Song, by Toad

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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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7 witty ripostes to So What If HMV Dies?

  1. avatar

    Some things that will happen next:
    - Tesco, Asda etc will force renegotiation with majors, ultimately paying less for any music they carry. Easy to do, they’re the only scale retailers left – and two-thirds of all music is still bought on CD, making physical retail bloody important, before anyone says ‘digital’.
    - The big four labels will try to make up for flogging everything cheap to the supermarkets by screwing everyone else over. Prices go up for anyone who isn’t a supermarket buyer.
    - More indie stores, margins already stretched and often reliant on the big releases to stay alive, will go under.

    Certainly not a fan of big box retail, and It’s for sure an opportunity for some LONG overdue innovation. Also though, worse before better IMO.

  2. avatar

    I think you might be right. Certainly I see places like Amazon and other major online retailers being the ones to benefit as well.

    My worry is that this will simply drive the idea of the pleasure of buying well-crafted physical products from sympathetic environments out of people’s minds altogether.

    My hope, on the other hand, is that perhaps it might prove the trigger for some serious regeneration and new thinking in terms of music retail. And honestly, I think it could go either way.

  3. avatar

    Physical music stores have long needed a shake up. The simple fact is that to buy anything of interest from a shop is going to be more expensive than it would be online and in most instances, if you know what you’re looking for, a darn sight easier to find. Where the best of the London based record shops succeed is in offering a genuinely interesting selection to the fans they serve and some insight into records you may not have heard of or know little about (this is something I personally feel Rough Trade has got a lot worse at, it already feels a bit like a ‘cool’ HMV to me). I genuinely don’t think there’s really a place for music in large high street chains anymore, but at least in large cities there should still be a place for well informed specialist shops to thrive for some time to come. So yeah, the days of selling big volumes through shops are almost certainly gone, but I really hope we can keep some of the shops we really love – my record collection would be a lot less interesting without them.

  4. avatar

    Yes, I really don’t see a future for large scale high street music retail either – the internet is just too useful at the large scale and micro-scale ends of the market.

    But something like Fopp represents what I hope might be a happy medium between extreme specialism (which is done best on the internet) and mass market (which is done best on the internet or at Tesco’s) and hopefully that’s something they can survive to explore. And maybe that’s also something Rough Trade can aspire to become.

    As for the non-chain independents, as Alex points out, this whole thing might have some rather unpleasant repercussions.

  5. avatar

    I get the impression Underground Sol’shn in Edinburgh still does pretty good business (anecdotally at least) largely because they offer something that’s very difficult to replicate online – a record shop with people behind the counter who know what they’re talking about, sure there’s Norman and Juno but it’s not the same as going in and having that personal recommendation service that the best record shops provide.

  6. avatar

    That, and the chance to talk to people who genuinely are as interested in music as you. I remember that from Banquet Records in Kingston – the staff in there were really nice to talk to.

    And topically enough, I bought the first Postal Service record in there after a tip from them.

    That kind of thing makes all the difference. Not that the likes of Fopp and HMV don’t have enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff, but maybe their customer base is too broad to have people who are knowledgeable about everything they might be asked about.

    And, from the sounds of the two ex-employees I linked to above, HMV were pretty bad at taking advantage of the knowledge and skills of the people they employed too, so that won’t have helped either.

  7. avatar

    I like the idea of the future being a hybrid of the music venue and store. A place which brings people and communities together for shared experiences.

    No idea who would pay for it ?

    I suppose it plays towards the points raised in the re-imagining the high street article.

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