Open Ear Blog

Opinion | HMV Prepares To Bite The Dust (again)

As HMV prepares to bite the dust (again, although somewhat more climatically this time), we’re now presented with all the predictable think-pieces blurred by teary-eyed nostalgia about how the demise of this wonderful institution spells certain doom for our recorded music industry.

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Sections of the firm’s Flagship Oxford Street Store notwithstanding, it’s hard to be convinced that HMV did more good than harm since its 2013 collapse. As the trend of buying vinyl reissues continues apace, it’s now the case that the major labels churning out £40 180g re-re-re-issues of the standards are going to need to look at other outlets beyond Observer advertorials and supermarkets, so maybe it’s time they and their distributors paid attention to the thriving independent shops, the ones creating scenes, dictating trends and genuinely forwarding music.

Since HMV descended into market-stall territory long ago, we’ll ignore the t-shirts, mugs, toys, keyrings, posters, hats, headphones, wristbands, video games, lamps, fridge magnets and doormats that fill much of their shelf space for now. Looking at the top-selling vinyl albums of 2018, we can see that 27 of the top 40 are reissues, and five of those remaining 13 are current pop-culture soundtracks. So a profitable year for Arctic Monkeys, Ed Sheeran, George Ezra, both Gallaghers, Rag’n’Bone Man and the Manic Street Preachers. The biggest artists selling the most copies of the most expensive format. Such exciting times, right? So much of what’s been written in the last week seems to be from those presuming that vinyl is somehow more ‘real’ or ‘wholesome’ than any other format, and it’s as if the music consumers buying up these ‘new’ versions of 40-50 year old albums expect to be able to buy them from a retail store operating the way it did when these records were first released. And still have change from a sixpence for a bag of chips.

As Brexit looms and the high street gears up to shut down, we naturally think of those now jobless because enormous lumbering retailers can’t keep up with market requirements. While I can’t speak for the operations of New Look, Toys R Us, House of Fraser, M&S, Debenhams, Homebase et al, my time as a vinyl buyer and manager at Fopp gave me a fair insight into HMV’s operations.

Working in the store which housed head office, my colleagues and I were more privy to the day to day operations than most, and the four directors (and one chairman, on his regular visits) would usually take time out to discuss the stock, what we had coming in and what we were excited about, because as directors of a music shop, they cared.

Then one day in 2003, they all left. All at once, and in a hurry, because they’d lost their jobs. They’d lost their jobs and were immediately replaced by the ‘former’ HMV directors who had been waiting until the 365 days passed and they could legally direct another company again. With the arrival of our glorious new leaders, buying was centralised and the quality of stock nosedived. I’ll never forget asking (which was as much as we could do now) for stock of the Chewin’ The Fat box set, one of the most requested items ever in that central-Glasgow store, and being sent 100 copies of the Jethro (niche West Country comic) DVD, because apparently it was currently doing very well in the Bristol store…

With the removal of our managerial/purchasing responsibilities, came more and more former HMV staff, into newly-created roles. The roles they’d already been doing at HMV, but now installed in Fopp. Regional Managers and Area Managers appeared everywhere, seemingly to drive around and ensure the HMV-dictated playlists were being played at all times in store, treating the public to the top five albums, rather than, say, something brilliant that a member of staff wanted to share. It wasn’t long before our payslips were HMV ones, and not Fopp ones.

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Image from Vinyl Factory

With the stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap model rolled out throughout the existing stores and anything too unique or exciting removed, the expansion began. Fopp went from eight stores to over 100 in around 18 months, occupying sites in shopping centres, university campuses and anywhere cheap where nobody else wanted to put a shop. It was almost as if the plan was to have Fopp operate as HMV’s outlet store, with us being sent endless amounts of unsold HMV sale stock, and when Fopp bought the dead-and-buried Music Zone chain, the end was nigh. The end came via an email on the 27th of June, 2007, telling us to lock the shop, post the keys back and tell the staff they weren’t getting paid. Bearing in mind that this was payday.

So having infiltrated and dismantled what was once a genuinely great record shop, and a great place to work, all that was left was for HMV to come in and save the day. They’d certainly never announced their involvement in the company before, but they went all out when they ‘stepped in’ to ‘save’ their pick of the Fopp stores. The nine stores that reopened less than two months after closure were celebrated with fanfare across the press, with HMV being praised endlessly for rescuing these much-loved stores. The stores they’d already been running (into the ground) for years.

With the demise of the whole of HMV estate, surely now the consumer’s main problem is choosing what album they’d like to buy from the entire history of music, rather than from a selection of what somebody they’ve never met would like them to buy? Maybe they’d like an original copy of ‘Rumours’ from Discogs, rather than the same thing for twice the price from their local high street megastore? Maybe they’ll Google some new artists they like and investigate other releases, maybe they’ll look at the name of the label releasing the music and check that out too? If the labels are able to sell directly via the likes of Bandcamp, the distributors who had been relying on HMV to make their money will need to reshape and service consumers and independent stores alike, which surely they’d already been planning for, but either way the removal of stodgy, staid, dated retail like HMV should only encourage musical exploration in the individual—and the artist. As genres become less defined and as generational divides wither, having your musical tastes governed by somebody else’s suggestion (and at a premium price band) seems more old-fashioned now than ever. Independent shops will still employ the best people and move quickly enough to be the real MVPs, and artists will hopefully become less reliant on paying distributors when all the tools are available to do it themselves. We need to support the artists and being able to do that at ground level is infinitely better for all involved than paying the wages of innumerable middle-men who have milked the physical-format industry for years.

It’s time for Nipper to roll over and die, and the end of a chain who did whatever it could to knock the independents out the game shouldn’t be something to mourn.

By Neil Macdonald Head of Music

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