In Doonesbury one day last week, Rick Redfern, who has been consigned to blogging wage-free for the Huffington Post, was asked by his son what he writes about when he has nothing to say. He replied that he says it anyway.
There has been enough written in the last week about the demise of the HMV chain in the UK that I feel a bit like Rick; not that I have nothing to say, but that I have nothing to add. A lot of what has been written has been dewy-eyed rot by (invariably) men who remember buying a coloured vinyl punk single in an HMV in the late seventies but really haven’t grasped the significance of recent events in the noughties and teenies. There have also been good, realistic pieces; Stuart Braithwaite in Scotland on Sunday last weekend was thoughtful and it was good to get the perspective of a professional musician on the retail industry. Professional musicians rely to some extent on the retail industry for the chance to continue practising their profession, so tend to be less dewy-eyed. (Although the title of the piece “The Day the Music Died,” which I bet was not his, was sadly representative of the standard of sub-editing in the Johnston Press Scottish comics.)
All the same, having spent fourteen years working in music retail (although not HMV, the clue’s in the picture), I feel a bit entitled, so I’m going to say what I have to say anyway, even if there’s nothing to be added.
Firstly, the demise of HMV was inevitable in the circumstances where people are simply not buying the products they sell any more. Some of this is simply down to people stealing music through illegal downloads or streaming and that’s something that as well as being criminal and immoral, is incredibly difficult to police or eradicate. The chain tried very hard to bring in other product ranges over the last ten or so years (often laughably so,) but this could never patch over the loss of the core product.
Aside from the damage caused by illegal acquisition of “free” music, there is also the undeniable fact that people aren’t buying as much or as many of the core products as they were. The volumes of albums (on CD,) singles (practically non-existent in physical form nowadays) and films sold must be tiny compared to when I was in the business. It stuns me sometimes when I see a 7″ single that wasn’t even a big hit by, say, Alexander O’Neal, in a charity shop and remember the box-loads which the shop I worked for in the eighties would have sold. Such an artefact wouldn’t even exist now as a mass market object. People have so many other things to spend their money on nowadays, if they are lucky enough to have disposable income at all.
Second; I imagine that HMV will have had no assistance from the major record labels who control what is available for retailers to sell simply by being the means of production. I don’t want to demonise, but the majors are generally run by people with no interest in building careers for artists or creating a healthy marketplace; they are certainly not run by music fans. Adele, who must be the biggest fiscal success story of recent years (unless it’s Susan Boyle, but you get my drift) should be under no illusion she won’t be out on her behind if her next record doesn’t sell more than her last; remember Duffy? Or Dido? (I had to rack my brains for that name…)
So as the majors watched the market for music dwindle, did they think of how to keep things fresh and supply any demand created by the multitudes young and old, swimming in the oceans of knowledge replenished daily by Internet searches? No; they appear to have restricted catalogue and kept cost prices high on what was available. I am sure that discounts available to what should have been the big shop windows (HMV, Virgin etc in their day) will have been minimal.
Hence there would be no incentive to stock catalogue deeply and the HMV stores throughout the country became not that different to the entertainment sections of ASDA or Tesco. Where once the pride of the place would have been depth of catalogue across all types of music (or what Internet retailers call the “long tail,”) the major retailers were gypped out of it by the short-sightedness of the suppliers who are now bemoaning the loss of the shop window responsible for a reported one fifth of physical sales of music and DVD. (Although, keeping my first point in mind, that is probably one fifth of not very much.)
So the dewy-eyed crowd have got it wrong; high street record stores have not been romantic, charismatic or even interesting for a long time. But that is mostly because the desire for the products they sell has gone, or been transferred. They were dinosaurs trying to drive cars, men out of time. Well run independent stores such as Coda or Love Music endure and are exactly the sort of places where people will meet interesting, interested staff and encounter new music and recommendations; if that’s what they want. Most people were happy to order online at a cheaper price and have the product delivered to their door (absolutely nothing wrong with that, in fact, quite a lot right with that from a consumer point of view.) But there can be no moral high ground.
If you care about music, keep going to gigs and buying product, be it from the artist, an independent store, the supermarket or online. If you don’t, don’t. There’s no point being precious.
In Stuart Braithwaite’s aforementioned piece in SoS, I was surprised to learn that sales of the last Mogwai album were almost identical in HMV and on Amazon and that they were the two largest sellers “by some distance.” So it would seem there is still some life left in non-supermarket High Street retail for music that isn’t Adele. Or what’s-her-name…