of HMV to me is but a latent sign of a dying industry that deserves little sympathy. Of course my condolences reach out first and foremost to those who may lose their jobs as a result of this, but no blame can really be put on piracy for their demise. According to retail analyst Neil Saunders, HMV simply failed to adapt its structure for survival. However, what was most interesting was that Saunders added “the bottom line is that there is no real future for physical retail in the music sector”, something which, despite the news, is missing a trick. Perhaps an operation as large as HMV may no longer be necessary for the high street, but so long as people still love music and care about their music scene there will always be a need for the record store.
Having spoken to a few friends who have had their stints working in an HMV, they remember the time when they could get discounts for friends, play whatever music they wanted in store (within reason) and really generate their own atmosphere. Slowly those liberties eroded until ludicrously they banned the display of tattoos and long hair to attract a broader audience.
Rewind 10, 15 years and the quirkiness of the employees, the broad range of punk and metal records you could find in your local HMV, and the fact that no-one judged you when you loitered in packs, was all part and parcel of going to the store. I was even lucky enough to make it to Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street to see a good handful of Kerrang sponsored events as a teenager. Only in independent record stores could you get anywhere near this experience.
What better way to console the loss of these mainstays of the high street than by visiting your indie record shop on a more regular basis? At the moment they may cater for niche audiences and are stocked more with discs that don’t fit your CD player, but it makes perfect sense for these shops to order in a small handful of pop releases that would fly off the shelves in order to maintain the more esoteric releases they’ve invested their lives in.
The music industry needs to get real; they won’t be making the platinum sales they used to, but it’s still incredibly important for people who really love their music to get their hands on something physical, for their friends to come round and flick through your own bespoke collection of records, instead of searching on your iTunes and finding a single you might have downloaded for a party mix.
Sales may be declining, but it’s well in line with the actual cost of making a decent record on your laptop for pennies compared to the behemoth studio sessions of the 20th century. The music industry is devolving, all for the better.