Many Happy Returns

The Hound is please to present some more metaphorical memories from our resident philosopher Wayne Shevlin.

Many Happy Returns

I may not know much, but I know what I like. And – like most people – I only like what I know. But, how do we discover, and thus get to know the music we like?

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Along the many roads of the music industry I have travelled, I spent quite a few years working in what became one of NYC’s largest record and audio equipment stores – let’s call it R&J Music Universe.  When I joined, R&J was a small hi-fi store. The record department was in the basement  with another small basement around the corner serving as the warehouse, which is where I worked.  One day J, the manager, approached me with a “new job opportunity”.   Record returns.  The Returns Authorisation or RA Manager – as I decided to refer to myself – is essentially the garbage man of the record business.  RA was not exactly the most glamorous of music biz jobs and one that endeared you to absolutely no one – particularly the record salesman who avoided you like the vampire you were, since whatever you returned was deducted from his commission.

HMV Oxford Street late 1950's

HMV Oxford Street late 1950’s

My introduction to this glorious career consisted of being escorted to a small room behind the sales counter from which spilled (literally) many thousands of allegedly defective phonograph records. I say allegedly because most were not actually defective.  They had been returned as defective by customers dissatisfied with the music who hoped to exchange them for something else.  Such devious tactics would only lead to disappointment, since R&J policy was “exchange for same only“.  These many thousands of DFs – as we called them in the RA trade – were the legacy of the previous RA man having quit many months earlier without anyone noticing or bothering to replace him.  How they didn’t notice the tide of records sloshing out of that room I’ll never know but it was now my job to clean up the mess.

RA was not a mentally demanding job and, on the face of it, promised to be stupefyingly tedious.  It consisted of sorting, listing, packing and shipping the thousands of DF records.  Sorting was by distributor, then by label and finally by catalogue number.  Once sorted, you counted the records and filled in the quantity for each catalogue number on the appropriate form – assuming there was a form.  The big league companies like WEA, CBS and EMI had forms, but smaller “labels” – particularly jazz and disco – were frequently one-man-bands who showed up in a van, dropped off a box of records and were paid in cash.  They didn’t have forms.  But that didn’t matter since many were never seen again anyway, and thus there was no one to return the DFs to – with or without a form.  If the miserable wretch did appear again – because he had a new record – the technique was for me to ambush him just as he was about to be paid, dump the DFs on him and deduct the value from the cash he received.  You can see why the RA man was feared and loathed.

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But for the big league labels the process was more mundane.  Having sorted and listed the DFs to be returned, you boxed them up, organised a freight pickup, loaded the truck and had them shipped across the country, back to whence they came.  Eventually a credit note would arrive.  Ultimately, I developed a system (a prelude to my current career) to efficiently organise the overall process.

Working in that initial cramped havoc was almost impossible as there was no room to stand let alone sort, or list, or box.  Nonetheless, eventually I did finally clear out that room.  But suddenly, R&J acquired a much larger building – previously an archive – providing vast amounts of space not only for the store, but the warehouse and even the humble RA man.  And it was here that I suddenly found myself in a huge room, all by myself, with rack upon rack of every conceivable record, a job that required practically no mental input and a kick-ass stereo. Well, what would you do with that?

I’ll tell you what I did. I listened. I did my mindless job and I listened to everything. Every conceivable record imaginable: classical, jazz, rock, metal, pop, folk, avant-guard, OPERA…even disco… A veritable cornucopia: the popular, the obscure, the ephemeral, the degenerate, the unpalatable, the weird. It was here that I conquered my Pink Floyd phobia and made friends with Wish You Were Here, floated on the transcendental audio-yoga of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, studied the techniques of the pro pop writers like Carol King and Billy Joel,  was flabbergasted by the Temple City Kazoo Orchestra’s version of Whole Lotta Love (you have to hear it to believe it),  bopped with Coltrane, swang with Sinatra, looked sharp with Joe Jackson, punked, proged, baroque n’ rolled and eventually even discovered that some disco didn’t suck (there, I said it).

It was there, in R&J’s RA room that I disposed of my musical bigotry, preconceptions and attitude and truly understood what Miles Davis meant when he said “it’s either good or bad, the rest is just style” – though I can find no evidence that Miles Davis actually ever said that.  In any event, if he didn’t say it, I think he should have said it, and anyhow, I’m saying it and it was in that RA room that I learned it:  how to appreciate the inherent quality of a piece of music even if I didn’t like the style.  Even disco.

