Why celebrating the demise of HMV is barking.


by Magnus Shaw.

First a clarification. One would think from the chatter across news outlets and social media that the HMV retail chain is in the process of locking the doors and boarding up its stores. It's isn't, but the news is not good. The company has been taken into administration and that will inevitably mean, at the very best, closures and redundancies. A buyer is being sought and in the meantime, the business is in a hinterland of anxiety while it continues to trade.

Naturally, many people have expressed alarm and sympathy, but a noisy minority have taken to the web to gloat. Somehow they imagine the collapse of the country's only surviving, high-street music retailer represents a victory for rock and roll and a new dawn for the independent shops. This is nonsense.

HMV was there at the birth of recorded music, founded in the late 1890s when the commercial production of records first became viable. By 1907 the firm had built its own factory in Middlesex and in 1921 they launched their retail arm with a flagship store on Oxford Street. The ribbon was cut by Edward Elgar (one for the pop fans there).

The next fifty years took them through enormous expansion, holding their own against  Virgin Megastore and Our Price. 300 HMV shops were trading across the world in 1996, their official 75th birthday.  It may not have seemed like it at the time, but the company was about to begin a slow slide towards the perilous position in which it finds itself now.

Obviously, a lot changed in those twenty years - and events have rarely favoured HMV's offering. Nevertheless, the business always had one spectacularly reliable asset: their brand. Most 21st century designers would laugh like drains at the notion of an illustrated dog, looking in puzzlement at the trumpet of a gramophone, as a much loved and eternally memorable corporate insignia. However, the vast majority of the British public would take one look at 'Nipper' and tell you he belongs to HMV. Some older citizens could even tell you the initials stand for 'His Master's Voice'. Whatever the future holds for the retailer, that image has real history, real currency and real value.

(Just a slight aside. It has been suggested that Nipper is sitting on top of his owner's coffin, listening to his recorded voice. It's far from certain whether this is the case, but I can confirm that Nipper was a real dog. Born in Bristol in 1884, owned latterly by Mark Barraud, he had a reputation for biting human ankles and taking on other dogs in scraps. Painted by Mark's brother Francis, he went to become one of the most famous canines in the world. Once he had sold the image to HMV, Francis Barraud painted a further 21 versions of the portrait.)

In a more ideal world, a brilliant brand identity featuring a bad-tempered dog would be enough to sustain an enterprise for centuries. Unfortunately, the cold, hard hand of commerce has steered HMV into a very bad place. So what has actually gone wrong?

The internet. That's the obvious answer. Everybody stopped going to record shops, five or six years ago because they could buy everything they needed on iTunes and Amazon or steal it from hundreds of pirate sites. Or so runs the glib explanation. There is some truth in that, but it's not the whole picture. In fact, in recent times, HMV has sold some albums and DVDs for less than the web stores (although they couldn't manage to be cheaper than pirated MP3s). What's more, even the most wired music lovers still enjoyed a trip to a 'real world' shop for a browse, HMV tokens remained popular gifts and the availability of accessories like headphones was also a draw.

68% Of music sales are still in a physical format. Slimmed down a bit, the operation could probably have avoided administration if it had only worked a bit smarter. Instead, the stores gave the impression of a enterprise going out of business, long before that was actually the case. An unpleasant 'warehouse' feel crept into those shops. A jumble of DVD cases, confusingly arranged CDs and intolerably loud music greeted the unwary. The outlets were unwelcoming and baffling, staffed by friendly coves who knew little about the product. I once called in to buy a rather plush, boxed set of Clash CDs. The teenager I asked to help me said they didn't stock it. I spotted it on the way out, shoved against a wall.

As Rough Trade's Stephen Godfroy points out:

“Formats aren't the issue, it's the quality of retail that's at the heart of this situation.”

So why should we care? HMV couldn't cut it in the brave new digital free market and paid the price, surely? Well, if we're being particularly brutal, yes. But the potential death of a British brand with a long and admired history is bad for all British business. It gives the impression of a retail market in flux, unstable and unreliable. That's an unhelpful image, particularly in the notoriously wobbly entertainment industry. If Disney was in trouble, what would we deduce about American commerce?

Finally, the idea that HMV's foreshortened life will open up a whole new market to independent record stores is sorely flawed - because the chain's difficulties are actually an indicator of how rapidly the walk-in market is diminishing. Although almost 70% of music is still purchased in a physical format, considerably less is bought in shops. Any shops. If HMV had the high-street model so wrong (and it seems they did), disenchanted customers would already be using the independents. They're not.

Sadly, the failure of HMV shows that punters don't really associate high-street shopping with music buying any more. And that's not just rough for little Nipper, it's rough for us all.

Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant.


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