So What If HMV Dies?

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Well by now you presumably know that HMV called in the administrators the other week, meaning that they stumble ever closer to their demise.  You may well also know that apart from the major entertainment companies desperately trying to keep them alive, there are a number of interested bidders eyeing up parts of the company, so HMV probably won’t die altogether, but so what if it did?

Believe me, I have a lot of friends working there and our label sells a lot of records in HMV, so when I say ‘so what?’ I don’t mean to be flippant, there would be massive repercussions for a lot of people and a lot of record labels if it were to fold.  I am being entirely literal, and asking the question of where we go next, because absolutely no-one seems to know.  And for all a lot of people know what HMV did wrong, no-one really seems to have any idea what doing it right might have looked like.

It does seem fair to say that HMV blundered into this of their own volition, to a large extent.  I have been inside their massive, flagship high street stores on a weekend and found many of them pretty much empty. Former employees like Dan Le Sac, who worked there for seven years, and Philip Beeching, who handled their advertising for over 25 years, testify to myriad mistakes, from treating digital music as a fad, to neglecting to build a proper online presence, and a head-in-sand refusal to listen to the suggestions and concerns of their hundreds of music-loving staff.

So if they do die off, there is a definite degree to which their upper management will have brought it on themselves, but of course record labels are loath to let them die.  The majors need their bulk sales and are terrified of losing their last foothold on the high street, whereas smaller indies are worried about where they will find the thousands of sales needed to turn a hobby artist into a professional one, if they only have direct-to-fan sales and the remaining indie stores left in which to sell.

Two pretty obvious questions spring to mind from all this: how might HMV survive, and what happens if they don’t? In essence, however, these are pretty much the same question: how can music retail work in the future?

Apart from some vague hand-wringing or cackled gloating there haven’t been all that many helpful articles about the HMV crisis.  The reason for this is that absolutely no-one has an answer, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that HMV straddles two separate crises, and it’s almost impossible to separate them.

Quite apart from the problems the music industry is having, high street retail itself is in crisis. We’ve lost Blockbusters, Woolies, Comet, Barratts, JJB Sports and Jessops in recent years, and between internet shopping and out-of-town aircraft hangar abominations no-one seems entirely certain what a shop has to be to succeed on the high street these days.  They need to be specialist enough to combat the superstores, generalist enough to compete with the internet, tactile enough to invite browsing, enigmatic enough to be ‘an experience’ and yet sell in enough bulk to justify the high rents and capital investment of maintaining physical premises.

That’s a pretty demanding specification, and many more than HMV have failed to crack it.  But HMV has the added problems of being in the entertainment sector, which is all over the place at the moment.

On one hand, there are the simple issues of the modern world: most of what they sell simply has no need for a physical form anymore.  I have an attachment to physical music formats, but far less similar nostalgia exists for increasingly redundant physical formats for films, and almost none at all for video games and other software.  Essentially, these things are all information, and that is far, far more conveniently purchased directly via the devices on which we will use them.  In mass-market terms, there is absolutely no escaping the fact that this has changed forever.

The other issue is more specifically music-related: recorded music by itself simply is less important to people these days.  Sure, every idiot wanting to be on the X-Factor and all the tween shows about being a pop star suggest otherwise, but that is more about identity and self-esteem than it is about music, specifically. People have so many more things in which to invest their sense of self these days, so many more interactive, multifaceted and ultimately richer experiences, it’s naive to suggest that a relatively one-dimensional medium like music should retain so central a role in society as these kinds of alternatives develop.

In the early days of Rough Trade they figured that if anyone brought in a half-decent single, they could press it and be entirely confident that they would sell 10,000 copies – no matter how you skirt around the issue, it is impossible to deny that those numbers are a laughable impossibility for all but a tiny handful of bands these days. You can argue that a modest hit now gets 10,000 YouTube hits instead, but those are individual plays – imagine how many plays 10,000 actual, physical sales would get you.

So with all this in mind, and apart from the horrible effect on my friends who work there and how our record label will probably suffer if HMV were to vanish completely, I find myself drifting back to the question in the headline: so what, exactly? What would it do to the music industry?

I can see why the entertainment behemoths are desperate not to let HMV die, but I can’t escape the nagging suspicion that maybe it’s about time.  HMV’s bulk retail model and glittering superstores to which they and both Tower Records and Virgin Megastore before them aspired seem like the last vestiges of the old order. They existed to serve a music industry which was fundamentally different back then, and if we are to stand a chance of moving forward and finding a sustainable business model for the future of music then perhaps we have to let it go.

If HMV were gone, that would be the last of the high street giants, and that would leave a remarkably open playing field.  In many ways, it would be a bit of a scorched earth scenario, but in market terms that void represents opportunity: opportunity to innovate and to grow.

One thing is for sure, music has to change.  How it is made, manufactured, marketed and consumed all have to change, but how can we see where we’re going if we’re forever looking backwards and wishing we were twenty years in the past. In falsely propping up HMV the major labels might end up killing off the smaller shops whose new ideas and ability to manoeuvre are the most likely to find a successful way forward.

Already Rough Trade are talking about taking advantage of the possible demise of HMV to expand, and whilst I would far rather buy my records there than a branch of HMV, I hope they don’t see this as an opportunity to become HMV-lite.

The allure of the olden days, when music meant money, is hard to resist.  I myself, as the label has become more successful, have found myself starting to become more and more like a small version of a much bigger label, instead of sticking to my guns and trying to improve our reach by innovation rather than imitation.

Of all the places to read a hopeful article about all these trends, I didn’t expect it to be The Telegraph, but I found this piece rather interesting, about re-imagining the high street as a place whose empty units (and the hopefully decreasing rents which this should cause) can be re-populated by a different, smaller scale, more local and more lively community. That may seem rather too optimistic, but if the internet and the superstore dominate so much of the retail environment then what purpose does the high street have left beyond being a more sociable place, rich in local identity, which maintains its relevance by being an enjoyable recreational experience in its own right?

So I can see why the major labels want to save HMV, I don’t want to see my friends who work there lose their jobs, and I can see the negative impact its closure might have on my own business.  But a large part of me thinks that it’s time to let old school music retail die, absorb the impact as best we can, and in doing so clear the ground for the reinvention of music, the selling of music, and what the music fan actually wants from us – something which the entirely industry has so desperately needed for years.

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