Most people discover music through radio, TV, friends & family or perhaps a chance hearing in a shop or club. These media channels enforce musical myopia since so much of what is offered has been filtered and targeted based on taste or a commercial agenda with a predetermined bias toward a particular listening audience.  How unfair.  How limiting.  What made my RA wall so special was that the only criteria for what was available there was that it was reasonably current and someone had bought it and either liked it enough to require an unblemished copy or really didn’t like it enough to try and exchange it for something else.

If everyone were presented with such a wall of music:  with strange sleeves beckoning you to discover what lies within, with plenty of time to explore, experiment and take chances and listen, free from prejudices and attitudes, without an agenda – how much broader would most people’s taste be? Quite a bit broader, I suspect.  Perhaps the internet will provide a virtual RA wall where people can easily discover more of what they like.  But the key to my RA wall was not just that it had a diverse variety of records, but that my job required me to make contact with each one – since they had to be sorted, listed and counted.   Musical discovery was made almost unavoidable.  And I got paid while doing it.

Decca Studio

Decca Studio

The DFs I listened to were all records people actually bought.  But there were also records that weren’t bought.  These were called overstock, and I was responsible for those too.  Overstock reflects a side of the record business where cynicism, greed, stupidity and failure meet in the place where taste and money collide.  But that story is for another day.

HIDDEN NIPPER IN NEW HMV SITE

Our regular commentator David Hughes tipped us off on this one:

Ah, hidden messages in HTML code, the hidden tracks of the internet. Various tweeters who, for some reason, can’t visit a website without checking in on the source code while they’re there, have spotted a cute little hidden addition to the code of the revamped HMV website, that went online as the flagging entertainment retailer emerged from administration last week. If Nipper can live on in the HMTL world, maybe HMV can survive in the digital era? Maybe.

Spinning Discs – Postscript

By Wayne Shevlin

My previous blog on SOTH—Century of Spinning Plastic Discs—was an abstract musing on the nature of musical records as historical artefacts.  It was originally written a few years ago, back when the great music emporiums—HMV, Virgin and Tower—still presided imperiously over the high street.  Opening salvo of 2013: that abstract musing is turned into cold hard reality as HMV, the last surviving music-megastore, goes into administration.

HMV Shop Oxford Street Circa 1920s-1930s © EMI Group Archive Trust

HMV Shop Oxford Street Circa 1920s-1930s © EMI Group Archive Trust

There are as many explanations for HMV’s demise as there are pundits: it’s because of online piracy or online shopping or the internet in general or online taxation (or lack of it);  it’s due to competition from other media formats such as video games;  it’s supermarkets killing the catalogue market by cherry picking the top 20 and flogging it as a cheap loss-leader; it was simply bad management, they didn’t keep up with the times; it’s the X-Factor factor, that music is now just a ubiquitous commodity; it’s because the kiddies don’t care so much about music and the oldies have replaced everything their nostalgia cares about;  it’s because music is overpriced and simply aint what it used to be;  it’s because the high street is dying and HMV is just another extinction victim like Comet, Jessops and Blockbuster;  it’s because the world is going to hell in a hand carte and nobody really gives a damn anymore.

Indeed, it is all of these things and others too. No single one of them would have been sufficient to fell HMV, but collectively they were inexorable like gravity.  Nothing could have saved the HMV megastore and I am frankly surprised it lasted as long as it did.  The writing was on its poster plastered walls years ago.  On the high street, profit is a ratio of revenue to cubic space and, to those who count the beans, every cubic foot of stuff has to generate X amount of money;  and if it does not, then other stuff must take its place.  When one objectively considers the huge expanses of space in music-megastores, it is easy to see how the precipitous decline in footfall over the past years rendered the grand music emporium model unsustainable.  An early clue that something was amiss revealed itself to me a number of years ago when B and I went into the small HMV in Hampstead and actually had to ask where the CD section was now located.  No kidding, the CD section was that small.

