On the long demise of HMV

On Sunday I went in HMV Exeter desperate to spend £20 (that I don’t really have, because it’s January) on season 4 of Breaking Bad on DVD. I vaguely hoped it might be in the fire blue cross sale. It wasn’t, because, they didn’t have any copies of it. I asked at the counter. They didn’t offer to order it in or tell me if they were expecting restock of it. For what are now obvious reasons. (They were pretty obvious then, too.)

I’ve written about my family affection for and recent frustration with HMV before, of course, because this has been a long time coming. If HMV goes, there will literally be nowhere in Exeter to buy a DVD on the high street, apart from Sainsbury’s.

I’m pretty sure I ordered a copy of Ege Bamyasi in my Local HMV, at age 16 or 17, and picked it up from the shop the next week. That’s how things worked then. Not long after that they got a copy of Tago Mago in, possibly inspired by the fact that some enthusiastic kid had ordered in another CAN album, and I bought that, too. I bought the remasters from that bloody rainforest though.

I had a little Twitter spat last September when Grizzly Bear’s album was released and Exeter HMV didn’t have a copy for me to buy until the afternoon, because stock hadn’t come in yet. I’ve been into HMV with a vague wishlist of things I’d like to buy; acclaimed (if sometimes esoteric) new releases, back catalogue stuff. They never had anything. We spend somewhere in the region of £750 a year on new music, on average (at a quick calculation for the last three years or so); my tastes aren’t that weird or leftfield.

I gather HMV moved to central stock ordering sometime in the late 90s, which would have thrown local knowledge and product specialism out of the window as far as staff go, and turn them into little more than cash-register operators and shelf-stackers. Ludicrous. For the last two, three, five years, HMV Exeter piled Kings of Leon albums and Lord of the Rings DVD sets higher than you could reach to pick up the top copy. Doesn’t everyone who could possibly ever want to own Lord of the Rings on DVD already own it? Do people who go into HMV really want JLS badges and One Direction mugs and jelly sweets?

Phil Beeching had HMV’s advertising account for 25 years, and wrote an eye-opening piece last August about how clearly he’d pointed out to them, 11 years ago, what the threats to their business were (online retailers, downloading, and supermarkets, of course), only to be angrily dismissed by the then MD, told that downloading was “a fad”. Three quarters of UK music and movie sales are still physical media, but come on. Consider that HMV decided to try and sell consumer electronics at the same time as the high street retail of consumer electronics collapsed.

We’ve been quietly boycotting Amazon for a few months now, partly because of them remotely deleting customers’ Kindles, partly because of distaste with general e-book DRM and proprietary format issues, partly because their ‘next-day’ service is nothing of the sort, partly because of their massive tax-avoidance, and partly because, these days, they seem like a baddie, and boycotting baddies seems like what responsible people ought to do. I fear that, increasingly, we can justify anything in this country, this culture, by either making or saving money. Tax avoidance? But CDs are a couple of quid cheaper, so who cares. Abusing kids in a hospice? He raises lots of money for us by running marathons, so who cares. Yes, I just compared Amazon to this country’s most evil serial child molester. Like I said, they seem like a baddie.

Before Christmas, on the Monday after ATP weekend, we went to Bristol to see Patrick Wolf, and I nipped into Rise Records and happily, quickly, spent £40 on Fugazi, The National, Liars, and Local Natives records that I’d been vaguely hoping of coming across in our local HMV (or Fopp in Bristol, which I’d checked futilely a few weeks before) for ages, but never seen. The week before Christmas we went to Totnes’ The Drift and spent another £30 on Perfume Genius, Fiona Apple, and Julia Holter albums. HMV Exeter doesn’t have a marker for Fugazi anymore. They didn’t even have the new Fiona Apple album in. Acclaimed, loyal-fanbase, major-label Fiona Apple, appearing high in end-of-year lists all over the shop, and I couldn’t buy her CD in Exeter in December. (To be fair, I could, and did, buy the Deerhoof album.)

We’ve decided that we’re going to make monthly music-buying pilgrimages this year, alternately to Rise in Bristol and The Drift in Totnes; keep a wishlist of what we’re after, and buy a bunch of albums all at once. Chat to the staff. Have a browse. Make an impulse purchase. We might also buy some stuff direct form record label websites, where they’re transactional and I haven’t seen stuff in either Rise or The Drift; we’ll try and support the shops first and foremost. Because they seem like goodies. I’d like to be able to walk into Exeter and buy the records I want, but I can’t.

