The demise of HMV

Philip ClarkWed 16th January 2013
The deminse of HMVHMV's classical music department as it once was - as advertised in Gramophone's pages in September 1987

The UK’s one remaining high-street music chain faces administration – how did it all go wrong and what can be done to save it?

I know as much about good business practice as I do about salmon fishing in the Yemen. Terms like ‘private equity’, ‘administration’ and ‘liquidity’ make my eyes glaze over. ‘Fiscal easing’ sounds like an acute medical throb that must be treated without delay, ‘asset stripping’ like a lowdown joint in Soho. And yet as HMV, the UK’s only remaining high-street music chain store, stares into a peculiarly grim abyss that is the lingo through which this sorry, fin de siècle tale will be expressed.

But let’s reclaim this story on behalf of the music lover – what does the possible demise of HMV mean for us? Of course our innocent pursuit of squirreling away as many CDs of Mahler’s Second as we can find has only become tarnished by business speak because of a devastating failure of the suits upstairs to engage with music consumers, to listen to what those of us who can still be bothered to schlep into town to buy a physical CD actually want.

Remember when you’d think nothing of paying £16 for a brand new release? That’s why in 2005 HMV was worth over a billion pounds and – oh happy days – was hauled over the coals in parliament because of its alleged anti-competitive business practices. Today the company is worth a mere five million quid, which, once wages and the rent has been paid on its Oxford Street premises, presumably barely leaves enough to cover the phone bill. HMV’s collapse has been brutal and humiliating, and yet to anyone who did something as old fashioned as go there to buy music the company’s predicament comes as no surprise.

Yesterday (Tuesday) I went into HMV’s Oxford Street branch for the first time in months to gauge the mood music. Rewind that sentence. For the first time in months? There was a time when I was hardly out of HMV, when I’d actually arrange to meet friends there (‘see you at 2.30 by the Ornette Coleman section’), when my Switch card (that dates it) was all too intimate with the HMV card reader. The last time I went into HMV, to buy an extra issue of one of the magazines I write for, probably at some point during 2012, I was told that they could no longer stock specialist magazines ‘because the stockists think we can’t pay for them’. (Gramophone ‘specialist’ in a classical music store?) That ought to have warned me, and yet yesterday I was seriously depressed by the shop floor carnage. The classical section piled high with TV drama DVDs; the muddle of seriously pricey box-sets rubbing spines against knock-off discounted stock; the same prison cell-gray decor I remember from 20 years ago.

But there was worse to come. Taking the escalator to the first floor, I found myself surrounded by Cheryl Cole calendars and related tatty reality TV junk; turning to my right, I found myself traversing a vast acreage of floor space given over to Beatles T-shirts. Are Beatles T-shirts really more profitable than Beatles CDs/vinyl?

The conclusions are obvious. At same point during the last decade the interests of HMV parted company with those of us who love music. There was a systemic failure to grab the initiative from Amazon, the new agenda setters. The company’s online presence was – and remains – pitiful, with anecdotal evidence aplenty of the wrong order delivered far too late. HMV came up with a new plan – they would sell iPods and headphones to make a quick buck. But did no one twig that every iPod sold was essentially a physical product customer lost? A parallel argument in bookselling – the wisdom, or not, of Waterstones involving themselves with the Kindle – continues to rage.

As trailed at the head of this eulogy, I’m no businessman. But that an organisation which for 90 years existed to sell music lost the faith, then diversified into desperate barrow boy tactics, selling products of only tangential interest to their core customer base tells its own story.

And not being business minded, I can’t know what watching their accounts fall through the floor was like. Desperate measures in desperate times. But instead of ripping the musical hearts out of their stores – pulverising classical and jazz sections; the history of Western music effectively reduced to a few Russell Watson and Jamie Cullum CDs – HMV could have, should have, made their stores more attractive for music nuts. As Amazon were offering customers a wider selection of music than ever before, HMV’s decision to offer less was a calamity waiting to happen. An upmarket, boutique-like HMV could have emerged, physical products tied into an exhaustive online presence. That was the time to call in favours from record labels, not a couple of years ago when the chips were really down.

Give me a record store and I become an old Romantic. When I came to London nearly 20 years ago, I considered Tower Records, HMV, Virgin – and independent shops like Mole Jazz, Ray’s Jazz and Cheapo Records – to be a step away from heaven, to be palaces of learning. Since then the way customers consume music, and indeed what our godforsaken culture considers to be music, has changed utterly. There’s no going back. But perhaps it isn’t quite game over for HMV. Reports suggest that record labels are as keen as mustard to salvage something from the wreckage; that people recognise HMV as a brand name still of some value and are waving cheque books in its direction.

Perhaps expensive high streets are no longer the place for HMV? Perhaps the company needs to jump into bed with concert halls, to re-engage with the wider musical community. When Elgar opened the first HMV in 1921 on Oxford Street he praised the shop’s ‘palatial new premises’ and hoped that ‘the dissemination of good music by the gramophone will give us a new public which, while knowing nothing about the technical side of music, will know how to listen to music with true appreciation’. If a new HMV does emerge, it needs to return to those founding principles: to music.

And a postscript. Just as I’m about to file this blog, a tweet arrives from Rough Trade, the highly profitable East London record store clearly run by people obsessed with music. ‘A BIG THANK YOU to everyone who has tweeted/spoken/written kind words about us in the last day or so. It’s time to open more UK stores...’

Philip Clark

Philip Clark is a critic for Gramophone and The Wire, and a composer-turned-improviser. He tweets as @MusicClerk.

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