HMV Shop Oxford Street Circa 1920s-1930s © EMI Group Archive Trust

HMV Shop Oxford Street Circa 1920s-1930s © EMI Group Archive Trust

In their heyday the music-megastores were a real experience, an adventure.  B and I looked forward to our regular Saturday trip downtown to visit them. There was a chaotic energy, a frenetic hustle-bustle from literally thousands of music hunters who packed the aisles so densely you could barely move. The entrance was a portal built of the latest chart hits which you passed through to enter the inner sanctum of Rock & Pop which positively buzzed with excitement.  Jazz and Classical were sequestered in separate rooms to provide a sanctuary for the aficionados who required a more refined ambiance, away from the raucous hubbub outside their doors. There was always something there for us, we never left empty handed and more often than not, walked out with a half dozen or more CDs.  That was at the beginning of the 21st century.  In the whole of 2012 we visited the HMV megastore only once, easily navigating the empty CD aisles and struggling to find something—anything— we actually wanted at a price we were willing to pay.

After the announcement, B and I visited the Oxford Street HMV with the explicit purpose of seeing what bargains might be had under the circumstances.  The atmosphere was grim. Customers roamed listlessly around.  The staff put a brave face on it but the sense of sadness and demoralisation was palpable.  Nonetheless, they worked as though it still mattered.  In fact, one salesman took great pains to escort me around the various sections—Rock & Pop, Blues, Rock ‘n’ Roll—in search of Johnny Winter. Here was a knowledgeable salesperson actually helping me to find what I was looking for. Just like the old days.  He was determined to prove that HMV still had that Mojo.  Sadly, the search was in vain: no Johnny Winter anywhere. HMV had failed us both and the look on his face made me feel I had tortured him with some strange form of ritual humiliation.

Far from its past grandeur the shop felt tatty and depressing.  Half the racks in the Jazz and Classical rooms were completely empty.  The main aisle leading from the entrance, once crammed with customers, now featured large cardboard boxes filled with used CDs, spines up, languishing in no particular order, presented with all the dignity of a car boot sale.  The new stock wasn’t much better.  Artist dividers were packed inches thick because there were no CDs of those artists there to separate them.  I turned down the album by Mountain selling at £19.95 because I knew I could get it, re-mastered along with 4 other Mountain albums on the Net for £11.99.  What hope did HMV ever have?  B and I felt like parasites, vultures pecking at a carcass and, in spite of the 25% sale, we walked out with nothing.

The fate of HMV—and other high street shops like it— is not the fault of external forces or sinister conspiracies. We could have an entertaining debate over a pint as to the relative impact that any particular factor had to play in this tragedy but, ultimately, I think we have only ourselves to blame.  We may cry in our beer over the loss of these cultural institutions along with the vanishing high street they enriched, but we voted with our feet—or our mouse finger—and abandoned them to their fate.  We got what we asked for: convenience.  We shall get more of it too, much more of it.  I hope we shall all enjoy the convenience we will all be getting.  As far as shopping for music is concerned, we have made our decision and traded the excitement of the music emporium for convenient shopping.  As Pink Floyd might have put it, we traded our heroes for ghosts.

HMV was the first of the great music emporiums and will soon be the last. There’s part of me that feels very sad for the younger generation who won’t experience something that I enjoyed so much. But they have other experiences they prefer, feel no loss whatsoever and will probably agree that I’m very sad.  It lasted almost a hundred years.  That was a hell of a run, actually.  However, for better or worse, both time and culture have moved on. Perhaps some day, HMV may be resurrected in some diminished form, but the days of the great music emporium are now over.  Goodbye HMV. Thanks for the excitement.

HMV 363 Oxford Street

This was the Daddio of record shops. HMV 363 Oxford Street, London in the late 1950’s:

The shop plays a part in The Beatles story. HMV, which was then part of EMI, had a small recording studio that members of the public could record songs for their sweethearts. In February 1962 Brian Epstein was in London doing the rounds of the London record companies trying (unsuccessfully) to get a record deal for the boys. He stopped at HMV Records at 363 Oxford Street to get some acetate discs made from the (unsuccessful) reel-to-reel Decca demo. The disc-cutter was Jim Foy who mentioned the group to publisher Sid Colman who in turn mentioned them to George Martin at E.M.I.’s studios in Abbey Road NW8. George gave The Beatles a recording test some months later and the rest is history.

People also bought music there!

You can browse more wonderful photos from HMV in the 1960’s here

The original HMV shop burnt down in 1937 to be rebuilt and reopened 2 years later on 8th May 1939. Sir Thomas Beecham, the famous conductor, opened the store. Here is his speech and photos of the fire.

The original shop was opened in 1921 by Sir Edward Elgar (who also opened Abbey Road Studios ten years later)

The shop closed down on April 2000. A certain George Martin was there to send it on its way with a Blue Plaque.