Because these independent shops have embraced online retailing, have taken to social media, are run by and staffed with people who care about music, who can describe the Perfume Genius album cover to the new girl at the drop of a hat so she can see if she can see if it’s behind the counter because they’ve not put the new stock out yet. They understand that music can (should?) be about community and communication just as much as it can be about anonymous online transactions and listening in commuter silence via headphones. The Drift send a monthly newsletter to email subscribers recommending their favourite records of the past four weeks. Before Christmas they published a list of their favourite 100 records of 2012 online and in printed, fanzine-esque form that you could pick up in the shop. They sell turntables. Their stock is curated like a gallery rather than lumped together like a warehouse or piled high and cheap like a supermarket. They run a listening club (possibly inspired by ours!). They recommend music to you in any number of ways. As NickB asked on ILX, “Can you even listen to sound samples on the HMV website?” No, you can’t. They’d rather sell you some coasters than some records, or so it feels. Has felt for too long.

Michael Hann wrote in The Guardian today about visiting the Oxford Street branch today, and reminisced that he had probably realised the game was up for them a few years ago when Fleetwood Mac were touring and he popped in to pick up Tusk. “The biggest record shop in Britain did not have a copy of a legendary album by one of the world’s biggest bands even as they were on tour in the UK.” I’ve repeated his experience dozens of times in microcosm, the last time being the Fiona Apple failure.

(As an aside, I completely empathise with Michael’s fondness for the big chain in the face of sometimes snooty and elitist indies – it echoes some of my teenage experiences.)

Bob Stanley wrote brilliantly a year ago, and republished today, a piece about the things HMV could have done to stave off what many are talking about as being inevitable. None of these things are outrageous – they’re happening under HMV’s nose, practically next door.

I won’t miss HMV, because I’ve barely bought anything in there for years. But I will miss the act of going in a record shop every Saturday in the hope that something would catch my attention and fire my imagination and make me fall in love. Because that used to happen; didn’t it?

(I know, of course, that the entertainment industry wont let HMV just die, that branches, that the brand, will live on somehow, but allow me this moment of drama and mourning. Even as I write, Canada might be coming to the rescue. Whatever the salvation, though, things will have to change.)

(I ended up buying season 4 of Breaking Bad from eBay. I literally didn’t know where else to get it from.)

(When I say ‘records’, obviously I mean CDs, because they’re just better than vinyl, aren’t they? But there you go. The fact that vinyl sales have been on the up for years, and HMV in Exeter, as well as other branches I gather, failed to stock any vinyl at all, is yet another reason we’re nailing their coffin shut, metaphorically. Let’s hope we bury them with a claw hammer so they can fight their way out.)

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4 responses to “On the long demise of HMV

  1. A fantastic piece Nick – I enjoyed it immensely…until you had to go and blot your copy book in the final paragraph. Now no-one will ever take you seriously again!

  2. People are always dissing CDs – I got fed up of it!

  3. This is a good piece, and I feel similar. I worked in HMV’s main Dublin shop for six months or so in 1996, around the time that Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill and Oasis’ Morning Glory were still selling like hotcakes (and heavily discounted – Jagged Little Pill was priced as a loss leader for HMV’s main summer sale at the time).

    Sometime in August, Throwing Muses released Limbo, and we had a bunch of copies (50, maybe? – God only knows why they ordered that many) sitting in the stockroom. Since putting them on the floor clearly wasn’t a priority, I pestered my manager to let me temporarily remove one of the many Alanis display stands inside the front door, and replace it with one dedicated to the Muses.

    He initially refused saying Limbo wouldn’t sell (and who were the Throwing Muses anyway?) but relented when I bet him a tenner that we could sell more than 10 copies in one day. From memory, we sold 22 or 23 copies in just a few hours after lunch (it was either a Friday or a Saturday, so there was heavy foot traffic). Not that it lasted, of course. The next day the stand was down and Alanis was back in place, costing the shop money.

    Even if staff knew anything about music (which some did) they were discouraged from actually expressing an opinion to customers. I ended up leaving a few weeks after a management reprimand when a customer asked me what I thought of The Blue Nile. I’m not a fan, and was pretty non-committal, recommending some other stuff instead. It turned out that this guy worked for their label in some capacity, and I was subsequently informed that not only was my personal opinion irrelevant, but that I was always to express enthusiasm to customers about every single cd we stocked. Hooray!

    I feel totally ambivalent about HMV’s demise. It’s the only record shop within a 30 minute drive of my house (I live in rural Ireland), but it was small and they never stocked anything I wanted to buy anyway (other than occasional cheap DVD offers). I feel sorry for staff, but HMV hasn’t meant anything to me for years. I buy downloads these days, with the occasional LP thrown in. I’ve been selling my compact discs for years on Discogs (anything that doesn’t sell after 12 months gets binned) and there’s still hundreds of them taking up space around the house. I’m really only sorry I didn’t go digital sooner.

  4. Ironically, my local HMV is lately full of Breaking Bad DVDs – I got Seasons 1-3 for £20 the other day.

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