Reflections on HMV

This is a reposting of a blog I wrote last time HMV went into administration back in January 2013. 

Some thoughts on HMV

I have mixed feelings today about HMV going into receivership. First of all, what an awful time for the 4500 people employed by the chain. Whilst nothing is certain in terms of the future of HMV and there is always hope of a buyer or investor keeping the name going or doing something new with stores, it does seem likely that shops will close and jobs will be lost.

Yesterday afternoon I visited my local branch. The store was very busy and seemed to be doing a fair amount of trade, probably due to the news coverage and their much trumpeted “blue cross sale.” I took advantage of the sale and bought a few cheapish CDs. While queuing I heard two or three people being told by staff that they would be unable to accept vouchers and gift cards. The lady who served me said that it was the worst day in her 16 years working for the company, not only because of the uncertainty of the future of her job, but because many customers had shouted at her over the gift voucher issue. I asked when she had found out the company had brought in the receivers and she said she had found out the same way as the public, via the news the day before.

I had a feeling that the chain might go for a while. At one time HMV stocked near enough everything I wanted no matter how obscure. In recent years though I’ve often not been able to get what I would consider fairly big, mainstream products in the shop and ended up buying it online.

Then I knew the death knell had sounded when I saw them stocking laptops. Quite expensive too, it didn’t seem likely that anyone would buy a computer at HMV when they could get them cheaper from more established technology stockists. So the chain seemed to be becoming ever more general and less specialised.

There seems to be a feeling that HMV was late to the party of online sales. I’m not sure about that but I did notice that their own online shop often undercut the high street stores, surely that’s no way to keep all those outlets going? All those outlets… was the chain too big?  For a few years in the centre of Birmingham there were three big HMV stores within five minutes of each other all selling the same stuff. Is that an economical business model? I’ve no idea.
So there is a feeling of inevitability about all this. High street chains have been fighting a losing battle against online retailers. Of course we also hear that music sales in general are declining, so HMV was not only steadily losing its share of the market but that market overall was getting smaller anyway.

However there was/is still a customer base for HMV and I’m part of it.
When I was getting into music as a child/teenager HMV was pretty much the only place I could buy music. I’m talking about the late 90s and early 00s. This is before YouTube, Spotify and iTunes. Other music shops existed of course but HMV was ubiquitous in town centres. I didn’t have the knowledge or interest to seek out independent record shops and it seemed that HMV was more likely to have the product I wanted than Virgin Megastores and the others. So for years as I was developing my music tastes and knowledge I used HMV almost exclusively and it seems to me that I was taken advantage of. I collected every Beatles album, I devoured CDs by Travis and Stereophonics. I paid about £10 a pop for this stuff. Very occasionally I purchased singles and that cost £3.99 a go.  Buying a CD was a pretty big deal to me and I had to save up to do it, but it was exciting to have that physical thing that represented a band or artist. This makes me sound about twenty years older than I am but I did indeed sit on the bus home from town and unwrap my new album so that I could sit reading the sleeve. Ah, the sleeve. A little booklet with information, lyrics, photographs, exciting stuff! Except that for many of the albums I bought this was a disappointment. I was collecting albums from the 60s and 70s that had simply been scaled down to a CD booklet from a 12 inch sleeve. A couple of tiny pictures and hardly any information at all. Modern CDs naturally did better in this respect and I have fond memories of some lovely CD artwork that added to my enjoyment of the music. I’d have to pay more for the really good, inventive artwork though. I know that the record industry at large is to blame for all this, but I feel HMV did play it's part. Did they really need to be charging me that much, particularly considering that their clout and very generous arrangements with record labels meant that they helped put many smaller retailers out of business altogether?

Later everyone had the internet at home and illegal downloading started. I wrestled with my conscience over illegal downloads but looking back it’s not hard to see why my generation went for it like mad. Then came legal downloads, why buy a CD in HMV for ten quid when you can get it cheaper and quicker on your iPod/Mp3…for the naff album artwork?  Then what I‘d call a real revolution came with YouTube and streaming. Suddenly you didn’t even need to own music to listen to it whenever you wanted, and not just music but film and TV, so who was going to spend money on it?

Me, that’s who! By this time I was driving so I wanted my music with me in the car. I wanted to be legal so I didn’t bother using YouTube to “steal” music and burn it to CD. I downloaded legally but I also still went into HMV quite often to buy CDs for the car. To be fair I mostly just bought CDs in the rather wonderful 2 for £10 section, but like a fool I did still pay top wack for new albums that I really wanted, even though I knew full well that I was paying more than I really needed to.
Eventually though my attitude and habits changed. I’d find myself setting out to buy a CD or DVD from HMV and actually stopping myself when I saw the price. I’d browse the store and make mental notes to find the stuff I liked the look of online and get it cheaper. A combination of a new car and iTunes match meant I could use my phone to access all the music I’ve ever owned without it taking up physical space in the car or digital space on my phone.

However, even last Christmas I was in HMV buying presents, again knowing that often I was paying more than was really necessary. I still like a physical CD even though really there’s no need for them and they take up too much space. I’m admittedly behind with movie streaming so I still buy DVDs.
So what’s my conclusion? I don’t know really, just those mixed feelings. A big part of my coming of age was spent in HMV stores deciding what I liked and who I was. Some of my favourite albums came into my life because I happened to notice them on the shelf whilst browsing, something that doesn’t happen online in quite the same way. I feel sorry for people who can’t/don’t/won’t use the internet to get music, and are therefore losing a very important outlet. As I mentioned above its very sad and frightening for a large number of people whose jobs are at risk, a tragedy when added to the numbers who’ve already lost jobs due to the closure of other high street names.

I do think that HMV made mistakes. Mistakes in the way the behaved towards me and their other customers when they pretty much had a monopoly on music sales. Mistakes in the way they reacted to a changing market place, and the mistake of becoming more generalised as the business struggled.
However, perhaps there is a bright future. Perhaps we mainly finally be moving away from that much criticised high street model that has been the norm for my whole life, the feeling that all town centres are the same. Maybe new and innovative independent stores can now flourish by specialising in something. Who knows, perhaps HMV will be a part of that change. 

Robert Lane