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
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
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.